The effect is known as a fata morgana, and you see it on clear, hot, still mornings as you make the crossing from downtown Auckland. Mornings like this, when Waiheke Island hovers above the horizon—a floating world cocooned in its own dream. As you get closer, the mirage dwindles, subsides, and finally dissolves into the sea. Meteorologists might deconstruct this miracle with talk of temperature inversions, but they can’t undo a niggling suspicion that nothing about this Hauraki Gulf island is quite as it seems.
Spray from the ferry as it rips through the Motuihe Channel adds a salty tang to the air, and the water frothing around the twin hull looks cool and inviting. Quickcat, one of the regular commuter vessels on this run, throttles back and eases between Matiatia’s rocky heads into a harbour flanked by grass-carpeted hills where a few houses play join-the-dots on the ridgeline. She pirouettes with cumbersome grace and ties up to the pier.
I amble past the reception committee—local tourism vendors holding up placards: “Oneroa Lodge welcomes Sloane”, “Palm Beach Resort for Prudential”, “The Rudd family”. One of the placard-bearers is singled out by a tanned face to my right: “You protesting, bro?”
Laconic humour shimmers just under the surface when you strike up a conversation with a Waiheke Islander. It’s that conspiratorial nod or wink, the lingua franca of escapees from the Big Smoke. In a populace as diverse as Waiheke’s, dry wit acts as social cement.
Waihekeans are a curious blend. Although there are few of the Polynesian and Asian faces of greater Auckland, exotic imports—especially from Western Europe and the Americas—abound. Yet the island’s diversity runs deeper than places of origin. Boatloads of islanders commute to Auckland for work, but plenty eke out a living without crossing the gulf: infrastructure people, horticulturists, artisans, retailers and tradespeople, mixing it up with a diehard core of alternative lifestylers, artists and semi-retired activists. Seasonal tides from the mainland also deliver waves of the walking wounded and media shy: CEOs, celebrities, ex-celebrities, burnt-out substance abusers, drop-outs and half-way-housers.
This mixture breaks along other fault lines, too. There’s old Waiheke and new Waiheke—locals who trace their lineage through one or two generations versus those who carry an unused ferry ticket. There are full-timers, psychically synchronised to the island’s seasonal rhythms, and weekenders who occupy their boltholes only when the sun shines.
I fit into the unused ticket brigade. Hailing from southern latitudes and geographically challenged, I knew little about this gulf island before I settled on it. My shift from the mainland in the mid-90s was born more out of dissatisfaction with the gridlocked city than any dream of islands. Not knowing what to expect, I was surprised by what I found. It can be summed up in a single word: diversity.
It can be seen in the homes that spill across the hills. Some are palaces overlooking private vineyards; others are ad hoc baches with few comforts. A smattering have been built to complement the eccentricities of their owners, with capricious turrets and quirky extrusions. Others maximise views or beach access. But the largest group by far are dwellings that have been, or are being, tweaked. Do-ups. What were once Spartan fibrolite constructions meant as holiday escapes have been transformed into comfortable residences painted in colours with gentrified names such as “Latte” and “Cappuccino”.
Diverse circumstances, diverse means, diverse aspirations—diversity is one of Waiheke’s grand themes. Yet, for all their differences, islanders share a common trait. They are, all of them, refugees. People who have eschewed the fast-food instant-gratification shopping nirvana that glitters on the horizon for the sound of an ocean sucking on shells, breaking on sand.
In Umberto Eco’s novel The Island of the Day Before, a 17th century Italian nobleman finds himself aboard an abandoned ship in the Pacific. The vessel is anchored near an island of stunning beauty that lies across the international dateline. The nobleman, trapped because he cannot swim, believes that if he can somehow get to this island he will have gone backwards in time and can thus unravel his misfortunes. A crazy non sequitur, but the thought that utopia is present in the past is the thought that resonates.
Waiheke is New Zealand as it was before the shopping plazas and multiplex cinemas. Goods and foodstuffs are proudly local, handcrafted by Waiheke artisans; houses are set on quintessential quarter-acre sections; there are no traffic lights, neon signs or billboards. Waiheke is mythic New Zealand, Godzone, the island of the day before—straddling a cultural dateline, in full view of the Sky Tower.
