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Auckland's Great Barrier Island (Part 2)

Published
November 11, 2022
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This post follows on from Part 1. Some of the material in each part is now in my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half. Follow the link to find out more and to get to saleslinks. My blog post follows after the cover image!

THOUGH handy to Auckland, Great Barrier Island / Aotea has no reticulated electricity, so you have to rough it a bit. It doesn’t get a lot of day-trippers either. It used to be that you couldn’t get much cellphone reception either, but now you can in most places. Altogether, it is the perfect place to get away for a proper break.

The island is beautiful, with jagged green mountains like those seen on Polynesian islands in the tropics.

The mountainous spine of the island

And huge nīkau palms — the only palm endemic to New Zealand (in two species) and the southernmost palm in the world, growing to 44 degrees south.

Verdant Nīkau Palm Forest, practically my favourite

Despite the photos in Part One (especially Esther’s) the weather isn’t always sunny and idyllic, by any means!

Storm at Awana, New Year 2017/2018


The author at Awana Beach, during the storm

Once covered in forests of the valuable kauri tree as well as nīkau palms, the island was heavily logged in colonial times.

An information panel about the old-time kauri logging

There was also a lot of mining. To this day the island is riddled with disused mineshafts. This is something it has in common with the nearby, equally rugged, Coromandel Peninsula.

A disused mine — probably, the Iona Mine — near Okupu
Historical Information Panel at the Iona Mine, near Okupu

Conservation Efforts

These days, the focus is mainly on the conservation of what remains of the island’s natural environment.

To a large extent, New Zealand conservation revolves around the control of introduced pests. For instance, an estimated 70 million individuals of the introduced Australian brushtail possum species, trichosurus vulpecula — ‘the little foxy one with the brush-tail’, which makes it sound extra cute — are thought to consume 21 thousand tonnes of New Zealand bush a night (brushtail possums are nocturnal). For the story behind these facts and figures, see the New Zealand Department of Conservation flier A Pest of Plague Proportions.

In New Zealand, the brushtail possum eats all forms of vegetation and also eats eggs and young birds; as do rats, ferrets and stoats. On top of that. brushtail possums spread diseases such as bovine tuberculosis, putting the farmer at risk. So, the introduced species of possum has few friends in New Zealand.

Because Great Barrier Island is so isolated, brushtail possums never made it ashore and this makes Great Barrier something of a special place. On the other hand, rodents are there, as they are almost everywhere in New Zealand.

No dogs are allowed onto conservation land either. Though that does not stop some people, who perhaps fail to read the signs.

A contraband pooch at Mount Heale Hut, October 2022

At the moment there are plans to exterminate all the rodent pests on nearby Rakitu or Arid Island using brodifacoum, so that the island can be re-populated by native species, which of course evolved in the absence of ground-dwelling mammals. There is some opposition to this, and there’s a story on the controversy here.

I read in a December 2014 New Yorker article I found at that Mt Heale (‘ The big kill: New Zealand’s crusade to rid itself of mammals ‘) that New Zealand conservation was indeed to a very large extent a matter of calling in the exterminators.

The New Yorker article gives a rather negative impression of the humanity of this approach. However, a more recent (paywalled) article in the New Zealand Listener by Rebecca Macfie, ‘ Natural born killers ’, 26 November 2016, makes clear that many of the introduced predators in New Zealand experience boom and bust cycles; if they are not poisoned, they will starve, after first eating as much of the native bush and wildlife as possible.

Certainly, our methods are working to the extent that the funding and resources (often volunteer resources) are available. Great Barrier Island had been partly cleared of its trees by pests such as possums, and is only now regenerating after all the work the volunteers have done in wiping out the pests. In the long run the scientists would prefer a species-specific contraceptive, but so far that has not yet been developed. Another article by Rebecca Macfie in the 3 December 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener, Saving our species ‘, not paywalled at the moment, follows up on such long-term solutions.

Alongside government conservation efforts, at Port Fitzroy, on the western shore of the island, there is also a private conservation sanctuary called Glenfern, founded by the late Auckland yachtsman Tony Bouzaid.

