Green mountains lush with forests, or “bush” as New Zealanders call it, jut out of pristine teal waters. The roads are rugged, some gravel, some concrete, while others are just tire tracks through the sand.
Here on New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island, the natural landscapes are idyllic, and its remote locale makes it the perfect getaway from the busy city of Auckland, which is only a four-hour ferry ride or a 30-minute flight in a small plane across the Hauraki Gulf.
Since 60% of the island is a nature reserve managed by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, it’s an ideal destination for travelers looking for an off-the-grid adventure. The island is abundant with hiking trails, places to go paddling, flawless beaches, hot springs and opportunities to encounter native flora and fauna.
The island’s dedication to nature preservation also attracts plenty of stargazers who enjoy spectacular night sky views. Thanks to the minimal development of the island, there is virtually no light pollution which, in 2017, earned the Great Barrier Island International Dark Sky Sanctuary status. There are only ten Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world and the Great Barrier Island is the first island to have that designation.
Though many come here to escape from the daily grind, life on the Great Barrier Island requires a lot of grit, and the paradise that it has become wasn’t built in a day. Early English settlers came to the Great Barrier Island around the mid-1800s, lured by a land grant deal that promised anywhere from 40 to 60 acres of land to anyone who could get themselves down to Auckland, New Zealand. After a four-month voyage, around a dozen families who were expecting to settle in the mainland, were instead sent to the remote Great Barrier Island.
The parcels of land they were allocated were not that desirable. The Great Barrier Island was virtually impassable – a wild terrain of steep cliffs and valleys dense with ancient kauri tree forests. They were left on their own to establish homesteads, farms and collaborate with one another to carve roads through the uneven landscape.
“It was a lot of hard work,” explains Steve Billingham, owner of Go Great Barrier Island Tour. Billingham’s tour company helps visitors coordinate their stays on the island, offering them bespoke experiences that immerse guests in life on the island. “But it was also exciting to create an entirely new life. That’s why early settlers left England for New Zealand, and also why many people come to the Great Barrier Island today. To create an entirely new life.”
In many ways, the island is still a work in progress driven by residents who, in pursuit of their passions, move the community forward. “What makes the Great Barrier Island so wonderful is the people,” says Billingham, who hopes that visitors experience just how tightly knit of a community the island can be. “The people who live here see the potential in this place, and they help bring that potential out through their work.”
Oystercatchers running across the beach on the Great Barrier Island — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani Palmisano
There’s an industrious spirit, similar to that of the pioneering families, that can be seen in many of the island’s 850 residents. Deborah Kilgallon and Hilde Hoven are two enthusiastic stargazers who followed their shared interest of astronomy and created Good Heavens Dark Sky Experiences, a tour company dedicated to sharing the mythologies and science of the night sky.
Vicky Kyan of WaiOra Wellbeing shares her passion of meditation and spiritual healing by guiding visitors in the art of Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” a Japanese tradition in becoming deeply connected with nature and oneself. Dave Watson documents the island’s history at the Milk, Honey and Grain Museum, which is located down the road from the Great Barrier Island Community Heritage & Arts Village, a gallery that celebrates and sells art created by locals.
There is no main electricity supply (everyone has private solar, wind and diesel generators) nor is there a main water supply system (most people collect rain water), but it doesn’t mean the island lacks any modern-day conveniences. At the Trillium Lodge, a bed and breakfast run by two descendants of one of the pioneering families, guests enjoy luxury accommodations with stunning views of mountains and Puriri Bay.
Nearby, at the alfresco bistro at Tipi & Bobs Waterfront Lodge, fresh seafood is served alongside beer brewed by Aotea Brewing, a brewery on the island that uses harvested rainwater and solar energy to make craft beer.
“Most people in the community aren’t going to the beach as much as you’d think,” explains Kilgallon who, when she’s not guiding visitors through the night sky, volunteers at the children’s play center. “We’re filling our days volunteering and working multiple jobs – anything to keep things running smoothly on the island.”
Spare time is invested back into the community where, in addition to work, residents are gardening, swapping produce and helping one another with home repairs. Even Billingham, who is busy keeping up with growing demand for tours of the Great Barrier Island, still finds time to drive the school bus. While some responsibilities are integral to keeping things moving on the island, some duties are a bit more fun, like DJing at the social club and taking turns running the island’s radio station.
For being an isolated island, there is a strong sense of community. Come to New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island for the blissful retreat into nature, but stay for the people whose will to live life by their own terms will inspire you to do the same.