Why would anyone want to live on Great Barrier Island? The answer, says Elisabeth Easther, lies in the sky.

Great Barrier Island is not an easy place to live. Also known as Aotea, there's no high school, no old folks' home and, thanks to the complete absence of reticulated power, not to mention a paucity of grocery stores, merely surviving is a full-time job.

That's what makes the people who live there all the more interesting, because they have to be multi-talented, multi-taskers who know how to make things happen, and not just to attract tourists but also to entertain themselves.

To that end, for the past four years Awana Rural Women, a group of 25 dedicated volunteers, has hosted No Barriers: Small Island - Big Ideas. Like a day of Ted Talks, only less earnest, this year's topic was The Nature of Time, as seen from the perspectives of poetry and philosophy, geology and sleep.


Arriving at Claris Airport on a Friday afternoon, blustery winds caused our seven-seater plane to buck like a wild horse. Our capable pilot reined the Cessna in and we landed with barely a bump. Paradise ducks and oystercatchers looked on with respect from their nests near the runway.

In spite of all the fabulous things you can do on the island - from bush walks to coastal explorations - bright and early on Saturday morning our press corps of two headed to the Claris Social Club, where Bryan Walpert, a poet and academic, kicked things off with a rumination on Mindfulness, Poetry and Ecology.

Dark Sky Experience on Medlands. Photo/Carol Comer
Dark Sky Experience on Medlands. Photo/Carol Comer

Next on the agenda, geologist Hamish Campbell held forth on the island's tectonic origins, volcanism and Auckland's leaky crust.

Dr Philippa Gander gave a captivating lecture all about sleep and, in spite of the subject matter, never once did I yawn. Our fourth speaker, Dr Craig Callender, had come all the way from the University of California and, when he's not racing paddleboards he teaches philosophy, science and environmental ethics.

He asked us to ponder whether was nature just one big zoo? What is biodiversity? And how long does an invasive species have to be somewhere before it's seen to belong? It turns out philosophers ask more questions than they answer.

Throughout the day the audience steadily grew and by the time the afternoon panel discussion was in full swing – with broadcaster Kim Hill in the chair - we'd been moved to a bigger venue and by the end of it all, my head was close to exploding with all the big thoughts that had been planted in my brain.

It's true, the talks on time were ridiculously riveting but I have to confess, I had another equally compelling reason for wanting to visit: I really wanted to gaze into space. Ever since 2017, when Great Barrier was designated a Dark Sky Sanctuary, I have been eager to take a tour with Good Heavens and their team of Dark Sky Ambassadors.

Photo / Hilde Hoven
Photo / Hilde Hoven

Assembling at Medlands Beach in the pitch of night, speakers were finally able to relax. Lounging in comfy chairs, wrapped in blankets and hugging hot water bottles, we sipped mugs of hot chocolate while the pounding surf provided the soundtrack.


Our knowledgeable guide Deborah pointed her powerful 8-inch Newtonian telescope at various planets and star clusters, and the astonishing content of the solar system suddenly felt that much closer.

The first attraction was Jupiter and just before it set in the west we caught sight of its elegant russet shades. We took aim at Saturn, her rings and one moon clearly visible. The magic of Mars was also in our sights before we turned our attention to stars. We looked at objects that were billions of years old, from the ancient globular cluster known as M4 (great name, not) to the gang known as Ptolemy's Cluster. The Jewel Box was filled to the brim with hot young stars while the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds were also on display.

And the Milky Way? With the naked eye it resembles little more than luminous clouds but, in reality, it's a large, barred, spiral galaxy. When you contemplate the vastness of space, it really does put you in your place and, after each peek through the telescope, I'd retire to my comfy chair, snuggle beneath my blanket and embrace my hot water bottle.

As I sat there, surrounded by genuine geniuses, my mind wandered further than it's ever wandered before.

When my attention returned to Earth, what really struck me, for a relatively small community, is that the people of Great Barrier really know how to think big.

Small island, big ideas

Awana Rural Women organise all sorts of events to stimulate the lives of locals and visitors. No Barriers - Small Island, Big Ideas is an annual event, where globally recognised experts give lectures and lead workshops. In 2016 the Pope's astronomer made an appearance to talk about whether there's life beyond Earth and next year's event looks likely to revolve around death.

Dark Sky Sanctuary

Dark Sky Sanctuary Launch Night. Photo / Mark Russell
Dark Sky Sanctuary Launch Night. Photo / Mark Russell

One of just four International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world, Great Barrier is the only island to receive this honour. With very little in the way of light pollution, star-gazing out there is spectacular and to truly appreciate what's up there, enlist the services of Good Heavens. Their locally trained ambassadors offer bespoke tours on beaches and at baches as they guide visitors through the starry southern skies, sharing their astronomical knowledge.

Aotea Highlights

Found at the edge of the Hauraki Gulf, 90km north-east of Auckland, the island covers 285sq km and is home to 940 permanent residents, give or take. You could easily while away a week exploring, enjoying the bush walks and uncrowded beaches. Highlights include the 45-minute walk to Kaitoke Hot Springs, hiking up Windy Canyon, paddle boarding in Whangaparapara Harbour and admiring the wildlife at Glenfern Sanctuary. The cafes, galleries, shops and little museums are also all worth investigating. And be sure to pop in to one of the welcoming watering holes to meet the locals.

• For more information, visit www.goodheavens.co.nz and greatbarrier.co.nz.