Islands of the Gulf: How the Hauraki has changed

by Fiona Rae / 24 February, 2018

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Islands of the Gulf.

Islands of the Gulf.

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A broadcaster revisits her mother’s iconic Islands of the Gulf TV series to see what’s changed since the 60s. 

Actor, writer and broadcaster Elisabeth Easther takes a voyage around her mother’s islands in a new show that recreates New Zealand’s first documentary series.

Islands of the Gulf (TVNZ 1, Saturday, 7.00pm) is a five-part series in which Easther uses the blueprint of the 1964 expedition famously produced and presented by her mother, pioneering broadcaster Shirley Maddock.

It was a huge hit at the time, giving New Zealanders a window on the everyday lives of resourceful island-dwellers in the Hauraki Gulf. Maddock and photographer Don Whyte subsequently produced a book, which became a best-seller.

Easther has been thinking about recreating and updating the series for about 10 years. For its time, it was a beautifully made piece of work – “just gorgeous”, says Easther – that has stood the test of time.

“They’re still so interesting. There’s not a part of me that goes, ‘Oh, cringe, you could have done that differently’, and Mum’s just this perky little thing, racing around in a nicely ironed shirt.”

Easther visits nearly all the same islands as her mum and Whyte, although she added a stopover at Tiritiri Matangi, which is a wildlife sanctuary these days. “In Mum’s day, it was just a farm with a lighthouse, so she flew over it.”

Don Whyte and Shirley Maddock on Great Barrier Island during filming for the  original series.

Don Whyte and Shirley Maddock on Great Barrier Island during filming for the  original series.

In fact, one of the major changes to many of the islands has been environmental protection. “You’ve got Hauturu [Little Barrier], which is amazingly pristine, you get Jurassic feelings while you’re there,” says Easther. “Tititiri is extraordinary. You see kiwi, morepork and tuatara all just going about their business completely oblivious to you. Mum would have loved that.”

Easther sought out people who were in the original series or, in some cases, their family members. In the first episode, she talks to Jim Burns, son of Waiheke businessman Bob. Back in the day, Bob predicted that Waiheke would become “a dormitory suburb of Auckland” and all it needed was a fast boat service.

But although there are many modern improvements to islanders’ way of life (Great Barrier even has cellphone coverage these days), Easther doesn’t think islanders have changed that much since 1964.

“They still like to make the most of every single thing; they don’t just chuck things away. Life is not pop down to the shops whenever you feel like it. They have to be very helpful to each other, even if you’ve gone there to be isolated. Even on the big ones like Waiheke, there’s a really strong sense of that.”

This article was first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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