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Originally written in 1996.

Dianne Harlow June,1996 PAPER: 105.704. Experimental and Ethnographic Archaeology




The ethnological and archaeological records relating to Maori material culture are limited in information on pumice artefacts and there is no specific record whereby reference may be made to aid in inferring an archaeological interpretation of recovered pumice artefacts although some are readily recognisable. Interpretation relies on knowledge, past experience, context of the find and the form of the artefact - nothing new in that. The purpose of this essay is to present documented uses of pumice from ethnographic records and record pumice articles from various sources. Attempts at categorisation are made. Reference will be made to some archaeological collections from excavations with attention to the types of pumice artefacts found in assemblages and to their possible uses.


The method employed has been to make a broad sweep across possibly relevant literature in search of any references to pumice and its uses as material culture. Material checked is listed after the bibliography. A map is provided showing distribution of finds cited. Museum collections have not been included in this survey.

Properties, natural deposition

Pumice is a light volcanic rock produced by the frothing action of expanding gases during the solidification of lava. It has the texture of a hard sponge and is similarly porous yet its nature may vary from light and easily breakable to heavy and hard. These varying properties make it suitable for a variety of purposes which is evident in the ethnographical and archaeological records. Known as pungapunga by Maori, its use in the prehistoric and early historic periods is noted in both islands of New Zealand but particularly in the central North Island where its availability is greatest. The Taupo eruption of 20,000 BP caused vast natural deposition, even as far north as Hobsonville north of Auckland (Courtney, 1991 pers. comm..). The use of water, both river and ocean, as well as ocean winds also brought about natural transportation which makes it less clear cut to assess the possibilities of trade in pumice. Polack gives an example of pumice from White Island off the Bay of Plenty being carried by currents to the adjacent shores and ‘made use of by the natives’(Polack 1838:329). Another traveller who noted considerable movement of pumice was Percy Smith while journeying ‘into the Interior’. While crossing ‘the great Kaingakoa* to Rotomahana, the Waikato River was reached and seen to have a constant supply of pumice floating along it as did some tributary streams (Smith n.d.[1858]:20).


Trade In pumice is known to have occurred as a reference was made by Rutland in 1894 when writing about the Pelorus District. ‘More than a dozen kinds of stone were used in the manufacture of ornaments, weapons and tools. Of these, greenstone, obsidian, pumice and diorite were imported’ (Rutland 1894:225). The use of pumice is recorded across the periods of Maori settlement in Aotearoa. Green notes pumice found in an Archaic site at Tairua, Coromandel. He did not conjecture as to its use but suggested that the deposition in a midden at a moa-hunter site did not indicate a water-borne source rather, its confinement to the moa cultural layers was indicative of human agency (Green 1959:23).


In categorising pumice artefacts it was found that the majority located in the literature had, what might be termed, spiritual associations often connected with rituals or ceremonies. The evidence is generally found in the ethnographic material of the nineteenth century when information of this type was stilt available to a certain extent although it must be acknowledged that the depth of meaning and significance of spiritual connotations would not be revealed. Pumice receptacles stand out in the archaeological record and may be found having spiritual and utilitarian uses; the former, or wahi tapu, will be discussed at this point.


An example of a carved pumice container is one found by an early settler in the Waikato region. Roughly hewn in the shape of a human figure, it is approximately 148mm in width and 179mm in width. The carving style is vaguely described by Phillipps of the Dominion Museum as ‘reminiscent of certain old carvings of early last century before European contacts had begun’. Features of the carving are open mouth, tongue missing, circular orbits with raised eyes, low flat forehead, three fingers and on one hip a series of concentric circles with a raised circle in the centre. The back has a cavity of 40mm depth which was probably covered with a lid although the artefact was found lidless. A carved groove at the bottom of the container would have served to hold a cord which would possibly have been tied around the container, also holding a lid in place, and used to suspend it from the ceiling - seemingly a common practice. Examples of this practice may be found in the paintings of Maori Iffe in the early 1840s by Angas titled The New Zeatanders. Phillipps suggests that the container is a repository for cherished or tapu objects (Phillipps 1950:76,77). [Figure 1, A&B]