“My hands stay above,” he says as he holds his outstretched fingers an inch from the tabletop. “They don’t penetrate the surface.”
A deeply philosophical and cryptic explanation—I’m quietly relieved he isn’t calling me “Grasshopper”.
Kazu Nakagawa is demonstrating for me why he believes he is not in the highest echelon of Japanese craftsmen. By any reasonable woodworking standards the skills he displays are exceptional, but he claims that he would be embarrassed to be compared with the finest in that profession. Not that it’s important to him; being a craftsman is only part of his modus operandi. Nakagawa is first and foremost an artist, and while some of his sculptures look like furniture, they aren’t. Chair legs are too spindly, tables defy gravity and cabinets have no space to house anything inside them but play music box tunes when you open their doors.
It’s all about context. The meanings he assigns to things confound and defy your expectations.
Slender, athletic and tanned, Nakagawa looks to be in his mid-30s rather than 52, with nothing more than a few silver strands in his tied-back black hair to suggest otherwise. Many of his artworks incorporate English words, sentences screen-printed onto fabrics or baked into ceramics, words sandblasted onto glass or carved into wood, highlighting his deep perplexity with language in general—how it relates to, and sometimes supplants, meaning. English is not his native tongue, just as the pieces of furniture he makes are drawn from the Western rather than Eastern tradition, but the dysfunctional nature of these pieces is all his own.
He is resolutely a New Zealander, having lived here most of his life, yet his art communicates an immigrant’s sense of dislocation, never quite fitting in and never quite able to return. When the cultures in question are as different as Tokyo’s is from Waiheke’s, you wonder what would be a compelling motivation to stay.
“Everything [here] changes all the time,” Nakagawa offers, in answer to my “Why?” question.
“Japanese culture is very rigid, and Tokyo is a sophisticated monoculture. Waiheke is unsophisticatedly international…fluid with rough undercurrents, like nowhere else,” he says.
“So you forgot the way home?” I suggest mischievously.
“Everyone who travels gets lost,” he responds.
From his satchel he pulls out drawings of his ideas for the new library planned for Oneroa, Waiheke’s main settlement. Auckland City has asked Nakagawa to consult its architects, to enhance their designs with his own and, presumably, to give this building some local relevance. The contours in his designs echo the shapes of this and the adjacent gulf islands, and details pick on other features. It’s an exciting project, with a brief to integrate design with location, and it shows considerable foresight from the town planners.
Whether it is cultural fluidity, a picturesque setting or the easy-paced rhythm of life, something about Waiheke seems irresistible to artists. Nakagawa is one of several high-profile practitioners on the island, but there are also rank-and-file folk artists and dedicated amateurs, many peddling their wares at markets or from roadside studios. Geo-graphically, the island is close enough to the dealer galleries of Auckland to be accessible, yet far enough away to encourage escapist aspirations.
Serious arts patronage can be found here, too. Some of the private homes in Church and Fossil Bays accommodate extraordinary collections of New Zealand art. A major event, the Headland Sculpture on the Gulf exhibition, meanders around the Church Bay coastline every two years, while at Connells Bay, on the island’s eastern end, John and Jo Gow have brought a large portion of their collection out into the open in the form of a sculpture park.
A decade ago, the couple fell in love with the 24 ha Connells Bay property, buying it on the spot after a single viewing. Gow advises others not to leap without looking, but he admits he didn’t heed his own advice this time. Just up from the beach in a sheltered cove are three colonial buildings—a cottage, post office and general store—that served as the home and thriving business of the Connell family. The Connells also ran a refuelling depot for maritime traffic and sold fresh milk produced on their small farm. The villas have been lovingly restored, and in homage to that history three of Jeff Thomson’s corrugated cows now graze on a hillside and look out to sea.
Having first planted thousands of trees on the property, John and Jo Gow invited Samoan painter Fatu Feu’u to make what he would of a massive macrocarpa stump. Feu’u spent a month carving Guardian of the Planting, a totem-like work with echoes of Easter Island moai (statues), but he planted another seed for the Gows. Why not keep going with sculptures?
