Pulling on extra layers, we slip into inky darkness and nestle among tussocks carpeting the cliff face. We throw our heads back and fix our eyes on the infinite void above us. I feel small.
I’d never seen a sky like this before: stars strewn like spilt glitter. If you ever need to regain perspective on your place in this world, just look at the night sky.
Earlier this year, Great Barrier Island became the first island in the world to be awarded a ‘Dark Sky Sanctuary’ title by the International Dark-Sky Association. With no main power, the island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf has minimal light pollution and so is perfect for stargazing.
But that’s not the sole reason for our visit. Great Barrier Island is an easy escape from Auckland; it is a very scenic 30-minute flight or a journey by ferry of about four and a half hours.
We opt to fly and are greeted with bluebird skies and views of untouched turquoise bays on arrival.
We share the road with inquisitive fantails and tui while navigating our rental car from Claris Airport to Wild Rose café in Tryphena. A wood pigeon rests in a pohutukawa tree, watching as we finish the last mouthfuls of our breakfast.
Next door, we gather produce from the Stonewall Store to take back to our rented accommodation then wander the Saturday market and find inspiration in local art.
On Medland’s Beach, I sit underneath a makeshift hut, woven from palm tree fronds, and watch the sky morph from pale blue to candyfloss pink, then dark orange before deep navy blue. A sunset walk along the island’s most well-known stretch of fine sand reconnects me. Earlier, before the sky had changed, we’d skipped over rock pools surrounding the base of ‘Mike’s Rock’, an affectionately named mound with a memorial plaque at the top, and made designs from bright shells scattered along the shore.
I find my gaze often lifts here. Not just to the stars, but to magnificent towering rock formations reminiscent of Jurassic Park scenes as we edge up Mt Hobson via Windy Canyon track.
Panoramic vistas distract us from the physical struggle of climbing. From up high, we see cool blue pools and white sand shorelines zigzag around the inlets of Port Fitzroy.
Close to 60% of the island's 27,400 hectares is publicly owned and managed by the Department of Conservation.
DOC is trapping for wild cats on Mt Hobson in an effort to protect the black petrel which breeds here. A lot of effort
is put in to ensure the island is rid of pests. Goats and possums were eradicated in a combined initiative by Auckland Regional Council and DOC a few years ago. The main challenge now is to control wild pigs and cats.
Smooth pebbles make the perfect head rest. I look up at ponga ferns and nikau palms filtering the pale late-afternoon sunlight, open like umbrellas on a beach. We’re tucked away in the bush. Warm water from Kaitoke hot springs wraps around us; easing our aching bones from the earlier walk. The sulphurous pools dammed in Kaitoke Stream are due to underground volcanic action. We had wandered the path to the pools after picking up lunch at My Fat Puku café in Claris; a welcome change of pace from the almost vertical stairs up Mt Hobson.
There’s a real sense of ease on the island. That ease is present in the friendliness of locals, who follow the ‘island etiquette’ of lifting a finger from the steering wheel in a welcoming acknowledgement and flashing a smile when passing by. It’s in the way museums and galleries leave doors unlocked when unattended, an honesty box for donations inside. It’s in the voice of the waiter behind the counter at Tryphena’s Mulberry Grove Café. After placing an order for burgers, he looks at us with concern in his eyes.
“I’d be more than happy to make you dinner, but I need to finish another order beforehand. I hope that’s OK, do you mind waiting?” he asks. We settle in front of the roaring fire, more than happy to wait.
Reported by Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue
Flights to Great Barrier Island leave from several points, including Auckland Domestic Airport, North Shore, Ardmore, Whitianga and Tauranga airfields. The Sealink Ferry leaves from Auckland’s Wynyard Wharf. Many visitors choose a flight and ferry combo.
The ferry transports vehicles. Rental cars are available for hire on the island.
There are several DOC campsites near beaches and walking tracks, most with toilets and water. Motels and rented accommodation is also available.
While you’re here
There are many good tracks on the island, including to Mt Hobson which is a steep climb of about two hours one way via Windy Canyon.
The track to Kaitoke hot pools is about 40 minutes each way.
From sheltered bays to crashing surf, Great Barrier Island has an abundance of unspoiled beaches. Awana Beach is noted for excellent year-round surfing and Kaitoke, south of Claris, also boasts good breaks. Dolphins are often spotted at Okupu Bay. This is also a good picnic spot and is complete with a public barbecue. Bring your own food and drinks to enjoy the sunset.
Be inspired by local art and craft at Aotea Community Art Gallery in Claris, and call into The Milk, Honey and Grain Museum to learn about the island’s history and what life was like for its early settlers.
See Great Barrier Island for more.