A mere half hour ride from Auckland’s city centre, Waiheke Island is New Zealand’s never never land – it’s hard to tell who actually lives there and what they do. Known for beaches and wine, the island attracts a combination of the super rich and eccentric hippies and is largely supported by travellers on working holiday visas. Evidenced by my friend Cat’s first comments when she picked me up at the ferry terminal. “Oh yes, I’m working barefoot here,” she said when she saw me staring at her muddy feet. She is a vineyard hand at the Italian owned Poderi Crisci on the island’s remote east side. “I need to show you the pictures of our staff party last week. It was on a super yacht, unlimited champagne.”
On Waiheke Island it’s hard to tell who actually lives there and what they do.
I met Cat in Indonesia, where we were both working in the scuba dive industry. We lived on Nusa Lembongan, a tiny island off of Bali’s mainland – just as Auckland is considered the mainland to those living on Waiheke. There is something special about small islands. “It’s the community,” Cat says. “You can’t leave.” I comment that there are people coming and going all the time. She explains that the island is free spirited but geographically confined. Everyone is transient, but for the moment they are here they are trapped together on the island, and are fully present in that shared moment. On the mainland you are thinking about the past and the future, whereas on an island only the present exists.
Islands are free spirited but geographically confined. On the mainland you are thinking about the past and the future, whereas on an island only the present exists.
Cat takes me out for sunset Pimms Cups at Cable Bay. Known for having the best view on the island, Cable Bay is on a hilltop above Oneroa town. You can see down the island’s coast and across the bay to Auckland. Families, groups of friends, and couples all drag bean bags onto the lawn and drift around throughout the sunset. The city skyline is like a mirage and the sky’s changing colours drip down the hilltop into the sea. Once the sun sets the Auckland city lights start to flicker. From Cable Bay the Auckland nightlife looks like a time lapse video, while on Waiheke time moves in slow motion.
From Cable Bay the Auckland nightlife looks like a time lapse video, while on Waiheke time moves in slow motion.
“Jade will be here soon.” We wait for Cat’s best friend before going out. “I texted her two weeks ago. I mean, two hours ago.” I get the sense that for those living on Waiheke, weeks pass as hours do on the mainland. And for those visiting, the hours pass as weeks. We drive through Oneroa town and Cat laughs as Jade struggles with the window. “It’s a baby window, you have to wait for me to put it down.”
Jade lights her cigarette and flicks ash outside. “I never come here, it feels too much like a city.” Oneroa is a city only by Waiheke standards, it is the most crowded corner of the island and home to most of its 8000 permanent inhabitants. Cat complains about the lack of parking. “Function again. Wedding again. This island is a wedding factory.” It’s a weekday night and the main street is full of cars, but most of the establishments are empty except for a function at the Beach Club.
“Baby is done smoking,” Jade says. “You can do up the window now.”
Jade is twenty years old and just starting her career as a chef at one of the island’s top restaurants. To Cat and I she is a baby. She disagrees. “You have to start young as a chef, I started two years ago, it’s already too late. I should’ve started when I was fifteen.” When Jade was fifteen she was on track to become a professional ballerina and classical pianist. Then she fell in love with a chef that had a resort contract in Tonga. After six months in the south Pacific she had fallen out of love with him, but in love with chef life.
Like many hospitality workers on the island, Jade survives off leftover bottles of wine from her restaurant. She walks into the party with a mostly full bottle of her winery’s Bordeaux blend, likely worth more than her daily wages. Her posture is that of a ballerina, back straight, shoulders relaxed, toes pointed slightly outwards in a plié. Somehow she makes drinking straight from the bottle look graceful.
We leave the party to go to the Irish pub. “It’s a shitty place, but you will see everyone you know there,” Cat says. Each pub has a corresponding night of the week, it’s how the locals determine the day. The Irish pub consists of a few interconnected rooms in a run down house. Some rooms are overly lit to accommodate the pool tables, while the other rooms are so dark that it’s hard to make your way through them. Cat recognises a neighboring restaurant’s manager at the bar. “We always see him out drinking. Always by himself.” Hospitality work is brutal over summer; from November through March sixty-hour weeks are the norm and holiday time is not an option. It’s still a far cry from Cat’s former career as a tax lawyer in Paris. “In France all I did was make rich people richer, I want to make people happy.” Having also recently made the decision to quit a professional career and work in tourism, I ask Cat if she’s received flac from her former colleagues as I have. Some people seem to think that Cat and I have left important work for something frivolous and fun. Cat says that her friends and family in France are keen to invest in her whether she decides to open a dive shop or manage a vineyard. It’s not about a financial return or a profit share, it’s about selling a dream. “If you offer people a dream, that is priceless. That dream is everything to someone working in an office in Paris.” Remembering to enjoy life is not frivolous, enjoyment is actually the meaning of life. And Waiheke is a place that is very good at reminding people of that.
“If you offer people a dream, that is priceless,” Cat says. Enjoyment in life is not frivolous, it is actually the meaning of life. And Waiheke is a place that is very good at reminding people of that.
Jade rolls another cigarette, balancing a filter between her nose and upper lip as she talks. Their conversation centers around who is having visa issues, who is leaving, and who has changed their mind and decided to stay after already having a leaving party. Cat has been doing freelance work throughout harvest, getting experience and making connections at a range of vineyards. “I know it’s silly, but freelance work is a bit stressful. I have heaps of job offers, but it’s hard to manage them all and you never know if you have work until the last minute.”
“Oh come on, it’s not possible to be stressed on Waiheke,” Jade says.
“From you? How can you say that?” Cat mimics Jade, “I need a holiday, my whole life is in the kitchen.”
“It will be good to be on holiday,” Jade says.
“But this week is good too.”
“Mais oui, every week is good here.”