Life on a remote island in Coromandel, New Zealand

When I was young, around six or seven, my parents rented a bach every Christmas on a remote island in the Coromandel, on the east coast of New Zealand.   The half-moon shaped island, which had a postage stamp-sized sandy white beach, was called Motupohukuo Island or Turkey island in English.

We loved that Island as though it were our own.

turkey island
Turkey Island in the early 1900s. Today it’s covered in thick bush and trees. Credit: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19051005-7-4

Our bach had no electricity, no running water, no mod cons and the toilets were scary long drop loos, the tall wooden kind, set far in the bush.  We bathed in the sea, fished for snapper off the reef and ate raw oysters straight from the rocks. There were so many fish in the sea they literally swam to your door. Dad even once caught a live flounder in his bare hands as it swam past his foot in the shallow tide. Much to our amazement, he bent down and picked it up as though he was pulling up a potato. It’s a fishing story we’ve told countless times to family and friends and Dad beams with pride every time.

On the Island we used candles and lamps to light our way and spent the days playing ‘house’ in the rock pools, making fancy dress costumes from whatever we could find, and playing cards, scrabble and monopoly. We invented lots of new games too. There was ‘Scallop School’ where we’d line up freshly caught scallops and poke them with sticks to see which ones would clamp their shells tight first (not very nice I know but hey, we were just kids).

We pretended the small black sea anemones in our rock pool houses were pieces of magic interactive art, and played Hide and Go Seek for hours.   We learnt to sail, waterski and snorkel, marvelled in delight at how quickly our hair turned blonde and our skin darkened, and spent more time outside than in.

children on a boat
My brother Simon and I in the speedboat on the way out to the island circa: 1974/75
There were no computers, no mobiles, no tvs and no video games. It was a proper classic 70s Kiwi holiday.
There were only three baches on the property – the Cave’s, the Mantell’s and the Brown’s – the rest of the island was covered in native bush and huge trees and around its base was rock and deep water shelves where sharks lurked waiting to eat small children that fell in. Or so our parents told us. We never went to the shelf alone to find out.

The Mantell’s bach was the biggest and it had several rooms including a dining area with huge windows and unlimited views of the sea and the mainland. The other baches were only one-roomed, filled with bunk beds. None of us ever wanted to stay in the Cave’s bach as it was scary, tucked away beneath huge Pohutukawa and Douglas Fir trees. A single dusty clay path ran from the back of the baches, and straight up the steep hill, through the fern beds and on to the top of the island.

There were rumours that the island was haunted. Indeed, there was a deep, seemingly bottomless, open grave at the top of the island which locals said was the burial site of a great Maori chief. Whether they were pulling our leg we’ll never know, but we never stayed up there too long in case something jumped out and dragged us into the hole.  We often heard ghostly voices outside our windows late at night but our parents said it was the wind.

We hardly ever saw people, except once a fortnight when one of us would begrudgingly have to go with Dad on a small speed boat to the mainland to stock up on supplies. It was bewildering to be back in civilisation, surrounded by holiday homes, cars, Mr Whippy and noisy people wearing clothes. Far away from our beloved island. One year the Spirit of Adventure grounded herself on the reef near the island and loads of the sailors and kids on board came onto our beach. We hadn’t seen strangers for weeks and hid in the bushes while Mum and Dad gave them sandwiches and tea until a rescue boat arrived.

We were living just like the Swiss Family Robinson, except without Ernest the Ostrich.  Lord knows why they called it Turkey Island; there were no turkeys to be found anywhere. However we didn’t need an ostrich or a turkey to amuse ourselves. There was so much wildlife around and Nature was our playground. We climbed trees, clambered over rocks and ran around the island until we wore ourselves out. We watched Oyster Catchers peeping around the rocks and chased Red Billed Gulls away from our freshly caught fish.

