Elisabeth Easther talks to a Great Barrier resident whose work touches the sky.
I'm Dutch and I came to New Zealand in 1999 as a traveller. When none of my friends could join me, I thought I'd go somewhere safe: to New Zealand and Australia.
In seven months I didn't spend much time in Australia, as I got stuck on Great Barrier Island. From Amsterdam, I stopped at the Cook Islands first and when I got to Auckland I thought it was so busy. I found Great Barrier Island in a Lonely Planet book. On the boat over I met two guys, one Welsh, one Swiss and we trekked around together, hitchhiking, going to hot pools and beaches. One night we walked to the Irish pub from the backpackers and my new friends asked me to chat up a guy so we could get a ride back. And I did. That was Roger, and we're still together now — 19 years later.
As a teenager, I knew I would travel. In the breaks at secondary school, I'd be lying in the grass with mates, and when an aeroplane would go overhead I'd say I'm going there, where that plane's going. I'm going to Hawaii.
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In my 20s, I lived in Germany, Switzerland and the UK. When I was 19 I spent three months in Greece, woofing on Crete, cleaning an apartment building really close to the beach. Later, from Athens, I went to visit a friend. I went to see her on a bus, stayed overnight, then hitchhiked the five hours back to Athens. When a car stopped and I looked in, the guy said, "it's alright I'm a copper, going all the way". On the way he stopped at various ouzo bars. I tried not to drink too much so I'd know what I was doing and back in Athens, when I knew where I was, I said, "you have to let me out now". He'd had a few, and I think he intended to take me home. He was 50. With a comb-over. He stopped and I got out.
I go to Auckland about four or five times a year but prefer being on the Barrier. I still marvel at its beauty and being able to live here with Roger. I love the solitude, the beaches, the silence. I'm a visual person and it's just a feast for my eyes, every day. We live between Schooner Bay and Okupu and about eight years ago we built a house on top of a cliff looking out to Little Barrier. There's a granny flat attached but when it was ready, my mother-in-law decided she wasn't ready, so it's been rented out pretty steadily to visitors. I love meeting our guests and having a chat.
Eighteen months ago, Rural Women organised a symposium called "Is There Life Out There". Nalayini Brito, an Auckland astronomer, attended, marvelling at our beautiful dark sky. She got together with local Gendie Somerville-Ryan and, with their husbands, they hammered out a Dark Sky Sanctuary application in months. The sanctuary was launched last August. Two dozen Barrier-ites did a Dark Sky Ambassadors' course and now three of us, Orla, Deborah and I, offer dark sky tours with Good Heavens.
We go to people's accommodation for private tours if they have clear sky views, or we do group tours in Medlands and Tryphena. We start by explaining what the Dark Sky Sanctuary is and how it came about. Then we start the viewing, pointing out constellations and stars, using binoculars and 8-inch telescopes. Having launched in August, we did our first tour in October and, on average, we do four to five tours a week now, weather permitting. It's a blast. Looking into space does put things into perspective. It makes you aware of how little we are and how special Earth is, how lucky we are to live on this planet and that we shouldn't mess it up.