Spit Island Mystery – Fiordland National Park New Zealand

I’d like to share a part of NZ that fascinates me: Matauira/Spit Island [connected to the mainland by this sandy spit and some awkward rocks you can’t see in this picture], Preservation Inlet, Fiordland National Park – a former pƒÅ site and shore-whalers‚Äô lookout. A place I was privileged to spend a night at a few years back in mid winter.

The swimming was great and the beach so warm we just walked along it to dry off in the sun. No sandflies! Spit island Fiordland National Park


Spit Island is notable not only for it’s beauty, but also for the almost as it turned out] unassailable Maori Pa that was sited on the island’s flat top, which was the site of some interesting battles three hundred years ago – a very rich story that ties in with Capt. Cook meeting a Maori family on Indian Island in Dusky Sound in 1773…¬†The yacht Elwing in the background¬†…Spit island Fiordland National Park

Spit island Fiordland National Park

The island holds some fascinating stories according a book researched and written by John Hall-Jones some years back.

One being that a raiding party stormed the Pa and the chief was wounded and jumped in the sea with a servant and they floated eastwards and made landfall on the land in my second photo here. There the chief died, which was reported by the servant, and left there to be gradually calcified from water drips from the limestone on the roof of the cave.

Thus preserved years later the British authorities of the day mounted an expedition to remove the body to England. Hearing of this the Maoris, who I believe were doing great commerce with the early sealers and whalers, and working for them as well on their ships, removed the chief’s body and presumably laid him to rest somewhere, keeping the location secret.

The area where the chief of the Spit Island Maori Pa eventually died after floating there from the island…Spit island chief burial place

On the expedition where I took these photos we were denied a landing to see the cave by a big swell, but were able to visit two other caves in my photo below, in the vicinity in Preservation Inlet where sealers lived and built boats.

I can’t imagine how damp and cold it must have been for them as their cloths absorbed sea salt and never dried out, not to the mention the ever constant Fiordland sandflies! Preservation Inlet Fiordland National Park

There is another twist or two to this story of Spit Island…

When the raiding party attacked my memory of the passages in John Hall-Jones book is sketchy on the details, but it was along the lines that they did not know a large hunting party from the Pa had crossed to the mainland earlier in the day when the tide was out.

The connecting spit is to the left…

Spit island Fiordland National Park

When the hunting party returned somehow without showing themselves they knew their home had been invaded. So hiding in the sand dunes, as in the pictures posted here, one of them disguised as a wounded or sick seal [they must have had a skin] crawled out of the dunes and down to near the water’s edge.

Sensing an easy meal, all the raiders scurried down the one access route/crack in the rocks, then crossed the spit to the beach with the probable intention of blocking the seal’s access to the sea and then to kill it.

When near the Maori disguised as same, the hunting party leapt out of the dunes and killed all the raiders. But maybe not quite all!

The dunes…

Spit island beach dunes

Rock towers on the connecting spit – this terrain cannot be crossed quickly during [and only] low tide…

Spit island Fiordland National Park

Historian/author John Hall_Jones “take” on how raiders of the Spit Island Pa in a remote part of Preservation Inlet, Fiordland National Park were ambushed and dealt too left me with a few questions, such as how many survived and what happened to them!

So lets skip to 1773 when Capt. Cook sailed the Resolution into Dusky Sound after an audacious voyage sailing around a lot of Antarctica.

He’d already been in Dusky, so presumably knew to head to a good anchorage, Pickersgill Harbour [see photo of ] and en-route passed close to a rocky shore, where they meet 4 natives, which were the subject of investigation of a scientific nature, sketches and drawing and some conjecture that led them to become known as the lost tribe.

Where the “natives” were met…

Dusky Sound


A wood cut of William Hodges painting – he was an artist on Cook’s expedition…

William Hodges painting of the natives of Dusky Sound

How I got to visit this magical place steeped in history on-board the yacht Elwing…

Pickersgill Harbour and the yacht Elwing

They were never seen again, but footprints were found relatively nearby in 1851 that could not be attributed to anyone other than the people Cook met or their descendants. Thus they became known as the ‘lost tribe’ or ‘wild natives’ of Fiordland. Some even attributed supernatural powers to them.

Much can be read about this on web-sites such as fiordlandnz.com and nzetc.victoria.ac.nz, but I believe it was Hall-Jones who proposed the theory that they were Spit Island survivors.

I guess we’ll never know, and I like that sort of mystery! Also if correct I’m bit in awe of how they got from Preservation to Dusky. By some sort of water craft I presume.

In my one photo of the rocky outcrop above where Cook and co. met them is a little cove to the left [they called it Indian Cove, and while the name conjures up a large indentation, it is minuscule], and dragged up on the beach therein was a canoe.

About this Like Minds Blog Donald Lousley