A Ramble Around New Zealand's Great Barrier Island

by Edward Wilkinson Latham

There is a notice pinned to a board in the Currach Irish Pub, (the only pub on Great Barrier Island), that reads, “Man seeks woman to cook, clean and look after house. Must know how to change oil on boat. Must have own boat.” As comic as this may sound, Great Barrier Island has always attracted tough love and a special kind of resourcefulness to cope with the wild terrain and shifting moods of the South Pacific, since this is a place where memories are fused by the elements and man plays second fiddle to mother nature.

Located 55 miles northeast off the coast of Auckland, Great Barrier Island is the largest of a collection of 23 rocky outcrops standing guard at the mouth of the Huaraki Gulf, first charted by Captain Cook in 1769. For the island’s eight hundred or so residents today, daily life on this 280 square km chunk of wilderness is far cry from the mainland. With no mains electricity, all homes are powered by a combination of wind turbines, solar panels and back up diesel generators. Homeowners must also locate their own water source, either by drilling a well or collecting rain water. Rather than huddling round a candle for warmth the pioneer spirit of the islanders has developed GBI into one of the most enviable examples of working alternative energy systems in the world, attracting a spectrum of personality types including eco seekers, artists and the odd hermit.

As a semi detached home dweller I naively expected something a little basic as my accommodation. Perhaps a comfy little caravan or upholstered shed, so I was utterly surprised to find that Earthsong Lodge is in fact a luxury five star retreat made entirely of environmentally friendly materials such as straw bale and adobe, including a roof made of Onduline, a tough and corrosive free product made from waste paper. The lodge is the realized dream of owners Trevor and Carol Rendle, a talented, eco conscious couple who have made hospitality their specialty. After extensive searching around New Zealand for a suitable spot and community, they finally chose GBI and despite the restrictive building laws and lack of amenities they both became enchanted with the island’s uniqueness and were convinced that its future was an exciting one. At an elevation of 266 ft, the lodge is surrounded by olive groves and sweet smelling tea tree forests overlooking panoramic views of Tryphena Harbour and the Hauraki Gulf on the east coast.

What makes GBI so unique apart from the miles of empty pristine beaches and natural deep-water harbours is that it is home to a quarter of all New Zealand’s indigenous flora and fauna. The absence of possums and stoats has also led to the survival of many species now extinct on the mainland and in turn this has attracted conservationists, and there are more of those here per capita than anywhere in the world. Since 1987 The Department of Conservation (DOC) manages over two thirds of the island’s heritage and wildlife protection programs, while the remainder is split between private holders, some of which is protected reserves like the Glernfern Sanctuary on the north west coast. These nature loving new comers with bush hats and note pads have found it tough at times to convert some hardened long time residents to their green way of thinking, since many people here have long used the word ‘conservation’ to describe their own predicament on the island.

‘In the beginning, it was a bit like herding cats’, says Don Armitage, referring to early conservation efforts such as the protection of the Brown Teal (Pateke) Duck and the Chevron Skink Lizard, found only on GBI. Don is a much respected field man, conservationist and editor of the definitive book on the island’s unique ecology entitled Great Barrier Island. He guides hikers and scientists on some of the islands most rewarding trails and maintains a passion in observing and discovering rare species.

We drive over the rugged backbone from the west coast to the east and I soon understand why the island’s car rental company insisted I have a 4x4 with two gearboxes. Most of the narrow island roads are unpaved and the driving is not made any easier by the near continuous succession of undulating hairpins turns and the common belief, Don tells me, that locals have God on their side, or are capable for what is known as EMP (Extra Maori Perception). Despite coming close to exchanging paintwork with other vehicles everyone waves as they pass, even though we are driving a rental.

I unclench my knuckles at Medlands Beach on the east coast and we get out of the truck to explore the white sands in the morning light. On one side, the cobalt blue Pacific breaks gently against the shoreline and a few hundred yards out, two surfers hunt for a wave. Behind us, sand dunes corrugated by the sea wind lie sparsely covered with robust clusters of bronze-green pingao grass and just visible over the crest, are the roofs of ten to fifteen beach houses. Solar panels lay on the corrugated metal roofs and a few small metallic windmills spins at high speed in the sea breeze. These batches (NZ term for summer houses), range in design from vintage to contemporary and are mostly owned by wealthy Aucklanders as weekend retreats.

