Elisabeth Easther chats to Deborah Kilgallon, co-founder of Aotea Great Barrier's astrotour business, Good Heavens
Had you always intended to be an astronomer?
I'd always found the universe fascinating, growing up on a lifestyle block in Kerikeri, climbing trees, riding horses and befriending our milking goats, but it never occurred as a career choice. I did well at school and even though I was Dux of Kerikeri High, and felt pressure to go to university, I chose to travel first.
How did you pull that off?
I had a bunch of odd jobs at school. I worked in a cafe and taught aerobics. I also taught kids the keyboard. Then I jumped on a plane. After a couple of years overseas, I travelled around New Zealand for six months, which reminded me of how amazing this country is. Then I spent another 13 years abroad.
After four years, I applied for a serious job at the Bank of England. They sponsored me to do a degree in economics and mathematics. Central Banking was full-on, especially during the financial crisis, but I learned to be precise and look at issues from all angles. I also learned I prefer people to spreadsheets.
How did you cope with big city life?
Although I worked in the centre of London, for 12 years I had an allotment at Crays Hill, which probably made me seem quite eccentric. Can you imagine a 25-year-old Kiwi girl sharing produce with her workmates? I quickly learnt not to bring in excess courgettes.
How did you progress from central banking to living off-grid on an island?
I'd just completed a change management role on an international banking project, and the very next day I met my husband Andy in Aotea Square... We both wanted a healthy, active, sustainable life, and we chose Great Barrier. First we found a tiny cottage to rent in Awana, to ensure it was the right fit.
Then it took 18 months to find a property to buy, and another year before we could move in, because the house was derelict when we bought it. Once on the island, I was commuting to the city for work, and pregnant with our son. With our baby in the mix, I wondered about local business opportunities. The Dark Sky Sanctuary was happening; I met my future business partner, Hilde Hoven, and it all came together.
How much did you know about astronomy?
When I was really young, I'd look at the stars from the back seat of our Datsun and wonder what was up there. Then when Airt was little, if the weather was good, I'd take a beanbag, a cosy blanket, a hot water bottle, and breastfeed him outside and gaze at the stars.
How did you upskill?
Just before Aotea was awarded Dark Sky status, everyone was invited to a weekend course. John Drummond, the president of The Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, came out and covered the basics of astronomy, including how to use a telescope. I read books and printed out star charts.
I downloaded apps and filled my brain while I snuggled with Airt. Then when Airt turned 2, Hilde and I started Good Heavens, nearly five years ago. The first year was relatively slow, but it quickly grew, with over 60 per cent of our clients international. Then Covid hit and we spent two weeks processing refunds.
How have you stayed afloat?
The first summer after Covid was fantastic. From January to April 2021 Hilde and I worked non-stop. We were knackered by the end of that summer, but we had to make hay while the stars shone... We lost lots of group bookings earlier this year due to uncertainty.
People were nervous about being trapped here, so summer wasn't fantastic and we made some concessions. When the weather was good, we did more tours. But because we'd already paid for our telescopes and gear, our fixed costs are low.
How's the future look?
I'm optimistic. Winter looks fairly quiet, even though it's the best time of year for star-gazing, but we're getting bookings again. People are learning to live with the risks. We always give a full refund when the weather isn't good, so we do the same with Covid.
Will you have specific Matariki tours?
Because this is the first Matariki holiday, people are really interested and we show them what to look for. But the motu's Marae will host Matariki celebrations, which I'm keen to attend.
What's written in the stars for you?
Great Barrier is my home. Andy and I love it here, and it's the best place to raise a child. I have a huge garden, and to see your child pick broccoli or blueberries straight out of the garden and eat them, there's nothing like it.
What do you love most about Good Heavens?
Seeing people blown away when they look through the telescope at a sparkling object thousands of light years away. Despite the unsociable hours and the unpredictability of Mother Nature, when a guest says "wow", it's all been worth it.
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