I was nonplussed when Jan Ferguson told me recently that not many RV’ers visit Butler Point. Maybe it’s because this gem doesn’t blow its own trumpet enough.
So I am going to blow it as big as a whale spout, because I find this place, just around the harbour from Mangonui near a settlement called Hihi, to be one of the most interesting in the whole of Northland. I’ve been back there three times.
On this striking peninsula is a wonderful old house and garden, a museum of intriguing memorabilia, and an atmosphere and, understanding of the bold bawdy days of whaling in old New Zealand.
Jan’s late father, Dr Lindo Ferguson (CBE, local politician, public servant, ophthalmologist, and philanthropist) bought the property, together with his wife Laetitia, in 1970.
It included a historic homestead built in 1847 by William Butler, whaling captain turned landlubber and merchant, who installed his wife and 13 children there and proceeded to amass a large fortune from provisioning whaling ships and exporting flax, kauri timber, and gum.
Butler certainly knew how to pick a place. The peninsula juts out into the Mangonui Harbour to afford stunning views across the water to Mangonui village and the long stretch of Doubtless Bay.
Butler house, which has been restored by the Fergusons and partly filled with period furniture, is now recognised by Heritage NZ and the extensive garden is classed as a Garden of Significance by the New Zealand Garden Trust. Dr Ferguson’s daughter, Jan, is making her Butler Point legacy and ongoing research into the area’s whaling history her life’s work.
Part of that work is organising tours of the property for visitors. I’ve never heard of anyone who has left Butler Point feeling disappointed with the experience. Given my vigorous stand against the practice of murdering whales, I thought graphic reminders of the slaughter might cause me brain fade. I reined in my prejudice for three reasons: it was all a long time ago; I found the history fascinating; and nowadays, the emphasis is conservation.
Although Captain Butler made his fortune from the peninsula, it was passion, not riches that drove Lindo Ferguson to gather up so many whaling artefacts. His fascinating whaling collection is possibly the most remarkable in private ownership in New Zealand, and all of them are displayed in a purpose-built museum on the property.
Among them are harpoons, exquisitely carved examples of scrimshaw, and a full set of ship surgical instruments. Lingering over the old prints, photographs, and models of those brutal times, I gained an understanding of the way it was. This was helped by some original footage of whaling in the 1920s.
Outside the museum under a shelter is a 30-foot, open whaleboat from the early 1900s. Lindo Ferguson had found it in the Kaipara, restored it, and equipped it with long oars, hand-held harpoons, lances, and other whaling paraphernalia.
As Jane explained the way things worked, the whalers’ lot came to life—how daring and courageous they were, how they risked their lives at every moment. “It was incredibly dangerous,” she said. “Most of those men couldn’t even swim.”
Although the tours last about 90 minutes, visitors are also free to explore on their own or picnic in the grounds. Last time I visited, I wandered through the gardens, along a cliff top past a massive tangle of pohutukawa trees thought to be around 600 years old and paused by the tilting graves of Captain Butler and some of his children.
Then I sat on a bank in the long grass and stared across the harbour’s unruffled water and employed a bit of virtual reality to conjure up the cram of ships that would have anchored there in the early 1800s when the Mangonui township was a hell hole. As I gazed, a chunk of my country’s history began to fall into place.
The Butler Point Homestead, Gardens and Museum is located on 31 Marchant Rd, Hihi, Northland.
For more information, call 0800 687 386 or e-mail butler.point.co.nz. Appointments essential.
Win double passes to Butler Point Homestead
Butler Point Homestead has provided us with a double pass to give away to one lucky winner.
Competition ends 19 October 2018.