A classic Kiwi Christmas on a remote NZ island

photographer: Gordon Barney, www.pixnz.com
When I was very young, around six or seven, my parents rented a bach every Christmas on a remote island in the Coromandel, on the east coast of New Zealand.   The half-moon shaped island, which had a postage stamp-sized sandy white beach, was called Motupohukuo Island. Turkey island in English.  

We loved that Island as though it was part of the family.

Our bach had no electricity, no running water, no mod cons and the toilets were scary long drop loos, the tall wooden kind, set far in the bush.  We bathed in the sea, fished for snapper off the reef and ate raw oysters straight from the rocks. There were so many fish in the sea they literally swam to your door. Dad even once caught a live flounder in his bare hands as it swam past his foot in the shallow tide. Much to our amazement, he bent down and picked it up as though he was pulling up a potato. It's a fishing story we've told countless times to family and friends and Dad beams with pride every time. 

On the Island we used candles and lamps to light our way and spent the days playing ‘house’ in the rock pools, making fancy dress costumes from whatever we could find, and playing cards, scrabble and monopoly. We invented lots of new games too. There was 'Scallop School' where we’d line up freshly caught scallops and poke them with sticks to see which ones would clamp their shells tight first (not very nice I know but hey, we were just kids). We pretended the small black sea anemones in our rock pool houses were pieces of magic interactive art, and played Hide and Go Seek for hours.   We learnt to sail, waterski and snorkel, marvelled in delight at how quickly our hair turned blonde and our skin darkened, and spent more time outside than in.   

There were no computers, no mobiles, no tvs and no video games. It was a proper classic 70s Kiwi holiday.

There were only three baches on the property - the Cave’s, the Mantell’s and the Brown’s – the rest of the island was covered in native bush and huge trees and around its base was rock and deep water shelves where sharks lurked waiting to eat small children that fell in. Or so our parents told us. We never went to the shelf alone to find out.

The Mantell’s bach was the biggest and it had several rooms including a dining area with huge windows and unlimited views of the sea and the mainland. The other baches were only one-roomed, filled with bunk beds. None of us ever wanted to stay in the Cave's bach as it was scary, tucked away beneath huge Pohutukawa and Douglas Fir trees.

A single dusty clay path ran from the back of the baches, and straight up the steep hill, through the fern beds and on to the top of the island. There were rumours that the island was haunted. Indeed, there was a deep, seemingly bottomless, open grave at the top of the island which locals said was the burial site of a great Maori chief. Whether they were pulling our leg we’ll never know, but we never stayed up there too long in case something jumped out and dragged us into the hole.  We often heard ghostly voices outside our windows late at night but our parents just said it was the wind.

We hardly ever saw people, except once a fortnight when one of us would begrudgingly have to go with Dad on a small speed boat to the mainland to stock up on supplies. It was heart-wrenching and bewildering to be back in civilisation, surrounded by holiday homes, cars, Mr Whippy and noisy people wearing clothes. Far away from our beloved island. One year the Spirit of Adventure grounded herself on the reef near the island and loads of the sailors and kids on board came onto our beach. We hadn't seen strangers for weeks and hid in the bushes while Mum and Dad gave them sandwiches and tea until a rescue boat arrived.  

We were living just like the Swiss Family Robinson, except without Ernest the Ostrich.  And lord knows why they called it Turkey Island. There were no turkeys to be found anywhere.

But we didn't need an ostrich or a turkey to amuse ourselves. There was so much wildlife around and Nature was our playground. We climbed trees, clambered over rocks and ran around the island until we wore ourselves out. We watched Oyster Catchers peeping around the rocks and chased Red Billed Gulls away from our freshly caught fish.  One year we rescued three abandoned ducklings in a storm and nursed them back to health. Two of them sadly died but the third, named Jeremy, came to stay with us in Auckland living out his days swimming in our bathtub and falling asleep on Dad's chest in front of TV. 

On our beloved Island, we saw turtles, stingrays leaping in the air and whales and dolphins playing out the back. The sunsets were to die for, the storms spectacular and the night skies endless. Sometimes it felt as though the Island itself was beaming with joy - happy to have all these naked screaming children running around in delight, exploring every thing it and Mother Nature could offer.

It was magic. Our own slice of Paradise. 

Shortly before we left New Zealand in the 70s to move to California, my parents were offered one of the baches for $500 but turned it down. $500 was a lot of money in those days and we didn't know if we would ever move back to New Zealand. 

We've been kicking ourselves ever since. Paradise Lost. And sadly, although we moved back to New Zealand years later, we never went back to Turkey Island.

Today, I can't imagine families living on an island like that for months on end with minimum contact with the outside world. My childhood on that Island felt so free and innocent. Those were the Disco days of the 70s, long before technology, before we had to cover up and stay indoors away from the deadly sun, before over-crowding, before over-fishing, before computer games and mobile phones, before the cost of beachside properties shot through the roof, before terrorists flew planes into buildings and commercial airlines were blasted from the skies. 

Before everything got so complicated. 

I went back to our Island for the first time a few years ago while visiting the Coromandel. I hired a small kayak and rowed around the island passing close to the beach, our rockpool houses and even the Shark-infested fishing shelves. The baches were still there, in fact they looked exactly the same as they had nearly 30 years before, even painted the same dark brown colour, curtains closed.   But something wasn't right. The island felt damp, sad, and lonely. There was a sense of melancholy in the air and I didn't want to step on the beach.  Of course the island felt smaller (I was much bigger), but something else had changed. Me. The world. 

As I sat bobbing around in my kayak it got me thinking about life today. If we'd visited the Island now, as opposed to 40 years ago, with our family of two adults and five children, would we have still loved it today as we did back then? Or would we have been completely absorbed in our mobiles, our computers, playing video games, facebooking and texting our friends, taking Instagram shots and watching television, ignorant of all the wild beauty at our back door.  Dad probably would never have caught that flounder and we'd never have spent that amazing Summer with Jeremy because we wouldn't have noticed those three tiny helpless ducklings lying on the lawn in the rain. We'd have been inside the bach watching TV.

I guess what I'm trying to say is every child needs an Island like Turkey Island, in fact every FAMILY needs an Island. A chance to really connect with the natural world, without television, without Facebook, without the internet. I'm not suggesting you throw away your phone or even move your family onto a remote island. But once or twice a month, why not completely switch off, stop and go outside? Stare at the clouds and look for shapes, laugh at the squirrels in the park, count the stars at night, watch the birds on the river. We spend so much time immersed in computers, mobile phones, television and video games, that we've lost sight of what's important.  The Outdoors. Nature. Our planet. 

Extraordinary things can happen when we stop and lift our gaze. Who knows? Maybe one of you will one day catch a flounder with your bare hands.

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