When Helen Mabey returns to her home on Great Barrier Island from a few days in Auckland, New Zealand — two hours away by car ferry — she’s relieved.
“I can’t get back quickly enough,” says the affable widow who, with two sons, runs 2,500 sheep and 400 cattle near the island’s northeastern Whangapoua Estuary.
We flew from Auckland to this largest of 47 islands in the Hauraki Gulf east of the city, on a Mountain Air nine-seater. As we buckled up, pilot Kelly wiped the steamy cockpit window with a rag. And then, after a Qantas Airways leviathan lumbered off the runway ahead of us, we were off.
Despite cloud, we could see the low-lying volcanic cone that is Rangitoto Island, and Waiheke Island, celebrated for its vineyards and sybaritic lifestyle. To our south lay Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island. We crossed Colville Channel and Great Barrier itself — with its long, curvaceous beaches — landing on a bit of tarmac near the village of Claris.
Roughly 800 people live on Great Barrier, most in this southern region. And that number is falling. Those few who settle here now build a luxury second home in the hills or waterfront. “We used to have a lot of hippies, but they can’t afford to live here now,” Mabey said. Islanders must generate their own power; there’s no cell phone reception.
After breakfast at the Claris café (a platter of eggs, rasher of bacon, and hash-brown patties), and with our guide Stanley at the wheel of a four-by-four, we headed northward along the island’s narrow, winding roads.
Just under 300 square kilometres in size, Great Barrier is largely mountain, semi-tropical jungle and mostly deserted beaches. On the east side the sand is white, on the west of darker volcanic grains.
Maoris have long lived here; Captain Cook named it Great Barrier Island (and Little Barrier to the west) when he sailed into the Hauraki Gulf in 1769. So isolated is Great Barrier Island that it’s had very few natural predators and, with the help of the federal Department of Conservation, exotic birds and other wildlife flourish.
In the island’s centre, off Whangaparapara Road, we stopped at a sign that said Kaitoke Hot Springs, laced up our boots and, as they say in New Zealand, went tramping.
Along the trail we were among flowering Manuka trees and five-metre-high ferns with coiled fiddleheads. We watched a large wood pigeon defecate reconstituted berries (“sounds like ball-bearings,” Stanley said), and heard the cry of the parrot-like caw-caw.