If you want to get up close to some Kiwi wildlife and discover the history of Maori settlers, make sure you take a trip to Mokoia Island, which can be found right in the middle of Lake Rotorua, and covers approximately 650 acres or 263.05 hectares.The island rises to a height of 175m above the lake and is 279m above sea level.
It is only 5km from the Rotorua lakefront, and it takes just 15 minutes aboard the Fast Cat, Wai Ora.
The island was originally known as Te Motu tapu a Tinirau (the pet whale of Tinirau), as its outline resembled the shape of a whale, the pet of a famous ancestor called Tinirau.
Its current name Mokoia has a few possible meanings. Some say it takes its origin from the digging stick called ‘ko’ and a tattoo called ‘moko’, hence Mokoia.
The island has a fascinating history, as I soon found out from my guide, as we headed across the sparkling water on a gorgeous sunny morning.
She told me the island was often the scene of ferocious battles in pre European times, and a famous union between two illustrious ancestors brought political stability to the wider area of Rotorua.
This love story tells how on a moonless night, Hinemoa, a maiden of high rank, made a very cold swim from the eastern shores of Lake Rotorua to Mokoia Island. Only guided by the haunting melody played on a flute by her love Tutanekai, Hinemoa arrived wearily onto the island. A natural hot spring (Wai Kimihia) helped to warm her and soon Tutanekai found her. They got married and their descendants are alive today, which I thought was pretty cool.
Lake Rotorua is the largest of 13 lakes in the district. It was discovered and named by ‘Ihenga’ – a Te Arawa chief and explorer. ‘Roto’ means lake and ‘Rua’ means two, the second lake.
Mokoia Island is privately owned and managed by a Trust which represents four hapu (sub tribes) of Te Arawa, the Maori people of Rotorua.
This sacred island really is a special place. As soon as I stepped off the boat, I was greeted with the amazing throng of different bird song, as so many native New Zealand birds live on the island. The variety of native plants and trees provides protection and shelter to some of New Zealand’s most threatened birdlife including the Toutouwai (North Island Robin), the Tieke (North Island Saddleback), the Weka (North Island Wood Hen), the ancient Kokako (Blue Wattle Crow), and the famous North Island Brown Kiwi.
My guide told me all about how the birds live, and she told me stories handed down over the ages of how the birds have protected and nurtured ancestors by providing warning in times of trouble.
Mokoia Island is home to much of New Zealand’s endangered wildlife, both flora and fauna. Along with the Department of Conservation, Mokoia Island plays a key part in helping the survival of many New Zealand bird species and native plants.
It was fascinating learning about why Mokoia is special to the local Maori, and my guide told me amazing historical and cultural stories of the original inhabitants. She also explained how the native flora was used for everyday living, providing medicine, food, clothing, weapons and shelters.
At the end of the tour, we arrived at Wai Kimihia Hot Pool (Hinemoa’s Pool), where the well-told love story between Hinemoa and Tutanekai began.
It was here I got to try contemporary style Horopito and Kawa Kawa relishes and chutneys with Rewena bread, washed down with Ta Kaawa beer.
It was a great way to round off the morning, as I often say, it’s always beer o’clock somewhere in the world.
Wai Ora Experiences offers a range of trips to Mokoia Island, including guided tours, bird watching and indigenous food tasting.