The above article appeared In the Journal of the Polynesian Society and was replied to in the following volume by George Graham. He considered that the above described container was ‘identical in its ethnological significance’with two containers described by Fairfield in an earlier Journal volume (Graham 1951:160). These had been discovered during excavations on Maungakiekie, One Tree Hill, Auckland. One is a "figurette" representing a bird-like form identified by Maori as representing the ruru (owl), a bird associated with solemn mortuary ritual. The breast of the bird carries a carving of ‘uncertain significance’featuring the "usual spiral terminals’(tete-kura). The back of the container has a square cavity and appears to have originally had a lid (taupoki) which would have been secured by cordage as indicated by various grooves. The second pumice container was grooved around its lateral circumference but found lidless. Fairfield conjectures as to the use of these containers but brings find context, Maori knowledge and ethnographical writings to bear as evidence. They had been immersed in red ochre (kokowai) and were found on the site of the former tihi or ceremonial place of the pa indicating they were connected with ceremonial ritual. Tukumana, Fairfiefd’s informant, considered they were waka-iho, depositories for afterbirth or receptacles to contain some sacred stone of the chieftain families’. Fairfield suggested they may be depositories for the first hair cuttings of male children of rank. These were considered sacred and kept in smalt receptacles and placed within a small tabernacle mounted on a post erected on the tuahu. This would go towards explaining the close association of many blades of obsidian and a pesthole. Other associated objects were fragmentary human remains and two sets of teeth, one from an aged male the other a young female. Fairfield notes that the objects predate 1760 AD, the approximate date of abandonment of the pa after the conquest of the Tamaki Isthmus (Fairfield 1941:95-102). {Figure 2]

Graham recollected finding a similar artefact in a cavity on Maungarei, Mt Wellington, Auckland some years earlier which had been carved from soft scoria rock. The lid was in place and tied with cordage which fell apart on handling. It contained fragments of light auburn hair and some obsidian chips. He concluded that these were ‘relics of the ancient uru kotikoti (hair cutting) rites of a child of ariki rank’and noted that this custom and the preservation of the iho (umbilical cord) had an intensely tapu motive (Graham 1951:161).

A container (247E) held at the Auckland War Memorial Institute and Museum is likewise recorded as a wahi tapu or repository for sacred objects. It is described as a box carved out of a block of pumice which contained a jaw bone when found at Ihuamato Hill, an old burial place by the Manukau Harbour, Auckland (Sutherland 1989:5)

Pungatai is a particular name given to a pumice receptacle used in fishing rituals. It was the size of a teacup, basin-shaped and taken to sea by the tohunga at the beginning of the fishing season. It was suspended by flax cords and swung gently back and forth while incantations were recited. On shore it was again used in the ceremony of preparing and eating the first fish of the season cooked in a sacred umu (oven). [Figure 3]. Tradition states that a similar container was used by the first settlers coming from Hawaiki in which was placed some earth, sand or ashes or a portion of all three from the sacred umu where the first fish caught at the beginning of the fishing season each year was cooked (Skinner 1918:35-37). Skinner’s pungatai bears a close resemblance in size and shape to the container recorded by Fox and Cassells at Aotea. [Figure 8]


Perhaps the most interesting of all pumice containers, because of their size and rarity, are burial chests used for the skeletal remains of an individual after primary interment. Normally carved in wood, their appearance was awe-inspiring and even terrifying’. Fox describes the first example as a well-known piece not previously recognised as a bone chest. Fifty six centimetres in height, it constitutes a carved human head on a base allowing it to stand upright in the ground. [Figure 4] [It has been described in the literature simply as a carved head]. The second example was made from two blocks of pumice cut diagonally to fit closely at the back. Its height is eighty three centimetres and was designed to be tied together with cordage (Fox 1983:20,26,43). [Figure 5]. It appears to resemble an owf which would be fitting as, in Maori mythology, it is known as the bird causing widespread falling away1, i.e. unto death. The spirits of the death become incarcerated in or take the owl as a materialised form (Fairfiefd 1941:103).


A further connection between pumice and death is found in carvings as monuments to killed tribal members. Several examples were related by Fletcher (Fletcher 1916:111, 1917:92). Dieffenbach noted, in his travels around the region of Maunga-Tautari, ‘a human figure rudely carved in pumice stone, a monument to the memory of the principal chief of the Nga-te-raukawa who fell here in a fight’(Dieffenbach 1843:320,321).

