GREAT BARRIER ISLAND, New Zealand – The “Lawn Ranger,” as he advertises himself, is oblivious to ominously rumpling clouds while he trims the grassy expanse amid surf-lashed crags that happens to be Claris Airport. A cyclone called “Fergus” is on the way, and this is the last flight in from Auckland “for a few days,” pilot Greg Morris informs five passengers. Plunking his gale-buffeted six-seater, a twin-engine Cessna, on the soggy bucolic strip, he receives a wave of greeting from the “Ranger” – bearded, skinny Russell Scott.
The terminal, a one-room shanty, is empty. Baggage unloading is self-serve. Folks are going to the mattresses, getting ready for an onslaught of wind and torrents, says our host, Rick Thomson. “Welcome to Great Barrier Island – and we’d better get out of here and inside, too.”
Beneath a lowering, smoky ceiling we’d had a gull’s-eye view of the roiling Hauraki Gulf during the 25- minute spin east from Auckland, exciting but chilling to be so close to an agitated sea at work. Now we were at work. Rick’s driveway, transformed to a steep uphill mudpie by the storm’s prologue, resists even his four-wheel drive. Barefootin’ it for traction, and hand-lugging luggage is the only way.
“When do we start building the pyramids, master?” inquires Ron Sampson.
“Show your new zeal, troops!” yips my intrepid friend Aurelio, and, grabbing two suitcases, she does.
“Let’s leave ‘em and we won’t have to unpack and pack for the whole trip,” suggests Terri Aufranc.
Then an inspirational message is heard. “Fresh toast and manuka blossom honey – world’s best – for anyone who survives the climb,” calls down the lady of the house, Judy Wineland.
“Come on. Remember the little engine that could,” urge Rick and Judy’s sparky daughters, Erica, 8, and Nicole, 10.
Right. “I think I can’t. . . . I think I can’t. . . . I know I can’t.”
One less for dinner? Yet somehow we all make it.
“A New Year that comes in with a cyclone can’t get worse, can it?” I wonder.
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Sampson. “Infernal rapacious somber April 15 lies in ambush ahead.”
But better is coming. The sun checks in again after a couple of days of rain that flays the neighborhood like whips, and wind that blows it in flappy curtains severely sideways, misplacing boats frivolously left in Gooseberry Flat, the inlet below the house.
Much better. The islanders – not many of them, about 1,000 – come out of hiding and go on about whatever they do in their five- by 12-mile version of relatively untrammeled utopia. Not much in many cases unbothered by financial considerations. Or as little as necessary to get by. Like Russell the “Lawn Ranger,” who supports his addictions – three meals a day and wind surfing – with odd jobs of yard work and carpentry, and drives between assignments in a spavined van painted and named (what else?) Silver.
“Pretty nice place to be. Wonderful beaches with nobody on ‘em, although too many people are finding out,” the Ranger says. “Fine weather – oh, the odd cyclone – but no traffic, even if we do have a couple of paved roads now, and even a couple of buses. If you have to go to a city, Auckland, 55 miles over there, is two hours by boat, half-hour by plane.”
Rick, a US resident of Watertown, Mass., annually maintains a sniff of his New Zealand homeland by bringing his American roomies, Judy and the kids, here for a month. Since there is neither electricity nor running water on the island, a generator and a high-pitched, rain-catching roof satisfy those needs very well. But he and Judy are used to make-do conditions in the bush as operators of Thomson Safaris, based in Cambridge, Mass.
“Well, a ‘Kiwi’ has to hear a kiwi once in a while,” he says, explaining this form of renewal for those of his lightly populated nation who have strayed from their native habitat.
Translation: New Zealanders, called Kiwis, a reference to the uniquely national bird, like to keep in touch with same by reaffirming the existence of the genuine nonflying and nonfleeing article. I think.
“You never actually see a kiwi,” Rick says. “They go undercover in the woods and sleep 20 hours a day. But sometimes you hear one. Hearing is believing. And restoring.”
I believe. Early this morning I hear one. “Pooooh!” A single, high note sounds through the silent darkness. That’s all. Then, presumably after that exertion, it goes back to sleep, as do I.
There is nowhere to go, but everywhere is a delight, never far from a beach. Some sheltered, others like Awana Beach, lusted for by surfers, a white-out of frothing curlers.
David Watson, the honey man, is happy to show off the aged wooden press he uses to bring forth the succulent golden elixir that his bees manufacture from blossoms of the spidery manuka tree. “We don’t drain the comb. Just crush it all together. It’s good for you.”
King of the heavily forested island, visually anyway, is the scarlet-flowered pohutukawa, a tree that seems in search of an osteopath to straighten it out. Low but very widespread, it reminds you of a banyan with trunks wandering and entwined like the Vatican sculpture of the Trojan Laocoon boys wrestling with a sea serpent. Gigantic ferns abound, and tall distinctive Norfolk pines with their well-defined, separated branches. Forests in the green valleys evoke for Rick, an old African hand, “the layered jungles of Rwanda.”
“Picnic! Picnic!” is the cry from Erica and Nicole. “Whangapoua Bay, please.” Their favorite beach. A fairly long drive to the northeast, constantly gorgeous, snakes high and low, past the onetime whaling village of Whankaparapara, around rocky pinnacles, offering alternating sea and forest vistas.
But the beach, a horseshoe stretch of soft, brown, sugary sand between gray, knobby cliffs, is accessible only by foot. A pleasant walk takes us across a farmer’s land, first tiptoeing through a bullpen – “We’re friendlies, guys, really,” we assure the occupants – up over a stile, and into a sheep pasture. The sheep are inevitable: New Zealand’s predominant citizens. Another fence, and then a cut splits the dunes, revealing a soothing, inviting blue sea with unthreatening surf. A plunge after lunch is obligatory.
The waves, cicadas, and swooping oyster catchers – black with red bills and feet – provide the sound effects. “Must be big drinkers, those birds,” says Sampson. “Did you see their red eyes?”
On a rise behind the beach, with eight leafy pohutukawas as guardian angels, two small plots are enclosed by neat, white picket fences. They are the mass graves of 130 victims of the sinking of the steamship Wairapa that struck nearby Miners Head on Oct. 29, 1894. Though their appointment in Whangapoua was surely a night of terror, they couldn’t rest in a lovelier place.