Bumped into an old friend the other day. Goes by the name of Waiheke. Used to know the place well when the S.S. Baroona chugged into the channel and about an hour later, discharged us on to Matiatia’s humble wharf.
A gravel road snaked up from there, but then gravel roads were standard throughout this Gulf Island. We would walk. Or board the bus which, with a tubercular death rattle climbed up the hill, leaving behind it dense clouds of black smoke.
Wherever we went, open country and beaches and stunning strips of sand shaded by pohutukawa welcomed us. But perhaps the island’s most precious gift was solitude, which possibly explained why its population of about 900 lived there – far away from Auckland with its big city pretensions when it was really just a dowdy little town of 400,000.
Waiheke was home to lots of characters – alcoholics, a scattering of creatives, and the retired – people who wanted to get away from it all in this jewel of the Gulf.
I left and didn’t return for nearly 20 years, returning briefly in an amphibian because of a David and Goliath news story on the aptly named Man-o-War Beach. There, a young woman called Sandra Lee danced on a huge pile of shingle and shouted her protest at the rich depriving the community of public access to the beach. Who won? Over 30 years later, David – in the Privy Council.
In 2002 the law lords ruled in favour of the Auckland City Council, a decision that allows the public permanent access. They said Mr Spencer, former owner of Caxton Pulp and Paper and once the richest man in New Zealand, never had the right to close the road.
But all this had become somewhat in-house because in that time I’d never visited the island, partly to avoid the Kingdom of Yups, the legions of baby-boomers who kept Fullers’ ferry service unhappy, and the increasing Costa del Sol reputation of the place.
Then a friend persuaded me to go and it seemed like the time to match long held prejudices with reality. People say it’s always wrong to go back, because I’d come back sorry. But I already had my invite – now my challenge was not just to open my mind but to wrench it free of stereotypes.
The first step was joining the throng at the elegant old Ferry Building. We took the 9a.m. ferry on a Saturday, and sitting in its air conditioned comfort as it cruised towards the island, getting us there in half the time it took the old Baroona.
Matiatia’s flash terminal greeted us and our bus drove along sealed roads past the island’s foodie hub – a spot flavoured by both the smell of chips and garlic – and favoured with breathtaking views over the gulf. The island was clearly no longer a backwater – with its 8,000 residents, Waiheke was buzzing. We headed for the Ostend markets which we were told were a must for food, everything from empanadas to deliciously light galettes.
We finally returned to the wharf in a taxi whose driver was chipper about most things except the AT double-decker bus which had been introduced to the island. The next night we watched TV news and there it was: history repeating itself over another corporate intrusion on the community’s interests. This time the islanders marched in the street to protest the invasion of that double-decker bus. ‘Double decker – Island wrecker’ said some placards.
“Why did they allow a double-decker here?” we asked our taxi driver.
“More money” she said flatly.
And that is what has changed Waiheke from the idle-a-while place we knew so many years earlier, to one which is in danger of losing its soul.