Monument to Tony Bouzaid at the Glenfern Sanctuary, overlooking Port Fitzroy

Port Fitzroy as seen from the Bouzaid Monument

Glenfern Sanctuary sign, above Port Fizroy

Information panel, Glenfern Sanctuary

When I was at Port Fitzroy in 2015, I hiked up to the local entrance of the Aotea Track. It turned out that I couldn’t tramp any further because of storm damage that had washed the track away! It was very sad, as they had upgraded all the tracks on Great Barrier Island in 2014 ready for tourism, and on the day the minister arrived to open them, a great storm came through the area and destroyed a lot of the hard work that had been done. However, the track and the huts re-opened in 2016 so now they are bouncing back.

In 2015, the New Zealand Government also created the Aotea Conservation Park on the island. The Park’s advisory body, the Aotea Conservation Park Advisory Committee (ACPAC), is now lobbying for the Aotea Track to be proclaimed a Great Walk, which would give it the same status as the Milford Track and the Routeburn Track.

Lastly, let’s not forget the marine life!

Sighting of a whale from near Great Barrier Island

The Island’s Hot Pools

There are also free hot pools located on a section of the track that leads from the Whangaparapara Road to Hirakimata: the Kaitoke hot pools.

Kaitoke Hot Springs (Oct 2022)

The author at the Kaitoke Hot Springs


View of the tree canopy at the Kaitoke Hot Springs

Once upon a time Rose and I also tramped the tramline track in the middle of the island — a track that used to be a bush tramway, for hauling logs — and found a well-formed bath with hot water flowing into it that had been carved into the rock by a Victorian gentleman, at a place called the Peach Tree hot springs. The bath is at a hidden location, now somewhat overgrown and quite hard to find, just above the better-known and more accessible Kaitoke hot pools.

Community Get-togethers

The heart of community life on the island is probably Claris, the little township next to the Great Barrier Aerodrome.

The Great Barrier Sport and Social Club, also known as the Claris Sports Club, is near Claris. I’ve got a scene filmed there in my video, above.

Claris is also home to the Great Barrier Island Community Heritage and Art Village, which includes the Gray House Museum.

Eel-shaped seat at the Great Barrier Island Community Heritage and Arts Village



An information panel at the Gray House Museum

I went to a fair at Claris, which was being organised to raise money for the Aotea Family Support Group Charitable Trust. At the fair, a world champion breaks singer from New Zealand was performing.

 Champion breaks singer at Claris, New Year 2017/2018

Unfortunately, I missed out on the Great FitzRoy Mussel Fest and FitzRoy Family Festival, held at Port Fitzroy. They, too, deserve an honourable mention!

Starry Southern Skies

To round off, Aucklanders have long marvelled at the Barrier’s starry skies, crisscrossed with clearly visible wandering satellites and streaked by meteors. A small population, lack of mains electricity, and hardly any streetlights, all help to keep the skies desert-dark even though the island isn’t really all that remote.

In 2017, Great Barrier Island was awarded Dark Sky Sanctuary status by the International Dark Sky Association (ISDA), which will encourage astronomically-minded visitors. At the time of writing, there are twelve IDA Dark Sky Reserves including one at Lake Tekapo in New Zealand, but only three Dark Sky Sanctuaries, astronomical viewing sites which are even more pristine. The three Dark Sky Sanctuaries are at Cosmic Campground in New Mexico, at the Elqui Valley in northern Chile, and now at Great Barrier Island as well.

The Milky Way panorama. Source: European Southern Observatory (ESO), CC-BY-SA 4.0 (original URL http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso0932a/ ).

The summer is normally the time to go to Great Barrier, because pohutukawa trees are everywhere and they blossom at Christmas. It’s also the summer holidays, of course. The locals hope that Dark Sky Sanctuary status will increase winter tourism as well, since in winter the nights are longer. At that time of year, it’s also possible to see the core of the Milky Way, which lies in the constellations of Scorpio and Sagittarius; whereby the Milky Way comes to look like a poached egg seen side-on rather than just a band of stars.

These constellations are most visible at mid-year and are more easily seen from the southern hemisphere than the northern because the nights at that time of year are longer in the south, it being winter downunder. The view from Great Barrier should rank with the clearest in the world, and of course one advantage of Great Barrier as a Dark Sky Sanctuary is that it is, as National Geographic says, only 55 miles (90 km) from the big city of Auckland.

Tourism Websites

for more, including upcoming events, see greatbarrier.co.nz and greatbarrierislandtourism.co.nz.

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