The islands of the Hauraki Gulf have a unique place in the heart of Elisabeth Easther.

I grew up in Hamilton so, to my mind, Auckland was the Big Smoke. In the 1970s, to a little kid from the sticks, Auckland was enormous and visiting was always exciting, if a little daunting. It was also where my mother lived before she married my dad and, whenever we visited, we'd stay with my grandmother and Aunt Betty in Glendowie. Their house had wicked views of the Hauraki Gulf and it was there I became aware what a major role those waters played in my mother's life.

Boats on the beach near Tryphena, Great Barrier Island. Photo / Natalie Slade
Boats on the beach near Tryphena, Great Barrier Island. Photo / Natalie Slade

In 1964, my mum, Shirley Maddock, lived with her parents while making the pioneering documentary series Islands of the Gulf. Sitting at her typewriter in their sunroom, she wrote the best-selling book of the same name, presumably looking out to sea for inspiration. Not surprisingly, our visits to Auckland would sometimes involve journeys to mum's beloved islands. One of my favourite outings was to Mission Bay at dusk. I'd be wearing my pyjamas — there's no shame in that when you're 4 — and we'd go there and run around, waiting for the fountain's coloured lights to ignite, the outline of Rangitoto brooding on the horizon. A visit to Kawau was etched in my 10-year-old memory. The ranger took us there from Sandspit in his no-nonsense ranger's boat. He even let me steer. I had a photo of that proud moment, which I glued into my autobiography: All You Ever Wanted To Know About Elisabeth But Were Afraid To Ask. Somewhere along the line, the picture was lost but I remember that day so vividly and you can still see the Sellotape shadows where the picture used to be. Aunt Betty had baked a bacon and egg pie, Mansion House was like something from a fairy tale, there were even wallabies and peacocks. It was a perfect blue day and it was clear mum's fondness for the gulf was more than a passing fancy. Another time, three generations took a trip to Rangitoto, and although I'm sure I whined as we hiked in the heat to the crater's rim, I loved it. There were visits to Waiheke well before the wedding scene exploded and years later, when I was in my 20s, mum and I spent a few days exploring there and I wish I'd known to ask more pertinent questions.

Over the years the Hauraki Gulf has stolen my heart too and, by same strange quirk of fate, not only have I become a travel writer among other things, but my assignments regularly lead me to the same islands that shaped my mother's destiny. Camping on Aotea Great Barrier, appreciating ornithology on Tiritiri Matangi and taking numerous trips to reliable Rangitoto. And last summer, my appreciation of the gulf peaked when I remade mum's documentary series.


In the episode where I visited Rakino Island, some lovely locals showed me around and, while it was never scripted, we ended up looking at some properties while I pretended I was in the market to buy one. But it was only ever a pipe dream — make-believe for the camera. Yet it was as if a seed was sown and, when my father died last year, that seed germinated in response to my sorrow. I felt so completely orphaned, a rug had been pulled out from under me. Islands of the Gulf started screening on TVNZ 1 just weeks after dad's death and neither my mother nor my father would ever see it and mum would never know how her work was being admired and enjoyed all over again. So I did something completely bold — some might say rash — I threw all caution to the prevailing wind and bought a wee plot on Rakino, as if the lightening bolt of my grief might find earth there.

Mum and dad, Michael, are both reduced to ashes now and, despite their being cremated 17 years apart, the company that does the incinerating still uses the exact same containers all these years later.

For 17 years mum sat on dad's chest of drawers, a box of dust gathering dust and now dad lies in an identical box. Our parents never told us where they wanted to be scattered but my brothers and I are confident mum would be content to rest on Rakino. And dad, well he'd just want to be with mum.

So this year, we'll purchase some trees from the Rakino Island Nursery, where seeds are specifically sourced on the island and propagated to regenerate native bush.

The Noises are a collection of privately owned islands lying northeast of Rakino Island. Photo / Supplied
The Noises are a collection of privately owned islands lying northeast of Rakino Island. Photo / Supplied

I do have moments when I think I was mad to buy a place on an island with no shops, no electricity and a sporadic ferry service but, just as quickly as the knots of anxiety tighten, they unravel again because Rakino is a little slice of heaven on earth and out there in the Hauraki Gulf, beneath a grove of native trees, my parents can rest together in peace.