Once Upon an Island
Reproduced with permission from
New Zealand Memories Issue 72 June/July 2008
Jennifer Beck’s account of her memorable visit to Great Barrier Island written in 2004
Years ago I began a list of places I want to visit before I’m too old to enjoy them.
Great Barrier Island or Aotea has always been on that list. Not just because I’ve heard of its rugged beauty, but also because I’ve been fascinated by stories.
The first was part of our family history, the story of how my father in the late 1930s ‘helped build the airfield at Claris’. He told us of a summer spent living in a tent near the beach. It sounded exciting to me as a child. Later I’ve realised that as Dad worked for a contracting firm, most of his time was probably spent driving a truck or bulldozer, levelling out scrubland in the dust and heat.
The second story was told in a book I bought in a church opportunity shop. ‘Great Barrier Calls’, written by Grace Medland in 1969 gave an insight into what life had been like for a pioneering family on the island.
Grace wrote of her mother arriving in the 1860s to join her husband who was trying to establish a farm at what is now known as Medlands Beach. At Tryphena she was met by a settler with one leg who was ‘mounted on his tame bull’. He fastened her luggage around the animal’s neck, and following instructions to ‘hang on to the tail’ the young mother trudged with her three-month old baby over the bush-covered ranges and across the island to her new home.
When she finally arrived she was greeted by the husband she hadn’t seen for months outside a whare built of rush and raupo. Grace was born there 1887, the sixth of ten children, three of whom died at a young age.
The whare was later replaced by a four–roomed cottage. This was an unexpected gift from a former neighbour to whom the family had shown hospitality despite their over-crowding and financial struggles.
The coast of Great Barrier is well known as the scene of numerous shipwrecks, but the loss of more than 121 lives from the ship Wairarapa in 1894 led to a demand for better communication with the mainland. As a result the pigeon post was established and is said to be the world’s first airmail service.
Grace wrote of how the fledgling mail service was involved in an emergency a few years later. One morning when the island was lashed by a fierce storm her family found a bottle washed up on the beach. Inside they discovered a desperate note written by a ship’s captain just the previous day, possibly as a record in case his ship was lost. He wrote that the Envy was caught in a heavy gale and had been damaged. He was struggling to keep her from being wrecked on the Barrier coast, and was trying to head north.
The Medlands relayed the message to Auckland by pigeongram and a ship was despatched to search for the Envy. The storm-damaged ship was eventually found off the Northland coast and escorted back to safety.
Then there was the story of the Rose-Noelle. I’d read how the crew, who had managed to survive against the odds at sea, struggled ashore when their upturned trimaran was wrecked on Great Barrier’s rugged south east coast. After nearly four months of coping as an isolated group, making contact again with other people brought new challenges. I was intrigued by a crew member’s description of his first experience of travelling in a vehicle after drifting at sea. He found the sensation of speed was frightening. Mind you, I realise now that the island’s steep and winding metal roads wouldn’t have given confidence.
You can get to Great Barrier by sea or air, but for me there was no choice. In memory of my father I had to set foot on the island at Claris Airfield. But as the plane flew over a magnificent sweep of coastline and we descended towards a lowland strip rimmed by a rugged mountain range, any nostalgic thoughts were overtaken by wonder at the breathtaking beauty of the place.
Our travel package was for three days, and each day brought unexpected experiences. We arrived on a Thursday, and an afternoon walk from our accommodation at Mulberry Grove took us to Tryphena Wharf.
Just as well we hadn’t driven there in the hired car, parking space was as scarce as at The Viaduct Basin during the finals of the America’s Cup. However the city comparison ends there, for some island vehicles seem to have evolved into a breed of their own, with their dust-coated bodies showing a tendency to develop multiple indentations, rusty appendages and even doors of different colours. These mutations could be interpreted in Darwinian theory as a combination of survival of the fittest and freedom from Warrant of Fitness regulations in the past. However we later sighted an even rarer species resting in long grass along the roadside - twin Ford Escort front-ends joined together with two opposing steering wheels and seats facing in opposite directions.
We’d arrived at the wharf just as residents were unloading the boat which had brought supplies from Auckland. There was much shouting of names and claiming of sealed boxes, most of which appeared from their labels to hold bananas. Just as we were wondering about the local diet we recognised our host Pat McGrath from Manuka Lodge with a carton under his arm. He explained that the freight charge for goods from the city at the time was $8 a box, (now $10 - $12) and recycled banana boxes just happened to be a standard-sized container.
