By: gregory o'brien


'Uninhabitable islands surrounded by dangerous rocks.’ This was how a correspondent to the Feilding Star described the Kermadecs in 1886. An honest statement, as far as it goes--yet this island-group, New Zealand's northernmost territory, is a much more complex, fascinating, challenging and inspiring place than that.

In the past the islands have attracted Crusoe-like settlers and wash-ins, of whom the self-professed Kermadec king Thomas Bell (resident from 1877-1913) was the most notable. Scientists are still coming to terms with the place (since the documented 1907 Oliver Expedition, you could count the number of serious scientific forays into the region on the fingers of one hand. It remains, to this day, an exciting frontier). Over the past century, the navy has visited, as have meteorologists, coast-watchers, conservationists and some overly optimistic orchardists, who tried, unsuccessfully, to set up an orange-exporting operation. A German raider was based off Raoul Island-the main Kermadec island-during World War One.

Artists including John Pule, Robin White and Phil Dadson travelled there in 2011 and the work they made as a result can be seen at If the remoteness of the Kermadecs makes them hard for humans to get a handle on, the land, sea and sky of the region are a hub for fishes and seabirds, and the waters are a migratory route for many whale species.

While Raoul is visited by considerably fewer people than the number who make it to the top of Mount Everest, the Kermadecs are a relevant and powerful part of Aotearoa/New Zealand, our stepping stone to the Pacific Islands, rich in Polynesian as well as European history and mythology, a pristine oceanic environment and one of the very few territories of New Zealand that come close to being 100% Pure. The Kermadecs is a region about which we still have much to learn and it’s a part of New Zealand we will be hearing a lot more about in the future.

The majority of these photographs locate the Kermadecs in the past. Steve Gentry’s book, RAOUL AND THE KERMADECS, launched at the National Library in September 2013, brings the story right up to date. And further information is at


Vast continent of
every tilted or rolling
thing—eyes and teeth
of implausible fish, stars
and planets on their
undersea orbits.


Ghost shark, anvil, kite
starboard, windward, my childhood
on Raoul Island, sustain me.

Orange supply, Raoul Island

Bird rattle of
a cyclone-tossed greenness
ever-decreasing orchard.

Oneraki Beach, Raoul Island

Unbreaking rocks
Broken sea

Unbroken sea
Breaking rocks

Kermadec Trench 2

Everything overheard
or lost from
hearing: song of

the coral palm, diving petrel
and one-eyed urchin
chapter and verse

of the Isaiah-fish, bird-
burrowed sea
in which we dive down

and are retrieved—that
which light enters so
as never to leave.

Oneraki Beach, Raoul Island

I was raised by rocks, but not
as one of them. Upended
by storms, I was raised
by nikau palms, but I was never
one of them. I was raised by waves—
the waves talking, always talking
to themselves, always listening—
and raised as one of them

Emotional life of Thomas Bell, Raoul Island

The lake in the poem
depends upon
who stands

before it—Hettie or Bess
or, most likely

It might have been
the Blue or
the Green—

or maybe lakes
had no names
back then?

The hills moved

or, less often, south
and the transient
Wolverine Rock

which kept reappearing
offshore, but only
upon the birth

of a daughter, was neither
here nor there.
The weather takes

the edges off most things.
The island tethered
or set adrift

depending on which
daughter dives
into which

lake. But it is their eyes
I remember most
not as they

looked, but as they
at me

or at someone who stood
where I stand
as if to lose

what I have lost.

(poems by Gregory O'Brien, written on Raoul Island, May 2011)

Subjects: Kermadecs, artists, Gregory OBrien, poets, Raoul Island, Sunday Island

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