Portland Island History.

Portland Island was occupied by early maori for generations and was known to them as Waikawa. It was a Whare Wananga (school of learning) and the sacred waka (Canoe) Takitimu stopped there for a while. Captain Cook named it Portland Island as he sailed past in October of 1769 and had a few anxious moments off the SW end when it looked like they would be blown onto the rocks which was not all that inviting as there were large numbers of warriors on the shore brandishing spears and clubs.

During the 1840ís a Mr Mansfield had a whaling Stn there and during 1847 had 3 boats and 20 men employed. One of his whalepots can still be seen today at a private residence at Mahia Beach. Portland would have been a good spot for the spotting of whales as it juts out into the Pacific dividing Hawkes Bay off from the open sea.

About 1870 the Marine Dept, to safeguard shipping, were looking to establish Light Houses on many promotories around the NZ coast and Portland was regarded as one of the most important. A Mr Johnson surveyed the island for its suitability and by 1875 a Mr John Blackett, chief engineer for the Marine Dept, had drawn plans for a light house and three houses plus ancillary buildings.

Work began in 1876, the first job to do was to dig a track in zig zag fashion up the face at the Northern end onto the tableland. The light was to be at the Southern end. All the Kauri building materials were towed by horse and sledge the 3 miles to the the far end and numerous difficulties were encountered. By 1877 the first house was completed and work continued on with the Light House and other buildings. By 1878 the light was commissioned and could be seen for up to 20 miles. At the same time a Red Sector light was beamed onto the dangerous Bull Rock.

Three keepers were installed, 2 married and one single. They had to be virtually self sufficient for this lonely lifestyle so developed vegetable gardens and ran a few sheep and a dairy cow or two on their 17 acres. The Marine Dept supply ship only came every 6 months, mainly to bring kerosene for the light house although a limited amount of coal was supplied for the coalranges and basic supplies were brought and kept under lock and key in the dry store.

Ironically it was during the light house keepers time on the island that the shipwrecks occurred, in 1886 the Queen sank on the western side, 1894 the Alexander Newton struck rocks in the gap, 1897 the Pirate was washed ashore on the eastern side and then in 1916 the largest of all, the 8000 Ton SS Tongariro struck Bull Rock and was also a total loss.

Several deaths occurred amongst the keepers and their families over the years and the most notable was the death of the 2nd assistant keeper, Nicolas Scia Scia whom was gored by the stn bull.

The remainder of the Island of 300 acres was for many years leased from the original owners by William Neville. This amazing Englishman with his maori wife raised a family here and he was noted for his seamanship as family and stock could only be moved off the island in his small boat. He could erect sails but mostly rowed to Waikokopu for their basic stores. One time he was blown off course and ended up on Westshore Beach near Napier.

The next leasee was Joe Raureti and he ran sheep and cattle as well as growing superb potatoes but eventually he was prevented from selling these as a noxious weed called Cape Tulip was discovered near one of the keepers houses (thought to have come from DíUrville Island). The authorities were concerned that the weed could be spread to the mainland with the potatoes.

After a few years the island was not farmed anymore except for the marine deptís 17 acres around the light house until Waikawa was incorporated with Onenui Stn the large maori owned property on the end of the peninsula.

The committee had a bulldozer barged across the gap of about ĺ of a mile and built numerous dams and firebreaked the island. After burning off the native grass they sowed improved varieties and now run about 600 sheep.

During 1984 the Light House was automated and the buildings became empty. About 1990 some of them were removed by barge to Mahia Beach and restored to their former glory. (see photo right)

Portland Island is 300 acres, 3 miles long and 1 mile wide. One can view the island by driving towards the end of the peninsula along the East Coast Rd.  The road is narrow and mainly shingle surface but well worth negotiating, at least until one can see the island.

Your travels will take you around the attractive Northern side of the peninsula .You would be well advised to stop and view the Bishop Williams baptismal font at Whangawehi just past where the fishing boats are berthed. 

Carry on along the coast, you will pass numerous former Pa sites, the most notable being Mangakahia , then up the steeper tarsealed Wainui Hill and you will travel across several kilometers of the table land. Much of this land is farmed by descendants of early settler George Canning Ormond. Next you will see a road branching off to the left to Taiwananga or Dinahs Beach.

The Burma Hill is next and well worth climbing to the top to admire the panoramic view for miles around and continue on a little while and Portland Island will come into site. It is a public road to Onenui Stn buildings.