20 November 2013

Hauraki Gulf Cruising Notes: Motuihe Island

Motuihe Island - The adventures and great escape of Count Felix von Luckner
36°48′S 174°56′E

Until I started looking into the backstory of Motuihe Island, the only Counts I knew anything about were Count Dracula and Count Chocula. Growing up, we weren't allowed to eat cereal with added sugar, so I had to learn about the magical powers of Count Chocula when I slept over at friends' houses. Whenever I was free of my mother's watchful eye, I ate as much of that chocolaty goodness as I could, as well as drinking tons of soda pop. My mom loved it when I came home all sugared up and hyperactive. Such fun for her. But Count Dracula and Count Chocula have got nothing on them next to the infamous and controversial Count Felix von Luckner, who was known as the "Sea Devil" as a result of his exploits as the commander of the sea raider the SMS Seeadler.

Depending upon who you ask, Count Felix was either a charming, cosmopolitan, swashbuckling captain or he was a Nazi collaborator and pedophile who exaggerated and took credit for others' accomplishments. Born in Germany in 1881, Felix dreamed of being a sailor, which his father forbid him from doing. So he ran away to sea when he was thirteen and signed up as a cabin boy aboard a Russian ship. Felix eventually jumped ship in Australia and held a number of assorted jobs over the next several years including kangaroo hunter, circus worker, professional boxer, fisherman, assistant lighthouse keeper, railway worker, guard in the Mexican Army and barman. When he was 20 years old, Felix headed back to Germany, went to navigation school and got his mate's commission. He then joined the Imperial Navy and served in World War I. During the war he was given command of a sea raider and sank 14 ships without any loss of life. The SMS Seeadler ended up sinking in the Society Islands. Either she was the victim of a tsunami (if you believe Count Felix's version) or she drifted aground while her crew was having a picnic onshore (if you believe the account of their American prisoners).

With his ship gone, it is at this point that Count Felix began an elaborate game of hide and seek. First he "borrowed" a 10 meter long open boat, rigged it up as a sloop and then headed off in the direction of Fiji with five guys from his crew. They made it to the Cook Islands where they pretended to be Dutch-American sailors crossing the ocean on a bet. While there, they resupplied and then headed off again and reached Wakaya Island in the Fijis. They pretended to be shipwrecked Norwegians this time, but folks became suspicious and they were captured and sent to Motuihe Island in New Zealand as prisoners of war. Count Felix wasn't too happy living the life of a POW so he pretended to be putting on a Christmas play and used the supplies that he was given for it to stage an escape and steal the POW camp's launch. Count Felix and his men took off for the Coromandel Peninsula where they seized another boat, the Moa, built their own sextant, copied a map from a school atlas and headed off for the Kermadec Islands. They were captured in the end and Count Felix spend the remainder of the war in other POW camps in New Zealand (including Motuihe) before being sent back to Germany in 1919.

After the war, Count Felix travelled around the world giving popular speeches about his adventures and exploits. He even visited New Zealand again with his wife when they sailed around the world in the late 1930s. During this period of this life, Count Felix was viewed as an apologist for the Nazi regime. Scandal later ensued when he was accused of incest and being a pedophile but he was never convicted. After World War II, Count Felix and his wife moved to Sweden where he lived until his death in 1966.

Today Motuihe Island is a well known recreation reserve in the Hauraki Gulf. Located 16 kms from Auckland, it has some lovely beaches, sheltered anchorages, walking trails and visitor facilities which makes if very popular with boaties. The Motuihe Trust is working on restoring the island in conjunction with the Department of Conservation. A number of native plants are being reintroduced and many different types of animals have been released onto the island including North Island saddleback (tieke), red-crowned parakeets, shore skinks, little spotted kiwis, bellbirds and tuatara. And little blue penguins even breed on the island. So if the history of Count Felix wasn't enough reason for you to visit Motuihe Island, then go for the penguins. After all, who doesn't love penguins?

If you're interested in other posts in the "Hauraki Gulf Cruising Notes" series, check out this page.

Want to find out more? You can check out this article which explores whether the Count was a hero or a villain, see what his diehard supporters think at the international Felix Count von Luckner Society, read a "moving account" of him by the Freemasons, or get the book The Sea Devil: The Story of Count Felix von Luckner, the German War Raider. You can also find out more about New Zealand quarantine islands in Eileen McSaveney's article, 'Nearshore islands - Quarantine centres and prisons' in the Te Ara - Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Who knew Counts could be so interesting.

Who doesn't love a cute penguin?

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