Anne Kernohan, vet and former Aucklander.

It was winter when Barrier vet Anne Kernohan moved to the island.  Leaving Auckland City, she found herself in a shack with two preschoolers, a wringer washing machine, wood stove and a long-drop toilet.  Off the flood-prone, rutted gravel road, incessant rain turned the bush clearing to mud.  The phone service was poor and there was no power.  A week after she and her husband Chris arrived, three-year-old son Luke developed convulsions and had to be flown to hospital in Auckland.  (Chris and Anne are now separated.)

Yet somehow, between battles with a temperamental generator and the chopping of firewood, the wet clothes and sick children, she fell for this hard, beautiful island.  Previous struggles with her city veterinary career began to seem insignificant in the face of her daily toil to meet basic needs.  And the comforts of her renovated Ponsonby villa seemed less consequential than having the company of wood pigeons and moreporks, in a place where hush had replaced the hum of city traffic.

Seventeen years later, living conditions are much improved and all is calm on the Kernohans' Tryphena Harbour property.  Dusk is gathering, a teenage daughter is going camping with friends and there is a hint of wood smoke in the air as we sit at her outdoor table and watch fat kaka pecking over spoils from her apple tree.

"When I cam her, I remember someone saying to me, 'This is a man's paradise and a woman's hell'," Anne says.  "But I honestly think it has changed.  I think women have found more support systems.  I know I do things with a lot of groups of women."

On Sunday nights , islanders stand on the jetty and comfort each other as their teenaged children travel to city boarding schools.  All four of Anne's children have left the island for post-primary schooling and Luke, now 20 is studying science at Auckland University.  Even as she appreciates the need for teenagers to leave their parents and the island, Anne hates saying goodbye to her youngest son, Nichol, who started at Auckland Grammar School this year.  "It's really, really hard.  Often tears are shed and people, without saying anything, are there for you.  You look at each other and you all know what you're going through."

This is my fourth interview of the day and, by now, I'm getting the picture.  As a Barrier-ite to describe her peers and the same words surface: strong, resourceful, resilient, self-sufficient, necessarily in tune with nature.  Living without reticulated power, when the wind blows they hang out their laundry; when the sun shines solar power allows them to crank up the stereo and vacuum the floor.  (When the jug switch fails in my gorgeous beachfront room, my delightful and rather elegant hostess Sandy Lintott of Foromor Lodge pulls out a Phillips screwdriver and undertakes repairs.)  Every woman seems to be able to paint, weave or preserve fruit - the incredibly selfless nurse Leonie Howie sews beautiful quilts and vet Anne is working on a series of huge, stunning mosaic pictures.  They get by without public transport, a bank, secondary school or hospital and the supermarket is a half-hour flight or four-hour ferry ride away.  If the generator breaks, they fix it or do without power until the right part arrives from the mainland.  If the road floods, they wait till the water recedes.

All right, unemployment is high, drugs and alcohol do create problems and domestic abuse seems to breed in the dreary isolation of a Barrier winter.  But it is also true that islanders leave their cars and homes unlocked and that the local cop believes her son is far safer here than on the mainland.  And it is a fact that, after their Saturday-morning yoga session, women head to the beach to help each other fill sacks of seaweed to fertilize their gardens.  When the gardens flourish, they share their excess produce and no one cares what kind of dust-covered car you drive.

And if a journalist paints an unflattering picture of their home, they are truly wounded.  Over two days, every woman I interview indignantly raises the matter of a recent story in The New Zealand Herald.  It is unfortunate timing on my part that this trip comes on the heels of an article depicting a man's world inhabited by "bastards and bludgers, ferals and hippies".  While most locals, when pushed, will admit there is truth in the words, they maintain it is only part of the story.  As Anne says, "What I feel so many of the reporters miss is the richness of living in this community."


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