“In the early days, we were mostly buying works and finding a site for them,” explains Jo. “But it’s much more satisfying to commission. Now we bring the sculptors here and let them choose their site. We give them free rein and the works are all site-specific.”
The Gows have been able to fund their ambitious commissioning programme through canny investment—John was a financier to a string of West End productions that ran for decades: Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Les Misérables. The returns from these shows were phenomenal, and the legacy for New Zealand sculpture has been equally so.
It looks glamorous in the tourist brochures, but Waiheke is no Riviera for tycoons and their trophy spouses to flit around in Italian sports cars. High heels sink into gravel or break on uneven ground. High fashion is a pair of rubber clogs. Four-wheel-drives—“Remuera tractors” in the city—get caked with mud, working for their living on steep drives and loose-metal roads.
When I moved to Waiheke, inhabitants of the gulf islands were stereotyped as potheads, hippies and non-conformists. People would wink and pretend to be drawing on a joint when I mentioned where I lived. And it’s fair to say that the island’s alternative-lifestyle reputation had a degree of currency. Property was so cheap, so the joke went, that you could win a plot of land in a pub raffle. And the punch line—first prize was a meat pack! Whatever else it was, it was an affordable haven for the disaffected.
A slow, sporadic ferry service and isolation from amenities meant that whoever washed up in Rocky Bay or Orapiu might be left to ferment in their personal selection of juices.
And there were other attractions. To drop out into a community of dropouts confers on you a certain moral authority. Some locals like to point out that Waiheke was the first part of New Zealand to declare itself nuclear free, and even suggest that this brave stance emboldened the Lange Government to follow suit. The island staunchly declared itself GE free too. Not that it was actually any more GE free than elsewhere, but that hardly matters. The highly visible lines in the clean white sand are what count.
Things changed when Fullers started to assemble a fast-ferry fleet in 1987. Suddenly, access to Auckland was convenient and timely. A 35-minute cruise unleashed the real possibility of commuting—half an hour to Queen St from any Auckland suburb at peak time is not to be sniffed at. Do it chatting to your fellow conspirators over a coffee or reading a paper and you’ve turned the horror of gridlock into stylish bookends for your working life. Hardly surprising, then, that on the heels of this new ferry service, property values on the island exploded, to now vie with some of Auckland’s swankier suburbs. Many of the old guard—pensioners, beneficiaries and those on low incomes—found themselves being rated off their properties, and departed, making way in piecemeal fashion for a new wave of the disaffected: middle- to high-income earners, well-heeled urbanites looking to take the race out of rat race. But not everywhere. There are some enclaves where the rat has also been removed.
At Awaawaroa Bay, on the island’s southern flank, an eco-village sprawls across the valley. Interspersed among the horticultural blocks, native bush, wetlands and exotic plantings are a smattering of dwellings harnessing solar and/or wind power and built from mud brick and other eco-friendly materials. You might assume that such utopian initiatives are the spiritual heirs to the hippy communes of the 1960s and ’70s, but if anything, this experiment in social organisation has more in common with a business corporation. Awaawaroa Bay Ltd has shareholders, company directors, meetings, in-house codes of conduct and a mission statement.
The village’s founding group secured their 169 ha of farmland in 1995, creating a debt that they hoped to extinguish by selling shares. These are shares in the traditional sense, bestowing proportional ownership of the group’s holdings, and residents are shareholders—without individual title to parcels of land but collectively responsible for the whole. Buying a share also requires buy-in to a shared green philosophy, one that aims at sustainable living through organic practices. An overarching business structure ensures that the village avoids classification as a subdivision, with all the attendant expenses of constructing sealed roads and other amenities.
This is no anarchists’ portfolio; it’s all very ordered. Among those who joined the community early on were a group of four former crew members of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior—bombed at Marsden Wharf in Auckland in 1985 in an act of French terrorism—which goes some way towards explaining an unusual concentration of northern European accents.
I’m sitting in on one of the monthly board meetings. It’s a baking Sunday afternoon, and as each agenda item is ticked off, those assembled hold up slips of coloured voting paper: green to endorse a resolution, yellow to record a reservation or seek clarification, and red to dissent.
