Time stops for Joanna Wane on Great Barrier Island.
Time is an illusion,” wrote the great philosopher Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Lunchtime doubly so.”
I’d have happily eaten eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner during the 50 hours and 35 minutes I spent on Great Barrier Island, where I learnt there’s not only a cellular “body clock” in my brain, but also in my liver, kidney, stomach and fatty tissue.
The eggs, like everything on the island, came with a story. In April, 200 chickens were released to snack on a colony of Australian “plague skinks”, which are driving out Barrier’s endangered native species. The eradication trial is a world first (you hear that a lot on the island, too), and each week, hundreds of eggs laid by these killer chicks are collected and ferried across to the Auckland City Mission. A dozen were diverted to our doorstep; they tasted delicious.
“I get so bored with the idea that the Barrier is full of marijuana-smoking hippies sitting around doing nothing,” says Orla Cumisky, who’s from Dublin and dropped off the eggs along with a home-baked loaf of Irish soda bread. “It’s full of all sorts; it’s a multicultural, multi-opinionated place.”
Fewer than a thousand people live on Great Barrier (Aotea), off-grid and only 100km but a world away from Auckland. It’s the kind of place where you can settle your bill in crayfish down at the pub, and where the island’s only vet remembers performing her first caesarean on a cow 30 years ago, with a scalpel in one hand and a textbook in the other. It’s also a community of curious, inquiring minds.
For the past four years, the Awana Rural Women group has been running its free “No Barriers: Small Island, Big Ideas” weekend as a sort of festival for the brain, bringing together a panel of experts to debate everything from human versus artificial intelligence to how the island could survive a pandemic that’s wiped out the rest of the world (send out the elderly to forage for supplies, apparently, because they’d be the most expendable). The group really does think big: in 2016, the Pope’s astronomer, Guy Consolmagno, flew over from the Vatican to debate the possibility of life existing beyond Earth. And, like all the guest panellists, he had to stump up for his own fare.
This year’s theme was “The Nature of Time”, and the organisers had landed another big kahuna in Craig Callender, a professor of science and philosophy at California University in San Diego and the author of such books as The Oxford
Handbook of Philosophy of Time.
Time really is an illusion, according to some physicists. But Callender, who also teaches environmental ethics, left that for later, exploring the concept of biodiversity in his solo session – and the price we’re prepared to pay for it. If gene-editing technology meant we could save the rhino by breeding out its horn, or protect the grévy’s zebra by eliminating its stripes, would something be lost or gained?
Poet Bryan Walpert mused on roads less travelled; GNS Science’s Hamish Campbell (Te Papa’s geologist-inresidence) spoke about measuring time in the millions of years, reading the runes in our rocks. Massey University sleep scientist Philippa Gander, who’s done research for NASA, described sleep as the “missing third” of our mental and physical health: “I’m not wasting a second of my time [when I’m] asleep.” On Saturday afternoon, a crowd packed into the Claris social club for the keynote panel, moderated by RNZ doyenne Kim Hill.
The day had been brilliantly sunny but by nightfall, ferocious winds churned a thunderous surf at Medlands Beach, on the east coast. Clutching blankets and hot-water bottles, a group of us sat on the sand in utter darkness and gawped at the sky, heavy and hooded with stars.
In 2017, Great Barrier became one of only four places in the world to be recognised as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, with minimal light pollution (the Mackenzie Basin, home to the St John Observatory, is a Dark Sky Reserve).
Good Heavens guides Hilde Hoven and Deborah Kilgallon began running “dark sky experiences” late last year and say the island’s sanctuary status is already making it a destination for stargazers from Europe, the US and Asia.
Kilgallon’s son, Art, has been able to pick out Jupiter since he was 18 months old. She remembers the first time she looked through a telescope and saw Omega Centauri, a globular cluster of 10 million stars almost 15,000 light years from Earth. “It was one of those lightbulb moments; we really are such a tiny blip.”
