“We’ve got to make people realise this place is a world-class destination,” says our guide as we rattle along a dirt road. “And getting here is all part of the adventure!” There’s sparkling surf curling in the bay to our left, jagged mountains behind us, and a weka diving into the flax bushes in front of us. We all nod enthusiastically.
Strapping ourselves into the 13-seater Cessna Caravan that morning felt quite adventurous, but the Barrier Air flight was smooth, incident-free and utterly spectacular. Who knew there were so many islands in the Hauraki Gulf? It’s common to spot pods of whales and dolphins too.
The Junction team is on Great Barrier Island (or Aotea as it’s increasingly called), and our guide is Danvers Devereux, owner of Matakana Botanicals. Danvers is a passionate advocate of this place; it inspired him to create the ‘Great Barrier Island Bee Co’ range of bodycare products which feature island ingredients such as manuka honey and manuka oil. 2018 is the 10th anniversary of this range, and the 30th anniversary of Matakana Botanicals and Danvers is preparing to celebrate these milestones on the island with a bit of a do; he’s welcomed everywhere like a prodigal son.
We pick up our SUV from the lovely ladies at Great Barrier Wheels, and we’re off. First stop, the wacky delights of the Milk, Honey and Grain Museum, where David Watson curates a treasure trove of early island history, lavishly embellished with his own witty repartee. Turns out honey was the island’s first export – to Europe – back in the late 1800s.
Two of the first beekeeping families were the Osbornes and the Blackwells. Charlie Osborne only had one arm but it was said he got more done with one than most did with two. As well as harvesting honey and beeswax, those early pioneers were multi-taskers, milking cows and sheep, market gardening, building, taking in guests… similar to many residents now, in fact. Les and Bev Blackwell are still on the island, tending their enormous vege garden and orchard; Danvers used to camp on their farm as a teenager. He named his ‘Gardener’s Handcream’ in honour of Les.
Next stop is over to Tryphena to check out the famous Currach Irish pub, owned by Maire Burns and Phil Judd. Maire still has her County Kerry accent and she likes a laugh. “I was brought up in my grandmother’s pub, so I know this game well. But we’re representing ‘brand Ireland’ here, so we’re determined to make it authentic.” The Currach won a major award last year from the Irish Pub Oscars in Dublin, so they’re doing something right. Lush sub-tropical plantings, an outdoor wood-fired pizza oven and a garden bar shaded by giant pohutakawa ensures summer popularity.
At Medlands Beach we sneak a peek at some island accommodation. There’s plenty, from basic DOC camping to the high-end Oruawharo Cottage, a sleek black box designed by Fearon Hay, with jaw-dropping views of the flax-fringed, turquoise bay.
Down on the dunes, we meet with Deborah Kilgallon, co-owner with Hilde Hoben of ‘Good Heavens’. They craft ‘dark sky experiences’ on Medlands Beach: as you lie back in your moon chair with a hot chocolate, they’ll show you the southern stars as you’ve never seen them before, using laser pointers, binoculars and large portable telescope. Great Barrier/Aotea is the newest of only four certified dark sky sanctuaries on the planet – and the darkest. Bespoke training from the Royal Astronomical Society of NZ has made Deborah and Hilde Dark Sky Ambassadors for the sanctuary.
Lunch at the aptly-named ‘My Fat Puku’ back at Claris is delicious (excellent coffee is noted) and thus replenished, and after lunch we totter over to the local art gallery which is well-stocked with metalwork, woodcarvings, kete, paintings and more.
We head north in the SUV to Whangaparapara, but there are other ways to get about. Chris Ollivier, owner of ‘Hooked on Barrier’ creates coastal adventures aboard the lovely 11m Sundancer. Learn about Aotea’s whaling history, see the gannet colony, swim, snorkel, fish, dive or paddleboard in crystal waters rich in marine life. Or maybe you’d like Steve Billingham of Crazyhorse Tours to whizz you anywhere you’d like to go on the back of his outrageous motor-trike – Steve does a great yarn and is a bona-fide top bloke.
Great Barrier Island Lodge is owned by ex-Matakana residents Clive and Angeline, and overlooks gorgeous Whangaparapara Bay. You’ll find an excellent pictorial timeline of local history down at the wharf. The lodge is currently hosting a conference, but come Friday guests and locals alike converge on the verandah for happy hour.
We head back to Claris Airport tired but inspired. And there’s so much more – the three-day Aotea walk for starters, or the Kaitoke hot springs. And the Fitzroy Mussel Festival on 5 January – now that’ll be a party. Our advice? Spend as long as you can on Great Barrier/Aotea. It’s another world.
The Junction team were guests of Barrier Air.