TREASURES OF AN ISLAND
FIVE YEARS SPENT CREATING A BOOK ABOUT AOTEA GREAT BARRIER WAS A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY — WITH THE LANDSCAPE BEING ONLY THE HALF OF IT
Peter Malcouronne set out to discover the treasures of Aotea Great Barrier and found the landscape was only the half of it
LET’S START WITH the finest beach on an island with more than its share of fine beaches. Harataonga, the setting of the 2007 BBC show Castaways, was once described by an enthusiastic Guardian writer as the most idyllic, crescentshaped Robinson Crusoe beach ever seen.
To Great Barrier Island doctor Ivan Howie it is simply his favourite place in the world. Whenever he can, and if the sun’s out and no one’s about, the emergency dentist, stand-in vet and part-time wedding and funeral celebrant sneaks in a skinny dip by the rocks or just sits under his favourite bent bonsai pōhutukawa with a book.
A compact, puckish man full of mischief, Ivan’s served the Barrier for three decades, half the time as its sole doctor. On an island full of stories, he’s got some belters.
Like the CB radio call from a distant fisherman who’d torn his thumb off in a winch. “Get a plastic bag,” Ivan told him. “Put your fragment inside, then stick it in the slurry with the fish. We’ll see if we can patch it up.” “Can’t. A seagull’s taken it.” What can you say to that? “Well, I just said you shouldn’t be on your boat with a gull friend.”
Bad puns and dad jokes. Already the Barrier book, a project photographer Chris Morton and I had started a few weeks earlier, was heading off in an idiosyncratic (and mildly anarchic) direction. Rather Barrier when you think of it. The book was Chris’ idea. He is enchanted by the island’s landscapes and has taken 25,000 photos in the past decade.
I’d never been to the Barrier. Not until I took a bonerattling, three-engine, 18-seat Trislander flight in July 2012. First impressions? Well… wow (obviously). The Barrier’s bigger than expected — at 285 square kilometres, it’s nearly three times the size of Waiheke. From the sky, it’s a forest wonderland, two-thirds of the island is DOC estate.
It’s said the standout feature of the New Zealand landscape is its compactness and variety — the ease with which you can pass from one world to the next. If New Zealand has everything imaginable within a day’s drive, then the Barrier covers most of it within an hour. Pōhutukawa-fringed bays and coves on the west side, some barely big enough for a boat, but others, like Port Fitzroy and Tryphena Harbour, sufficiently large to squish in an armada. Fifty flinty islands crab along the coastline. A mountainous interior hints at a restless past — the old volcanic cones of Tataweka in the north, Hirakimatā/Mt Hobson in the centre, and the mighty Te Ahumata in the west. Hot pools in the trees an hour’s stroll around the back of the primaeval Kaitoke swamp. Then the whitesand beaches on the east coast, some vast like Whangapoua, others postcard-perfect like Harataonga.
Aotea is a mini-me Aotearoa the way it used to be. That’s the Barrier’s unofficial tagline, and it speaks to a romantic notion of ourselves. There’s no mains power, no banks, no supermarkets. Just 1004 fraternal mavericks. We talked to 12 for the book. The farm manager who spent years burning scrub only to wake up one morning and start planting trees — 70,000 so far. The scientist who spent years searching for the elusive chevron skink.
A hulking man of the land. An Irish nationalist (and the island’s de facto counsellor). A Black Ferns lock. A former British Empire wrestling champion. A mother of five, and sagacious local body rep. A teenage surfer, the sixth of six sons. Another surfer: Jade the digger driver. A sea dog in his 70s (who regaled us with outrageous stories while protecting a five-week-old kitten on his lap).
Then there was the impossibly elegant Noelene NgawakaFortzer — mother, artist, weaver, crayfisher. She whakapapas to Ngāti Rehua, part of the 7000-strong Ngātiwai. One cool, clear winter morning she took us to the top of the island where you could see their rohe — stretching from Aotea, across the top of the Hauraki Gulf to Leigh, then up to the Bay of Islands as far as Motu Kōkako (The Hole in the Rock).”
“The Manaia Ngātiwai people were renowned like the Vikings,” Noelene’s cousin, Rodney Ngawaka tells us. “We were in our boats all the time. When you’re born in these waters, it never leaves you. Go anywhere you like, but that salt in your veins from the Ngātiwai coast stays with you forever.”
Rodney was right: something happens to everyone on this island, tangata whenua and manuhiri alike. The book was evolving. We had been awed by the Barrier’s beauty — seduced almost to a stupor — only now we were falling for something else. One time I confessed to Noelene how hard it was to maintain journalistic distance from our subjects (we’d later dub the 12, “The Disciples”). She smiled: “He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.”
It’s easy to over-sentimentalize, look for great meaning in the mundane — and even more so on an island. Yet there is something here. Something profound. These Barrierites — if you were foolish enough to try defining the wilfully contrarian locals — somehow have a deeper connection to the land, which comes as close as any to New Zealand’s utopian vision of itself.
If you want to understand New Zealand values, forget about legislating them — just spend a week on Aotea.
THIS PAGE: ( Top) Views to Mt Heale through forest on Hirakimatā, Mt Hobson. (Above) Ngāti Rehua- Ngātiwai ki Aotea’s Rodney Ngawaka: “When you look at it, colonization came through our doorstep. We were frontliners… we were the first to be colonized. You’re sitting in an oasis on the eastern front.”
Noelene Ngawaka- Fortzer — sculptor, painter, weaver, craftswoman, 11th child of 13, wife of fisherman Ken, mother of five and grandmother of a swelling fleet of mokopuna — died suddenly in August 2017, aged just 62. Her tangi at Kawa marae was an astonishingly beautiful week and, at its conclusion, a boat took Noelene home to Rangiāhua Island off Aotea’s west coast where she rests with her mother, her father, her tūpuna.
One of two copies of Aotea GreatBarrier Land and People published by Out There Media with photographs by Chris Morton and text by Peter Malcouronne. This handsome coffee table book, which retails at $ 69.99, takes readers on a journey to the spiritual and physical heart of Great Barrier Island. Enter at thisnzlife.co.nz