Summer Splash

Poolside or hillside, this month’s fashion is all outside glamour. Nothing could sweep you further from the office than a jumpsuit in nostalgic ice cream pink worn under a blue sky beside the pool. Did I mention holiday? Use your wardrobe to fast-track you there. Relax in wide-brimmed hats, laze in coverall dresses and pay homage to the sun.

Resort Wide Brim Panama by Rebe, $499; Dharma Wide Leg Jumpsuit by SABA, $449; Elke Braided Sandal by La Tribe, $349.90.

Left: Skirt, stylist’s own; Ribbed swimsuit by COS, $99. Right: Slimfit dress by COS, $175.

Moismont Tunic in Kim Firefly by Madder & Rouge, $259; Sugar Sliders in Buoyant Orange by Allbirds, $80.

Wilmer dress by Caitlin Crisp, $485.


Making The Cult

Lily Richards interviews Anke Richter, author of the new book Cult Trip

Listen to the full article here – read by Susanna Andrew

Author: Anke Richter

The first rule of cults is: don’t ever call it a cult. Which is a problem if you’re trying to write a book about them. The patience and pivoting that author and journalist Anke Richter exhibited in finding subjects willing to talk is extraordinary. She set out to trace the still-raw wounds of Centrepoint, the more contemporary sexual abuse in religious community Gloriavale, and the controversial tantric yoga school Agama. 

But all of these communities, operating outside of mainstream cultural norms, rely on secrecy. Getting people to talk openly, even decades later, proved complicated

When she finally finds someone brave, angry or arrogant enough to speak, their stories are wildly disparate from each other. For example, Centrepoint was both a freeing and benevolent social experiment (if you were an adult) and an inescapable nightmare of unrelenting sexual abuse (if you were a child). 

Of course, it’s not as clear-cut as that. There are plenty of inbetweens; women who didn’t feel taken advantage of, men who felt the therapy they received was beneficial, and children who had a happy upbringing. But mostly, a narrative of two violently opposing accounts begins to take shape.

How to tell the story was clearly a hard call to make. Richter is constantly juggling her journalistic integrity with the desire to judge perpetrators for their callousness. She openly struggles with the rage she feels at the unchecked suffering the victims endured and the lack of retributive justice they received. 

I ask Richter about the lack of accountability from the adults involved. I want to know if she saw a correlation between the kind of person who ends up in a cult and the kind of person who struggles to take responsibility for their own actions.

“Totally,” she agrees. “There’s a deliberate sort of ‘Us versus Them’ narrative to keep people in and to demonise what’s on the outside.”

Although there are similarities in people who end up in cults (they’re usually experiencing a “temporary situational vulnerability” such as job frustration, money troubles or relationship issues) Richter points out “no one intends to join a cult.” 

Herself included. A seasoned journalist who cut her teeth profiling the rich and famous in her home country of Germany, she turned her attention to cults after her own search for spiritual growth put her in the middle of one.

Having immigrated to New Zealand with her doctor husband and two sons nearly 20 years ago, Richter’s heritage is important. She’s better placed to see us than we are ourselves. If our collective psyche could talk it would probably say something like “she’ll be right” in a slow, Southern drawl. Self-reflection, directness, sitting in unpleasant feelings; these are traits more common to her birthplace. Forged in the fulcrum of national shame (her grandparents were adults under Hitler) she’s highly attuned to cultic dynamics. 

“New Zealanders would rather swipe the uncomfortable stuff under the carpet, which can sometimes be helpful. Being a small island nation, people just have to get on no matter what. This whole mentality of ‘let’s just move on’ is great in many ways but I think when it comes to actually looking at the aftermath of a disastrous sex cult that has hurt so many people, that kind of mentality doesn’t help.”

Shame is a critical requirement for growth, too much and it’s debilitating, not enough and you don’t learn from your mistakes. Shame can motivate a person to be better. 

High on a neotantric buzz, awash with somatic healing powers, for a time, the author became the subject.  

“I’ve been one of these people, passionate about conscious sexuality. I wanted all my friends to do it. Anyone with intimacy issues in their relationship, or just a lack of joy in their life, I told them to do this course. I wasn’t taking a cut or anything, but I was pretty evangelical about it. It’s embarrassing, but it’s true.”

Neotantra is a modern offshoot of the ancient practice of Tantra. In essence, it’s a Westernised version of the original, without some of the more devout elements, like the need for a guru. Proponents encourage connecting to your sexual energy as a pathway to greater openness, intimacy and ascension. Maybe I’m oversimplifying things but I feel it’s akin to how we’ve adopted yoga (in order to look lean) but left behind the boring unified meditative bits. 

Centrepoint members gardening in the 1990s.

So why exactly do sex and cults seem to go hand in hand? Too often the desire for openness and guidance on the part of a seeker gets taken advantage of by leaders. 

“We all have a lot to learn about sexuality. We just take it as a given, we take cooking classes and driving lessons, but we think having reproductive organs and a libido is all we need for sex. We clearly haven’t got it all sorted or we wouldn’t see issues like sexual violence and sexual dysfunction so frequently.”

Sharon Ready has lived nearly her entire life inside Gloriavale and has finally spoken out in a documentary released earlier this year.

Evidently, we need instruction, but stories like the ones in Cult Trip can feel like a warning against seeking it. Except that would be to miss the point entirely. In all new frontiers, great explorations and counter-culture movements there are questionable guides; this doesn’t mean the pursuit should be abandoned. It just means we need to be careful about whom we allow to lead us. 