Time is thrown into disarray when you contemplate the stars. Their light comes from the past, travelling years through space before becoming visible in our skies. At the same time, the universe is tearing itself apart, expanding so rapidly that eventually those stars will be so distant their glow never reaches us. And, one by one, they’ll all be snuffed out. There’s a terrible beauty in that.
Back on the mainland, I went to a yoga class one night after work. “It’s important to be in the now,” said the instructor. But all I could think of was egg yolks the colour of sunshine, and the stillness on Medlands Beach as the winds raged around us and we turned our eyes to the sky, looking into the past, looking into the future, and finding a moment in time somewhere in between. +
Anchored by Gisborne at one end and Ōpōtiki at the other, the rugged and remote coastline of the East Cape is a spectacular 350km drive with plenty of rewarding places to stop along the way. From the halfway point at Te Araroa, a short detour takes you to a walking track of some 700 steps to the historic East Cape Lighthouse, standing 154m above sea level on Otiki Hill; the world’s most easterly lighthouse, it’s the first point in the world to welcome in the New Year.
Life is slow-paced in these rural communities where everyone seems to know everyone and ties are built on a shared love of the ocean. Beachy Gisborne (Tairawhiti) is known for its surf and also its vineyards; the temperate climate, consistent winds and open headlands make “Gizzy” one of the best places in New Zealand for both. For grommets, Waikanae is a great beginner’s surf spot, while Makorori Beach and Sponge Bay cater to more advanced beach bums.
Wine-wise, Millton Vineyards is New Zealand’s first organic, biodynamic winery, working with the rhythms of the sun, moon and earth to produce wines that reflect the region’s unique terroir. Be sure to sample some local chardonnay, too – it’s Gisborne’s specialty.
Head north past Whangara – where Whale Rider was filmed – to peaceful Tolaga Bay, where you can walk the country’s second-longest wharf, built in the 1920s to accommodate incoming cargo ships. Camping and hiking are popular here, particularly in summer. Nearby Tokomaru Bay is fondly known as the craft centre of the coast, thanks to the many local artists, musicians and craftspeople. You’ll find work by renowned Māori ceramicist Baye Riddell on display at Te Waihi Gallery.
At the tiny village of Te Puia Springs, 10 minutes north of Tokomaru Bay, the warm thermal springs that flow from the hills, are believed to have healing properties when bathed in and the surrounded bush throngs with native birds, including kererū, tūī and tīrairaka (the local dialect for fantail).
A short drive north, Ruatōria sits below Mt Hikurangi. A walkway up the mountain begins at Tapuaeroa Valley Rd, and a hikers’ hut allows climbers to overnight and be ready for the sunrise.
Hicks Bay and Onepoto, the East Cape’s northernmost beaches, are best for lazing under pōhutukawa trees and soaking in views of the ocean. Then it’s a downward sweep past the pretty coast settlements of Whanarua Bay, Te Kaha, Omaio and Tōrere on the western curve of the cape to the “big smoke” of Ōpōtiki. All offer white-sand beaches, great fishing and an escape from city life. Tōrere is known for macadamia production, supplying roughly 95% of our national harvest. Historic walkways and a deep appreciation for Māori customs and culture are a feature of all.
If you can tear yourself away from the sea, the inland border of East Cape meets Te Urewera National Park, one of the last areas to be claimed by the British during colonisation in the 19th century. Covering more than 2000 square kilometres of bush and lakes, its many trails are accessible to the public, including the magnificent Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk. The 46km track is usually done in three days, overnighting at huts or campsites along the route, but bookings must be made in advance. And come well-prepared – the weather can be changeable, with snowfall in winter. +
Above: A Good Heavens guide explores the planets and constellations with a group on Medlands Beach. Left: Great Barrier is only a 30-minute flight from Auckland, but the island’s lack of light pollution transforms the night sky into a shower of stars.
Whangara, the coastal village where Whale Rider was filmed in 2002.