Pumice was also used Tor carving figures representative of gods. These often appear to be of Rongo, male god of gardening and peace. It is believed that these figures were placed at the entrance to sweet potato gardens, possibly in a shrine, and the tohunga ‘summoned the god to take up residence in the figure’(Wilson 1987:88). [Figure 6]. Buck refers to them as taumata atua or tauranga atua. resting place of gods (Buck:1949;471). Safmond quotes a description by Monkhouse, ship’s surgeon on the Endeavour, of a piece of white pumice stone formed into a very rude resemblance of a human figure’and placed on the burnt stump of a tree. Nearby were ‘large fish-potts’ and Salmond suggests that the carving may have represented a sea god although she acknowledges that such figures have usually been described as ‘kuumara gods’(Salmond 1991:124.125).

Extremely unusual, perhaps unique in New Zealand, is a carved pumice head found on the Otago coast in 1956. It bears ‘a remarkable likeness to the giant stone carvings of Easter Island’ and is ‘apparently quite unlike other carvings in pumice hitherto found in New Zealand’ [Figure 7]. The author noted that only rare and very small pieces of pumice were found on the Otago beaches at that time. Unless larger pieces floated along this coastline in former times, it is likely that this carving was brought from a distance - perhaps the North Island or perhaps ‘from even further afield’ (Harding 1957:99-101).


Ancestral stories tell of a journey from Hawaiki to Aotearoa ‘on a lump of pumice". the travellers were ‘impelled in the right direction by the power of their karakia’ (Gudgeon 1903:168,169). Hypothetically it would be possible to cut a single lump of pumice large enough to accommodate an adult (Courtney 1991 pers comm). Perhaps this did occur and served as a temporary canoe.

Pungapunga (pumice) is referred to as the name of one of the wives of Poutini of the Greenstone People (Reed 1963:355). The significance may be in that the term pungapunga is also used for a light variety of greenstone with inner markings reminiscent of the steam/gas holes in pumice.


In writing of the Lake Rotorua people, Buck stated that ‘if, whilst dredging for kakahi, pumice was displaced from the bottom and floated to the surface it was looked upon as an ill-omen. This may go towards explaining the use of pumice for burial chests, in that to interfere with them would bring ill. Perhaps the pumice material lent weight to the tapu already in place. It must be acknowledged, however, that the burial chests noted above were from Onewhero and Turangt, respectively, where pumice would be in ample supply and is, of course, easily workable so could provide a quick and possibly temporary substitute for wood far more commonly used for burial chests.


Apart from spiritual associations there were also receptacles and other items attributed to practical use. Pumice has three particular attributes which make it useful in certain practical applications: it is quickly and easily worked, is buoyant and is an excellent abrasive.


Schwimmer noted the use of pumice containers as repositories for a tattooing mixture which was a blueish black soot mixed with pigeon fat and ‘was kept in attractive pumice containers, sometimes for generations’ (Schwimmer 1966:92). Colenso mentioned the same mix which was given to a confined dog to eat. The faeces were later ‘kneaded with bird’s oil and a little water’ and when dry and hard, put into a large shell or a hollowed pumice or soft stone and buried in the earth for future use (Colenso 1891.450).

The Rev. Hammond, writing in 1901, listed small bowls formed from pumice along with stone lamps as being ‘used to contain the pigment for tattooing’(ta moko) (Hammond 1901:200). This was the only mention of lamps found in the ethnographic record. Hammond stated that they were formed of hard and soft stone but if the latter had been of pumice he would presumably have mentioned it specifically, as he had for the tattooing bowls. Sutherland, however, noted pumice artefacts at the AIM which were recorded as possibly used for lamps. Buck also identified artefacts as lamps (Sutherland 1989:4).

An example of a ‘pumice cup and lid’ was found on a midden exposed on the dunes of Aotea, North Head, Waikato. The lip of the cup and the bottom of the lid had been ground to a flat surface. There is a shallow, external groove around both pieces to hold a tie of fibres to attach the lid to the cup. There is no suggestion for possible use of the container but its interest lies in the fact that there are settlement dates for the site of late fifteenth or early sixteenth century (Fox & Cassells 1983:89). [Figure 8]

In 1956 Hosking and Leahy carried out excavations in a small rock shelter at Waihora Bay, Taupo, dating the site to between seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries. One artefact found was a finely decorated bowl’ which appears unique for the region. [Figure 9] Carved on one side is a double spiral. A considerable number of the carved or incised artefacts mentioned above include various forms of spirals in their design. Reference to various books on Maori carving does not indicate that the spiral has any significant or spiritual indications (see Phillips 1981:19-22).