Despite feeling like a pariah in the sexual awakening movement at times, Richter’s still convinced there are good people doing amazing things in that space. 

“I think it’s really needed. But should it be in the hands of groups that are making money from it? And without ethical codes of conduct, where teachers are sleeping with students? Maybe not, right?”

Without ego she points out the impact her work (she writes for many platforms on the topic of cults) has had so far in encouraging people to talk about their experiences. 

“It takes a critical mass, where enough people are saying ‘this happened to me’ in the media, for the first generation, or leaders, to not be able to look away anymore.”

The more we talk the more I find myself wondering, is this a cis-heteronormative issue? Has she heard of any cults in the gay or trans community? Richter confirms my suspicion: “I have to say, in my experience, they’ve mostly been heteronormative and binary in their approach and their teachings.”

Former supermodel Hoyt Richards gave his earnings to a cult called Eternal Values in the 1990s.

Maybe it’s thanks to a vigorous sex and body-positive movement that the queer community isn’t so vulnerable. 

Speaking of vulnerability, Richter reflects on her life in Christchurch as being a potential catalyst for her interest in neotantra. “Maybe I had a lack of intensity in my life, given I was middle-aged and married with two teenagers. A very normal life, right? Being an immigrant, I was missing some of that Germanic intensity. And then I walk into this workshop and people are sharing their innermost trauma. You laugh and cry and hug each other and you haven’t even stopped for lunch yet. I was hooked. Being a journalist I’m drawn to people’s stories, I always want to go deeper.”

Ten years in the making, it could be argued Cult Trip is a love letter to alternative living. Despite Richter’s many detractors worrying the attention she pays to “high-demand communities” (a less pejorative noun than “cult”) illuminates only the bad, Richter persists. Hoping that greater awareness of how and why these types of communities go off the rails will lead to better practices and more accountability in the world of well-being. And doing it well doesn’t have to be complicated. 

It is alleged that Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, a Romanian whose real name is Narcis Tarcau, facilitated rape, sexual assault and misogyny at his tantric yoga school Agama Yoga.

One of the things I keep chewing over when talking to Richter is this stubborn idea that cults aren’t that different to certain governments or workplaces. This feels kind of revelatory so I’m surprised when she agrees wholeheartedly and points out that cultic dynamics can show up anywhere. But with most governments and workplaces, there are HR departments. There are complaint procedures. There’s room for dissent and a process for working through disagreements. Not so
with cults. 

“There’s nothing wrong with being a spiritual leader, per se. There’s nothing wrong with being a pastor either – they’re spiritual leaders too, in their own right. Even building a school around what you’re teaching, that’s all fine and well. It’s really about whether you’re able to check yourself, or hire someone to check you, or get some kind of assessment of your conduct. Make yourself into a cult-proof group.”

This book isn’t a salacious skimming of other people’s worst moments, it’s a riveting and sympathetic attempt to show that getting involved in a cult can happen to anyone. 

The space between us isn’t so big, and Richter is a passionate advocate for bringing us back together. Thinking cults are the heartland of misfits and weirdos does no one any good. Cult leaders? That’s a different story. But these malignant narcissists get enough attention. Cult Trip gives the microphone to the survivors and participants to get under the skin of what happened and how we can avoid it happening again.

Cult Trip by Anke Richter (HarperCollins, RRP $37.99).


Gilda Kirkpatrick: Uncovered

Mahsa Amini’s death at the age of 22, brutally beaten to death in prison for not properly covering her head with her headscarf in Iran has caused a storm of protest and hundreds of deaths. Worldwide the reaction has been outrage. Gilda Kirkpatrick reflects on an upbringing in Iran that has motivated her to lend her voice to a cause that is unifying millions, advocating to abolish a draconian regime that silences the voices of women. As she says, she is free and they are not. 

The sound of a violin. A music lesson with a child in another room. The contrast between the lulling beauty of distant strains of music and the crackling intensity of Gilda Kirkpatrick is quite something to experience. She is a woman with a cause, and you cannot help but listen up. However, everything I see around me in her home seems to deny what she is telling me: the mansion on Paritai Drive overlooking Waitemata Harbour; the opulence of the spaces and grandness of the furniture; the gorgeous pets – a Maine Coon cat, an orange pointer; a bespoke aquarium complete with side plate-sized turtles; and a child, or possibly two, at King’s Primary in Remuera. This is the outcome of Iranian diaspora, and this is Gilda’s remarkable story. 

She was living in Tehran and just turning 16 when it happened. The hijab control police arrived at a birthday party for a friend and arrested everybody in the house because it was a “mixed girls and boys” party. 

“You know – teenagers with their parents,” she says. “They took us to jail and they kept us there without telling our parents [where we were] for a couple of days.” Then they were allowed to contact home. The teenagers were kept in prison for nearly
a fortnight.

I ask Gilda what happened while they were incarcerated.

“Interrogation, every day,” she replies with a groan. “Humiliation. It was just disgusting. Then they took us to – what do you call it? – a coroner – to make sure we had our virginity intact. Because if you didn’t there would be a second part where they have to find out who you had sex with, and either give you lashes or make you marry that person.” 

Gilda and three other girls were identified as virgins and sent home to change their clothes and ordered to come back the next morning. The four girls were held in jail for a further three weeks.

“It was just after this period of imprisonment, in 1989, that I came out to New Zealand.”

