Before humans arrived, native forest would have covered the island, and all the land around would have been cloaked in dense native bush. Land birds, shore birds, burrowing sea birds, reptiles (geckos, skinks and tuatara) and insects would all have been present. Marine mammals would also have been found there, with the island probably used by fur seals and sea lions as a haul-out.
The first thing that most visitors will notice are the tall conifer trees which cover most of the island. Dating from the 1920s, these trees, mostly radiata pines, but also macrocarpas and the odd eucalypt, tower over the island. There is an old scout hut in the centre of the island, built about 1917 and extensively modified since then.
The flatter ground along the spine has been terraced with hand tools in pre-European times. There are also some small earth pits on the island and possibly trenches across the two narrow neck sections. These earthworks suggest that the tangata whenua used the island as a defensive retreat in the past. Trees would have been cleared to make way for a complex system of palisades and huts. There is more evidence of people’s use of the island in the distant past such as a cockle midden.
In pre-European times the settlement of Koukourārata, just across the water, had the highest population on the Peninsula. This thriving village was supported by the abundant resources of the land and sea and supplemented by extensive gardens. The nearby island would have made a natural defensive retreat with a built-in moat.
How the island got its name
Horomaka Island was named in memory of the arrival of the great waka Makawhiu (the desolator) in Canterbury. Fleeing revenge after he had killed the sister of his wife, during an assault on a pā, in the place now called Wellington, the Chief Tūtekawa escaped to the South Island. There he established his own pā near Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere).
One of the sons of the Chief of the Wellington pā, Moki, journeyed south from the Nelson area in search of Tūtekawa on the great war canoe Makawhiu. Moki did not want his cousin, the son of Tūtekawa, to be hurt or killed in fighting, so he sent word for Te Rakitāmau to meet him at the Koukourārata village.
After warning Te Rakitāmau to leave the area, Moki went back to the waka and told Maka, the captain of the canoe, to return to the sea as there was nothing they could do at that time. This gave Te Rakitāmau time to escape.
To commemorate the abandoning of this first expedition, the island was named Horomaka. Horo refers to the dispersal, or foiling, of Maka – the captain of the Makawhiu.
The island after 1889
The island was gazetted as a landing reserve in 1889 before being leased to Professor Robert J Scott (School of Engineering University of Canterbury) in 1917. Prof Scott was a close relative of the famous Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Prof Scott built a "hut on skids" a boat cradle and moorings on the island. He sailed the coastline of New Zealand using his house on Horomaka Island as a base. After Prof Scott died in 1930 the lease passed to Rear Admiral Peter Phipps, later Sir Peter Phipps.
In 1959 Phipps transferred the lease to his son Peter Robert Phipps who would become NZ Chief of Defence Staff.
The island became a recreation reserve in 1968.
Peter Robert Phipps gifted the building to the Sea Scouts in the 1970s owing to their educational and maritime focus.
DOC is in consultation with Koukourārata Runanga, is drawing up a restoration plan aimed at replanting native vegetation on the island and removing the conifer trees.