Carol Rendle, former florist, now lodge owner.

Carol Rendle is waiting at the gate at the foot of a rugged gravel drive that fords two streams as it rises steeply through the bush.  One kilometre uphill the driveway emerges into an olive grove and wraps around a striking adobe-like building made from straw bales.  Earthsong Lodge is utterly unlike the board and batten buildings scattered around nearby Tryphena.

Someone has placed a single hibiscus bloom on the front doorstep and, beyond the threshold, ceilings are elevated, furnishings plush and something soothing wafts from a compact disc player.  Carol's husband Trevor delivers home-made shortbread and tea before disappearing into the commercial kitchen to deal with the large salmon that will sate tonight's guests.

There is an air of fragility about the woman across the table from me, with her soft voice and creamy skin and her way of pausing to think before she speaks.  Clearly, first impressions are way off.  Fragile women do not chop firewood or negotiate such a hairy driveway without flinching.

To be fair, even close friends expressed doubt that Carol - who owned a florist shop in Auckland's Newmarket for 18 years - and her airline steward husband could handle the rigours of Barrier life.  "They thought we would be lonely and not measure up to the challenges," she says.  "We wondered ourselves, sometimes.  We were not very skilled in handyman sort of things."

Before the Barrier, they didn't have to be.  In Carol's old world, electricity came from power lines and fruit came from the supermarket.  If something broke, she bought a new one.  "We've astonished ourselves.  We're gradually learning things our grandparents and parents probably knew.  You have to plan a lot more what your needs are.  We helped with putting up some of the straw walls for the lodge, which was fun and messy.  I learnt to use a chainsaw."

Building their dream lodge was a difficult, protracted process, the remote location compounded by tricky access and the fact that guests paying more than $800 a night for a double would expect all the creature comforts.  Towards the end, Carol rented a nearby cottage and oversaw the building work every day, while Trevor continued working for Air New Zealand or cooked for friends who came to help with the painting.  The hard graft continued after the lodge opened almost five years ago as they worked to raise their profile while fine-tuning their role as hosts.  Now, business is gratifyingly good.

"We can't imagine doing anything else.  There is a strong sense of fulfilment, pleasure, out of doing it well.  I feel part of the community, more so than I did in (Auckland suburbs) Mount Eden or Birkenhead.  You walk into the little store and people are really friendly, you hear what's happening and you talk about it.  A five-minute purchase could take 25 or 30 minutes, which is really nice."

They have learned where to buy tiny, sweet, locally grown finger bananas, free-range eggs, avocados, mussels, apples and garlic.  Lemongrass, basil and other seasonal goodies prosper on site and Carol proudly points out jars of spicy beetroot relish, preserved lemons and their own olives.  Time off is spent working in the olive grove, in the garden or collecting cockles and pipi from the estuary.  When the busy summer tourist season ends, they head for hiking trails or their mainland friends come to stay.

"I sometimes feel I'm in a time warp.  It's slightly other-worldly.  You get this mist between us and what people think is the real world," she says, pointing out to sea and the vague outline of Coromandel Peninsula.  The mist and the size of the community can close in on a person, though.  Carol, like most of the women I speak with likes to leave the island for periodic city hits of movies, galleries, shopping or just the pleasure of browsing.  Then, they can return home with overflowing grocery bags and a sense of relief.


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