For years after she arrived in New Zealand, Gilda flinched and gasped for breath whenever she saw a white SUV. That is what the hijab police drove, and anyone at any time could be taken away. Gilda describes her move to New Zealand as being like waking up from an amazingly peaceful sleep after nights of insomnia. But she also says Tehran has a population of 20 million people, and she spent a long time wondering where all of them were.

Although Gilda has escaped Iran, she says, “You carry it with you. You don’t stop thinking about the abuses or caring about the pain of people you have left behind.”

For Gilda, Iran has had two revolutions. The one she witnessed herself, as a child of six or seven years old, living in Tehran, and the one that is happening amongst young people today. The symbol that connects both these two epic periods of struggle is the scarf – or hijab – not just an emblem of faith and commitment to Islam, but a tool of civic oppression.

“When I take on a project, I do the research. Dig deep. Get the backstory,” she tells me. “People always want to simplify things.” And nothing central to people’s freedom is simple.

So Gilda took me back to her past, to the Tehran in which she was born in 1973, and where she grew up. To a point in her life when the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was still in power and their society was ethnically and religiously diverse. When women were freer and people more autonomous.

“We had a really good life,” she remembers. “Other than the fact that my parents had their own issues with each other. I sort of grew up in a family where there was a lot of argument. My parents were such different characters. My dad was very social and liked going out and my mum was less social.”

They travelled overseas, to Europe, and domestically throughout Iran. Gilda’s was a privileged life, but one without cosseting, or innocence.

“There was no such thing as Santa [in my childhood]. You started paying attention young, especially with the [conflict between] my parents and things. I was aware of the dynamic between Mum and Dad. You start looking at your relatives, at your family friends. You start understanding [power dynamics at a] very, very young age.”

And Gilda’s family was particularly politically aware. Even as a young child she read books with a social agenda. Small books, for children, with a political message. “You see, my mother was a teacher, and I read a lot. They were all talking politics at home. As a child I absorbed it. If you are part of a musical family where everyone is playing music, then it’s just in you. It becomes a part of your subconscious.”

Gilda’s house was a microcosm of a much larger, politically aware environment. She remembers the white noise of debate going on everywhere. Discussions were happening on television; in people’s homes, on the streets; and they were heated. Iran was in turmoil. Right, left, moderate, religious factions, political factions, were vying for control, in a soup of civil discontent. The 1979 revolution was a “short revolution”, Gilda recalls. “Everyone was in the streets and people were shouting and screaming, and we were witnessing it, and next thing the Shah of Iran is gone. He was pictured crying. And we didn’t know who this Ayatollah Khomeini was.”

From the partisan confusion emerged Ayatollah Khomeini, a relative newcomer to the scene, according to Gilda. Her family had heard his name mentioned in articles when they were holidaying in France, but not before that. Overnight he was a household name, pumped up by propaganda like a larger-than-life dictator from North Korea or China. Everybody was talking about him. He seemed to be backed by the United States. The Western media’s “mixed messages” played their part in his rise to power, Gilda believes.

“People were happy,” she remembers, after things settled down, “but it was a kind of gloomy mood, coming from a very controlled place. There was a lot of rubbishing of the previous government and a lot of promises of what was to come.” But the result was much more restrictive than most women would have hoped for.

“Within a month they started talking about the hijab. That the women should be wearing hijab and [the new regime] began putting pressure on the person who was responsible for implementing the rules that women should go back to Islamic conduct.

“I remember women I knew – well-educated women – they all went into the streets. There was a huge uprising of women. It was a revolution, and it was about equality . . . There were huge numbers of women, just women, [shouting] we didn’t do this revolution to be treated like second-class [citizens]. We did it for equality.”

Within six months the supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini said, “We do not tolerate these non-Islamic appearances.” The hijab became compulsory in every sector of public life. Women could not teach, work as a public servant, or continue any significant role in society without wearing a hijab. Ultimately, this would be extended to include every action and movement beyond the home.

“It just happened like that… my cousins and my mother had to wear the hijab. It was occurring all around me.”

Then began the separation of men and women. “So, men had to use a different bus, or [men and women] couldn’t sit together. It was 100 percent segregation.”

The Iran-Iraq War, which began a year after the revolution only served to cement the loss of human rights. Sacrifices were now expected to be made by everyone, in defence of Iran. Gilda remembers a huge convoy of teenage boys and young men sent off to fight in huge transporters, and coming back to Tehran, bombed and in bits. Human remains returned on such a scale that the body parts had to be housed in a huge stadium, until they could be returned to grieving families. “They just gathered any pieces together with a soldier’s tag and handed them over.” Gilda didn’t see what was happening in the stadium, but she said she will never forget the stench of decomposing bodies that hung over the city. “It was just terrible.”

She also saw the results of the Halabja massacre, “because it was shown on television.” Mothers clutching their children, standing atrophied like statues. “It was the nerve gas,” she explains, with some urgency, probably because I was struggling to imagine what that might look like. “It freezes people in whatever position they’re in.” 

“You mean, like people caught in the ash of the Pompeii eruption?” I ask.

“Yes, but this is not empty casts, this is the people themselves.”

The chemical attack on Kurdish people in the final days of the Iran-Iraq war was the conflict’s closing horror. This mass killing is one of the biggest chemical weapons attacks on a civilian population in history. Up to 5000 civilians were killed, and an estimated 10,000 injured. Not to mention the proliferation of cancers and birth defects.

“Because we were being invaded,” Gilda remembers, “people stopped questioning. The war went on for eight years and during those eight years they used [it] to completely breach our autonomy, our human rights. If you said anything you were disrespecting the blood of these people, their families, and the Supreme Leader. They used war to justify everything.”

