The Monday Extract: Peter Malcouronne’s superb new book on Great Barrier Island features an extraordinary interview with Jade Webster – labourer, surfer, survivor.
This book extract contains discussion of abuse that may be distressing to some readers.
Usually you’ll find her on the digger. Inside the cab, left joystick working the swing, right the bucket and boom, Jade Webster loves “ripping it up”. She deals to disintegrating roads, cleans out flood-choked drains, resurrects broken rock walls. But most of the time, the self-taught Webster – “driving a digger is just like playing spacies” – repairs culverts. There are hundreds of these under-road tunnels on the island. “I know where every culvert is on the Barrier,” she says. “Every single one.”
Jade works for Tom Daly Contracting. Today they’re working up past Medlands Beach, where a 30-metre strip has cracked up, subsided and started sliding into a ditch. But Big Tom Daly is in the digger today: Jade’s the lollipop girl.
It’s not normally a job she covets. There’s not much traffic on the Barrier so Jade will stand there, nothing to do, for two minutes, five minutes, sometimes more. When a car finally pulls up, she’ll have a good yarn.
Stop. Go. It’s not her thing. The 39-year-old hates standing around. She gets bored quickly. This is a woman who cuts the sleeves off shirts to make them more practical and herself more blokesome. She has hair she doesn’t really know what to do with, so pulls it back to a single, unravelling ponytail, or muffles it under an ENZED beanie. Biceps. Real bloke biceps. And forearms. The result of roadwork and paddling out to catch the best breaks.
But today’s different. Today Jade’s got the best view on the island, out over Medlands, the perfect crescent-shaped beach on the island’s east side. An hour passes, then another. Jade stares out to sea, entranced, lost in her own world.
“Just checking the waves out,” she says. “Not the size of them really, but the wind direction. You want off-shore down there – that holds the waves up. If it’s on-shore, it’s all crumbly and messy.
“It’s just a beautiful beach. I learnt how to surf there, nearly drowned there. It’s where I get a lot of crayfish. I got married there. It’s my place.”
Jade moved out here in the early 1990s when she was in her late teens. Came over for the weekend with her then boyfriend and basically never left. The usual Barrier story.
Worked for a year with John Da Silva at his teens’ boot camp at Mangati Bay. Then she was a hammerhand for a while. Did fencing. House painting. Bits and pieces. Just enough to get by.
“I’ve always been a labourer, diggin’ holes and that kinda stuff. I remember once puttin’ in a whole lot of posts for a guy. Big job. And he comes back late arvo to find this huge hole in the ground and me standing at the bottom of it.
“There’d been all these rocks in there you see, rocks as big as a frickin’ house! Now they’re all sitting outside the hole and he can’t believe it.
“‘How the fuck did you get those out?’
“And I say, ‘I just got them out, mate. Lifted them up’.”
The fence post fellow was impressed. He had an Aussie mate who owned a fishing company who’d been looking for a hard-as-nails Trojan. And so that’s how Jade found herself working the prawn boats. Over the next four years, for seasons lasting up to three months, she was in Australia. She’d start out in Cairns, head up around the Gulf of Carpentaria, then to Darwin and across to Papua New Guinea. Then sometimes back down to Western Australia. It was real tough going, but there’s good money at sea. When Jade finished her stint in 2000 she had enough for a section at Blind Bay and, with a mate’s help, built a house.
“It was pretty rustic,” she says. “Just a shell, really. Kitchen had a couple of rings for cooking and a 20-litre container for water.
“I had one of those solar showers you buy for 30 bucks. You boil up some water and have a shower with this tiny little nozzle. Now: try standing on the deck in the nuddie when a sou’wester starts blowing… sheeeeeeet you freeze ya tits off!”
She cracks up, her laugh filling the room. But this little house was all she needed – the perfect crash pad, somewhere to sleep after surfing.
“I didn’t have much work for a couple of years. And so I cruised from this beach to that – from Medlands to Awana to Ōkiwi. Everywhere, wherever surf was happening. That’s all I did. That was my life.”
She had an old 70s board to start with, a classic one-finner. Not the easiest for a beginner. “I stood up in the first couple of days – and then fell off. Then basically got smashed on the beach for two years.
“But I’d head back out there. Bang. Hammered again. Wiped out. You hit the bottom and sometimes you’ll be held under. I can remember being held under for two lots – when it’s just massive. You’re getting pounded, mangled. You’re under for half a minute, then another half and then when you think you’re never going to get out, the sea lets you go.”
That first gasp of air in your salt-seared throat has the magic of your first breath. You have nothing left so you paddle back to shore where all your smart-arse mates are waiting. “You’re supposed to be surfing, Jade,” they say. “Not diving.”
There’s teasing, but also respect. You head back to the car, board under the arm, and hear them say, “Those short little stumpy arms… I don’t know how she does it.”
