Modern pioneers

They live in beautiful isolation, make their living from land and sea and home-school their children and they don’t feel they’re missing a thing

Whekenui Bay, Arapawa Island is home to the Radon family. History books say Arapawa Island is the longest-lived whaling settlement in New Zealand. John (Jacky) Guard started whaling here in the late 1820s and Italian fisherman Joe Perano continued the enterprise from 1911 until 1964. Antonia and Mike Radon say they’ve seen some amazing wildlife in the 19 years they’ve lived on the island. “Recently we had an orca in the bay chasing a stingray. It swam so close to the shore it looked as if it was going to walk straight out of the water.” (Image by Jacqui Gibson).

Whekenui Bay, Arapawa Island is home to the Radon family. History books say Arapawa Island is the longest-lived whaling settlement in New Zealand. John (Jacky) Guard started whaling here in the late 1820s and Italian fisherman Joe Perano continued the enterprise from 1911 until 1964. Antonia and Mike Radon say they’ve seen some amazing wildlife in the 19 years they’ve lived on the island. “Recently we had an orca in the bay chasing a stingray. It swam so close to the shore it looked as if it was going to walk straight out of the water.” (Image by Jacqui Gibson).

 

It’s 7.15am when 10-year-old James Radon wanders into the kitchen to start his school day. He’s barefoot. His short-cropped, straw-coloured hair is a riot of kinks and rooster’s tails. From one hand dangles a crumpled maths book featuring the day’s geometry lesson, from the other an almost-blunt pencil. The lanky youngster sits down at the kitchen table. “Hey, dad,” he says cheerfully to the 62-year-old sitting opposite him, “wana hear my eight times tables?”

Mike looks up and gives his son an affectionate wink before downing the last of his muesli. He suggests James rattle off his 12s - after all, most real-life fishermen tot up their catches that way. And so James’ enthusiastic recital begins.

Mike, a long-time diver and fisherman from California, has been up since 5am. He and his Kiwi wife Antonia have already tended to 40 or so tanks of paua (farmed in a converted woolshed on the beach), prepped fishing gear for an afternoon dive and rallied the troops to “rise and shine”.

James, the youngest of the Radon’s close-knit brood, will lend a hand after lunch when school is done. Or maybe he’ll jump on a quad bike and gun it to Cook’s Lookout - a high point on the island where Captain Cook reportedly first saw the strait that now bears his name.

That said it might be fun to climb the gnarled pohutukawa trees out front and spend the afternoon spying on siblings Sarah and Jacob as they go about their chores. Hmmmmm. But which tree for the best vantage? The options are endless for a boy who fancies himself as a professional hunter one day and who can’t get enough of TV show I Shouldn’t Be Alive.

View over the treacherous, muscular eddies of the Tory Channel from the property’s high point (image by Jacqui Gibson).

View over the treacherous, muscular eddies of the Tory Channel from the property’s high point (image by Jacqui Gibson).

All three Radon kids - James and 14-year-old twins Sarah and Jacob - are Arapawa natives, having resided on the 75km2 island for their entire lives. Like generations of whalers’ and fishermen’s kids before them, they have learned to cope with social remoteness (albeit aided by the internet, cellphones and near-constant supply of electricity). They’re expert at finding fun in hard work and the natural work around them. And they’re determinedly self-reliant.

Jacob explains: “Do I get lonely here? Absolutely. But when I feel that way I hang out with my brother and sister, I go rock-hopping or I find escape in my books - I’ve read 20, maybe 30 books already this year.

“They’ve taken me to all kinds of cool places. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have friends my age. But, truthfully, I just can’t imagine leaving here - it’s such a beautiful, peaceful place. Being in the native bush, hearing birds like the tui - it’s really very inspiring.”

To Sarah, the family farm is the ultimate playground for rounding up cattle on horseback, diving for crays and raising chickens. “She has an immense curiosity about the things around her and the way they work. And she’s never shy to tell you how it’s done either. We reckon she’s destined to be the boss of something big one day,” says Mike, with an equal mix of pride and good humour.

Unquestionably, the Radons’ Whekenui Bay property is located in a breathtaking part of the word. “The first time we saw the views from the old Perano home, we knew we wanted to spend our lives and raise a family here,” recalls Antonia. “We suspected it would take a lifetime of work but the lure of this place was irresistible.”

Antonia and Mike bought the 3.6km2 farm and collection of historic buildings that went with it from the Perano family after an unplanned visit to the Marlborough Sounds in 1993. At the time, the couple were taking a six-week break from diving for sea urchin in northern California.