After the conflict ended, people who began questioning the narrative were purged. 

“They just killed anyone who opened their mouth.” The regime had the authority to enter homes. 

“Every day, five times a day, they could check every bedroom and make sure you’re not eating too much or drinking [alcohol]. They went into houses and broke their musical instruments.
We watched it happen. Dancing and having fun very quickly came to an end.” 

The government controlled every aspect of social and political life, using fear and anxiety to suppress any resistance. 

“It’s the uncertainty of it.” The unsure ground. The never knowing. 

“Someone, even a private citizen, or a policeman having a bad day will come, will beat you, will take you to jail,” Gilda says. 

“Cases happen every day. It is psychological warfare. Men are witnessing it, but they can’t say anything because they will be killed too. It is injustice in every possible way.” Gilda pauses. 

“It’s hard for you to imagine what it is like,” she says, meaning me (and to be honest, she’s right). “You guys are secular, your justice system [stands] on its own. It’s based on human rights. But in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, our justice system is 100 percent based on a religious book and what the clerics have to say. They [have] absolute control. Women are property. Women have no rights. Women can be and should be subject to abuse and rape by their partners, and it’s okay to beat your wife. There are rules on how to beat your wife; how to rape your wife.”

But the abuses do not end with women. “They hang people for being gay, for being trans. Like this guy last year. A 20-something-year-old guy, and his cousins cut his head clean off and left it under a tree because he was going to escape Iran to go to Turkey with his boyfriend. And fathers who behead their daughters. They get maybe two years jail time, which they only serve a short percentage of. Because it is a crime that they have done based on their religious belief. [The courts] are very lenient [with them].”

Gilda believes, overall, the conditions are far worse for women than they are for men, “in terms of our autonomy and basic human rights, and just the way women are looked at. It’s a very chauvinistic ideology that they are implementing, and it has been since its inception. 

“And it’s just getting worse and worse. Women can’t be judges, all [the decisions] are made by men.”

Many people around the world have been showing solidarity with the protests happening in Iran.

So, Iran’s second revolution, the one in which Gilda invests her hopes for Iran’s future, is no surprise to her. Gilda believes this revolution is much bigger than its catalyst: the tragic death in custody, on September 16, 2022, of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Or the feminist slogans that are being bandied around. “This has got nothing to do with feminism. This is about a girl that got murdered, but since then 25 or more other girls have been killed and hundreds of men, every day. [This revolution is about the] 14,000 political prisoners in jail.” It’s about justice, civil rights and personal autonomy. It’s about the separation of religion and state, so that Iran is not ruled by a theocracy anymore.

“It isn’t about, ‘I don’t want to wear a scarf’, or ‘I want to wear a mini-skirt’. [The hijab] is a symbolic tool of oppression. That is what they are trying to get rid of. Because we believe, firmly, that it is a visual stronghold that [the regime] can have over people.” 

Gilda says, “The cat is out of the bag and it will never go back.” Women are out on the streets again protesting.

Iran has a young population. Of its 80 million citizens, the majority are young people who have been nurtured by parents who remember better times, and they are informed by the internet. And this uprising will not be repressed. “The words that are coming out of their mouths [are targeted] at the foundation of [Iran’s] judicial system, at the fundamentalists that are protecting the regime, at terrorist groups [protected by the government]. They want secularism. They are done with one religion over all people.”

I ask Gilda what she has been doing to help the revolution. She tells me that in the past 50 days, “I have been in touch with Iranian people that I know here, and talking to them, and going to protests. And I have been in touch with people in the USA and Europe asking what their governments are doing? And what our diasporic community is doing across the world?”

Gilda is heartened. “I have never seen the Iranian community come together on such firm ground. Across the world: in Sweden and Norway, in Germany and Canada, in Australia . . . it’s everywhere. Different cities, [all coming together with one voice] to demand the same thing. It is freedom for Iran from the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), and the expelling of the ambassadors of Iran across the world, because they are an extension of its government. By not condemning the Iran regime, by not declaring the IRGC a terrorist entity . . . you’re just supporting them.” 

Gilda as a young girl in 1970s Tehran, when society allowed for much more freedom. 

So, Gilda went ahead and did what she could in New Zealand. “I put these billboards up, which were simple [in their communication]: ‘Freedom for Iran and no IRGC’.”

Edmund Burke is credited with the famous words, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing”, and this is more or less Gilda’s mantra. She will do whatever she can to raise awareness of the abuses in Iran.

Gilda realises that not everything she has to say, on the subjects of Iran and the hijab, are universally welcomed. But it isn’t in her to give up on a country and a people she loves. She believes the responsibility to support this revolution for civil rights is as much that of the Iranian diaspora, and their host countries, as it is of those on the ground in Iran.

She admits, therefore, to finding it very triggering when she saw Jacinda Ardern projected, dressed in a hijab, on Dubia’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Her response is not a diminishing of the horror for what happened in the two Christchurch mosque attacks on March 15, 2019. 

“We all felt awful for what happened. Imagine leaving your country to get away from all that [corruption and control] to come to a free country, and you are minding your own business and you have that happen to you. It’s just terrible.” 

No one can extinguish the awfulness of this event. Nor is Gilda’s stance an undermining of the hijab for devout women followers of Islam. She believes everyone should be able to worship the way they like, and their choice must be respected. 