Pumice was used extensively in the Taupo area and it has been suggested that artefacts may have been manufactured and exported as pumice bowls both partially formed and completed were present in the shelter. This is in accord with the Rutland reference of 1894 as above [Trade]. The authors speculate that they may have been used for carrying live coals (Hosking and Leahy 1982:81,91, 98). To date I have found no evidence of this in the ethnographic record but Sutherland conducted an experiment to this affect and concluded that it was successful with heat still being generated after two and a quarter hours and the temperature in the pumice bowl exceeding 42 degrees centigrade (Sutherland 1989:9).

Leahy also carried out excavations In the Whakamoenga Cave twenty kilometres from Waihora. Here also were ‘bowl-like’ containers of pumice, varying from round to oval and in all stages of manufacture. She states that their purpose is not clear (Leahy 1976:64). The purpose of use would not seem to be clear but the purpose of manufacture would seem to be for trade.



The buoyancy of pumice is well known and its use as floats on fishing nets would be expected. However, in most cases the ethnographic record indicates the use of a light wood. Cruise saw floats in the Bay of Islands in 1772 fashioned from a very light white wood. Colenso noted the dry leaves of the raupo bullrush were sometimes rolled up into balls and used as floats although their durability would be questionable (Best 1929:11, 18). The use of gourds was also seen by Best but he considered that the general rule was to use a light wood with the most suitable being the whau or the houama (Best 1929,18).

Hamilton also referred to the use of floats made from a very light wood ‘generally from the wood of the whau if procurable". He added that in the North Island lumps of pumice were often used (Hamilton 1908:45). Though Hamilton does not specify where, it seems that pumice was used for floats in areas where it was easily procurable. It also suggests that it was not considered sufficiently superior a material for floats to warrant trading for when other suitable materials were available.

It appears that floats may be notched at either end or have a hole drilled through them. Fisher, who worked as an ethnologist at the Auckland Institute and Museum, made a list of pumice references some years ago and referred to a small pumice net float notched at either end and about two inches in length (5cm). It was sighted at Piha on Auckland’s west coast (Fisher n.d.).

Presumed examples of floats with holes drilled through were excavated by Leahy at Whakamoenga Cave (Leahy 1976:64). She and Hosking further note two pumice net floats from Waihora Bay which closely parallel some of the above from Whakamoenga. They were probably used with nets for catching the native kokopu. Other uses for these floats could have been as buoys for marking the position of freshwater crayfish traps or other objects in the water’. The floats are approximately 150mm by 90mm and one has a roughly carved face on the surface suggesting "magico-religious functions associated with the fishing process or its use as a rahui marker’. There is a cord impression encompassing the flattened sides (Hosking & Leahy 1982.91.98). [Figure 10]. This example, yet a third method of attaching cordage, would allow for the image to be floating upwards on the surface of the water and could be a rahui (prohibition) marker. However, it seems more logical that a rahui marker would be on shore so that intending fishermen did not enter the water at all considering it was a form of tapu- The originator of the rahui would be an influential person who could place a ban on ‘a forest, field or stream...often marked by the erection of a post or pole at that place’(Best 1977:89).

A far less crudely carved pumice artefact found in the archaeological record may have been a net float although it is unlikely. It is lodged at the Hawkes Bay Art Gallery and Museum was discovered, seemingly, in a midden site at Mahia Beach, Hawkes Bay in 1950. It is 10.2cm high and is a body representation in the ‘square east-coast style’sporting several spiral decorations. [Figure 11]. Simmons, once an ethnologist at the Auckland Institute and Museum, in a personal communication to Butts, suggested that the carving was probably made for an individual of high rank and probably functioned as a lid for a small container. At the midpoint on either side is a hole, one not intact, suggesting that it was designed to be tied on to something. Butts indicates that there is some evidence’ that pumice containers had lids that were tied on and uses Fairfield and Graham as references. However, the examples they use, and others described herein, all indicate the use of grooves and indentations for holding fibre cordage for tying lids onto containers. Butts also suggests several other possible uses for the artefact. It could have been used as a marker of ownership on a net amongst other floats, as a warning of a tapu and suspended, a practice piece prior to wood carving or a wooden funnel of a large gourd, although he tends to dismiss the latter. (Butts 1983:146,147).