“He’s not just a maniac with a gun,” says one.
The company directors are discussing a neighbour who has been shooting rabbits on their property.
“He eats them, lives off them…I wouldn’t approve if he were just wasting them, killing them for sport.”
“Rabbits are a nuisance for me. I don’t have issues with him shooting them,” chips in another, invited to speak by the facilitator.
“Well, I read Watership Down,” chimes a third when it’s her turn to speak. “The rabbits aren’t troubling me. I don’t want guns going off around my place!”
Eventually it’s agreed that their neighbour can shoot rabbits in prescribed areas, but only under strict supervision, and the meeting progresses to the next agenda item.
It’s an efficient way to conduct business, but I feel as though I’m missing something and I can’t work out what it is. Neither can I work out why this amount of red tape is required to run a small rural community, especially one that chooses inefficient lifestyle alternatives because they’re better for the planet.
At the conclusion of the meeting, I give a couple of the guys a lift down to the stream. Aran Knight winches Rob Morton up the mast of his yacht so that he can decouple a fitting for repair.
“I really appreciate you giving me a hand like this Aran,” says Morton. “I’ve been wanting to get this fixed for ages.”
“Any time,” replies Knight, grinning broadly. “You only had to ask.”
It’s the tone of Knight’s reply in that short exchange that catches my attention. Incredulity that Morton hadn’t asked earlier. That’s what was so obviously missing from the formal exchanges earlier. An understanding sealed with a smile or a nod. Neighbourliness is common on Waiheke, but in this small community I can see it’s a given. And that’s the point really. Minimising your ecological footprint is a new idea to humanity, and while I admire the villagers’ desire to live sustainably, somehow their older values of amicability and support leave me more inspired.
I’m too close to the dance floor to hear any music but I feel it, a jackhammer rhythm pounding on my sternum. A herd—young, sophisticated and beautiful, bedecked in the minimum that counts as clothing—moves to the beat. It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere. The air in this room has been through everyone’s lungs before it gets to mine. Out on the bank above the grape vines, thousands more sit or stand, sculling beer, RTDs and energy drinks, gesticulating and shouting across at one another to be heard. Security men circling the fenced boundary are the gargoyles in this gothic fantasy, wired to the grid. To me the scene resembles Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, but photographer Peter Quinn puts me right. “Pleasure? No, not pleasure. They’re here to mate!”
I recognise only a few locals; most of the revellers come from Auckland or beyond. I catch a glimpse of winemaker Stephen White wearing an earpiece, talking to constables and directing the flow. We’re at Stonyridge Vineyard for the Fiesta Del Sol, a celebration of a brand of beer as much as the sun, the latest in a string of dance parties hosted at one of New Zealand’s premier vineyards. White’s flagship Bordeaux-style wine, Larose, sells for more than $200 a bottle and is New Zealand’s most collectable wine. But there aren’t too many connoisseurs quaffing top vintages tonight. The venue and the event are disconnected—or rather, hosting Ibiza-style dance parties is White’s hobby, whereas winemaking is his passion.
White followed the pioneering viti-culturists Kim and Jeanette Goldwater to establish Waiheke’s second vineyard, producing his first bottles of Larose in 1985.
A couple of vintages later, he was confirmed as the enfant terrible of the New Zealand wine industry: maverick, brilliant and successful.
His success came from harnessing the potential of Waiheke’s unique terroir, a stony, hilly, coastal topography, hot and dry. The Goldwaters’ robust wines from the same island gravels reinforced White’s success, and the wine equivalent of a gold rush became inevitable.
More than 30 vineyards have now swung into production, and one of them, Man O’ War, sprawls across 1800 ha at the eastern end of the island. In just two decades, this landscape, reshaped by horticulture and logging, then by farming, has been transformed again. Large swathes of Waiheke now resemble coastal regions of the Mediterranean, with grape and olive plantations carpeting the hills against a backdrop of cerulean seas.
“It was never good land for farming,” says White, alluding to the climate. Beyond his vines the hills are parched.