Along the shoreline birdlife flourishes with red-billed black gulls, white faced herons, and even a New Zealand Dotterel all feeding within yards of where we stand. Barrier is not only a bird watchers paradise, but boasts a magnificent coastline stocked with tropical fish and seven distinct underwater habitats. This is the reason that the Department of Conservation has created the Aotea (Great Barrier) Marine Reserve, encompassing 50,000-hectare of shoreline and open water making it the largest reserve of its kind in New Zealand.

We trace our way back to the road along sand blown tracks and pass the island’s church; a pretty white and blue clapboard building over looking the beach. Don tells me that services are conducted for a number of faiths and religions and the appropriate holy man is flown in from Auckland to perform the service. As for schools, there are two on the island, teaching children from primary to the age of eleven or twelve, but once students have reach their teens, they must either be sent to a boarding school on the mainland, or the entire family must make the move.

More of a settlement than a village, Claris is made up of a number of clapboard wooden and buildings spread out over an area that includes the main airstrip on the island, a medical treatment centre, firehouse for the volunteer force, an information booth and general store. There is also a Pigeon Post, where for $20 NZ you can still send a letter to the mainland, by pigeon!

Just outside Claris, Don and I pull in to see the new breeding ground for another type of island species. Artists. At the Aotea Community Art Gallery, the final touches are being applied to new wooden bungalow that will exhibit the islander’s creative talents. As we arrive cobblestones are being laid for the entranceway for the grand opening that evening while inside artists busily hang the show. The gallery and shop is managed by Kate, who like most of the artists moved to the island to find inspiration.

“I say that” she prefaces, “but actually I met a bushman from here and I’ve stayed ever since” she utters with a grin. “I couldn’t think of living anywhere else in New Zealand.”

Outside I meet Keith Simpson, a renowned metal sculpture and island resident for six years. Inspired by an affinity to natural forms such as waves, clouds, birds and plants, Keith has produces metalwork over twenty feet high, polished to a mirror finish. His work is futuristic; an evolved marriage of science fiction and ancient beliefs he tells me. “A theme born in a dream, of a mystical place bathed in light.” One day he decided to search for that place and found it closer than he expected on GBI. Leaving behind the comforts and distractions of Auckland, he moved into a trailer with his wife before building an octagonal house powered by solar panels. “Like most people who come here to live, sooner or later the word ‘eccentric’ comes quite appropriate to describe yourself” he giggles.”

“When I first arrived I had to do some major adjusting to the pace of life. My hand kept reaching for the TV remote. I got cabin fever in the winter” he says, looking at me with glaring eyes before laughing out loud in a high pitched cackle.

“Are you sure you weren’t that way already?” I reply politely.

With an invitation to the opening night party from Keith, Don and I set off meanwhile to explore the island’s high ground. En route we are flanked by a constant swath of lush sub tropical vegetation that occasionally breaks to reveal outstanding views of the jagged spine of Mount Hobson rising 627 meters from sea level. Steep gorges fall away from beneath the granite crown and the forest canopy rolls down to the wet land marsh lowlands that meet the gold surf beaches and rocky coves, bitten out of the volcanic rock over a millennia.

We park close to a sign for Windy Canyon and hike into the forest on a trail maintained by DOC; one of many hiking routes and tracks that criss-cross the island. Ferns and rejuvenating nikau palms grow around us along with many kinds of shrubs that make up the mixed leaf forest. Don points out the new species of emerging trees puncturing the canopy, including Kauri, Rimu and Towai.

The Kauri is one of the world’s mightiest trees, growing to more than 50 meters tall, with trunk girths of up to 16 meters. Kauri forests once covered 1.2 million hectares of New Zealand but have been reduced to 80,000 hectares. For 100 years loggers rampaged Barrier for Kauri, a much sought after timber for boat building. While there are still old growth trees to be found on the island, much of the planting of Kauri and rejuvenation projects have been underway since the 1980’s by DOC and privately owned island sanctuaries, with the hope of returning the island to its former state before Europeans first arrived.

