Great Barrier Island is the same size as Malta and is three hours from Auckland by boat (30 minutes by plane). It’s wild and picturesque and has an indescribable welcoming warmth that it showers abundantly over everyone who visits. With a population of around 850 there are no traffic jams, no pollution and no problems parking, just beautiful beaches for miles and miles. It’s an oasis of peace and calm in a fast-paced, stressed-out world.
Living in these idyllic surrounds more than compensates for the challenges of things like transport, groceries, power and isolation, but to cope with the really tough times it takes a special breed of woman.
These ladies don’t cause an international incident if they have to wait more than five minutes for their latte on the way to a meeting. They live a life true to their values and with a strong connection to the community and environment. They are practical types who don’t talk about making things happen. They just get in there and do it. So it’s not surprising that when the local Playcentre needed a $50,000 renovation, these women got stuck in. Something bigger than a cake stall was needed and Playcentre mums Karin Thurig and Rachael Crawford came up with just the ticket.
Women on another island had done a Calendar Girls style calendar, inspired by the 2003 film. Over a glass of wine, Rachael said to Karin, “What do you think?” And with a cheeky wink, The Barrier Unhooked Calendar was born.
As luck would have it, well-known fashion photographer Jackie Meiring and Nick Worthington, the creative director of advertising agency Colenso BBDO, have connections to the island and were only too keen to help.
Jackie, 45, has a bach on the Barrier, and jumped at the chance to give something back, meet some of the wonderful local women and shoot in the place she loves.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever done,” she says.
“Women with no photographic experience, undressed and outdoors, trusting me with their image. I felt so privileged – it’s no small deal for a woman over 45 to bare all for a photo shoot that will become public. I felt really inspired to empower them by capturing their strength, beauty and personality.”
Jackie couldn’t have put it better. The images in the calendar reveal strong, beautiful, pioneering women.
“One of them hadn’t worn makeup in 40 years, and many were understandably quite nervous,” she says. “But they blew me away by how they were willing to make themselves so vulnerable and put aside their own fears for the sake of raising money for their community.
”Karin, 42, says the Playcentre is a lifeline for local mothers.
“There are no childcare centres here so we rely heavily on it, not only for our kids’ social interaction and development, but for us as mums. Parenting young children is eternally challenging and support is essential for anyone, especially in a remote community. We can’t just pop out to Mainly Music or head out with girlfriends to the mall.
“It’s our place to meet and support each other. It’s a very special part of our lives. Everyone helps each other out and it really helps reduce any feelings of loneliness. Many of the women who posed for the calendar were ex-Playcentre mums and some are the grandmothers of Playcentre kids so it was very dear to their hearts.”
There were some hilarious moments during the two-day shoot. Hurriedly covering up as fishing boats docked; unwelcome sandflies, trekking up hills with heavy gear for shots high in the mountains. One photo shows a woman strategically draped in a fishing net.
“The net was massive and it was a mission to drape,” Jackie laughs. “It took several of us and a lot of laughs to get it right!”
Jillian Allison, 49, says the camaraderie on the shoot was amazing.
“Being in the presence of these women was fantastic. Despite being so vastly different they all essentially have the same values. They are independent, resourceful and real doers,” she says.
“It’s a very physical life and you have to be strong in body as well as mind. You have to really plan things well, like the fact the grocery boat only comes in once a week (they order online) and for some it’s quite a process to get those groceries up to their houses by road, boat and climbing hills.
”Sue Reusser, 61, knows all about that. Her house has sea access only and, having raised four kids on the island, she has become very good at planning.
“Our access is governed by the tides, so for example if I need to leave by 7am, we have to put the boat out in the bay the night before so it’s in the right place for the tide in the morning. We have to leave early if it’s low tide and walk across the river and mudflats to get out into the harbour.”
For some this might sound like torture but Sue never complains. “You don’t come out here to live if you’re not a person who likes being part of your environment,” she says.
“Yes, sometimes it’s a bit of a trudge but the compensation is seeing dolphins or the birds working or the mist rising over the forest. To be able to bring kids up in this paradise, eat sustainably from the sea and the land, be part of a caring community and not get caught up in all the stress of modern life is well worth it.”
Sue has been on the island since 1972 and is a mussel farmer with her husband; she has a skipper’s ticket to operate a mussel barge and loves being on the water in all weathers. She is a skilled potter and, while no longer making a living from it, has a continuing interest in crafts, especially quilt making.