One year we rescued three abandoned ducklings in a storm and nursed them back to health. Two of them sadly died but the third, named Jeremy, came to stay with us in Auckland living out his days swimming in our bathtub and falling asleep on Dad’s chest in front of TV.

two girls with pet ducklings
My friend Wendy and I with two of the three rescued ducklings which we originally named Huey, Duey and Louie circa 1976/77
On our beloved Island, we saw turtles, stingrays leaping in the air and whales and dolphins playing out the back. The sunsets were to die for, the storms spectacular and the night skies endless. Sometimes it felt as though the island itself was beaming with pride – happy to have all these naked screaming children running around, exploring every thing the island and Mother Nature could offer.

It was magic. Our own slice of Paradise.

Shortly before we left New Zealand in the late 70s to move to California, my parents were offered one of the baches for $500 but turned it down. $500 was a lot of money in those days and we didn’t know if we would ever move back to New Zealand.

We’ve been kicking ourselves ever since. Paradise Lost. And sadly, although we moved back to New Zealand years later, we never again stayed on Turkey Island.

Today, I can’t imagine families living on an island like that for months on end with minimum contact with the outside world. My childhood on that island felt so free and innocent. Those were the Disco days of the 70s, long before technology, before we had to cover up with sunscreen and hide indoors away from the deadly sun, before over-crowding, before over-fishing, before computer games and mobile phones, before the cost of beachside properties shot through the roof, before terrorists flew planes into buildings and commercial airlines were blasted from the skies.

Before everything got so complicated.

new zealand bach
The Mantell’s bach surrounded by hydrangea bushes on the island. Circa mid 90s

I went back to our island for the first time in more than twenty years while visiting the Coromandel in the mid 90s. I hired a small kayak and rowed around the island passing close to the beach, our rockpool houses and even the shark-infested fishing shelves. The baches were still there, in fact they looked exactly the same as they had nearly 30 years before, even painted the same dark brown colour, curtains closed.   But something wasn’t right.

The island felt damp, sad, and lonely. There was a sense of melancholy in the air and I didn’t want to step on the beach.  Of course the island felt smaller (I was much bigger), but something else had changed. Me. The world.

As I sat bobbing around in my kayak it got me thinking about life today. If we’d visited the island now, as opposed to 40 years ago, with our family of two adults and five children, would we have still loved it today as we did back then? Or would we have been completely absorbed in our mobiles, our computers, playing video games, facebooking and texting our friends, taking Instagram shots and watching television, ignorant of all the wild beauty at our back door.  Dad probably would never have caught that flounder and we’d never have spent that amazing Summer with Jeremy because we wouldn’t have noticed those three tiny helpless ducklings lying on the lawn in the rain. We’d have been inside the bach watching TV.

What I’m trying to say is every child needs an island like Turkey Island, in fact every FAMILY needs an island. A chance to really connect with the natural world, without television, without Facebook, without the internet. I’m not suggesting you throw away your phone or even move your family onto a remote island but once or twice a month, why not completely switch off, stop and go outside? Stare at the clouds and look for shapes, laugh at the squirrels in the park, count the stars at night, watch the birds on the river. We spend so much time immersed in computers, mobile phones, television and video games, that we’ve lost sight of what’s important.  The Outdoors. Nature. Our planet.

Extraordinary things can happen when we stop and lift our gaze. Who knows? Maybe one day you too will catch a flounder with your bare hands.


  1. What a wonderful snapshot of life.

    My family is lucky enough to stay on Turkey, it’s a paradise still.

    We fish, we swim, we pass a rugby ball around on the lawn and lie under the giant Pohutukawa abuzz with bees.

    The guitar comes out as the sun goes down and we sing songs on the main deck and play spotlight with the kids when it’s dark.

    The baches are powered now, by solar batteries ( that tend not to work!) and there’s a rain fed water supply. There’s still a long drop and the rays visit the bay most evenings.

    There’s no tv and while its true, we have devices with us, they are usually off.

    The ghosts are still there in the form of nesting penguins under the Cave bach – boy they make a racket, but we figure we are the intruders not them.

