Gentlemen pirates, bloody battles, aviation history and a disappearing island - Suzanne McFadden reports the Hauraki Gulf is not just a recreation and leisure treasure.
When brothers Alex and Claude Barnard pushed their home-made, double-decked flying machine off the upper slopes of Browns Island's volcanic cone, it was a significant, if brief, moment in New Zealand history.
On June 9, 1909, the New Zealand Herald made mention - not much longer than the succinct glider flight itself - of the aspiring aviators' efforts that week. "The success of the heavier-than-air flying machine has been strikingly demonstrated of late by the Wright Brothers of America... Working on somewhat similar lines, two young New Zealanders have been experimenting with an aeroplane on Browns Island," it read.
The 68m-high symmetrical peak - Auckland's only untouched cone - was ideal for testing the engineless prototype the brothers had secretly built on the island, far from the public gaze. Even though an unkind Hauraki Gulf breeze propelled the machine into a damaging nose-dive into the slopes, Browns Island - or Motukorea - appears to have been the site of New Zealand's first glider flight.
Another bird inspired the name Motukorea, "island of the pied oystercatcher", an island with a rich agricultural past. The Ngati Tamatera iwi who lived on the island for at least six centuries established elaborate stone-walled gardens, before Scottish settlers William Brown and John Logan Campbell bought the island in 1840 - one of Auckland's first land purchases -- setting up a pig farm to feed a growing city.
There are more than 50 breath-taking islands in the Hauraki Gulf - a few are holiday havens or permanent homes to city escapees; some are nature sanctuaries; most are pest-free and have energetic restoration projects to bring back their former lush glory. But all boast their own colourful back stories - explosive, bloody, intrepid and treasure-laden tales.
Waiheke and Tiritiri-Matangi may be serene retreats today - one for humans, the other birds - but both have bloody and violent histories.
Coveted for its freshwater streams, fishing grounds and forests, Waiheke was fought over by various iwi who wanted control. By the 1820s, more than 1000 Maori, most of them Ngati Paoa, lived peacefully along its coastline, until legendary Ngapuhi warrior Hongi Hika killed or scared off most of the inhabitants in a brutal battle at Onetangi (translated as "weeping sands").
The Ngapuhi raiders from the north also invaded Tiritiri Matangi, a sought-after island with a headland pa that allowed a sweeping view of approaching canoes. Local tribes couldn't match the musket power of Ngapuhi and fled the island.
William Hobson - Lieutenant Governor of the new British colony - also saw the benefits of Tiritiri Matangi's location at the entrance to Auckland's harbour, ordering a powerful lighthouse to be built. The one-million-candlepower light first beamed across the Gulf in 1864 with lighthouse keepers sitting in the cold, red tower through the night, trimming wicks and pumping fuel. Today, the solar-powered, automated Tiri lighthouse is New Zealand's oldest.
European settlers found Great Barrier Island - Aotea -rich in nature's bounties: copper, silver and gold below ground, and a quarter of New Zealand's native flora species, including the mighty kauri, above. In the surrounding waters, whales were plentiful too - Whangaparapara was the last of New Zealand's whaling stations to close, in 1956. Still rugged and remote, Aotea now boasts the largest possum-free forests in New Zealand.
The biggest pohutukawa forest in the world is found on Rangitoto Island - despite its arid, rocky terrain. Its rocks were once its wealth - the youngest of Auckland's islands, barely 700 years old, was a busy quarry for 30 years in the early 20th century, with scoria shipped to Auckland for construction. A busy hamlet sprung up amid Rangitoto's moonscape.
"Lean men with rippling muscles, resourceful wives and sun-browned children live as gypsies, within nine miles of a hustling city, and yet know the ways and the peace of the wilderness, with wallabies, possums and wild bees sharing in a splendid isolation," read a 1922 Herald story.
Rangitoto's famous bach communities sprang up in the 1920s and 30s, quaint holiday dwellings sharing a seawater swimming pool and tennis courts, until a building ban was clamped on the island in 1937. Today around 30 of the baches still exist, barely altered since they were first built and conserved as artefacts of Auckland's architectural and social history.
Who watches the Watchman?
Watchman Island is the little islet in the Waitemata that no one formally owns, yet one well-weathered, but threatened, native is clinging on to the eroding rock for dear life.
While other resident flora - including most of its grand old pohutukawa - have failed to endure on Watchman as the sandstone and mudstone island slowly wears away, the rare native geranium restrorsum manages to hang on among the windblown grasses.
Just west of the Harbour Bridge, 600m off the Herne Bay foreshore, Watchman is gradually losing the battle with wind and tide. But there's a question mark over who, if anyone, can save it. The island, once known as Sentinel Rock, has special - or undefined - legal status; as it was never given Crown ownership in the 19th century, neither Auckland City Council nor Ports of Auckland can claim responsibility. But some local iwi are considered to have customary rights over it as an ancestral site.
For more Auckland stories visit: www.aucklandmuseum.com/auckland-stories
The Charming Sea Devil
He bore the nickname Der Seeteufel - the Sea Devil - but to his supporters, Felix Graf (Count) von Luckner was more a gentleman pirate and master escapologist.
Although the German naval captain sank 14 Allied ships in the First World War, von Luckner was considered a kind of folk hero to some New Zealanders - and his escape from a prisoner-of-war camp on Motuihe Island was the stuff of legends.
Captain of the German raider ship Seeadler, von Luckner took a charitable approach to attacking Allied vessels in the Atlantic and Pacific; he would safely remove a ship's crew before destroying it.
Only one Allied crewman died in von Luckner's raids.
After being shipwrecked, von Luckner was captured in Fiji in 1917 and brought to New Zealand to be confined on Motuihe. The Hauraki Gulf island, previously a quarantine station for diseases like smallpox and influenza, was then an internment camp for the war.
His daring escape from the island two months later made news around the world - stealing the camp commandant's launch, before capturing a scow and its crew, and sailing to the Kermadec Islands. His freedom was short-lived - recaptured and returned to New Zealand, first to Ripapa Island in Lyttleton Harbour, then back to Motuihe.
Von Luckner's fame swelled, and just before the World War II, he embarked on a world cruise to promote his life story; returning to New Zealand and fascinating large audiences with his wartime tales. His larger-than-life exploits were such that it was often difficult to tell fact from fiction but some deeds ascribed to von Luckner, from both critics and supporters, included:
• He helped persuade the Allies' not to bomb his home city of Halle in WWII, saving tens of thousands of lives. Hitler had ordered the garrison to fight to the death.
• Some said his Nazi collaboration was a front to "work from the inside"; others said von Luckner could never be honoured because of that collaboration.
• He was the subject of a secret Nazi hearing into charges of incest and paedophilia, accusations his supporters said were made up by SS General Reinhard Heydrich - one of the main architects of the Holocaust.
• Luckner had had contact with Jews and had thrown Nazi propaganda material overboard during his 1937-1939 voyage to New Zealand. Those offences led Heydrich to plot against him.
• He was an inveterate showman; some said he related events that never happened; but when he performed his strength trick of ripping a telephone book in half, people were convinced he was a hero.
Great Barrier Island:
Kaikoura and Rangiahua Islands (off Great Barrier):
- Figures from Statistics NZ 2013 Census