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Carmen Bird Photography, Travel Writer

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I’ve wanted to get back to Great Barrier for a long time, my Mum has talked about the island with fond memories of a trip there when I was a pre schooler, it was that long ago I have no memories of the place – but wow it must have been really of the grid back then. Apparently, the trip home was 8 hours by ferry through stormy 1970s seas. 

Today the 90km trip is a lot more civilised with 4 hours across the water by  Sealink ferry or a quick 30 minutes via plane, we flew Barrier Air, around $180 return.  I admit I was a tiny bit apprehensive about the size of the very small plane but was distracted by the stunning views flying across Hauraki Gulf, coming in to land we  had our first glimpse of the beautiful rugged and raw landscapes as we flew over Medlands Beach and landed in Claris on the Western side of the island. 

We were met by Steve from Go Barrier who was an absolute wealth of information about the island and shared some very entertaining stories about the tourists, visitors and locals. Steve even organised jars of the infamous GB Manuka honey for us at a great rate, made on the the Northern end of the island where the bees are feed predominantly on Manuka making the honey just well better and purer.

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First stop was our home for the next few days -  Tipi and Bobs Waterfront Lodge, run by Margery and Pete for the last few years. Things are slow to change around here so the original name stays. Perched on a slight hill overlooking Pah Beach in the Tryphena Harbour,  the  tranquil views from our deck and the green clean air slid us quickly into relaxation mode  - leaving the hustle and bustle of Auckland far behind. 

We dumped our bags and headed out with fishing guru Chris from Hooked on Barrier, we cruised up the coast through dazzling deep blue water and settled in to some fishing around the breath taking Broken Islands. Before we knew it our group was reeling in huge snapper and a Kahawai that gave one of the girls a good bicep workout getting it in to the boat. In the blink of an eye Chris had filleted one of the snapper and had a plate of sushimi with soya sauce sitting next to the Rose we had bought along with us, thirsty work that fishing.

A good chunk of the Barrier is made up of publicly owned reserves and rugged native bush with about 70% of the island managed by  DOC and the Auckland Council so what better way to explore than walking and lots of it. We had two days tramping through the glorious wilderness of the island, one long day on the Aotea track and up to the highest point on the island Mt Hobson. We hiked up and up and up and then down through the most stunning raw landscapes to the natural hot pools, a quick change in to togs then a soak in the warm stream, back in to our tramping gear and off we went. The 2nd day exploring we headed for the east coastline with soaring windswept cliffs and views out over the thundering ocean below we ended up at the pristine Medlands Beach.

Rumour has it the Great Barrier folk have been offered the prestigious honour of being named the 10th great walk of NZ…but the locals prefer to keep their unique spot off the beaten tourist path so they declined the offer. 

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One of the most impressive things about Great Barrier is its view of the sky, nothing short of spectacular in a beautiful, peaceful and serene way. The island was awarded  dark sky sanctuary status in October 2017, one of only three places in the world. There is no power stations  on GB so all power is created via solar panels and generators, there are no street lights and at night it is as black as the ace of spades.  Hilde who runs the star gazing company Good Heavens has been a local for 20 years she first came out from Holland as a backpacker and never left. We spent the night with her learning about constellations, Orion, the star signs and discussing all things milky way. We had close ups with stars on her impressive telescope which I had mistaken for a monument statue it’s that big! To keep the city folk comfortable she sets up with camp chairs, hot chocolate and homemade brownie. Our booking was meant to be 2 hours but she had so much to share we ended up being about 3 hours, I think Hilde would have happily kept going all night.

We picked the right weekend to have a taste of the island nightlife, the only pub on Barrier is Irish and the Saturday night happened to be St Paddys Day, Curraach Irish Pub was opened 20 years ago by Phil and his Irish wife Marie.   We drunk Guinness and green tequila and danced all night to the Irish band. 

I was lucky enough to have my friend Carol who lives on Barrier introduce us to a few of the locals. Everyone has a story and none of them are dull, a diverse bunch thats for sure. One of the locals nicknamed  the hermit leaves his house 3 times a year, he makes his own rum and has a veggie garden that’s pretty impressive, no fridge and a canon that he blasts every now and again. 

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On the opposite side of the page is the wealthy set with immaculate Omaha worthy baches , these places are predominantly  on the Medlands beach  with owners that helicopter in for 3 weeks at Christmas and the rest of the time the houses are deserted.

Carol took my friend Rachael and I for an unofficial tiki tour of some of her favourite haunts. Breakfast at the Pah Café with a perfect coffee and eggs benedict. Next stop was Shoal Bay Pottery owned by the lovely Sarah, when you make a purchase she writes her bank account down on a card with the amount and you just pay her when you get home – so trusting I enquired does everyone pay? She shrugged laughed and said she's not sure she doesn’t check her bank account very often, no stress there, money is not everything in this community. Her place is a treasure trove of creative, quirky and just crazy stuff, aside the gorgeous pottery the back yard and workshop was just an overload of the senses, so much to look at my eyes and camera couldn’t quite absorb it all. The wooden petrel, the driftwood fence adorned with all sorts of trinkets, the stone couches in the garden,  the old motor cycle helmet on a pole and covered in decorations, The spider webs, fish bones and bird bones on the window ledges, it was like the crazy professors place but the female version.

The locals all grow their own veges and trade and share, eggs, fish, veggies and herbs are all shared around, it all took me back to being a kid a bit, when everything was a bit slower and we stopped and smelt the roses, we all breathed a bit deeper and enjoyed the simple things a bit more, its like stepping back in time. 

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The locals love their island and tourism is a huge part of the mini economy and provides income for many of the permanent 950 residents. At the same time they want to preserve their paradise, it’s a hard balance to invite the world to share their home but keep the madness of commercial tourism at bay. Most businesses shut down for several months in winter as the visitors just don’t come. I’ll be planning a trip back in winter – apparently the sky is even more incredible in the winter, I cant imagine how that is possible.

The art gallery is a must see, a hub for all the creatives that live here, full of paintings,  sculpture, pottery, photography, spectacular crochet decorations, jewelley, the Great Barrier skincare range and just so much more.

There isn’t a huge number of dining establishments but just enough for us to enjoy some meals out, Lunch at Fat Puku was a treat, A burger at Swallow, so good they have even been on the breakfast show for being so awesome. Scoff and Tackle the  bakery has mouth watering cream buns, just like Mum used to make back in the day.

Next time you are needing an escape from the busy of Auckland life I can thoroughly Great Barrier for some quiet time, fresh air, native bush, spectacular beaches and pretty amazing stars. 

 

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