We’re on the deck of his vineyard cafe overlooking a hill with ripening grapes spilling down its flank. An olive grove offers shade beside the winery, and palms and eucalypts frame the fringes of the view. On a mid-March day, the mercury is pushing 30 degrees once again.
Waiheke Island has its own microclimate, and nanoclimates within that. The surrounding sea warms up during summer, releasing that heat towards summer’s end, at the run-up to harvesting. White’s uncle, who managed a local sheep station, told him it was hopeless for stock—too hot and dry. The sheep had to be sold early, for low prices. But those conditions sounded perfect for the grapes White wanted to grow—cabernets and other Bordeaux varietals.
“I wanted to plant vines near the sea,” he says. “I had a choice of sites when this piece of land was being divided into blocks. I picked this one because it’s north facing”. He gestures at the view. “Back then, no one [in the local wine industry] understood the importance of that. Everyone was selecting flat land for viticulture because it’s easier to machine-harvest. And they were irrigating to get bigger grapes. But the flavour’s in the skin. Vines that struggle on a free-draining slope produce smaller grapes with a higher skin-to-fruit ratio, greater concentration.”
However, with no history of viticulture, Waiheke was not considered a good prospect, and finance was difficult to secure. But White persevered. And with the rest of the New Zealand wine industry hell-bent on innovating, applying modern horticultural techniques to this ancient craft, he took the other tack and followed French traditions, believing that their methods were the real secret to those exceptional wines. He planted all five Bordeaux varietals to blend into his Larose, being the first winemaker in New Zealand to go much beyond the fashionable cabernet-merlot formula of the time.
And he spurned other New World innovations and fermentation techniques, exclusively employing barriques. Adhering also to the business strategies of Old World winemakers, he created a second tier “Airfield” label to protect his premier brand, and he offered en primeur sales to offset his costs. White’s red struck gold. The rest, as they say, is history.
The crook in a narrow stream that snakes through mangroves in Putiki Bay is an unlikely haven for a collection of houseboats. Strung out nose to tail, candlelit by night, the makeshift flotilla swings lazily on loose tethers, better resembling the lake boats of Asia than the canal boats of Europe. It’s a mild evening and we shoot the breeze over a bottle of Chianti, Andrew Alexander and I, on the deck of his Swamp Witch. A few metres away a banded rail forages for food among the mangroves while a siege of cranes hovers on invisible updrafts. Like quicksilver, an eel flashes as it breaks the surface of the water, quickly becoming invisible in the green murk. How different the wildlife is here; I live two rifleshots away but I never see these animals.
Our conversation traverses chaotic terrain, shifting between economics, witchcraft, Athenian democracy, government cover-ups, Cambodian lakes, Bosnian pyramids and Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull. It’s loose but it feels like the right kind of discourse to have in this setting, and I’m happy to go with the flow.
“I tell my son money is just coloured paper,” says Alexander.
“Yep, coloured paper,” I agree.
I have to admit, there is something seductive about this fixed, itinerant lifestyle. No mortgage, no rates, no utility costs, no waste. Stepping inside his houseboat is like entering a sorcerer’s apothecary. Elizabeth, Andrew’s wife, collects icons. Nataraja, a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as a cosmic dancer, and the Virgin Mary are just two of the set of pan-religious statuettes adorning the sideboards. There are tribal masks from Africa and South East Asia, Pre-Raphaelite prints, candles, shrines and objects seemingly infused with magic that I don’t recognise. An outpouring of telluric energies concentrated and congealed. It’s not mainstream Waiheke, but it’s typical. Colourful. Not my life but I love that fabulous diversity.
Waiheke is New Zealand’s real third island. It has 8000 or so inhabitants over winter, swelling to a holiday peak of uncounted proportions in summer. When you meet ex-Waihekeans relocated back to the mainland, they invariably speak of a golden past and how the island has changed for the worse, the reason they left. But this place is constantly in flux and always has been.
The reality is that most who settle come with preconceptions or are fixated with a mirage, leaving at last when it dissolves. Those who stay decide that what they’ve found is worth persevering with—not so much a step into the past as into an alternative version of the present.