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Untamed... and spectacularly so

2 April 2024
medlands beach
Medlands Beach is one of many beautiful, and usually empty, east coast surf beaches.

Our former editor adventures to Aotea Great Barrier Island’s one-of-a-kind gardening tour and finds she must adapt to island time.
WORDS & PHOTOS Gaynor Stanley

A good way to approach Aotea Great Barrier Island is slowly. And I don’t mean ferry rather than fly (locals favour the pricey but smooth and scenic 30-minute Barrier Air flight; book early for the best prices). I mean don’t rush it.
The island is big and its settlements are few. And tiny. So much so that when my travelling companion and I drove from our bach, the swish Medland Magic, to check out the main town, Tryphena, we drove right through ‘town’ without even realising. We’d been watching for the legendary Currach Irish Pub where we’d be joining the Community Health Trust’s welcome dinner later. Instead of turning around to look again at the cluster of buildings across the road from a picturesque bay, ensnared by the island’s beauty we drove on to the Shoal Bay Ferry Terminal. It was only on our return journey that we spotted what we’d missed arriving in Tryphena from the other direction – the sign for the pub! Turns out this characterful hub of island life, along with the Stonewall General Store, is on a side road. Look for the old stone wall along the main road and keep your eyes peeled for the turnoff.
I recommend that anyone considering going to this year’s Spectacular by Nature Garden Tour arrives at least a day ahead of the weekend, giving you time to fully experience all the island has to offer. For Aotea Great Barrier is a special place where you’ll want to linger, to retrace your footsteps, to explore – and that all takes time. Time that we just couldn’t seem to get on top of as we found ourselves continually at odds with opening hours and event schedules. Tryphena’s Pa Beach Café looked tempting but on weekends it only opens Saturday, when we were on the full-day Garden Tour. We’d love to have had a cup of coffee or a bite at Port Fitzroy, after an hour’s drive to the northernmost end of the road, but not a thing was open on a November Sunday ahead of the summer crowds. The Elephant Gallery at Schooner Bay was on our list too, but so dispersed are the attractions across this 45km-long, 285sqkm island that we could only make it to the more central Aotea Art Gallery in Claris: a must-visit for high-calibre local art, craft and skincare retailed in a lovely old cottage within the Community Heritage and Art Village.
Another recommendation, unless you’re happy to stay put in a beachside villa (or in Tryphena, where there’s a shuttle option to the Garden Tour start point), is a rental car as you’re going to need one to get around and gather supplies. Aotea Car Rentals will meet you at the airport with your car, and you park it back there on your way out. Just leave the keys inside. It’s all very relaxed here. Though filling the tank (at over $4 a litre last November) will set your heart racing.
Fuel’s one of the heftier costs of living in this Kiwi paradise. Every household and business on Aotea is off-grid, generating their own power, harvesting their own water and managing their own waste. “Aotea endeavours to be a sustainable destination and our visitors embrace this journey with us,” says the founder of the Spectacular by Nature Garden Tour weekend Leonie Howie.
You won’t need a car to join one of Saturday’s four itinerary options, except to get to the departure point at the Community Health Centre in Claris. All participants are transported by minibus to the Barrier’s backyards (which means we get to sit back and enjoy the view as the road twists and turns over densely forested hills, revealing glimpses of stunning bays – one overlooked by Lorde’s hideaway – and descends into beachside holiday havens). Every minibus on the island is commandeered for duty and every seat is taken. This is such an intriguing event that it sells out every year, and capacity can’t increase due to the limited vehicle stock on the island. In 2023, more than 120 volunteers facilitated 141 visitors to the 26 private gardens taking part in the event’s 13th occasion.
So what’s so spectacular?
All tour options offer an insight into managing a home and garden on an off-grid island, rather than the focus on planting and design that most gardening tours have. My Totara itinerary, for example, is “for the adventurous and fit only” and “requires the ability to clamber into and out of boats, or up and down steep stairs”.
Alas, the seas were too rough (a not infrequent occurrence, locals report) for the planned boat transfer, so that adventure will have to wait for my next visit. In van chats and at stops we meet visitors from as far south as Timaru, a man who has come on every Garden Tour to date, and locals curious to learn how other residents live in this wild and starkly beautiful environment.
We first visit Leonie’s own charming home, Puketaha, which she built in an inland paddock 20 years ago with her husband, Ivan Howie, who sadly passed away last year. They designed berms to prevent the flooding that tends to happen each autumn, featuring big leafy plants like black taro that disguise the evapotranspiration system while thriving on the excess fluid they suck up. Her elegant garden features an orchard with 17 species of fruit, a re-energising pōhutukawa, a false cardamom from noted Northland plantsman and previous Garden Tour special guest the late Russell Fransham, and striking sculptures.
At Rishworths Retreat, we admire the difficult-to-find Norfolk Island hibiscus hedges thriving in their sandy soil. Drew bought the beachside section 30 years ago for a holiday house. His native garden began in 2010 and wraps an architectural bach, finally completed just four years ago, after many years of his family holidaying on-site in a one-bedroom unlined cedar bach with no running water, power or septic tank. We also get a peek at his impressive surfboard collection and nearby holiday accommodation, Oriana Lodge, named after the P&O liner and impeccably decorated with authentic 1950s memorabilia.
Then we’re on to something quite different; an hour-long bush walk through a 400-acre tract of regenerating native forest at Taumata, high on the hills behind Tryphena’s native plant nursery. Most of Taumata is protected forever by a QEII covenant. Derek purchased the property about two years ago, after discovering it on a Spectacular by Nature tour. The easier land had been farmed but much had been left as original bush after kauri trees were milled. “There are 127 species on the walking track, not including mosses,” Derek tells us as we stop to observe, within a 360-degree radius, tōtara, tī kōuka, kānuka, nīkau, kōwhai, kiekie, and rimu. Phenomenal.
We climb from Taumata’s track to emerge in a clearing where bananas survive from an old orchard and enter another favourite, the aptly named Hidden Garden. Here, we tuck into packed lunches as we scope Joss’s intriguing home, literally built around her delightful garden (Joss also runs the Rose Show, see ‘What to Do’). With the serenity of a Balinese resort, complete with whimsy and water features, the garden beds here cohabitate with separated living pavilions – one a kitchen, others a bedroom or bathroom progressively added over the years.
Next we visit Julie’s Whare at a west coast beach, where we find one of the best-looking vegetable gardens I’ve ever seen. The Claris store owner grows using permaculture principles and her veges taste so good, “If I couldn’t grow it, the kids didn’t eat it.”
We conclude our day wandering along the beach to Robyn and Noel’s Pōhutukawa Patch. They escaped Auckland to build their forever home here after many years of happy holidaying. They are learning all they can about self-sufficiency, growing or catching their own food, and how to deal with problems like invasive seaweed caulerpa, kikuyu and keeping the rabbits off the veges.
Best of luck taming an island that really is a spectacle of nature.

