I am lucky enough to come from one of the most beautiful countries in the whole wide world! There is one place in Aotearoa New Zealand that has a special place in my heart and that is Aotea more commonly known as Great Barrier Island.
Great Barrier Island is about 100km off the coast of Auckland and an easy thirty minute flight or a four hour ferry ride. The island has less than a thousand permanent residents who live totally off the grid. There are three main centers on the island. Tryphena in the south where it is most populated and where the ferry comes in most frequently. Claris in the middle where you will find the airport, medical center, art gallery, fuel, supply store, cafe as well as a few other services and plenty of accommodation options. And then Port Fitzroy in the north which is less populated but super busy in the summer with boats coming from all over to anchor. The residents here are very self sufficient and many grow or gather their own food. Last year this island was given the status of ‘Dark Sky Sanctuary’, only one of three places in the whole wide world. This is one place you can witness the most amazing night sky’s!
I have been lucky enough to have spent the last few winters on Great Barrier Island. Winter is not the best season to be there but I am happy to be on the island any time of the year. It is work that takes me there but I wouldn’t really call it work because I get to live and enjoy paradise every day I am there. I lead teach on a outdoor education programme for youth. It is a programme run by a Hillcrest High School and Hillary Outdoors Education Centre. Thirty students, aged fourteen/fifteen, spend five weeks living on the island in Karaka Bay with the Orama Oasis community. It is an amazing programme and the young people who get to experience it are super lucky!
So what does Great Barrier Island have to offer? Well to start with the history here is interesting and dates back about 700 years with the arrival of the first human inhabitants, people from Polynesia. The Māori that now call this island home are know as the people of Ngāti Rehua, a sub tribe of Ngāti Wai. You will find two functioning marae (meeting places) at the north end of the island. In the 1800’s the Europeans arrived and conducted many activities including mining of copper, silver and gold, logging the giant Kauri tree and whaling. Farming has also been popular over the years with cattle, bees and mussels farming still active today. The island has had it’s share of shipwrecks with many lives lost. You can learn a lot about the history by visiting the Milk, Honey and Grain Museum in Claris.
You can explore many parts of the island on foot with some fantastic hiking tracks! You will find a complete list on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website along with information on huts and campsites that they also manage. I have just about walked every single track on this island and my favourite would have to be the Harataonga Coastal Walkway and the South Fork Track. The Harataonga Track is a great walk along the east coastline and provides some amazing views. You can camp at the south end of the track and walk both ways in a day or organise for a pick up at the other end. South Fork connects Kaiaraara Hut with Mt Heale Hut and is my favourite option for getting between the two. A night in Mt Heale Hut is a must as it is close to the highest peak on Great Barrier Island, Hirakimata also known as Mt Hobson. The views from here are to die for and to be up here at sunset is truly majestical.
The Department of Conservation not only look after the tracks, huts and campsites here but they do an amazing job of looking after the many endangered species on the island, especially the birds. Here you will find the Pāteke (Brown Teal Duck) which is only found in New Zealand and the majority of the 3000 remaining birds live on this island. Another special bird here is the Black Petrel that comes only to this island and Little Barrier Island to nest each year. When ready to fly they make their way across the Pacific Ocean to South America and always return to Great Barrier Island and Little Barrier to nest. Other natives birds you will spot are the Kaka, Kererū (NZ Pigeon), Kakariki (Green Parrot) and the NZ Dotteral. If you are a bird enthusiast you will find many more to observe, check out this complete list. It is worth calling in to the DOC office and chatting to the friendly staff about their work, the incredible wildlife here or for questions about camping and hiking. It is also worth calling in to the Glenfern Sanctuary which is situated on a peninsular and surrounded by a predator proof fence to keep out the rats and wild cats. There are walking tracks that will take you to Sunset Rock and a swing bridge out to the canopy of a giant Kauri tree. You will find accommodation here also. Both DOC and the Glenfern Sanctuary are located at the north end of the island near Port Fitzroy.
A real gem on Great Barrier Island is the Kaitoke Hot Springs. The easiest way to access it is an easy thirty minute walk starting from the entrance on Whangaparapara Road. These are natural thermal hot springs and are best visited in the winter when the weather is cooler and the island is less populated. I have been out here at times and had the whole place to myself. It is also a treat to go out there at night and soak in the warm water under the amazing starry sky. The pools do cool down when it is raining or there has been recent rain so I wouldn’t advised trying them out then.
Fishing, snorkeling and diving here is fantastic. Many of the island residents gather their food from the ocean and this island sure provides. I really enjoy fishing, especially from a kayak. Snapper is what I most commonly catch but other common species to catch are kahawai, trevally, john dory and kingfish. If you are into spear fishing you will have even more to choose from. If you like diving and find the right spots you may discover crayfish, paua(abolone) and kina (sea urchin). Mussels can be easier to find and you will find rock oysters everywhere. If you are going to gather seafood from this around this island be sure to know what the legal limits are. Only take what you need and remember that for many of the locals this is one of their main food sources. Snorkeling in many areas, especially around Port Fitzroy can be a real treat with plenty of sea life to be seen. Rays are common and if you are lucky you might get to see a pod of dolphins or even some whales.
A special phenomenon I have experienced here is phosphorescence in the water at night. This is water glowing when there is movement caused by the disturbance of plankton. It is the most amazing thing to see and experience. I have jumped in the water with nearly thirty teenage girls in the middle of winter at 10pm to experience this. It was so cold but so amazing that we remained in the water for nearly half an hour just mesmerized by the glow every time we moved. This has occurred regularly during my time here so definitely something to keep an eye out for if you are visiting the island.
Great Barrier Island is a popular tourist destination in the summer time so do be aware of that if you are planning on heading out here in the warmer months. You will find plenty of places to stay from camping to luxury homes but do be aware, this island is off the grid. Energy and water are precious and not to be wasted. Lights are turned off when you leave a room and don’t leave the tap running when you are brushing your teeth. If you do plan to spend some time here I would recommend bringing a car on the ferry or hiring one when you arrive. By bringing your own car on the ferry you have the bonus of bringing more gear with you, especially if you want to camp or go fishing. When you fly you are limited to 15kg. Pre-book everything if you are coming in the summer months as it does get really busy!
I could mention a lot more about this amazing island and I do hope I have inspired you to consider Great Barrier Island as a New Zealand destination worth visiting, it is truly a special place.