    I feel so lucky to be there, and hope my kids look back on their time at Turkey as fondly as you do. Xxx

    1. Is Turkey Island and it’s baches available to rent for holidays? I too had a similar 1970s childhood, growing up in the very remote Northwest of Scotland. The freedom to be a child in the wild outdoors, where everything is a big adventure, because our imaginations ran wild! There were bears and wolves in the woods, we’d often find bones of dinosaurs or precious gems would be uncovered whilst digging out a shelter in the side of a hill. We’d build dens with whatever materials we could find in the woods, and dam up the stream to make a swimming pool. Oh the fun we had!

      So I would love very much to take my own family to Turkey Island, and watch their huge imaginations soar as they entertain themselves in the great outdoors that I so cherished as a kid.

      I spend a lot of time in Coromandel, and have even kayaked out to the island for a closer look. I haven’t set foot on the beach as yet, as I dont know who owns it, and if permission is required to visit there.

      Any information would be wonderful.

      Thankyou for sharing your beautiful story, it has taken me back to my own childhood, and inspired me to seek the same for my family. NO TV, NO VIDEO GAMES NO TECH! Just your own brilliant imaginations! Just….perfect!

  2. I am so pleased I found this site, accidentally bye the way, as I was looking for accomodation near Coromandel to pay a long lost nostalgic trip to that beautiful part of the world.
    Long story short….. I had just arrived in New Zealand from Northern Ireland as a sixteen year old boy in 1959 to join my young married sisters who lived in Putararuru in the Waikato and my first Christmas holidays were spent in Oamaru Bay camping ground run by a wonderful man called Brick Parke. Swimming over to Turkey Island was a great day out. A man known to me only as Clive lived there part time, his home was Auckland and he came across the Hauraki Gulf in the smallest wooden boat, a dangerous journey! I am now 77 years old and I am determined to have a trip down there and also play the Coromandel golf course, the first I ever belonged to, 28 pounds a year for membership!
    Happy memories,

    1. Hi Barry
      Thanks for your wonderful story about Turkey Island! Happy memories indeed. Yes some of the journeys we took by boat from the mainland to Turkey Island in a story were hair-raising. I hope you get to visit Coromandel before too long.
      Best wishes

      1. Hi Jane. Dad just found this and sent it to me !!! Completely took me back in time – you painted the picture and described it beautifully ❤️. It’s actually me in the photo with you and the ? (not my sister Lianne) and the other photo I’m being piggybacked by my brother Todd ..who now lives in California so a little serendipitous that you guys lived there too. Thanks for the memories Wendy H xx

        1. Wow, what an amazing blast from the past! Thanks so much for getting in touch Wendy. Have emailed you separately. Will fix those captions too. I’m loving all this feedback on the island. I feel a strong pull towards it so hope to visit next time I’m in New Zealand. Even the little wooden cabin I call home in the African bush reminds me of the island days. xx

  3. I too remember many happy holidays at Oamaru Bay. Looks like we’re about the same age so we would have been in Oamaru Bay around the same time. Its changed a bit since then, but still makes my heart sing.

    We always stayed in the camping ground, with the boat moored in the bay. I remember one huge storm when everyone had to get up during the night to try and bring the boats in because they were breaking their moorings.

    Days out on the boat stopping off on the various islands for picnics. Dolphins swimming alongside the boat. Penguins coming to say hello. Dad diving for mussels.

    Coromandel and Oamaru Bay is still my favourite place in the world. Whenever I get back to NZ from the UK, Coromandel is top of the list to visit regardless of how little time we have at home.

    Thank you for sharing your memories. Happy times.

    1. Thanks for your lovely message! I too would love to go back to the Coromandel one day and visit Oamaru Bay and Turkey Island. Such special memories.

  4. I tried to find out who had the lease on Turkey Island these days but I ran into a dead end. I would love to go back there with you one day to relive a little of our childhood x

  5. Wow! So glad I found this. My memories of ” the Island” are numerous. My Dad “Barrie Walmsley” , Uncle Stewart and Uncle Trevor (Nield) , all from Paeroa, built the 3 baches on the Island and we stayed there for holidays until the lease was sold to some Auckland families.
    So many awesome memories with my bros and cuzzies from there. I’d love to write more, will do ……

