Megan Nicol Reed: The greatness of Great Barrier

AN ISLAND ALONE: Great Barrier Island.
AN ISLAND ALONE: Great Barrier Island.

You sense that people here would be happiest left alone. In the ancient house buses. Among the Jurassic Park-like rock
formations of Windy Canyon.

How often I have been irked by those who insist on calling Pasifika peoples "Islanders". It feels reductive somehow. Diminishing.

And yet we are all islanders, for who among us has never seen the sea? We are surrounded on all sides. Under siege.

South, North, Stewart. Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear. Maui's canoe, fish and anchor.

My father told me when we were on Great Barrier recently, in the last confused days of April, sun to squall in an exhalation, that she is our fourth largest island.

But Wikipedia says he is wrong. At 285 sqkm, she is our sixth, Chatham Island is three times her size and Auckland Island almost twice as big.

According to some histories, when Kupe, that almighty warrior and explorer, first caught sight of this land, his wife
called out "He ao! He ao!" A cloud! A cloud! And thus Great Barrier was named: Aotea (white cloud).

My husband took me to Great Barrier for the first time when I was fat with our first son. We travelled her length and breadth in a rented Toyota Corolla station wagon.

We picked up a hitchhiker who might have had murder on his mind, or perhaps just lacked for human conversation. We arrived and we left in a small plane. On the flight home, three small boys were our fellow passengers.

Returning to boarding school, one sobbed wetly and deeply until we spluttered down onto tarmac.

Like Kupe, this trip we travelled across the waters. Over a millpond. I slept in the warm autumnal light while the kids
watched back-to-back movies in the boat's bowels.

There was an abundance of mince and cheese pies, of bacon and egg muffins, of roast beef and chutney sandwiches.

Nary a vegetarian option but for a couple of cheese and onion toasties.

They kindly put them aside and later we ate them greedily on the deck. Washed down with hot and milky tea.

How we ate on our island. Like frugal kings and queens.

A solid cake made with three rotten bananas which had travelled with us from Auckland, iced with a white chocolate bunny which had liquefied in the sun.

Salty porridge with cream and dark brown sugar. Pizza heavy with snapper and caper berries. A bed of coriander and carrot and cashews, groaning with peppery fish.

No more, we said to my husband as he trudged back up the dunes, proudly bearing another catch. You'll have to put
them back.

From his rocky outcrop he saw an octopus, slithery eels and barbarous rays. We visited him there, in his natural habitat, among the crabs and the seagull with a gammy leg.

One day we walked to the other end of the beach. Not another person until we got to Mermaid Pool.

Eight kilometres there and back, estimated my stepmother.

My father checked on the map. She was right.

The kids ran back and forth and flailed and floundered and were momentarily revived by chocolate.

The distance deceived us and it felt like we'd never make it to the bach.

It wasn't actually our bach we could see shimmering in the far-offness, but the abandoned one next door to the
rambling 70s farmhouse we had generously been lent.

Our home for the week had hand-painted Mondrian squares in the bathroom, a rumpus room filled with old couches the kids named "Bouncyland", and a bedroom wallpapered with pictures of waves torn from the pages of old surf magazines.

The forlorn, fibrolite box in the next-door paddock boasted only rat droppings and bird skeletons. Inspired by the horror of what might have been, my daughter told of blood on the bed.

My father was charmed by the gentle brutality of it all. He pointed out the Rangiora leaves with their soft, silvery undersides which Maori and the first Pakeha used to wipe their bums.

He liked the idea of a house left to fend for itself against the elements.

My husband was less charmed by me. Inspired by our environs, I let myself go. Hair unwashed and legs unshaved, I went braless in my tracksuits and Ugg boots. He feared me forever feral.

He and the kids hitched to the shop for more bread and more butter. They were picked up by a teenage girl in a bikini drinking a VB.

You sense that people here would be happiest left alone. In the ancient house buses. Among the Jurassic Park-like rock
formations of Windy Canyon. With the brown waters of the Kaitoke Hot Springs.

We planned lunch in a cafe before we crossed the waters homeward bound.

The wind blustered and everywhere was inexplicably closed. Luckily they let us eat a picnic of crackers and smoked oysters and ginger crunch at the general store.

How queasy I felt as the sea chopped and churned and we lumbered sou'west.

I watched the skipper cook up a feed of fish and chips in an electric fry pan. Every day's a good day at sea, he responded when a passenger asked how his day was going. Fool, I thought.

An older woman with untamed, hennaed hair was smoking a joint in the cold evening air at the stern. Sensible, I thought.

And then, finally, we were home. And as we stumbled ashore in front of the restaurants and bars and well-dressed people, I felt at once home and quite away.

Sunday Magazine