Stories from an Island Keeping life in the Hauraki Gulf

In 2010, my partner Nigel landed the number one dream job in the world; ‘Island Caretaker,’ and along with my West Highland dog, Georgie, we left the city and moved to an Island in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand for an ‘island keeping life’.

The Island is a beautiful 60 acre, privately owned island; home to an uninhabited holiday resort built in the sixties and a population of Weka, an endangered flightless rail.

Most people harbour dreams of living an idyllic island life, but we soon discovered beach walks at sunset and cocktails by the pool are a holiday illusion. The reality of living and working on an island centres around the wind and sea conditions, the dwindling supply of chocolate and wine and creating our own themed code cracker puzzles.

We are used to soft city living where hot pizza delivered to your door is a phone call away. Alone on an Island, a world best described as the ‘Mary Celeste’ meets ‘Hi de Hi’ we grapple with tides, wind, provisioning, isolation – and each other.

There is no ferry service to the Island; the only way on and off the island is by tiny boat launched off the beach when weather permits. The Island is off-grid with one phone line that only works in fine weather. Supplies are a couple of boat rides and a long drive over unsealed roads away on a neighbouring island.

The bliss of wide open skies and starry nights, coupled with first time experiences of watching Orca swim past are balanced by the challenges and frustrations of inevitably getting wet and cold when getting groceries, to completely running out of water, to waiting out storms for food, the ongoing struggle for me to find remote work – and having no place to escape to after a heated argument.

I champion the Weka to win ‘Bird of the Year’ and my videos of the Weka antics go viral while Nigel despises the cheeky, flightless birds. I revel in the solitude while Nigel waves ashore yachties and approaches beach picnickers with invitations for a cup of tea and a chat.

While many island managers rarely last more than one winter we embrace our new way of life and are headhunted to caretake an even more remote Island in the Cavallis, an island under threat of occupation. Less than a year later we gratefully return to the Hauraki Gulf, sadly without my beloved Georgie dog, to caretake the original island again..

Yet, no one is an island on an island. Although isolated and alone for the most part, over the years we are visited by stream of colourful characters; from boaties, both drunk and sober, in need of rescue or medical attention; to potential island buyers arriving by helicopter, to friends getting stranded by changing weather, to belligerent trespassers. Island life has its share of excitement and drama; from the many and varied ways Nigel injures himself, to rescuing and befriending birds, managing the increasingly derelict machinery and buildings, coping with off-grid living and learning new skills; like launching a boat off the beach.

In tune with the tidal heartbeat of the island and the cries of the sea birds, I turn a tiny bit feral, spurning my hairdresser and explore a more natural, simpler way of life, involving a lot of baking soda and less hair washing.

We wage war on the plague of rats gnawing our fridge in the dark of night, munching on the island’s native birds during the day, until all the rats are killed and the island achieves pest free status.

Once Upon An Island is a story of the thrills and trials of an island keeping life, and of falling in love with our native birds and natural world.

I’m Fiona (Fe); mostly famous for discovering, washed up on our beach, the first (and to date the only) dead red-footed booby in New Zealand (which now resides at Auckland Museum).

(Updated January 2018)