They’d been diving commercially and living on a boat together for almost five years during boom time in the American kina industry. By then Mike, diving since he was 13, was hankering to settle down on his own piece of dirt by the sea. Antonia was beginning to feel the same way.

New Zealand’s depressed property prices and emerging aquaculture industry convinced the pair to chance a move Down Under. Within 48 hours of visiting the property a deal was signed and the sea-front farm was theirs.

“We decided to pay as much of it off as quickly as we could,” explains Antonia. “We could see it needed knocking into shape and we knew we’d need money down the track to make the place economically viable in the long term.

So that’s what they did. They returned to the US, married and spent the next five years diving to pay for their new home on Arapawa Island. Every year for six weeks in the New Zealand winter (the diving off-season) the Radons would return home, roll up their sleeves and get to work on the farm. They started by restoring the Perano home, a 1940s bungalow named Gunyah with sweeping views over the Tory Channel.

A regular mail boat service brings goods and visitors to Arapawa Island from Picton (image Jacqui Gibson).

A regular mail boat service brings goods and visitors to Arapawa Island from Picton (image Jacqui Gibson).

The original Perano homestead looking over Tory Channel out to Cook Strait is now a holiday home for rent (image by Jacqui Gibson).

The original Perano homestead looking over Tory Channel out to Cook Strait is now a holiday home for rent (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Next they tackled the 50-year-old Whekenui schoolhouse, followed by the woolshed-cum-workshop, originally used to fix whale-chaser boats. Finally, they spruced up the property’s main homestead where they live today.

Walking down Gunyah’s hallway, Antonia pauses to run her fingers along the dark wooden doorframes.

“I’ve spent hours removing the lacquer and bringing the wood back to its original state. It’s been worth it, I think. I really wanted to retain the character of the place. I searched high and low for carpet of the era and opted to reupholster and use the family’s original lounge suite, too. To me, it’s important to have that sense of connection to the past,” she says.

Arapawa Island is itself testament to the difficult and awe-inspiring lives of the Māori and European settlers who inhabited its bays, farmed its pastures and fished its waters for centuries.

One of the Radon’s beloved pooches (image by Jacqui Gibson).

One of the Radon’s beloved pooches (image by Jacqui Gibson).

The remnants of the Perano whaling station, used to process humpback whales between 1911 and 1964, is a half-hour walk from Whekenui Bay. Hike further north to Onauku in East Bay and visitors can stand on the exact spot where an original Māori waka was dug up.

Mike and Antonia believe it’s the unique history of Arapawa as well as its beauty that makes the island a top-notch place to stay. Many tourists seem to agree. Since 2005, the Radons have hosted almost 500 WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) and guests.

I see our place as a bridge between the old world - the pioneering world - and modern island life

ANTONIA RADON — MODERN PIONEER

“I see our place as a bridge between the old world - the pioneering world - and modern island life,” says Antonia. “In a lot of ways we live like people have always done. We’re fairly isolated. We eat what we grow in the garden and get from the sea. We depend on one another for company. And our kids are home-schooled through distance learning."

“But we’re also part of the 21st century. You see it in how we make a living. We have a 1.4-tonne paua quota. We farm cattle and sheep, but in small numbers. We offer holiday accommodation. In 2001, Mike and I went into farming baby paua that we sell back to paua farmers to grow-on. We’ve since added paua pearl farming to the list.”

Mike Radon back from a dive, Whekenui Bay, Marlborough Sounds (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Mike Radon back from a dive, Whekenui Bay, Marlborough Sounds (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Antonia Radon, Whekenui Bay (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Antonia Radon, Whekenui Bay (image by Jacqui Gibson).

It doesn’t stop there. Next winter, Mike will make his annual pilgrimage to Bristol Bay in Alaska for the salmon season, reuniting with dear friends (in-laws of former governor Sarah Palin) and leaving Antonia to run the show at home. Mike says he’ll aim to catch around six or seven tonnes of salmon a day for up to three weeks and reckons it’ll be an extra-exciting year with both James and Sarah planning to join him as crew.

If all this seems like too much hard yakka, the Radon family isn’t saying so. “We’re doing what we love. And we’re doing it for the lifestyle - we’re not here to make millions. Besides Mike and I are a very good team. We’re happy to work hard for something we’re passionate about,” says Antonia.

This story first appeared in New Zealand Life & Leisure magazine.


Stay with the Radons at Whekenui Bay, www.arapawahomestead.co.nz

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