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.


Take an easy hour-long walk to the northern end of the island where the breath taking views of a pristine sandy beach invite you to swim and enjoy a crowd-free slice of paradise.

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.
  • Pest free
    Protect our wildlife
    • Check - your gear for pests, eg. rodents, insects, skinks
    • Clean - footwear and gear, removing soil and seeds
    • Seal - ensure your gear is zipped up (no open bags)

    See island biosecurity requirements.

Find things to do and places to stay Motukawanui Island Scenic Reserve

About track difficulties
About hut categories

Bird and wildlife watching

See a variety of native bird species, including blue penguin, reef heron, and endangered New Zealand dotterel. North Island brown kiwi breed on the island, and fur seals are beginning to return.

Water activities

There are many lovely beaches around Motukawanui Island that are perfect for swimming and snorkelling. The island is near the site of the Rainbow Warrior.

Historic sites

Motukawanui Island has a large number of pits and terrace sites, middens and cultivations, and extensive pa sites.

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    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. 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

    The reserve is part of the Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park.


    Pewhairangi / Bay of Islands Office
    Phone:   +64 9 407 0300
    Address:   34 Landing Road
    Kerikeri 0230
    Full office details
    Whangarei Office
    Phone:   +64 9 470 3300
    Address:   2 South End Ave
    Whangarei 0110
    Full office details
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