Isolation island

Journalist and Great Barrier Island resident Lindsay Wright reflects on outer gulf pandemic preparedness. Hardy locals can tough it out but Auckland bach owners and boaties should keep their distance.

Aotea Great Barrier, the easternmost island in the Hauraki Gulf, is undergoing a Covid-19-inspired population flood.

Great Barrier has scenery that makes people gape, wordless with awe. The night sky glitters like a giant disco ball and people are open and affable.

We’re just 80 odd kilometres from the country’s biggest city, but it seems like a world – and definitely a culture – away. Mainland New Zealand seems like a genial green giant that collects our taxes and seals our roads in return. Many island people get  groceries online from their mainland supermarket of choice, delivered by air for a slight premium.

There are four grocery shops on the island – at Claris, Port Fitzroy, Tryphena and Mulberry Grove but goods are expensive and sometimes unobtainable. But that’s a price we’re prepared to pay for living here. People in the know do their shopping on the day after the freight ferry has been.

Everything on the island is powered by sustainable energy – yes; that means you cannot just connect your devices into a plug which is wired to an omnipresent national grid. Lights must be turned off behind you or the penalty is flat batteries and black out. Many visitors struggle with this.

Rudimentary knowledge of solar panels, diesel generators and wind generators is a necessity – the people who service sustainable systems are often either busy or gone fishing.

We’re used to coping with the influx of summer visitors; they come to their baches, surf, swim or fish – and go home. But the most recent refugees think that they can sidestep the level four lock down rules on an offshore island.

And cell phone coverage can be patchy, or drop out altogether, if too many users go net surfing at once. Forget about working from home, and jobs are rare on island.

Part of Aotea Great Barrier ethos is about self-sufficiency and fostering limited resources. A few years ago, 98 percent of islanders, when offered a mains power connection, opted to remain with their own solar and wind power.

And we pre-empted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s plea for Kiwis to be kind to each other. In a small, isolated community like Aotea Great Barrier you have to be kind to exist.

I spoke with two island elders recently who, for much of their lives had lived with kerosene lamps and candles. They were puzzled by news of panicked mainlanders stockpiling toilet paper. “We used the newspaper,” one said, “we cut it into squares and stuck it on a nail in the dunny, You could read it first, then scrunch it up in your hand to make it nice and soft when you were ready to use it.” She chortled at the memory; “the Weekly News was best – nice and soft.” 

Island people make do.

The island inspires partisanship in its residents. We take pride in our flocks of rare and endangered birdlife; rainfall after an extended period of drought is “good for the island” and travelling away is known as being “off island”.

Aotea Great Barrier has an ageing population that outstrips the percentage of elderly mainlanders, and health care is provided by the excellent folk at Aotea Health. The centre has an abiding ethos of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) towards its island people – but are often stretched by the accidental injuries that come from our outdoor lifestyle.

They do an admirable job of caring for our 850 permanent population, backed up by the Westpac rescue helicopter, but simply aren’t equipped or staffed to handle hordes of seriously sick people.

The island morgue is a short distance across the road from the health centre but is limited in size and the power needed to keep it cool.

Anyone showing symptoms of Covid-19 would be identified straight away and almost every one of our population would know anyone who had died from it. They wouldn’t be just an anonymous figure on a virus graph but a neighbour, friend, relative of one of the people you wave at on the road.

Two airlines: Great Barrier Air and Fly My Sky run regular flights off-island but haven’t made it clear yet how they feel about carrying highly contagious passengers in their small aeroplanes. 

An added threat is off-islanders who have never driven without white lines to mark the passage along the macadam. It’s not unusual to find a Remuera tractor fresh off the ferry hurtling down the wrong side of the road. Deep gutters and concrete kerbs line the narrow, windy roads and off-islanders tend to steer to the right in case they accidentally go off-road in their four wheel drives. 

But Covid-19 has brought new threats to our island lifestyle. I’ve seen two boats turn up this week laden with Aucklanders with enough supplies to tide them through a pandemic. 

Island rumour has it that a whole family – mum, dad and kids – disembarked from their boat and walked into the Port Fitzroy store to buy ice creams ... just like any Christmas holidays. Other boaties rafted up and held a party at Smokehouse Bay. What part of lockdown don’t they get?

The Great Barrier police are broadcasting warnings on the local marine radio station for people to stay aboard – in one anchorage. 

But still, refugee bach owners and boaties are heading to this bushy, peaceful island on their eastern horizon. 

Normally, they’d be welcomed but these aren’t normal times and “No Trespassing” signs are popping up all over the island where they’ve never been before.  

We’re used to coping with the influx of summer visitors; they come to their baches, surf, swim or fish – and go home. But the most recent refugees think that they can sidestep the level four lock down rules on an offshore island.

We already have more than our share of older residents who would be decimated by contracting coronavirus, and there are no hospital facilities to care for them.

The new wave of visitors are better off staying at home - there may be more people there, but there are also more facilities to care for them - and coming back in summer when Covid-19 has hopefully passed into history.

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