Her problem is that the hijab is a symbol of the oppression of women in Iran. If Jacinda Ardern had worn it in a mosque, then it would have had a genuine, religious context. But to wear it on New Zealand soil, in secular spaces, is as much an endorsement of terror as it is a statement of compassion. 

“I was reading comments online,” Gilda says, “and there were all these people that were highly religious, writing things like, ‘more Western women should follow in her footsteps’ – everything [and every gesture] has a consequence, right?” 

Then she tells me the story of CNN international anchor, Christiane Amanour, who was instructed at the last minute by Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, to wear a hijab as a “matter of respect”. She politely declined his conditions and the long-planned-for interview was canned. It took her years to decline them, but finally she refused. Gilda sees this as a victory. A stand of resistance by a senior member of the media. 

Gilda’s words to Western leaders are these: “If you hadn’t cooperated with these people [by wearing the hijab], they would have stopped this behaviour a while ago. [Religious hard-liners take great satisfaction in the fact] that they have the power to put a scarf on a Western woman in her own country. Western society is responsible” – for endorsing persecution, when it is compliant.

Gilda believes the hijab is a taboo subject in the West. An awkward distillation of “woke”, or politically correct sentiments that hover over a wasteland of ignorance and indecision about the hijab. And I can’t help but agree with her that we in the West need to talk and know more.


Women, life, freedom

Protests have been happening around Aotearoa since the death of Mahsa Amini.

Like millions of Iranians who grew up after the Islamic revolution, Samira Taghari endured events that have left a shadow over her life.

As a law student and young professional, she personally witnessed hangings, a fatal stoning and the lashing of several people. A close relative of hers is among the thousands of people killed under the current regime. Samira has been an active political protestor here in Aotearoa but fears for the Iranian diaspora, believing there are several defenders of the Islamic regime in New Zealand who are feeding intelligence back to the regime, which in turn targets family members still living in Iran.

 “I do worry about family safety,” Samira says. “But that’s true of everyone who stands up to this cruel regime – particularly the heroes fighting for freedom right now on the streets of Iran. They have to worry greatly – about themselves and then also about their loved ones.”

She wants the New Zealand Government to take a strong stand against a regime which sanctions sexual abuse and torture. 

Elly Stone, who came to New Zealand 26 years ago, is among the women who have joined the protest. 

“We are fighting about very basic human rights. It’s not about religion or wearing or not wearing a headscarf, it’s just about choice and about having the same rights as anyone else.” 

When Hana Habibi, an economist working in Wellington, stood in front of parliament and cut her hair, it was a symbol of grief and rage. Grief at what is happening in her birth country. Rage at the lack of urgency with which the international sanctions are working.

“Iran has successfully portrayed itself as a country with whom you can negotiate,” she says. “The regime is sophisticated and has learned how to lie. How can you have human rights negotiations with a country that systematically engages in discrimination, against ethnic minorities, religious minorities and gender minorities?”

What Hana and the protestors want are targeted sanctions – sanctions against the individuals who are directly involved in the brutal crackdown of protestors. Targeted banning of these individuals.

“We want the expulsion of the ambassador in this country because by having an ambassador here we are providing a platform for the regime. And this is intolerable to us,” she says.

“The insecurities we all feel as protestors are justified. The regime has long arms and disappearances have happened – it is something real and important. 

“The only way to live in freedom and dignity is for the religious theocracy to be replaced by a democracy where people can live freely, choose their lifestyle. New Zealand cannot afford to be complacent.”



On Reflection: My First-ever Wellness Retreat

Armed with just a smidgen of scepticism, editor Niki Bezzant headed for her first-ever wellness retreat and found that it wasn’t quite what she expected.

Lying on the grass on my back, looking at the sky, my leg in the air in a stretch that tugs at muscles pleasantly sore from a weekend full of movement, I have to reflect that my wellness retreat experience hasn’t quite panned out as I expected it might. 

Having spent my career writing about science and health, I have a pretty finely tuned “woo meter”. Somehow in all that time, I’ve managed to avoid any kind of wellness retreat, and so my knowledge of these things has been informed by Instagram influencers and fictional portrayals like Nine Perfect Strangers, the book and TV series starring Nicole Kidman as a creepy, white-robed guru with evil intent and a good line in pseudo-psychology. 

As it turns out, a wellness retreat, Kiwi-style, busts my assumptions wide open. The Revive and Reset retreat run by Wellness Retreats NZ is held at Castaways Resort. It’s a stunning location at Karioitahi Beach, about an hour’s drive from Auckland city but a world away from the noise of urban life. The resort’s buildings are perched on the hillside above the wild west coast surf beach where horses gallop and parasailers float past riding the breezy currents. The thump and roar of the ocean forms a constant background soundtrack to the weekend. 

Tales of burnout and grief

Our three-day retreat starts with the gathering together of the participants: 24 women and one man. As everyone introduces themselves and talks about why they’re here, it’s clear we are from widely different backgrounds (so there goes assumption number one). There are women in high-stress careers – lawyers, real estate agents, business owners and social workers. There are groups of friends and solo travellers. Most are parents, juggling the demands of family life with work and many other pressures. And most have a reason for being here that fits with the theme of the retreat. There’s talk of burnout and exhaustion. There are stories of loss, cancer and grief and the mental health struggles of loved ones. There are tears. A common theme is a feeling of having lost touch with ourselves and the need to nurture and care for our own wellbeing. 

Wellness Retreats founder Melissa Carroll sees this often in her retreat attendees.  “A lot of people say ‘I’ve lost sight of my health and wellness.’ They’re often busy mums, working full-time. And the retreat gives them a chance to really get away from all of that and remove all the hats they wear and the roles they play.” 