There’s still no electricity supply on the island, so solar panels, wind and other generators are needed to provide power. Residents also have to make their own provision for water, usually from roof tanks. With a range of excellent accommodation available most guests don’t mind alternative plumbing systems and keeping showers shorter than usual.
There were several eating places close to Tryphena, and we dined at the Currach Irish Pub. This old timber-lined building is decorated with items of local history, and was formerly the home of descendants of George Blackwell, the helpful pioneer who escorted Grace Medland’s mother to her new home. As diners enjoyed their Sirloin Steak Pohutukawa I tried not to look at some cattle grazing innocently in a paddock just outside the window.
Over the next two days we travelled around the island but found it’s much bigger than it looks on a map. The pohutukawa trees were in full flower, their magnificence probably due to the island being free of pests such as possum. In one tree which had a full canopy of crimson we watched a kaka feeding. We tramped through lush native bush, bathed in hot springs and visited Port Fitzroy, different from Tryphena but also rich in history. I was reminded of an incident I’d read in a book by Cyril Moor (Early Settlement of Port Fitzroy Great Barrier Island), whose family had been pioneers in that area. A neighbour told the story of being woken one night by a very loud noise on a nearby pebbly beach. ‘It sounded like 40 horses or more all galloping along. It turned out to be three whales that had got stranded in the pebbles, and the noise was their tails lashing…’
Moor also tells the story of the Le Roy homestead which was burned down in the early 1900s leaving a large family homeless. A message was sent by pigeongram to Auckland, and a load of timber arrived on the next steamer. ‘Settlers arrived in their boats from all over the island, pitched tents and worked solidly, with the result that the new house was built in a week…’ That island community spirit again.
Just off the road north of Claris we took the short walk to Windy Canyon which provides spectacular views over the island. Clinging to the handrail in the buffeting wind our attention was divided between the view and watching a helicopter hovering above us. Suspended beneath it by a swinging cable was a large bag of gravel. As we held our breath the pilot skillfully dropped the load within a metre or so of a man wearing safety gear who signalled from a narrow saddle between the rugged cliffs.
While waiting for another load to arrive I talked with the man on the ground. Stan McGeady said the metal was to repair the track which also led to Hirakimata, the highest peak on the island. He’s lived on the island all his life, did his schooling by Correspondence and was now working for the Department of Conservation. His mother has lived at Whangaparapara since she was a child. I asked about employment on the island. Stan said that his father worked for the Kauri Timber Company in the 1930s, then added, almost as an afterthought, that he’d also ‘helped build the airfield at Claris’. We shook hands on that link with the past just as the helicopter, a reminder of the advance of aviation, returned with another load.
You need to spend more time than we had on the island to explore it properly. When Saturday came we still hadn’t visited historic Maori sites on the island, the old kauri milling and mining areas, or local museums such as those at Okupu, Awana and Medlands.
However we were lucky in that our last day also happened to be the occasion of the annual Christmas fair and parade. It was a popular event with the island’s residents and visitors. These included the then newly elected Mayor of Auckland. Dick Hubbard helped judge the decorated floats which had been circling the playing field to enthusiastic applause. He described the community atmosphere as reminding him of country towns in New Zealand thirty years ago.
There were stalls selling plants and other local produce, craft, home-baking, sausages and second-hand goods. I hadn’t intended to buy anything, until I noticed on the clothing stall a bundle of cream lace frothing defiantly over the top of a Lion Red carton. ‘Made for a friend of mine,’ the stall keeper said sadly, holding up a full-length lace wedding dress. ‘Asked me to keep it at my place till her wedding day, but it didn’t happen. I’ve had it hanging in the wardrobe for years now.’ ‘How much is it?’ I asked. ‘Make an offer,’ she shrugged. ‘Time to move on.’
The fabric had faded and the elastic round the frilled neckline had stretched well below a bridal bosom. But like Great Barrier, it was the story that sold it to me. The grand daughters will love it, and as for the island, I’ll be back.
Reproduced with permission from
New Zealand Memories Issue 72 June/July 2008
- Subject to copyright in its entirety.