Treasured Island

Words and Images: Annabel Wilson

Location: Great Barrier Island

“E! Ka nukunuku; E! Ka nekeneke,” chants Ari, my two-year-old charge. We’re navigating native bush towards the peak behind his house in Windy Canyon, Great Barrier Island. Hiking through the rugged and remote landscape the first inhabitants named Aotea, makes you want to burst into song. The lines from the local school haka meaning ‘it is moving, it is shifting’ are particularly apt.

Breaking away from the mainland at the end of the last ice age when volcanic activity caused sea levels to rise, Aotea separated from what is now the Coromandel Peninsula and became an island. Today, the island’s mana continues to lie in its uniqueness and isolation. To stay on Great Barrier Island is to break away from convention; a great escape from the rat-race into a slower way of life. On Aotea, there are no supermarkets, no banks, no ATMs, no street or traffic lights, no footpaths, no main drainage, no reticulated power, and limited cell phone reception. One of New Zealand’s last great wilderness areas, the place, known to residents as ‘GBI’, provides the ultimate backdrop for a summer adventure.

The opportunity to stay on ‘The Barrier’ arose during a conversation over a beer. My mates Sam Rodney-Hudson and Nick Walker have been living there six months a year for the past couple of years with their two children, Zephyr and Ari. As Sam works online 20 hours a week, she mentioned she could use a hand with the boys in exchange for board and lodging at Hiwitahi. Meaning ‘One Peak’, their shared property is nestled in the coastal forest near Okiwi to the north of the island. You could also say it’s a conservation project, eco-retreat, bakery and microbrewery. Living off the grid like the rest of the Barrier community, Sam and Nick work hard at a sustainable lifestyle on their slice of paradise – DIY renovations, assisting forest regeneration, growing and catching their food, baking their bread, making homebrew and managing pest control. A week with their family provides an insight into the GBI existence. As I soon discovered, the home truths of life on The Barrier are linked to living in tune with nature while nurturing an environmentally-friendly future.

Ninety kilometres northeast of downtown Auckland, Aotea is accessible by plane or boat. A 30-minute scenic flight to the island sets the tone for a fascinating and inspiring break. We fly quite low over the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, green velveteen islands and marbled blue water mapping our way towards Great Barrier at its outer edge. Protected for its natural and cultural heritage, the Marine Park extends over an area of 1.2 million hectares of coast, ocean and islands. Named by Captain Cook in 1769 for the shelter and protection it provides, Great Barrier Island is the emerald amongst the Gulf’s treasure trove.

Aotea is the renowned, rich and resource-laden ancestral land of the Ngati Rehua hapu of Ngatiwai, who live on the island today and can trace their undisputed occupation back to the 17th century when chief Rehua claimed mana whenua and mana moana over its land and surrounding waters. Its significance to Māori is captured in the pepeha which dates to the early arrival of the Aotea canoe – Aotea whakahirahira, Aotea taonga maha, Aotea utanganui (Aotea the island of renown, Aotea the island of many treasures, Aotea of the bountiful cargo). Said to be an important stop-off point because of its proximity to Polynesia, the earliest settlers would have been attracted by its mild climate and abundant food supply. Evidence of early life on Aotea can be seen at several archaeological sites including pa, terraced farms, umu, middens and stoneworking sites, mostly found on the coast.

From the 1840s, Pakeha settlers also recognised the wealth of resources on Great Barrier, exploiting the island’s forests, minerals and migrating whales offshore. Thankfully the days of plunder are over and today two-thirds of the island are publicly owned and managed by the Department of Conservation. This means that the birds are coming back, the forest is recovering and now locals like Nick and Sam are focused on protecting Aotea’s natural riches.

Arriving at Claris airport in his trusty ute, Nick collects me and my companion, Sally. We stop at the shop for supplies and drop in on another Barrier local, Johnny, the ex-manager of Queenstown’s World bar, who is busy organising a community event for New Year’s Day. His partner informs us of the first of several island lessons we learn over the week; “Barrier people are reluctant to throw anything away”. Their garden features some old farm machinery the landlord doesn’t want to be removed, so they have instead incorporated them into their sanctuary. Hundreds of native seedlings are lined up in the nursery, the veggie patch is flourishing, and a cluster of wheelie bins hooded with corrugated plastic collect rainwater in addition to the large water tank beside the house. Here lies a glimpse into another Barrierism – water is precious. The island’s biodiversity and human activity are all interconnected with water. The natural resource of the surrounding Pacific Ocean fosters a rich ecosystem and a playground for boating, fishing, kayaking, diving, swimming and surfing. Aotea’s golden beaches are backed with tidal creeks and wetlands which host an array of endemic seabirds. During our escape, we spied the rare black petrel, New Zealand dotterel, North Island kaka, brown teal, banded rail, oystercatcher, shining cuckoo, waxeye and were greeted morning and night by Hiwitahi’s resident tui.

Stepping onto the cottage deck, the view instantly bewitched us. From its 300-metre perch, the property overlooks verdant valleys tumbling towards the sea with Rakitu Island framing the horizon. Pathways into primordial bush around the house have been carved by their neighbour Stu, enticing exploration. Nick leads the way as we traverse his backyard – a tangle of regenerating coastal forest. We weave below towering punga, ankles and faces brushed by soft ferns. Pausing to admire a lush nikau grove, we bush-bash through dense supplejack and flowering kanuka until a small stand of 100-year-old kauri trees comes into view. It’s saddening to learn that the island’s thick kauri forests were logged with increasing intensity between the 1880s and early 1930s. These days, many walking tracks on Aotea follow old logging and milling tramway routes, where logs estimated to contain over seven million feet of timber were felled, slid into rivers, processed then rafted to the mainland. A few acres of original forest survive, and much is regenerating like this little patch.

