Travel #2

Time stops for Joanna Wane on Great Bar­rier Is­land.

North & South - - North & South -

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.

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