Kāpiti, a roughly rectangular island of 2,000 hectares, lies off Wellington’s western coast opposite Paraparaumu.
Twenty-two kilometres to the south is the much smaller island of Mana (216 hectares), square and flat-topped, which guards the entrance to Porirua Harbour.
Māori tradition tells of Kupe, the legendary explorer who reached New Zealand perhaps 800–1,000 years ago, creating Kāpiti and Mana with a single blow of his mighty patu (club). European scientists suggest that seismic activity made these islands. Kāpiti, once part of a series of ridges in the Tararua Range, has been cut off and made an island by the rising sea. Mana’s flat top recalls the ancient plain that was the Wellington region, about 40 million years ago.
Fault lines run along the eastern and western sides of Kāpiti and Mana islands. They are apparent from the air, or out at sea – their western sides (not seen from the mainland) are sheer cliffs.
The name Mana is an abbreviation of Te Mana o Kupe ki Aotearoa, ‘the ability of Kupe to cross the ocean to Aotearoa’. ‘Kāpiti’ refers to Te Waewae Kāpiti o Tara rāua ko Rangitāne, the dividing line between the tribal lands of the Ngāi Tara and Rangitāne peoples.
Both islands were important to Māori because of their proximity to Te Moana-a-Raukawa (Cook Strait). Whoever controlled the islands also controlled the strait. At various times almost all the tribes of the lower North Island have occupied Kāpiti and probably Mana.
Kāpiti is renowned as the stronghold of the Ngāti Toa tribe during the 1820s and 1830s, when the great chief Te Rauparaha made it the centre of an extensive empire. He was assisted by his nephew, Te Rangihaeata, who lived on Mana.
Arrival of Europeans
The first Europeans to frequent Cook Strait – adventurers, traders, whalers and missionaries – often called at these islands. Ngāti Toa encouraged Europeans, and repeatedly sold parts of each island to them. The new settlers stocked both the islands with sheep and cattle. New Zealand’s first exported wool came from Mana Island.
After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, most Ngāti Toa left Kāpiti and Mana to live on the mainland.
European leaseholders farmed Kāpiti until 1897, when the Crown took most of it for a bird sanctuary. Mana continued to be farmed until 1973 when the Ministry of Agriculture made it an animal quarantine station. This was abandoned after an outbreak of the sheep disease scrapie made it untenable.
The Department of Conservation is restoring the biodiversity of Kāpiti and Mana, where pests such as mice and rats have been eradicated. The islands are now at the forefront of regional conservation – Kāpiti as a sanctuary for forest birds, Mana as a refuge for seabirds. While the revegetation of Mana lags behind that of Kāpiti by almost a century, it has been hastened by volunteers who have planted 300,000 trees and shrubs since 1987.
Because Mana is an open sanctuary, visitors do not need to have permits. To land on Kāpiti, they must first get permission from the Department of Conservation. Daily visitor numbers are restricted.