The Coromandel is a place rich in Maori history, the most obvious archaeological site are the many pa found on the coastal headlands. The following are a few photos taken during a weekend in the coastal township of Whitianga.
Before we get to the photos, it is probably necessary for me to give you a brief explanation on what a Pa is, particularly for those of you who are not familiar with the term. The word ‘pa’ can refer to any Maori settlement, defended or otherwise, but most commonly it is used to refer to a type of site known as a hillfort – fortified settlements with palisades and defensive terraces. The majority of pa sites are found in the North Island from Lake Taupo northwards – over 5000 have been recorded to date. You can read more about Pa here.
The two Pa mentioned in the title of this blog are the Hereheretaura Pa and Whitianga Rock – both were Ngati Hei strongholds, although the latter suffered during a raid by a war party of Ngai te Rangi. The reserve where Hereheretaura Pa can be found is at the southern end of Hahei Beach is one of two pa in the reserve. The other – Hahei Pa – is on the ridge above the track (seen below) but with minimal defensive earthworks unlike Hereheretaura Pa.
Whitianga Rock is on the opposite side of the estuary from Whitianga, a short ferry ride across from town takes you to the start point for a walk around the site. The site is positioned on a thin finger of land jutting into the estuary harbour with steep cliffs on three sides. By the time Captain James Cook arrived in 1769 the site had already been abandoned, even so it impressed Cook enough for him to state;
“A little with[in] the entrance of the river on the East side is a high point or peninsula jutting out into the River on which are the remains of one of their Fortified towns, the Situation is such that the best Engineer in Europe could not have choose’d a better for a small number of men to defend themselves against a greater, it is strong by nature and made more so by Art”.
Whenever I go somewhere new my first stop (after a leg stretch and a coffee) is usually to the local museum. I have a deep fondness for museums and the people who put their heart and soul into their creation and upkeep. The Mercury Bay Museum was one of those musuems where the peoples love of their town and surroundings was evident.
Our first visit to Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula was in the winter and unfortunately the musuem was closed however we had much better luck on our second visit. Situated on The Esplanade just opposite the wharf, this small but well thought out musuem tells the history of the area beginning with Kupe who gave the local area the name Te Whitianga nui a Kupe or The Big Crossing Place of Kupe.
Originally the site of the museum was an urupa or cemetary for the local Maori iwi called Ngati Hei up until the 1870s. But when European curio hunters violated the tapu of the site members of the Ngati Hei removed the remains of their people and reinterred them safely elsewhere. The Maori history of the area represents only a small part of the musuem and was my one criticism of this otherwise outstanding museum. The displays of Maori artefacts were not clearly labelled and the display was largely restricted to the walls of the walkway as you entered and could be easily overlooked – personally I think the museum designers may have missed a beat in down playing the 800 years or so of Maori history.
The Museum is very child friendly – my daughter in particular enjoyed dressing up as Captain Cook who visited the area in 1769 on the HMS Endeavour. It was he who gave the area its European name of Mercury Bay after taking his longitude and latitude from the viewing of the transit of the sun across the planet Mercury.
As you head further into the museum there is a significant display on the wreck of The Buffalo which gave the local beach its name (Buffalo Beach), the Kauri room and shanty shack – Kauri were an important part of the economy in the 1800s, either as logs or from the fossilied resin/gum – a 1950s school room, a 1960s bach, a smithy, two rooms displaying birds of the area and displays regarding the importance of the fishing industry (commercially and recreationally) and agriculture to the area. A butter churn display harks back to the days when the museum was once a dairy factory producing butter from cream from all over the Mercury Bay area. The musuem also holds an extensive collection of photos covering the life and times of Mercury Bay and its residents.
A Second Visit to the Mercury Bay Museum – February 2022
It had been a while since we had visited the Coromandel and even longer since we had been to Whitianga, so after many months of not venturing far from home we decided to have a short weekend break away.
I had heard that the Museum was in the throes of upgrading and improving many of its exhibits. A visit was needed to see for myself the work that was being done. Although the main bones of the museum are still intact and there is still work to be done, it was obvious the direction the museum was taking. Early Maori and their subsequent interaction with James Cook and his crew when he arrived in the bay was the focus for the front section of the museum.
The rest of the museum was divided into distinct sections, the story of the Buffalo now had it’s own dedicated space, along with the story of the Kauri forests and the wildlife (past and present) of the area. Farming and fishing – the two main industries of the Coromandel – also had obvious and dedicated areas. Within each space there were opportunities for visitors to engage with the exhibits such as the ‘excavation’ of remains from the Buffalo or the watching the process of a milking pump.
All in all it was another enjoyable visit to the Mercury Bay Museum – I look forward to visiting again when all the work has been completed. The following are a few photos of this most recent visit.