Motukawanui Island off the coast of Northland is free from possums, mustelids and cats, and home to a flourishing population of native birds. There are opportunities for snorkelling and swimming and you can stay overnight in a hut.

Place overview


  • Bird and wildlife watching
  • Diving and snorkelling
  • Historic sites
  • Walking and tramping
  • Kauri dieback

    Help stop kauri dieback

    Kauri dieback disease is killing our native kauri. It spreads by soil movement, but you can help prevent it.

    • Stay away from kauri tree roots.
    • Clean your gear before and after visiting kauri forest.
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Find things to do and places to stay Motukawanui Island Scenic Reserve

About track difficulties

      About this place

      Nature and conservation

      Motukawanui Island, known locally as Motukawa, is the largest island in the Cavalli group.

      Beach on Motukawanui Island.
      Great swimming beach on the island


      Wai-iti Bay at dusk.
      Wai-iti Bay at dusk

      Motukawanui Island reaches a maximum altitude of 177 metres and has a varied terrain with rugged cliffs on the eastern side and some curving sheltered bays on the west.

      Native animals

      As Motukawanui Island is free from possums, mustelids and cats, it is home to a flourishing variety of native bird species.  You will be able to observe many common coastal species as well as the endangered NZ dotterel, which breeds on the island. You might also spot blue penguin and reef heron.

      You will enjoy hearing the calls of tui, grey warbler and kingfisher. Other birds on the island include white-faced heron, pukeko, morepork and banded rail. Saddleback were released in the 1980s but died out, probably due to kiore. Fur seals are beginning to return to the island.

      In 1995 Motukawanui Island was chosen as a ‘creche’ to release ten North Island brown kiwi chicks from around Northland as part of the first Operation Nest Egg programme. The chicks were released on to the island to see how well they would do if given the opportunity to live in a predator free environment. North Island brown kiwi are now successfully breeding on the island. A 2004 survey showed an increase in numbers of 500% over the last eight years.

      DOC has a revegetation program. The island has great potential as a sanctuary for lizards, seabirds and threatened plants but the first challenge is the removal of kiore, which limit regeneration of life on the island.

      History and culture

      Pa site.
      Pa site P04/39 located on the southern end of Motukawanui Island

      The island has had a history of early settlement that included land clearance as its main priority for cultivation then farming. Fire was used to control the spread of re-vegetation

      A survey of the island identified 70 archaeological sites that include 14 pa and 36 pit and terrace complexes. These features suggest that the island was inhabited by a relatively large population, before Europeans arrived.

      Human history

      Prior to European arrival, the Māori inhabitants utilised the Cavalli’s rich and diverse range of economic resources including fisheries and the extensive grey faced petrel colonies (muttonbirds) located on most of the islands.

      The presence of storage pits, modified soils and remnant taro on Motukawanui indicates that much of island was being cultivated by Māori in the prehistoric period.

      Evidence for the large populations on the Cavalli’s also comes from Captain Cook's visit here in 1769 “during this time several canoes came off to the ship and two or three of them sold us some fish, Cavelles they were named, which occasioned my giving the island the same name”. It is assumed that the fish that were traded with Cook were Trevally, but the name Cavalli’s has remained.

      Some time after European settlement the permanent occupation of Motukawanui ended.

      In the late 1800s, the island was almost completely cleared for farming. The ruins of the farmer's hut still remain in Papatara Bay. The hut was once used as island accommodation but today there is a new hut located in Wai-iti Bay.

      Papatara Bay on the southern end of the island.
      Papatara Bay on the southern end of
      the island

      The island was farmed up until 1974, and in 1987 it was purchased by the Maritime and Historic Park Board. Today it is under the care of the Department of Conservation.


      The Story of the Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park. 1989. Department of Conservation.

      Getting there

      Motukawanui is the largest island in the Cavalli island chain located off Northland’s east coast about 3 km north-east of Matauri Bay.

      You can access Motukawanui by boat. In good weather, you can also reach the island by kayak.

      This stunning island is a little-visited gem, and is well worth exploring.

      Know before you go

      You can get to Motukawanui Island by boat. In good weather, you can also reach the island by kayak.

      Looking after the islands of Ipipiri (eastern Bay of Islands)

      All of the islands of the eastern Bay of Islands (Ipipiri) are now free of rats, mice and stoats.

      Help keep it that way.

      • It is very important to check your bags, food stores, tents and tarps for any rat, mice or ant infestation before arriving on the island.
      • Read the island visit information pack.
      • All archaeological sites are protected by the Historic Places Act. It is an offence to damage or interfere with them in any way. As you visit the sites, help to protect and preserve them.
      • No rubbish is collected – 'Pack in, pack out' policy. However, there is a rubbish barge and shore-based rubbish facilities available during summer.

      Urupukapuka campsites

      Camping is only available on Urupukapuka Island. There are three campsites.

      • Camp host is on-site from 22 December to 20 January each season.
      • No cooking facilities – use liquid or LPG only.
      • 027 cellphone coverage is available around all parts of Urupukapuka Island.
      • During the summer the rubbish barge will visit Urupukapuka Island.
      • Set up your site so that the mess/gazebo/cooking area is located on the back part of your site with the accommodation at the front.
      • Showers available at Cable Bay and Urupukapuka Bay, but not Sunset Bay campsite.


      Keep to these rules (covered by the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park and the Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park bylaws):

      • Do not light fires or fireworks.
      • Dispose of matches and lit cigarettes responsibly.
      • Take your litter off the islands.
      • Drink responsibly.
      • Keep all animals e.g. dogs, cats, rats, stoats, off these pest-free islands.
      • Only camp in the official campsites on Urupukapuka Island.
      • Do not use foul, abusive, indecent, or obscene language.
      • Do not disturb stock.
      • Leave all farm gates as you find them.
      • Keep noise levels down - no loud parties or amplifier systems, radios and portable generators that might annoy others.
      • Do not deliberately obstruct, disturb, or interfere with anyone else's use or enjoyment.

      If you see anyone breaking these rules, call the Bay of Islands DOC Office on +64 9 407 0300 or 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).

      Remember: DOC staff can issue warnings, ask you to leave, and alcohol may be seized or impounded. Where necessary, if you are found in breach of the Bylaws, you can face Court prosecution and be liable to fines.

      Related link

      Motukawanui Island - Walk the North e-book


      Pewhairangi / Bay of Islands Office
      Phone:      +64 9 407 0300
      Full office details
      Whangarei Office
      Phone:      +64 9 470 3300
      Full office details
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