The object is convex at the back which does not seem indicative of a lid. Butts states that the ‘archaeological literature does not document any finds of this type to date nor are there any close parallels in the four metropolitan museums in New Zealand (Butts 1983:147). Further suggestions for use would be purely conjecture but the open mouth may be indicative of tapu as seen in Figures 1,4, and 6 which could all be classified as connected with tapu activities. The image may well have been used to hang above a doorway or from a ceiling to ward off evil or as a warning. It has been suggested above that suspension of articles from the ceiling was commonplace (see Phillipps 1950:77).

A rare find worth mentioning was that by Skinner who excavated Moa-bone Point Cave in 1872 under the direction of Von Haast. One artefact obtained was a fragment of net with a pumice float attached, eight centimetres in diameter (Skinner 1913-1925:101). [Flgure12] The photograph shows a hole drilled through the centre and is the only definitive evidence of a pumice float found in the ethnographic record . This allows greater confidence when defining similar objects in the archaeological record.


Another use for pumice in respect of fishing is for drainage purposes. Knapp wrote that he had seen shell heaps at Tasman Bay with blocks of pumice, slightly dished on top, with holding depressions. [Figure 13] He presumed that the fish caught by trawling were placed in plaited baskets on the ‘pumice bowls’for drainage. He noted that Icelandic fishermen have used pumice for a simitar purpose for ages when cleaning fish (Knapp 1940:375-381).


A final connection with fishing is an artefact found by Prickett at Manukau South Head and described as having been ‘shaped and drilled in the manner of a one-piece fishhook tab’ (Figure 14, no.89] (Prickett 1987:23-25).



The above tab was part of the Brambley Collection from which Prickett checked approximately thirty five pieces of pumice- At least one dozen were artefactual pieces some shaped and drilled. Most show signs of use in polishing or abrading. Figure 14, no.79 shows ‘a large groove indicating use for polishing a wood shaft" (Prickett 1987:23). Colenso has described in detail the making of a spear. He ended - the last operation was that of scraping with a broken shell or fragment of obsidian and rubbing smooth with pumice-stone’(Colenso 1891:451),

In his travels through New Zealand from 1831-1837, Polack was becalmed off White Island or Wakari for six days. During that time he noticed the amounts of pumice from there which were washed onto the adjacent mainland and used by the natives’ for polishing their muskets (Polack 1838:329). This may be seen as an adaptation of the polishing of spears as indicated by Colenso .

When writing on agriculture, Best noted that the Hawaiians used pumice to rub and smooth the insides of gourds (Best 1925:134). As large gourds were used by the Maori as containers, the ethnographical description suggests Maori did the same. Nothing further in the ethnographic record has been found but Dante Bonica, University of Auckland, has experimented in this manner successfully (Bonica 1991. pers.comm)


At Aotea, Fox and Cassells excavated a cylindrical pumice object ‘probably a stopper for a gourd. The surface has been ground smooth and a groove incised around it’[Figure 15] (Fox & Cassells 1983:89). Davidson notes that’a bone gourd stopper was found at Oruarangi, but pumice stoppers or plugs of perishable material must have been far more usual (Davidson 1987:74). This is a questionable conjecture as considerable labour went into growing and preparing gourds as water-carrying vessels. Figure 16 (Wilson 1987:86) shows further labour input in preparing fibre cordage to facilitate carrying or hanging the gourd as well as for attaching the stopper. A letter was sent to Mr Murray Thacker, Curator of O’Kain’s Bay Maori and Colonial Museum where Figure 16 is housed, to confirm or correct this assumption- He replied that the stopper is a corn cob core! The gourd originally came from Parihaka, Taranaki about 1890 (Thacker 1991:writt.comm).

