Thursday 24 January 2013

Barrier burning

The fires in Australia are still burning, sadly - and now we have some of our own. They've flared up all over the country, particularly in Canterbury (the latest set off by the army blithely chucking grenades around in tinder-dry conditions: d'oh) and for the last three days there's been one burning on Great Barrier Island, which is a 4-hour ferry ride from Auckland central. They've got a lot of trees and bush on the Barrier - one of its first industries was forestry, kauri timber from there being used to rebuild San Francisco after its post-earthquake fire in 1906 - and it's horrible to see aerial footage of smoke and flames over its green hills.
In one shot, I'm sure I could see Steve Billingham's teepee - it's a pretty distinctive shape, and even in such an alternative place as the Barrier, how many of them could there be? It's the genuine article, apart from the upside-down umbrella hanging under the opening to catch the rain. Steve built it himself and frequently sleeps in it with his partner, relishing the back-to-basics feel of it (although the mattress in there looked pretty comfortable). He's quite a character, a lean, cheerful guy in shades and skinny black jeans who's lived there for years and has his fingers in lots of pies, like most of the Islanders. He drives the school bus, and also takes tourists like me for tours around the island, telling all the stories including the gossip, and indulging his inner Westie by giving people rides on his precious 3-wheeled motorbike.
The story I wrote about it ended like this:  I’m getting to recognise that the Barrier is all about personal passions, so when Steve takes us to his place I’m not surprised to discover that he has a full-sized teepee on his lawn and a totem pole by the path that leads down to where his kayaks wait beside the river. Maybe it’s his American Indian profile, maybe it’s just that the Wild West spirit fits so well on the island; but when he fires up his 1600cc shiny blue Crazyhorse Trike we’re fighting to settle in behind him for a gentle burn around the hills. My hair blows in the warm wind and I can hear the cicadas buzzing in the bush as we wind down to Okupu Bay, where we find a pod of twenty dolphins lazily breaking the surface of the glossy water. Later, I see them again from the plane as we fly out, still there, just hanging in the bay. Lucky.

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