A retreat can be a good way, Melissa says, to spend a bit of time reflecting at times of change or transition in life. “If you’re going through a chapter change in life, to come away from your day-to-day and have time to really process and think and reflect on how you’re going to move forward – I know quite a few guests have done that.” 

Tools to take away 

That reflection can be transformative. One of the participants in our retreat is a good example. Karen participated in another of Melissa’s retreats earlier in the year. “She knew that her job was stressful,” says Melissa. “She had to make changes, and through advice from myself and my team, she’s left her job. She’s feeling less stressed. She’s having some time out, and she’s come back to us a second time. The change in her is already obvious. I can see the stress has melted away from her. She’s made those big lifestyle changes and is feeling so much better for it.” 

Feeling better doesn’t come without a little pain, though. After a rejuvenating yoga session with Melissa and an in-depth nutrition workshop with nutritionist Kaytee Boyd, which looks at fasting, protein intake and beating stress, we’re out into a wild westerly wind for a fitness session on the clifftop with personal trainer Paddy Flavell.

Despite being reassured by the “all fitness levels” description, Paddy’s session is not for wimps. He has us lifting, squatting, jumping and running in a HIIT-style workout (high intensity interval training) that blows away the cobwebs and makes for many a sore muscle the next day. I’d been expecting some light stretching on yoga mats, so this intensity is a pleasant surprise (though one of my glutes won’t be thanking me for it later). We’ll have three sessions with Paddy over the course of three days, and despite the groans from most of the exercisers, there are tools here to take away for great, effective workouts at home with minimal equipment. 

Further tools come from sleep guru Gareth O’Donnell, whose after-dinner session echoes all the solid science I’ve been told by sleep experts over the years, from the importance of establishing a regular and disciplined sleep routine to the value of having warm hands and feet at bedtime to help regulate body temperature during the night. 

Giving participants plenty of information to take away is important to Melissa in crafting her retreats. She’s noticed people in recent years paying more attention to their wellbeing and recognising they might need a boost to get them back on a good track.  

“I think coming out of the pandemic, it’s definitely been a silver lining that people are more open and aware of their health and wellness. And that what we do every day is important, rather than just here and there… having a piecemeal approach, or going to the gym class once a week. They’re realising that in everything you do in your day-to-day life, there only has to be small changes to make a big difference.” 

Another interesting thing happens over the three days of the retreat: relationships form. By the time we gather for the closing session – having had massages, shared a group session with life coach Tracy Manu that had everyone, including her, tearing up, and more super-relaxing yin yoga – it’s obvious that not only are we all feeling more relaxed and revived, but for some, bonds have formed that will be powerful. New best friends are declared, and there’s a feeling in the group of support for each other that clearly comes from sharing vulnerable moments together. It’s a rather lovely feeling. And yes, there are more tears, even from tough guy Paddy. 

My challenge to myself

And me – what will I take away from my first retreat? While there is a tiny bit of woo – some spiritual card reading and the odd mention of appealing to a higher power – it isn’t enough to make me run for the hills. 

One of the things I enjoy the most about my weekend is very simple: the opportunity to be still and take a breath. Like many women – and all my fellow retreaters – I’m busy all the time, trying to fit in All The Things. Life is, as one woman said to me during my menopause book research, DENSE. And when we’re not juggling all the pieces of our busy lives, we can – and I know I am guilty of this – fill up the empty spaces with more stimulation. In my case it’s information: a book, a podcast, radio, social media… My brain is a busy place, crammed with all that stuff I think I need. 

Thrive editor Niki Bezzant with Wellness Retreats founder Melissa Carroll, who says busy people often say they’ve lost sight of their health and wellness, and a retreat can allow them to pause and reflect on how they can move forward.

During the retreat I decide to cut myself off from all that extra stimulation, and I find it very good just to be still, in the silence, observing what is going on around me and inside me. 

That is a bit uncomfortable at first. Who wants to be alone with their thoughts and feelings, right? But it is also revealing and rejuvenating. So, my challenge to myself as I lie on the grass – and as I head home to the bustling, noisy city – is to take a few moments each day to be still and quiet; breathe and observe. 

That shouldn’t take a whole weekend retreat to figure out. But sometimes, as Melissa points out, we need to get away to find ourselves again.  

Niki Bezzant was a guest of Wellness Retreats NZ. See more at

Photography: Hayley Fish

Recovering With Mana

Jessica Apanui, formerly known as “Meth-ica” to her friends, says she’s proud to be part of the new documentary Mana Over Meth, telling her story and encouraging others to tell theirs.

Former methamphetamine addict Jessica Apanui (Ngāti Porou) was deeply embroiled in the drug world for 25 years – as a user and a dealer. Her addiction to the drug was so intense that her mates started calling her “Meth-ica”. But she has been clean and sober for three years and she can proudly say goodbye to her past life and alter ego.

“I feel sorry for Meth-ica, that she had to go through what she did,” Jessica says. 

“Being in recovery has given me the opportunity to live. Once I changed my mindset, it helped me transition back into the community and be part of my whānau again.” 

Part of Jessica’s recovery is being brutally honest about her past and delving into the reasons why she became addicted to methamphetamine in the first place. Her journey is the focus of a new documentary, Mana Over Meth, which is part of the Loading Docs series and was released online earlier this month. 