You’re tired the next morning, absolutely drained. You feel like you’ve been through the wringer, Jade says. “But as soon as it’s daylight, it’s in the car. Board. Gone.”
And then one day everything falls into place and you’re away. You learn about the water. You learn to read the waves. You know when the sets are coming. When it’s the right time to paddle out.
“You feel the waves. You know what’s coming and you just go with it. Ride it.”
And then you get your wave. “Oh, it’s just amazing. Exhilarating. There’s nothing in the world like it. Your heart’s just going boof, boof, boof: sometimes you forget to breathe.”
Hour after hour – once at Medlands she was in the water for nine hours straight. Even when her hands looked like dried apricots, even when she was shivering and the wee in her wetsuit wouldn’t warm her up, she wouldn’t get out. She had to stay for one more wave.
But she hasn’t been out so much lately. “Big surf – it shits me these days. Things that never used to scare me, they scare you a bit now. And now I’ve got a daughter, everything changes. You have to be careful.”
Jade’s obsession has found its place in a new one: her daughter’s name is Ocean.
It’s just gone seven on a sharp August morning. Too early for the sun to make a difference: Jade’s rugged up in a red hoodie, toes burrowing into clammy sand, looking out over Medlands.
The sea fed her for the first decade she lived here. “When I came to the Barrier we had nothing. We had no luxuries – just flour pretty much. It was: ‘If you wanna eat, go catch it.’ That’s what we lived by.”
They’d leave home early, fishing rods in hand, with some Johnnycakes – girdle scones – in the bag. They didn’t have a car so they’d walk, sometimes hitch from Ōkupu to their fishing spots. It’d take an hour. Then they’d fish all day, sometimes all night.
They say Jade knows the best places on the island for crayfish, not that she’ll tell you where. “I’ve got some big monsters, mate. Sixteen-pound packhorses. They’re huge.”
You share it out. “You have a good day and you can feed the whole neighbourhood. You don’t expect anything back, but if you do, sweet. You’ll drop off some fish and they’ll disappear out the back for a minute and come back with a huge box of veggies.”
The sun’s up now. Jade raises her left hand, catches a shard of light in her palm. “I can’t tell you exactly when this place became my home. Maybe it was that first day and the moment I looked down and saw this.
“I can’t stay too long away from here. I couldn’t live in town. I don’t want to live in that crap.
“But this island. It’s in your soul, I don’t know if you feel it but you know once you’re away from it. It’s just a special place for special people.”
She doesn’t say anything for a moment, then a minute – an hour in Jade time. There’s something else, she says, but she’s not sure where to start.
She laughs. “Me?” she says. “Lost for words? Nah. Not likely.” Except she is. More silence. More looking out to sea, listening to the splish of the waves. She starts again: harks back to the lost boys (and girls) of John da Silva’s boot camps. “Those kids – I grew up very similar to them. Love? I never had it. I never had it, mate.
“My mum didn’t want my brother or me because the guy she was with… we weren’t his kids. And my biological father lived in Australia.
“We didn’t know him until I was eight years old. We didn’t know who he was. He just popped out of nowhere and went to my brother’s school and pulled him out. And all of a sudden it was: ‘Your brother’s living with your father’. And I thought: ‘Yo. Cool. I wanna go too’. I mean, you go with it because… what else have you got? Where else have you got to go?
“He raped me from when I was eight years old to the age of 13.”
And that’s why, she says, the people on this island have become her whānau. “I don’t want to sound like a pussy: I really mean that.
“I should be a lot different than what I am. But I’ve turned out all right, I think. I’m pretty lucky. I don’t take shit from anyone. I won’t have it. And all that shit you go through makes you real stronger as a person.”
Talking about it, she says, is her therapy. Telling different people, even strangers. Though it took Jade until she was 30 to tell her mother.
“I said to Mum: ‘You made some really bad decisions but I forgive ya.’ I know some people think it’s weird to forgive that kind of stuff, but I do. I know she loves me. You have to forgive. It’s what you have to do to let it go.
“I’m a Christian in my own funny, fucked-up way. I believe in God and I believe in Jesus. And one of the main things is forgiveness. And I’ve even had to forgive my father. And that’s a hard thing, eh – you’ve got to have big balls to be able to do that. And hard, too, because I had nothing but hate for him. I could’ve easily shot him – but why?
“I still carry it with me but the bad, bad shit that happened… he can have it. It’s off me – I’ve given it back to him.”
She looks out at the ocean. Watery winter sun barely lightens the still-inky surf. The endless rhythms of earth and sea forever in flux. We’ll sit here together for an hour.
An edited excerpt taken from Aotea Great Barrier: Land and people by Chris Morton and Peter Malcouronne (Potton & Burton, $69.99), available at Unity Books.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.