New Zealand batch dwellers' island community

Gerrard Winstanley news at
Wed May 13 21:53:49 BST 2009

Islands in the stream
4:00AM Sunday May 03, 2009
Rachel Grunwell

An hour from Auckland - and a few minutes on a boat - is an isolated island community where people live for nothing. Photo / Doug Sherring

Alex Knight laughs as he negotiates the fast-flowing waters of the mighty Waikato.

He knows the river well - knows how to avoid floating debris and sandbanks, and knows about the people who live on the islands that punctuate its progress.

But he doesn't understand media interest in the retirees, recluses and "permanents" who stay at hundreds of handbuilt homes, huts and mai mai on a 50km stretch between Tuakau and Port Waikato, where the river spills into the Tasman Sea.

After all, they've been here for years, with the knowledge and apparent blessing of the local council and Environment Waikato, which administers the river.

It's a place where pukeko dance among the toe toe and reeds. Ducks, whitebait and fish abound. And anyone can pick a glossy patch of grass and build a bach smack bang on the water's edge.

But the islands are no place for latte-swilling suburbanites. The edges are carpeted in sloppy mud and have rotting makeshift moorings. There are no power or phone lines.

Yet the residents - many of them professionals with jobs such as government official, real estate agent and steel mill worker - more than get by. Some homes have two storeys and multiple bedrooms. Many have microwaves, TVs and computers.

Generators or wind turbines create electricity, while pot bellies and coal ranges cook roast dinners.

Julia Wilson, a 51-year-old Department of Corrections manager, is one of the few female regulars.

Her partner Geoff Gleeson, 45, an engineer, bought their one-bedroom wooden bach, complete with electricity, a spa bath, shower and toilet, for $1500 from a mate a year ago. The couple cook bacon and eggs on their coal range every morning and like to shoot, but mostly just kick back and enjoy the "beautiful" surroundings.

"I've got a stressful job," says Wilson "so we come here every weekend to chill out and relax."

Up to a dozen "permanents", as the locals call them, live on the islands fulltime. But most people stay for weekends, or for weeks or months at a time, usually during the whitebaiting and duck-shooting seasons.

The latter started yesterday "and will see the place resemble bloody Queen St with all the hordes of people", joked one hunter.

Without a documented owner, the structures do not come under the Building Act. And while it is always possible ownership could revert to the Crown, authorities seem happy to let things be.

The islands change in size with the tides. The Franklin District Council and Environment Waikato say many are considered "no man's land" and out of their jurisdiction.

Auckland real estate agent Michael Sadler sometimes stays at his friend Trevor Corin's 10-bed ramshackle abode, which Corin's father and friends built on 4m stilts more than 35 years ago. Car batteries run halogen lights and "it's all very civilised, but very rustic".

Sadler said that during duck shooting season there were "lots of townies like me", but "the real blokes are the Barry Crump types about".

The island is about 1000m by 500m at low tide, but only a 10th of that at high tide - "just a hut on a sand knob... Every time we come back we wonder if it will still be here."

That's a problem retired flooring contractor Gordon Pryor, 66, already faces. He and several family members built their six-bed "lodge" in 1991, putting in $200 each for materials and using free stuff from a mate to build on stilts. He used to have another bach closer to the water but it was swallowed up by the river.

Pryor spends months at a time at his bach and knows "the permanents". He's had a problem with thieves stealing parts of his copper coal range but has started taking the doors with him when he leaves.

"I love the peaceful life here; it's a totally different way of life," he raves. His extended family usually visit once a year for a midwinter Christmas dinner - "we eat the best roast dinners here cooked on the coal range".

Itchy Wright, 59, who won't give his real name, works at the steel mill and owns a two-storey house with wind turbines and an impressive vegetable patch.

He's been there more than a decade and enjoys "a pretty cool life". The former farmer, who drinks rainwater collected on his roof, plays down the free land, saying running a boat "can be real expensive".

His rottweiler Trixie guards his house, which would not look out of place in the city, while he works. He admits he gets lonely but isn't giving up his pad for anyone.

Kerry Ellis and his dog Zing have been at Gunn Lodge Ltd for well over a decade.

He keeps to himself, has no contact with his four children and three grandchildren, but talks with neighbours, including one who gets his groceries from Pukekohe.

The sickness beneficiary, a former engineer and carnation grower, says he decided to "escape from the world" and live in his bach because it was cheap.

Waiuku farmer Noel Hosking, 53, has been visiting his family's one-room bach, built by his grandfather, since he was 10. His son isn't keen, but he hopes his young grandson will grow up to love the place as much as him.

"We eat the same there as we do at home. It's as much a social event during the shooting season out there, and there are a few characters."

Environment Waikato water safety worker Kim McKenzie says authorities know about "all sorts of types living there". Harbour master Richard Barnett, reckons "it's all quite quaint".

"I've talked to some of the folk there and they're third generation some of them." He has no problem with them living there - "I guess until someone decides that it shouldn't be".

Some island residents fear that time could be coming. The water around the islands could soon be co-administered by Tainui and Environment Waikato, if Parliament ratifies a Waikato River co-management deal.

That prospect has left many islanders afraid the iwi might take away their treasured places.

"We could lose everything," said one worried local, who did not want to be named.

A Tainui spokeswoman said on Friday she was too busy with Kingitanga celebrations to comment.

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