Unfortunately, now kauri face a new threat. The mysterious and incurable dieback disease can infect kauri roots and damage the tissues that carry nutrients to the trees, rotting the plant from the inside out. There is no known treatment, and nearly all infected kauri die. For this reason, forest users must be vigilant about cleaning all equipment that encounters soil before and after leaving kauri forests. Many of the sites we visit over the week have cleaning stations at their entrances where we dutifully scrub and spray our gear. Writer Germaine Greer has controversial views about the best way to combat dieback disease, saying that the ‘check and clean’ measures are not enough and urging New Zealand to close its last remaining ancient kauri stands to the public.

Back at the bach for our first island meal, we are introduced to our next Barrierism – the local cuisine, which is outstanding. We dine on what Sam nicknames ‘Indian takeaways’, a meal regularly whipped up by Dave from down the road. His speciality is Spicy Rabbit Curry – the meat being the by-product of recent pest control. Accompanied with poppadums and a jam jar of Nick’s homebrew, the food tastes better because we know its story. Further freshly caught and foraged fare during our escape included slithers of paua, fire-baked tamura, cockle and pipi pasta, kina risotto, Vietnamese summer rolls filled with snapper, mint and coriander, Waiheke Island coffee (made daily on the machine that uses up a fair proportion of Hiwitahi’s solar power) and Sam’s homemade toasted muesli.

Dave often pops in. He’s an interesting Island character with plenty of Barrierisms and insights to share. Longtime Okiwi resident, he owns and manages Island Stay Lodge next door. His two sons join Sally and me on our first activity as pseudo-nannies: an exploration of Okiwi school and Whangapoua beach. Seven-year-old Zephyr is our tour guide as we check out the school, Te Kura O Okiwi. For many New Zealand kids, a visit to their school’s playground is a compulsory holiday activity, and there is much to discover at this one. The outdoor facilities are well set up for the country school’s 33 pupils, comprising an adventure playground, native plant nursery, chicken run, community swimming pool, playing courts and barbecue. The schoolchildren are kaitiaki (guardians) of the adjacent Okiwi Park, where they participate in planting projects and have crafted beautiful plaques informing visitors about the area’s unusual flora and fauna. Free of many of the introduced predators now present on the mainland, Aotea has become a haven for many native animals and plants. The chevron skink is found only here and on Little Barrier, and three plant species are endemic to the island – the Great Barrier tree daisy, hebe shrubs, and prostrate kanuka tree.

Later in the week, we return to the park for the community Christmas picnic. Santa comes to visit, there’s a lolly scramble beneath a mature puriri tree, a sausage sizzle, slack lining, and beats cranking as locals get together to welcome the festive season.

Our stay also coincided with the arrival of the Flying Carpet – the yacht Sam and Nick co-own with mates. This happy event teaches us our next island lesson – having access to a boat on the Barrier is a no-brainer. On a blue-sky afternoon, we boarded the Carpet for a cheeky cider then caught the tender around the point to Sandy Bay. We basked on the café au lait-coloured shore and enjoyed the best aspects of a Kiwi summer – poking about in rock pools, making driftwood sculptures, sandcastles and dams, sunbathing, fishing, swimming, diving and losing track of time.

By now we’ve become well-versed in perhaps the most important Barrierism – islands are for exploring. Aotea is New Zealand’s fourth-largest landmass, yet remains undiscovered by most Kiwis. More than a bucket-list destination, those who make the trip soon realise one stint isn’t enough. Seven days provided scope to sample some of the island’s extensive network of tracks through forested ranges and spectacular coastlines, leaving us hungry for more.

On our last day, we took the pram-friendly walk to Kaitoke Hot Springs. Starting from Whangaparapara Road inland from Claris, the path follows an ancient shoreline through wetlands and kanuka forest. We hear the calls of fernbirds and a spotless crake, and the youngest in our party breaks into his tramping refrain: “E! Ka nukunuku; E! Ka nekeneke…” Forty-five minutes later we find the hot pools. Dammed at a fork in Kaitoke Creek, the series of sulphurous springs vary in depth and temperature. It’s worth dipping a toe in each, Goldilocks style until you find the pool that is just right. Surrounded by delicate umbrella fern, the deepest pool a quick scramble upriver is our preferred spot. We wallow like the Swiss Family Robinson in the warm waters Māori warriors used to rejuvenate in after battle. Said to have healing properties, the water certainly leaves the skin feeling soft and the mind reset.

After a taster of life on Aotea, my thoughts hover around how to manifest my next stretch there. Now I’ve learnt the Barrier ways, I’m working on a longer-term stay. As the words of Ari’s lyrics propose, hopefully, this will happen soon. “Moving gradually, moving swiftly,” he sings in te reo.

Annabel Wilson is a Wellington-based educator, traveller and writer, so she has one foot on each of New Zealand’s main islands. Her current obsessions are hot pineapple, finding the perfect snowflake and escapades in search of the horizon.


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