Text and photos by Erika Currie


Gazing across the waters of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, it’s the distinctive symmetrical volcanic cone of Rangitoto that catches the eye first but, at 160-180 million years of age, its lower-lying neighbour Motutapu is definitively the matriarch among the two islands.

Maori were living on Motutapu before the series of volcanic eruptions which formed Rangitoto Island some 600 years ago. Believed to have been settled by Teikehu of the Tainui canoe, Motutapu was one of the earliest places settled. Later it became known by his descendants as Te Motu tapu a Taikehu, or “the sacred island of Taikehu”.

According to a story in Tamaki-Makaurau – Myths and legends of Auckland Landmarks by Edith Phillips-Gibson (Reed Publishing), there were no people on Motutapu on the fateful day of Rangitoto’s first eruption: “They had gone to the mainland in search of food. Motutapu was covered in fiery grit which burnt the forests and the villages to the ground… it looked like a moonscape”. Later, and in between further eruptions, Maori returned and cultivated the fertile layers of new soil. Archaeologists found footprints of people and dogs preserved in solidified ash layers, and more than 300 Maori archaeological sites, including distinctive pa sites, have been recorded.

After centuries of Maori occupation the island passed into European ownership, but to the Tainui tribal confederation, and especially to Ngai Tai iwi, Motutapu remains a place of special significance.

European settlers began farming on the island in the 1840s. In 1857 Auckland businessman and politician Robert Graham gained title to the island, cleared the land for pastures, built homesteads at Emu Bay and Home Bay, and planted exotic trees.

Home Bay soon became a popular picnic destination for Aucklanders. Graham, recognising its potential also introduced deer, wallabies, emus and other exotic animals as an additional visitor attraction, not realising these animals would, over time, become destructive pests.

In 1869 the Reid brothers bought Motutapu. They continued hosting visitors, and in 1901 built what became the last villa to be erected at Home Bay. By the early 20th century picnics at the bay had reached the height of popularity. “On one day in 1903, ten steamers ran 15 trips from Auckland, transporting as many as 14,000 people to the bay.” (DoC Fact Sheet)

Immediately prior to, and then during World War II, Motutapu, together with other Hauraki Gulf islands, became a military defence post. “Between 1936 and 1944, military camps and barracks, underground ammunition stores, observation posts, roads, and a causeway from Rangitoto were built at a cost of more than £500,000. The Motutapu defences included a battery of 6 inch guns, and anti-aircraft, machine gun, radar, and searchlight installations.” (DoC Fact Sheet) At one time up to 1,000 people were stationed on Motutapu.

Over time the island became host to a myriad of noxious plants, weeds and pest animals threatening native vegetation and birds. However, thanks to Department of Conservation, The Motutapu Restoration Trust, sustainable farming practices and the generosity of sponsors and thousands of volunteers, the future looks bright.

Various buildings, concrete gun emplacements and underground structures have been retained and are accessible to visitors. The former barracks now serve as the base for the Outdoor Education Camp run by the Motutapu Outdoor Education Trust.

The Motutapu Restoration Trust was formed in 1994, its aim being to protect, maintain, restore and interpret the cultural landscape handed down by Maori, settlers and the military. Ongoing restoration of the ecological landscape involves more than 1000 volunteers annually in a large-scale native re-planting project. Each month volunteers take part in either planting, nursery work or weed control, with the aim of restoring forest and wetland habitats.

This work has enabled native wild life, including endangered species such as kiwi, takahe, tieke (saddleback), bellbirds and geckos to thrive in a safe environment free from predators.

The Reid’s historic homestead at Home Bay, restored by members of the Newmarket Rotary Club, serves as a visitor information centre. An extensive network of easy walking tracks link historic and natural places. “Walk Motutapu” provides stunning views of the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, the Coromandel, Whangaparoa Peninsula and Auckland city. It introduces people to birdlife, native fauna and flora, a working farm of beef cattle and sheep, and a rich heritage.

There are no shops or public transport, but the sights and sounds of nature, fresh air and outstanding views are amply rewards.


Motutapu is pest free. To keep it that way, visitors must ensure that:

  • All footwear is free of soil and seeds
  • All food is sealed in rodent proof containers and clothing packed in sealable bags or backpacks.
  • All material is free of soil, seeds, rodents and insects.
  • Dogs and other pets are not allowed.
  • Leave gates as you find them.
  • Do not disturb stock.
  • There are no rubbish bins - please take your rubbish home with you.

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