By Penny Gardiner
Among the pohutakawa, rata and kauri trees lies an island most New Zealanders have never seen, unless you count viewing it on a clear, windless day, when the outline of Tahitian-like pinnacles tower up in a haze on the horizon.
“It’s only 30 minutes from Auckland. Go out there and you’ll definitely begin to understand what New Zealand is all about,” said a mate who regaled me with tales about gold prospectors, whalers, copper miners, gum diggers, kauri loggers and pigeon grams – Great Barrier Island was once, what you might call, a tough pioneering outpost.
Once there, you’re about as isolated from city life as you can be. That the world’s first pigeon post was founded here in 1897 tells you something. These days, you’ll find a new breed of pioneers – those working in tourism; lodge, motel, hostel and B&B owners, some running fishing excursions and others renting kayaks; potters, artists and winemakers all call ‘Barrier’ home.
As the name implies, the island paradise protects Auckland harbour and the Hauraki Gulf from the fierce storms that sweep in off the southern Pacific Ocean. Storms, I might add, that make the coastal, bleached bone-white sands some of the best surfing beaches in the Southern Hemisphere.
In summer, young Kiwi travellers wax-down surfboards alongside Scandinavians, Poms, Irishmen, Germans and a few Americans in one of two private campgrounds or any of the six DOC campsites. ??To pick the big swells head for the beaches at Medlands, Kaitoki and Awana.
Out at sea, divers disappear into the clear depths hoping to catch enormous “packhorse” crayfish that need a two-handed approach to bring them to the surface.
Devoid of such mainland treats as banks, electricity, running water and traffic lights, Great Barrier Island’s 750 inhabitants either live in one of four settlements or conveniently tuck themselves away on highland ridges, down rutted tracks, on rocky outcrops or deep inside thick, bush-coated valleys; no wonder some locals consider it the most tranquil, if not hardy, environment in New Zealand.
Having adapted to a way of life envied by city dwellers, many Barrier Islanders have turned their hand to a more fruitful existence – tourism. Out in the bush, down on the farm, or overlooking the ocean in secluded spots, and assortment of lodges, home-stays, cottages and private guest quarters offer a choice of places to overnight and fit most family budgets.
The island is known for its native bush (over 70 percent is DOC protected) and the adventure possibilities this 8,000 hectares landscape offers. After a tough day’s bush walking, hikers soak in the natural Kaitoke Hot Pools?or relax on all but deserted beaches.
Other visitors might trace the water’s edge to the small crescent bay that sweeps around Okupu Beach to participate in a tasting of the island’s only home-grown wine, in what’s said to be New Zealand’s smallest winery. When the words “do it yourself” were applied to building, John Mellars took it one step further. With “pressing” needs, he built his vineyard on a steep-sloping headland with views to die for, a wine tasting room and bottling store, everything except the wine press which he imported from France. ??At the entrance to his mulberry-coloured Tuscany wine cellar is a duck-laden stream and flotsam strewn beach. Those who just turn up on his sandy doorstep straight off a yacht or a muddy bush walk can enjoy his subtle and fruity cabernet sauvignon. It’s mostly unknown off the island, so grab a couple of bottles and cellar them when you get home.
Set in 108 acres of native bush, Mount Saint Paul Estate is the island’s ultimate place to stay and dine. Up to six guests can enjoy fine cuisine around the circular kauri table or alfresco on the verandah. Try the Scallops en Brochette – plump scallops wrapped in pancetta, threaded onto rosemary sticks and quickly seared on a char-grill.
Adventures abound – horsing riding or hiking to the historic kauri dams in Kaiaraara Valley and, if that doesn’t hook you, try fishing for giant trevally, snapper or kingfish – the fishing spots make this region a magnet for anglers.??The island has scheduled daily air services that take about 30 minutes. For a more leisurely pace and a drink at the bar, catch a SeaLink Ferry across the gulf to the wharf in Tryphena Harbour. On board, along with backpackers, mountain bikes, bread deliveries, boxes of frozen seafood, cases of Tui beer, solar panels, and a few cross-bred mongrels, you can spot the locals dressed island style, wearing gumboots and wool hats in summer or walking barefoot wearing shorts in winter — eccentricity and character is what makes Great Barrier life so unique and such a great destination to visit.
On an island that still runs under its own steam, Great Barrier is definitely worth visiting once in your life; just don’t forget to write a pigeongram home about it.
What to do:?
Most accommodation providers offer a booking service. You can pony trek, bike, kayak, charter fish, scuba dive, take day tours and hire cars.
John mellars’ vineyard is located in Blind Bay. T: +64 9 429 0361.
Worth a visit are Young’s museum at Okupu; Milk, Honey and Grain at Claris; Gray’s museum at Awana or Medlands museum. Ask hosts for contact phone numbers.
DOC has over 100km of conservation-maintained walking tracks lasting from 2.5 hours to 2 days. Discover Great Barrier offer guided tours to suit groups size, fitness level, budget and length of visit. Discover lush native forest, amazing ocean views, rugged mountains and more. T: 021 420 935 or +64 9 4290 222 www.discovergreatbarrier.co.nz?
Bikes & Trikes:
The Department of Conservation (DOC) has designed mountain biking areas on public conservation land. There are two designated mountain bike routes – the Forest road and the road to Haratonga. Other tracks are not specifically designed for mountain bike use, but the Island has plenty of scope with some great trails and rugged scenery.
Paradise Cycles offer mountain bike rentals and tours. T: +64 9 429 0311. m: + 64 027 272 4478
Crazyhorse Trike Tour offer joy rides, half or full day tours, transfers for weddings and more. The customised trikes are designed to carry two passengers in comfort and style. T: + 64 9 429 0222, e: firstname.lastname@example.org
There are plenty of cafes and restaurants on the island but beware of seasonal opening hours/days. Some well-known outlets include: Carrach Pub, Bob & Tipi’s, Claris Texas, Port Fitzroy store, wild rose Café.
For a set four-course $75 a head gourmet meal try Mount St. Paul lodge
??Cars & Fuel:
Petrol and diesel are available at Port Fitzroy wharf, Whangaparapara wharf, Tryphena and Claris. There are no facilities for vehicles which require CNG or LPG.
A reliable car rental operator is Medlands Rentals, T: +64 9 429 0861
Mobile phone coverage on the island is limited. Card or coin phones can be found at the main settlements around the island. It is a toll call from great Barrier Island to Auckland.
General stores are located at Port Fitzroy, Whangaparapara Reserve, Claris, Pa Beach and Mulberry Grove, Tryphena.
Banks: as there are no banks or ATMs on the island, it’s recommended that you take cash. Eftpos and credit card facilities are available at most commercial outlets.