Sutherland carried out an experiment using pumice as a stopper in a milk bottle. The conclusion was that the friction of repeated insertion resulted in contamination of the water by pumice particles (Sutherland 1989:13). Sutherland did not differentiate between soft and hard pumice but the very nature of the stone suggests that friction would readily produce particles. All in all it seems most practical that a stopper of a more permanent material than pumice should be used. In a personal communication with Sutherland, Joan Lawrence, University of Auckland, suggested that many of the conical shaped artefacts were abraders rather than stoppers (Sutherland 1989:13). This seems a fair assumption.


A conical shaped pumice object with a very different usage is one, housed in the British Museum, and mentioned by Buck as a pumice whip top (Buck 1949:246). [Figure 17] Best has illustrations of tops in his Games and Pastimes of the Maori (Best 1925:87), one of which appears to be referring to the same object. Davidson believes such items are probably gourd stoppers (Davidson 1987:109) but this has been questioned above.


Best mentions the use of pumice as a fuel on the coast around the Whakatane area. He records that it was ‘placed on a fire of manuka to supplement or assist the scanty supply of firewood’(Best 1902:91).


When pumice objects have been found in the archaeological record in a form normally made in another material, various suggestions are put forward for their use. Fisher recalled a number of small carved items from Mt. Maunganui. Amongst them ‘was a carefully carved miniature taurapa or canoe stem post (Fisher n.d. handwritten notes). This could be an example of pumice being used as a practice form prior to wood or stone carving. It could also be an item of ancestral or spiritual significance. Davidson records reels of pumice, from Kawerau and Kaupokonui, which would normally be found worked in harder materials such as bone, whale tooth, ivory, fossil shell or stone (Davidson 1987:77,79,109). A further example is seen in the two pumice patu found in the Whakamoenga Cave. Their use may only be conjectured upon and suggestions are for toys, practising weapons or as design models (Leahy 1976:64). [Figure 18].


In the early years of this century, Frances del Mar ethnologist, requested a wood carving at Ohinemutu, in the Rotorua region. When the work was completed the carver picked up ‘a lump of white pumice which formed the earth about him. He drew the conventional Maori features and thus the work was designed’ (del Mar 1924:111).


Mair records that the Maori were well aware of the properties in pumice earths to arrest the decay of interred bodies. He cites two examples of Europeans buried in pumice soil: one for over two years, the other undated but exhumed with his face ‘perfectly life-like’. Three other examples were of Maori bodies interred in pumice caves where their dessicated bodies were found intact after up to ten generations according to Maori traditions (Mair 1923:69-71).


The utilitarian use of pumice ranges from the unmodified markers and objects used as abraders and polishers to the slightly modified pieces used for drainage through to the finely shaped receptacles. The majority of artefacts and uses, however, appear to have connections with the spiritual, tapu or ritual ranging through gods, ancestral images, tapu objects and containers to an ill-omen and mythical use. The uses and objects of pumice have been listed at the beginning of this essay into categories of spiritual use, utilitarian use, those straddling the boundaries of spiritual and practical use and incidental items. Where there is conjecture, a question mark follows the entry-It is apparent that pumice was most used where it was readily available, that is, in the central North Island. Excavations in the [[WhakamoengaCave|Whakamoenga Cave] and the Waihora rock shelter at Taupo strongly suggest that the manufacture of pumice items for trade was carried out in that area- Other indications of the possibility of trade were noted from the ethnographic record. The presence of pumice artefacts in non-source areas does not necessarily indicate trade or exchange, however, as it has also been shown that there was considerable natural deposition of pumice, particularly water-borne, at a distance from the source.

The function of some artefact finds will always be open to conjecture but archaeological interpretation will be made easier by the continued use of comparison with the ethnographic record, previous archaeological collections and the use of contextual information. With regard to the latter for example, the presence of items such as obsidian, hair cuttings or kokowhai are suggestive of tapu associated activities. However, as Butts has stated, ’[M]ore research is required on the spatial and temporal exploitation of pumice by the prehistoric and protohistoric Maori’ (Butts 1987:147).


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  • University of Auckland, Dept of Anthropology: Marianne Turner, Doug Sutton, Dante Bonica
  • Geology Dept: Sue Courtney, Curator, Minerals Museum
  • Auckland Institute and Museum: Roger Neich
  • Gisbome Museum: Wayne Orchiston
  • Massey University: David Butts
  • Maori and Colonial Museum, Murray Thacker O’Kain’s Bay, Banks Peninsula

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