The jewel that is Rat Island

PROTECTION NEEDED: Rat Island is fragile and prone to erosion, says city councillor Celia Wade Brown.
PROTECTION NEEDED: Rat Island is fragile and prone to erosion, says city councillor Celia Wade Brown.

Rat Island, the tiny piece of land off Island Bay, may be in for some love and care.

Restoration plans for the 3.2 hectare island are to be discussed by the Wellington City Council, which oversees it.

Mike Oates, the council's manager of natural and botanic areas, says the island is so close to land that there is little point in attempting to eradicate the rats that inhabit it. "It's within swimming distance for all kinds of vermin, such as rats, weasels and stoats."

Oates says the council did a survey three years ago and found a range of native plants among the weeds.

"It has the potential to be a place where coastal native plants can thrive in relative protection," he says.

Stories abound about Tapu te Ranga, known to locals as Rat Island. The island has experienced several name changes, deforestation, a hermit, goats and rats and was a sanctuary for a woman and her children during Maori warfare.

Local Maori elder Bruce Stewart, of Raukawa and Te Arawa, says he developed a special fascination for Tapu te Ranga (meaning: a sacred rising) when he moved to Island Bay 50 years ago.

"People told me it was called Rat or Goat Island, but I went to the Alexander Turnbull Library and researched it, discovering its name to be Tapu te Ranga."

"A hermit once lived on the island with goats, which he milked. When he died, they ate all the vegetation on the island," he says.

Stewart says the island was also once called Patawa, and Kupe climbed it to get a better view of a wheke, a giant octopus.

"Tapu te Ranga is part of my life," he says. "I think it is very special, I go down to the beach every day to look at it. It's like my church."

During warfare between northern tribes and Ngati Ira in the early 19th century, the island became a sanctuary for Tamairangi, the wife of the local chief, and her children. Owing to the lack of fresh water and the inclement weather, they were forced to leave, but evidence of their stone-walled pa is still evident.

A group of 14-year-old boys spent a miserable night on the island a few years ago, after being marooned when a storm blew up. Armed with a mobile phone, they were able to call the police, who spent the night keeping an eye on them from the mainland. They were able to return to their relieved families a day later.

Island Bay resident and Wellington city councillor Celia Wade Brown has kayaked to the island and found it to be fragile and prone to erosion.

She would like it to be cleared of the rubbish that has washed up there, and for it to be reforested with appropriate native plants.

"There are also little penguins swimming off the island. People need to be aware of that and be careful. It's a jewel in the south coast, and needs to protected," she says.