  6. My Dad knew one of the owners of the Island from primary school in Paeroa in 1940’s. He and my Uncle arranged to Stay and camp on the island in early 60’s then we’re fortunate enough to be able to secure ( through Maori Affairs dept, at the time) a ‘lease’ to be able to stay . First couple of years Tenting, and then built the baches.
    All materials (inc concrete aggregate etc) transported across from Oamaru bay in 12 ft clinker dinghy with Seagull motor, then manhandled up the track to each site.
    Those baches were so cool ( ours was the black one). We had an old bathtub out the back and going along the track to the long drop at night was SO scary.
    As was already said, no power, . Kerosene lamps, kerosene refrigerator, boil the copper for hot water for a bath, and the water came from a spring along the track that was pumped to the tank when there was no rain.
    We would spend the day catching rock cod , catching herrings, pipis in the sand, crabs in the rock pools, rowing across to Golden Bay, rock climbing, tree climbing, hill climbing, waiting with great anticipation for Dad and Uncles to come back from fishing to see the catch, swimming, diving, … time to get Bored.
    I still to this day remember, every time I smell a camp fire, cooking mussels on a sheet of roofing iron on a fire on the beach and every time I smell the aroma of Lawson Cyprus tree, climbing the trees above the boat shed on the beach and seeing if we could go from one to the other without touching the ground.
    How did we get there? We would drive to Oamaru bay and meet up with ‘Mac and Dobbie’ MacKenzie who lived there. At their place we would load all our stuff into the 12 ft Clinker and Row or Motor across to the Island. ( sometimes a couple of trips) . When the other family or families arrived, the signal was to drive a little further to Golden bay, where a loud Whistle would let the ones on the island already know that they needed to be picked up.
    One of us ( even when we were about 6 or7 yrs old,) , would take the boat back across to pick them up.
    Such great times…… I can go on if anybody is interested.

    1. Hi Ross
      What fantastic memories. Thanks so much for sharing 🙂 I remember that long drop – my little brother scared us all one night by screaming loudly from inside the loo. We thought he’d fallen down the hole but in fact he merely had a big beetle on his nose. Haha! And there was definitely no time to get bored when I was there either. I really miss the carefree fun days of the island. Apparently you can still rent the baches – I think the Mantells still own the black one you refer to. Happy memories. All the best, Jane

  7. Great Blog! I didnt know about the grave at the top of the island. I have great memories of wandering all over the island – fishing and swimming – an outbreak of food poisening…I remember one time turning up at Easter and it was pouring with rain – and taking shelter in the pub with the lights off in case the police came, all the adults clandestine drinking, waiting for the rain to ease to whistle the boat over! My parents were friends of the Caves, the Browns and the Mantells and we stayed at Turkey Island many times in the 70’s/80’s. I drove past the Island today and stopped to have a chat with some people staying in the bay. The Island looked empty and closed, none was there. They mentioned a Rahui on the Island but couldnt tell me why. Does anyone else know any info?

    1. Thanks Kirsten. It seems the island has resonated with a lot of people! So amazing that you went back to see it but sad that it seems empty and closed. I don’t know anything about a rahui although there were rumours that the grave at the top of the island belonged to a Maori chief. Would love to know more. I live in Africa now but hope to visit the island again next time I’m in Aotearoa. Even just to see it from the mainland would be thrilling.

  8. Kia ora Jane,
    I spent Easter weekend on Turkey Island with my friends. Looking at your images I can say, nothing has changed. Everything is still frozen in time and it is pure bliss. One of my friends is really close with the lease holder and goes out there multiple times in the Summer. We had an absolute blast soaking up the sun, dancing in the moonlight and swimming to pass the time. More than happy to send you some photos of the place so you can relive the memories. Its clear it holds a special place in your heart.

    1. Kia ora Seren, thanks for your lovely message and wow lucky you staying on Turkey Island! I’m so happy to hear that nothing has changed and it’s still bliss. And yes you’re right, it does have a huge place in my heart and that of my family’s. We still talk about our wonderful Turkey Island days to this day! One day I hope to return to the Coromandel. It’s been years. That’s so kind of you to offer to send some photos – thanks so much! I’d love to see what it looks like. Greetings from Kenya.

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