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Great Barrier Island: a step back in time

Great Barrier Island: a step back in time

“IF you want to go somewhere like New Zealand used to be, you come to Great Barrier Island,” says Loma Cleave, smiling warmly, her grey hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was confirming what had already become abundantly clear. Moments after our light plane landed, we’d been met a small dog happily wandering the terminal on his own.

Cars in the parking lot had been left unlocked and locals padded barefoot to nearby shops. Add to this a ‘lost world’ vibe created by the island’s dramatic mountainous interior and it was clear we weren’t in ‘Kansas’ anymore.

Even the idea of Great Barrier had felt like an intriguing secret, an island of unknowns 90km northeast of Auckland – 30 minutes by plane or four hours by ferry. I’d heard that it ran on solar power and that there were many unsealed roads, but what else would we find?

Involved in the Motairehe Marae, Loma’s passion for Maori culture and her island home is clear as she drives my friend and I around for a few hours to get our bearings. A detached piece of the Coromandel Peninsula, Aotea – as Loma refers to it - sprawls across 285 square kilometres. Its west coast is characterised by a maze of inlets and steep cliffs, while the east melts into wetlands and long sweeping sand beaches. Regardless of where you are though, the land is steeped in natural beauty and it is this that we’ve come to explore.

Loma hugs us goodbye at the entrance to the Aotea Track, a 25km circuit that crowns the island’s interior. It’s described by the Department of Conservation as a three-day hut walk, suitable for “reasonably fit or experienced trampers”, but it’s fairly relentless climbs and descents soon have us doubled-over and gasping for air. Thankfully the scenery is a powerful distraction. Within 10 minutes, we’re in Windy Canyon, a spectacular formation of volcanic rock pillars draped in ferns and foliage. Two hours further, the summit of Hirakimata - the island’s highest point at 627 metres – offers commanding views of the rugged interior and distant bays.

Over several days, the island shows off its enormously varied landscapes. In dense moss-covered forest, a maze of endless narrow wooden stairways wind left and right and up and down, bringing to mind the famous Escher painting. Rocky spires puncture the forest and nikau palms fill the lowlands. I hear the screech of what sounds like a pterodactyl flying across the valley but as it passes at eye level I spot the brown and orange feathers of a kaka parrot.

With such dazzling scenery it’s tempting to imagine Great Barrier is wild and untouched but the island suffered heavy logging in the1920s-1930s, decimating the huge kauris that once covered it. Dams were built in these forests to hold back water and logs before being ‘tripped’, sending the whole load crashing down the slopes and out the sea. The resulting earth-shaking roar was said to have terrified the hundreds who watched on. Just a few kauris now remain, along with the ruins of several of those old dams, but though the island isn’t what it once was, regrowth has returned it to a state of beauty.

With the hike done, we drive to Glenfern Sanctuary on the west coast to understand more of the island’s true nature. Daylight is fast disappearing by the time we park outside a high gated-fence beyond which hidden creatures shriek. I can’t resist pretending I’m at Jurassic Park. Glenfern’s predator-controlled property is managed by a charitable trust and its goal is to turn back the clock, to a time before invasive species began to alter New Zealand’s native flora and fauna.

The raucous screeching turns out to be the kaka again and at the visitor centre five birds sit in a tree, munching on figs. Our guide Sarah Matthew is just as passionate about conservation as the man who created the sanctuary in 1990.Back then Tony Bouz aid planted10,000 trees and, combined with pest eradication, native flora and fauna has been regenerating ever since.

We’ve come for a night walk and soon we are deep in the forest with just one torch between three of us. Sarah points out glow worms, wet a clinging to the underside of rotting tree trunks, and a lonesome fluffy petrel chick waiting patiently for its parents in the hollowed base of a puriri tree. Aside from neighbouring Little Barrier Island, Great Barrier is New Zealand’s only black petrel nesting ground and Glenfern now has around 80 burrows. For a few hours we whisper and wander in amazement through a world that would be hidden from view if not for Sarah’s intimate knowledge of the place.

After a few packed days, a holiday home at Medlands Beach provides a welcome retreat. An arc of goldens and on the east coast, Medlands is one of the more popular areas to stay yet still it exudes the sleepy vibe of a childhood summer. There are no large-scale hotels here, only discreet lodges and beaches. Everyone we pass waves hello and a painted surfboard, redeployed as a road sign, warns motorists that free-range kids roam here.

Around 800 residents call the island home and it seems an idyllic place to live. We meet Jenny, an Aucklander who grew up spending weekends here. “I really enjoyed it. You couldn’t get mobile reception back then and at night we only had candles so we’d just go to bed early.”

Things haven’t changed too much. Though solar power is now widespread, the locals are still tucked up by about 9pm, according to Deborah Kilgall on who runs Good Heavens, a stargazing experience. The island’s lack of light pollution makes for prime conditions and Great Barrier is the world’s first island dark sky sanctuary. On Medlands Beach we sink back in the cosy hollows of moon chairs for an evening of staring into distant space.

Sirius is the first star of the show. “It’s so bright mainly because it’s so close to us. Just 8.6 light years away,” says Deb. “Wow, that close huh?” I mumble from under a fluffy blanket while peering through a set of binoculars. She continues hers piel, the thin beam of a handheld laser shooting 400m into the dark sky to point out Canopus, Alpha Centauri and then Betelgeuse. Despite being a mind-numbing 600light years away, its orange glow is clearly visible on account of its massive size.

Deb sprouts facts and figures that make my head hurt but it’s the vision of the Orion Nebula through a telescope that really does it. “This patch of dust and gas is emitting light and creating new stars”. I squint through the eye piece at a mass of fuzzy light with the faintest hint of colour, and imagine I can almost see its gases swirling around 1600 odd light years away. It looks like a picture you might see in a science textbook only it’s here, real. Out there.

I think Deb only hands out the hot chocolate and brownies at the end to soothe our overstretched minds and help us sleep. It works.

A car is really the only way to explore the island and the next morning we drive along narrow roads, dotted with honesty boxes selling produce, to discover numerous small townships nestled in bays. Their relative isolation, driven by the mountains between them, has resulted in each developing its own unique character. Port Fitzroy, on the island’s west, faces a maze of islands and inlets, creating perfect anchorages for yachts. Further south, the cute township of Tryphena has a café, general store and sheltered beaches ideal for swimming.

Nearby, a short path climbs to Station Rock offering endless views over mountains and sea, one of around twenty trails that range in length from 30 minutes to a full day. At Kaitoke Beach we wander barefoot along five kilometres of empty white sand and then soak in the Mermaid Rock Pools.

Our last dip is at Kaitoke Hot pools. Though situated on the last half-hour of the Aotea Track, they were too hot when we first encountered them but recent rainfall has made them Goldilocks ‘just right’. Quietly we sit in a sculpted pool sandwiched between moss and fern-draped rock walls, while the heat soothes muscles weary from exploration. A small waterfall fill sour ‘tub’ and the peacefulness of the moment seems to encapsulate life here. Great Barrier is the world I dream of, where simple joys like soaking in a hot bath, walking barefoot and gazing at the stars can be a daily pleasure.