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

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