You know you’re on a remote island when the only pub has a sign that reads, ‘Due to the lack of a bank, change is in short supply. Please use change wherever possible.’ I knew that New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island was going be very different.
I picked up my boarding card for the flight at Auckland Airport. It was laminated and I had to hand it back as soon as I boarded the tiny, 8-seater Islander aircraft. It was very intimate – you could have tapped the pilot on the shoulder.
But what followed was a forty-minute journey of incredible scenery, as we flew low over Auckland, its harbour bridge and the greeny-turquoise water of the Hauraki Gulf. 62-miles later we began our descent, banking steeply across a glowing white beach. For a moment I thought the sand would be our runway, until we veered to the left and landed at the islands’ tiny airport.
I’ve never picked up a hire car so quickly. I suppose they don’t need much paperwork on a remote island of just 940 people. The car was a boneshaker but an Audi would be pretty pointless when you are lucky to get out of third gear. There’s just a single-track road network on the 110 square miles of Great Barrier Island. And not all of it is surfaced. In many places your wheels are spinning on mud and gravel. Part of the road is blasted through rock – the sharp turns require full lock on your steering wheel and a toot of the horn to warn oncoming cars. But you won’t resent having to drive so slowly. It allows you to take in the amazing views.
In the middle of the island there are thick forests and overgrowth, what locals call ‘the bush,’ but the grassy hills soften as they roll and fold down to the sandy beaches, like sheets of light-green velvet.
Kay set up the Visitor Information Centre fifteen years ago and operates it voluntarily. She says thousands of visitors arrive during the Antipodean summer months, from December to March, and most of those are ‘boaties.’ “There can be upwards of 900 boats in the harbour,” she says, “But even at the height of the season, it’ll still be quiet.”
Many visitors come for the walking and they want information on the tracks. “There are easy walks for people who aren’t too fit, walks that will give you views, or take you to water holes. Just go as far as you can manage then come back,” she smiled.
Susie Stokes leads parties of mainland school children on walks to experience the views and wildlife. She told me the tracks can be pretty steep and mountainous, but are still good to walk on. And of course, the scenery is impressive. “You can see from coast to coast at some spots,” she told me. “There’s lots of bird life too, including black petrels, which look like huge blackbirds that fish out at sea.”
And there are the local pateke ducks, which are endangered. Only a few thousand pairs are left in the wild, the majority of them living on Great Barrier Island. “They’re like a normal duck but smaller and darker,” says Susie adding, with a touch of sadness, “They’re really friendly, which is why they get eaten so much. They’re quite chilled out.” As you drive, you’ll see road signs warning you to watch out for the rare ducks.
Another unusual resident is the chevron skink – one of New Zealand’s most endangered lizards. It’s survived on the island, mainly because it’s remained free of many mainland predator mammals.
After all that walking, what better way to relax than in a natural hot spring? Kay told me the Kaitoke springs are the place to go, especially in the off-season when it’s colder and you need to warm up, so I went to check them out. The footpath takes you through a lush, green tunnel – an overhead canopy of ferns, silver barked trees and palms. You walk for about thirty minutes along a well-maintained track – it’s the first time I’ve seen a path advertised as suitable for strollers or pushchairs! Part of the walk is on raised decking, crossing the wetlands where, if you’re lucky, you can catch the cry of the rare fern bird.
Soon I reach the hot springs – a small river running into a tree-shaded pool. You can change into your swimming clothes in a convenient nearby portaloo and you clamber down a bank of hot, squidgy mud and twigs. The water is bath temperature with some hotter spots.
was soon chatting to the other bathers who had gathered there. Kimberly Pipe moved to the islands to start a kinesiology healing clinic. I explained to her that this was the first time I’d interviewed anyone while sitting in a hot spring! “Do you come here often?” I asked, slightly embarrassed.
Kimberly told me she comes at least once a week, mainly for the free beauty treatment. “I use the wonderful mud here to make my skin look younger,” she told me, smearing the dark mud all over her face. “People pay hundreds for these mud packs,” she said, “but I’ve got it right on my doorstep.” Apparently, you have to use the different types of mud found in the pool at different stages of the treatment. “Your skin will feel like a baby’s bottom,” Kimberley assured me.
Kimberley was cooling off, or heating up, in the water after walking up the nearby, 2,000ft high Mount Hobson. And I think she needed the rest. “We did it in an hour-and-a-half instead of the usual three hours,” she said. “It’s an amazing view from the top.”........MORE
Reproduced with permission. Subject to copyright in its entirety.