Jessica, 40, grew up in a violent home and started drinking and smoking marijuana when she was 12 years old. At 17, she craved stronger drugs and tried methamphetamine to help numb her pain. 

“I remember that first hit. It was strong and it was potent,” she says. The seedy world of drugs became a huge part of Jessica’s life. She would smoke half a gram of methamphetamine daily and became a dealer to help fund her habit. 

In the midst of her addiction, she gave birth to two children, but even becoming a mother couldn’t stop her from taking drugs.   

“I began using to suppress a whole lot of pain. I wanted to get out of my own head, I wanted to fit in, I wanted to unsee what I had seen and all of the behaviour that comes with it. 

“It was an intense way of living. My anxiety was through the roof because I was always looking over my shoulder. It was so chaotic and dysfunctional on all levels. I felt like that mouse on the wheel. I was trying to keep up and trying to survive.” 

The turning point for Jessica occurred three years ago, after the police raided her home in a drug bust.  

Jessica with Mana Over Meth director Holly Beckham.

“That was my rock bottom,” she says. “I was charged and convicted for allowing my premises to manufacture methamphetamine. It was like a tornado. I lost everything.” 

To avoid prison time, Jessica was forced to go to rehab and get clean. The world of drugs was all Jessica had known for the past 25 years of her life, so taking that first step to getting clean was extremely difficult.  “I didn’t want to give up because I didn’t know how to live any other way. 

“Making that decision meant that I had to leave everything that I had known and say goodbye to all of the friends that I knew. Mentally, I didn’t know how I was going to make friends with others. I didn’t know how I was going to hold a normal conversation.”

Jessica spent a week in a detox centre, 91 days in rehab, and nearly two years in recovery. Her motivation was her whānau, especially her two children, who are now 20 and 14. 

“I wasn’t a present mother back then, but I am now. My children now have their mum back!” 

Jessica met Mana Over Meth’s director Holly Beckham in 2020 while the two women were both in rehab. Holly (Ngāpuhi) has been clean for three years and wanted to help others struggling with addiction. 

The director worked hard to surround Jessica with support to make her feel safe while she was reliving the trauma of her addiction. The production was steeped in kaupapa Māori, with the practicing of karakia and the acknowledgment of their ancestors to guide them.  

“Our wāhine are suffering in silence while using meth to escape the pain of sexual abuse, depression, physical abuse, and intergenerational trauma,” Holly says. “It’s time to break the silence. It will remain hidden if we don’t share our stories. We could feel our tupuna while we were making this doco. We let them guide and awhi us.”  

Jessica says being involved in Mana Over Meth was therapeutic.  

“I had the ability to re-enact my life and show all of the nitty-gritty ugly stuff. I stand in my mana and know that I’m not that person anymore,” Jessica says.  

Today, Jessica currently works for the Auckland District Health Board in the area of addiction and recovery. She was also asked to speak at the Meth Summit at Government House in Wellington earlier this year.

“It was a life-changing moment for me, a former junkie, to be on that stage. I didn’t have to be anything other than myself.  That’s all I ever wanted to be in life. Just be Jess. And now I get to be that person.” 

Mana Over Meth is part of Loading Docs’  2022 collection and can be viewed via

This is public interest journalism funded by NZ on Air.


The Joy of Making

Radiant Spirit

A fibre artist who creates joyously fluorescent works has a serious purpose as she crochets her way towards a mammoth goal. Sacha McNeil talks to
Lissy Robinson-Cole about her famous dad and the meaning behind her art.

There’s nothing subtle about Lissy Robinson-Cole – she’s larger than life, fluorescently adorned and radiating a joy that she’s determined to share.

“The neon colours say – I’m here, I’m loud, I’m proud and I’m not going anywhere.” Lissy’s take on life is more often than not cheerful, her fingers constantly occupied with the hypnotic rhythm of crochet. Although you could be forgiven for thinking Lissy’s outlook on life is frivolous, it’s anything but.

As a fibre artist and designer, her work is unmissable, often life-sized and loaded with the hope of effecting change.  It’s also gained a following in the art world, winning a major sculpture award and being widely exhibited. Her pieces weave together her past and present, with the art of crochet having become Lissy’s full-time labour of love.

“I always feel like crochet found me. I’ve always been creative, I’ve always loved textiles and textures. My nanny crocheted, but I was seven when she died and I never got an opportunity to learn from her. I honestly can’t remember what drove me to Spotlight to go and get a hook, but the minute I did, I was obsessed.”

The youngest of eight daughters, she chuckles as she points out ruefully that with all those girls to contend with, it was little wonder her dad passed away early at the age of 57. Colin Cole was a local fashion designer well-known for his stunning gowns and debutante dresses. His daughter’s love for him lives on through her flamboyant creativity.

The medium she’s chosen may be different from her dad’s, but Lissy draws on his artistic flair as well as her family’s intergenerational and cultural connections.

“With the act of crochet you are connecting loops, so the whole symbolism of crochet is connection and that represents my Māori heritage. Aroha and manaaki are everything that we as Māori express and it’s intangible, but crochet has given us a visual language.”

Lissy’s latest project is titled Wharenui Harikoa, a life-sized crochet House of Joy. It’s an ambitious undertaking – so far, it’s been over a year in the making and its taken almost 3000 balls of neon-coloured yarn. Lissy estimates that it will take 5000 balls to finish (you can help by buying a ball of yarn at

“The mission for Wharenui Harikoa is to heal and transform intergenerational trauma into deeply felt joy, one loop at a time. The simple act of sitting here with others crocheting loops brings community together,” Lissy explains.