We ‘tramp’ for a while under a low lid of vegetation comprising of colossal ferns and palms before suddenly coming to a truly awesome canyon of towering cliffs rising above us. Looking like a gateway into a mythical place, this highland canyon was once an important signaling post for Maori and the rock seems to have ancient stories and legends imprinted in the rock and the funneled winds whisper past our ears like faint voices. Composed of obsidian (volcanic glass), the winding canyon maze has been eroded over an eon by prolonged wind and rain forming prominent bluffs to which clumps of delicate plant life grip like clusters of precious jewels.

Firm webs of rata vines lattice the walls to form an intricate refuge for countless insects, lizards and birds. Kaka parrots glide between the canyon walls and the forest below to graze on berries and insects, while a bellbird calls out over the forest, cajoling others into song.

A lizard darts across our path. “Probably a skink,” Don utters, prefacing that the forest and shoreline are host to the highest variety of rare lizards, skinks and geckos in New Zealand. Don knows of a unique species of leech that is reputed to reside in the lower waterways and marshland and has yet to be formally documented. Not only a knowledgeable guide, but also an out and out charismatic bushman, I keep thinking that Don should have his own television show, where he can rummage through the undergrowth speaking in hushed tones, while happily collecting bloodsuckers on his calf muscles.

We come to an unmodified stream descending the rock slope. Don explains it is an ideal environment for the rare Horchstetter’s frog; the only frog on the island, and one of the few in the world that lays developed young, which then follow the mother around, (as would a line of ducklings) occasionally hitching a ride on her back. I watch excitedly as Don stands poised and silent, before he whips up a fern leaf with intrepid zeal in the hope of catching one. No luck. Five minutes later along the track we do have a confirmed, two-man sighting, of what we both agree is, (after Don’s close thumb and forefinger field man’s inspection test) dog shit! This gets an otherwise mild mannered conservationist ticked off. Pet dogs and cats are problematic on the island and Don would like to see a no pet law passed, but knows it is not a popular issue

Despite the lack of possums on Barrier, DOC and the private sanctuary owners, have an ongoing trapping and eradication projects aimed at rats, feral cats, goats and pigs, which have all thrived here since Captain Cook’s arrival. Goats have now been all but eradicated this year, shot by DOC marksmen from helicopters, but pigs have not, and specialist dogs and handlers must be brought into the deeper canopied parts of the forest to locate and hunt down the beasts.

“They have to be eradicated because they do a lot of damage to the forest floor, ripping up new tree shoots and seeds”, Don says rummaging his hands in the layers of fallen leaf litter, looking for new seedlings. “They have large tusks and a black colouration. Ugly beasts they are. I used to hunt pigs when I lived on the Chatham Islands. Vicious but delicious we used to say,” he utters with a grin. “I’ve never tasted better.”

A few hours later after rummaging in the undergrowth, we make a final push to the high elevation and reach the top of a needle of weathered rock to look out on the 360-degree view from coast to coast. Below us, rocky promontories and slopes curve like a reptile's back and falls from ridges into a dark expanse of green. I look up to see a fringe of distant cream coloured sand met by a uniform lapis blue backdrop of sea and sky.

Making our decent Don comes across a large rock pool and starts to look for what he says are “Inangas, Banded Kokopu or Redfin Bullies.” I think he’s talking fish and we squat by the river each with a thin reed, like one chimpanzee teaching another. We find a pair of Inagas roughly four inches in length and observe them for a while. I spy what I think is a crayfish under a rock and give it a gentle tap with my stick. No movement. I dip my hand gingerly into the water and pick up the curious object and see that it is a pair of rather smart sunglasses.

“What you’ve got there is an archeological find”, Don points out, slightly bemused at my discovery.

“Do you want them?” I ask. He inspects the glasses and then puts them on.

“You don them well”, I joke with him. And with a cheeky smirk, he replies, “Cheers. Maori specs.”

Side bar:

Way to go: Air New Zealand flies to Auckland and Christchurch via Los Angeles. Flight time from LA is approx 11hrs. For more information visit Air New Zealand at

Great Barrier Island Airlines flies from Auckland to Claris approx five per day.

Adults $89.00, Children $55.00

Flyboat with Sealink - Adult $130.00. Children $90.00

More information:

For more information on New Zealand, visit


Earthsong Lodge Tel: 64 9 429 0030, Fax: 64 9 429 0351.


Glenfern Sanctuary.