Kiwi Gardener has sponsored the Spectacular by Nature Garden Tour since 2010. Rural Nurse Leonie Howie and her late husband Ivan, the island’s GP for 35 years, established the Community Health Trust in 1987. They launched the garden tour in 2008 to fundraise for the buildings, vehicles and equipment needed to attract qualified health professionals to care for the island’s 1200 residents. Last year’s event funded a new operating plinth.

Where to Stay
Kiwi Gardener stayed at Medland Magic (pictured above), a stylish two-bedroom bach with great views from its secluded hilltop to gorgeous Medlands Beach.

Eat & Drink
In Claris, pop into My Fat Puku for coffee, pizza and brews (check opening hours). In Tryphena, visit Pa Beach Cafe and Barrier Social Club, and Orla at the Currach Irish Pub serves great meals and even better craic. Try Island Gin (distillery open by appointment only), or visit Aotea Brewery (halfway between Medlands and Tryphena).

What to Do
Walk the 20-minute bush track to the Kaitoke natural hot pools for a free soak. The pools are the starting point for the three-day Aotea Track around the island’s forested and mountainous interior.
Windy Canyon is a short walk off the main road to impressive rock formations and panoramic views.
The island is a Dark Sky Sanctuary. Good Heavens offers stargazing tours at Medlands Beach.
Stroll the idyllic surf beaches on the east coast, including Awana, Okiwi/Whangapoua and Kaitoke.
The Stonewall Village Rose Show in Tryphena is held on the Sunday of the garden tour weekend.
Shoal Bay Pottery where, if Sarah’s out, a note on the door invites you to let yourself in and jot down any purchases.

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