Sitting with others has meant sharing the workload, and she’s even managed to rope in her husband. “I had to say to Rudi, I’m really sorry, but you’re going to have to learn how to crochet because I need assistance, and this project is getting bigger and bigger! Bless him, he was happy to learn, so I taught him and he picked it up really quickly. He’s way neater than me, I’m not about perfection at all. Rudi’s from an engineering background, so he gets the ruler out and is very precise!”

Rudi even found his new skill came in handy for his work. “I actually found that being a welder, the crochet helped my welding, because it was a lot of hand-eye coordination,” Rudi says.

“My grandmother used to crochet jerseys and clothing for my cousins, so that connected me straight back to my grandmother,” he says. “There was only one other man that I knew that crocheted and that was one of my uncles. He and my aunty would always crochet together. Men can do it as well. We don’t always have to be tough, we can have a softer approach.”

The sense of considered calm was a skill Rudi was keen to share with other men. He began teaching crochet classes to inmates at Mt Eden Prison. “I taught them how to do a chain and at the
end of two hours they were still going. Everything was quiet, they were just totally involved. I guess it just took them away, briefly, from what they were going through.”

Lissy agrees crochet helps tame the mind. “It’s a soft medium and people are immediately taken to a soft place where they have a memory of a nanny or an aunty who has crocheted something for them as a child. Immediately, barriers come down and they connect to themselves and are able to connect to others. The healing comes with being in relationships with each other.”

Both Lissy and Rudi’s joy for life and crochet is contagious. So much so, after meeting them I dusted off my crochet hook and got busy myself, one loop at a time.

Journalist Sacha McNeil has tried her hand at all kinds of crafts, and runs a website that features Kiwis’ creative passions; see

Photography: Sacha McNeill

Evie Kemp – Re-loved

Buying used, pre-loved, second-hand, vintage – whatever you want to call it –is more popular than ever. Evie Kemp finds what goes round comes around. For some of us it’s an increasing awareness of our impact on the planet and what changes we can make; for others it’s a financial necessity; and some of us...

Login or subscribe to read the rest of this article. Join Now

DIY Health Spa

health- self- spa-self-help

Massage, yoga, healthy eating, time out… If you’ve always wanted to go on an indulgent retreat but haven’t had the funds, try creating your own. Whether your budget is two-star or a little more, here’s our DIY guide.

We’ve all dreamt of giving ourselves the ultimate gift of a health retreat. The chance to disappear for a while, eat lots of healthy plant-based food, do some yoga and have a massage day in and day out sounds both blissful and beneficial. 

But it can also be expensive. With prices for health retreats ranging in the thousands – per day, in some cases – it can be a treat we must retreat from to protect our bank balance. Which is why Woman has put some thought into doing things differently. 

Instead of suffering an attack of FOMO (fear of missing out) as you read about one of our journalists enjoying a freebie at that health retreat you can’t afford, we’ve decided to give you a handy guide on how to create your own health retreat on a budget. 

It turns out it’s not that hard. A scan of luxury health retreats available in New Zealand reveals some common components. We’ve taken these and worked out how to make them happen for yourself without the huge expense.

First, you must decide how long this retreat will be. A two-night weekend is a great start but if you can manage a week, even better. Then you need to decide if you’ll just drive across town for the duration or treat yourself to a stay out of town. Closer to home is obviously a money-saver. 

Once you have these two things worked out, it’s time to give your retreat a name. You could just call it “Time Out” or “Me Time”. You then need to come up with a mission statement for your retreat. Most will use phrases like “fostering wellness” or “regenerating body and mind”. You might like to just say: “Getting some well-deserved time away to myself to rest and restore.” 

Now it is time to start putting together the components of your DIY health retreat.

A bed away from home is a must

As we all know, shutting the front door on family life and merrily jingling the car keys in our hand as we make for the safety of our vehicle while pulling an overnight trolley bag with the other hand can reduce stress by more than half. Find an Airbnb, motel or hotel that’s quiet and near nature, such as native bush or a beach. Check that it has a nice bed with crisp, white hotel-like sheets. Also check that the services you’ll need, such as massage and yoga, are nearby or at least a short drive away. It might be just around the corner from your home or in another town. Book it. Rule number one: don’t tell anyone where it is.

Cost: $50 to $200 a night, depending on level of luxury

Unplug devices

Every retreat will insist you leave the emails and social media at home, so you must do this too. Leave the phone at home. You are allowed your laptop for essential retreat purposes. (More about that later). If you’re worried about needing to be contactable by your family, leave the phone in the car and only check it occasionally – and respond only if it is a real emergency involving ambulances or similar.

Cost: Free

Yoga, stretching or pilates

Something involving a lot of good breathing and contortions on a mat is the first activity you’ll need on your retreat. You could find a practitioner near your accommodation and book in for a class each day you’re away, or download a good class on your laptop and do it in your Airbnb or hotel room. Be sure to pack your best exercise gear for this. Some luxury retreats will have you doing yoga three times a day, but once a day should do if you want to fit everything else in.

Cost: Approximately $30-$50 per class 

Good food derived from plants

Whether it’s vegan or vegetarian, it’s just lovely having food cooked for you rather than having to feed your family. Most of us would happily chow down on sage pasta filled with pumpkin and pine nuts if we didn’t have to make it ourselves. There are several ways you can arrange this. If you’re on a budget and really well-organised, you can prepare lovely plant-based salads and soups and snacks ahead of time and take them with you. Otherwise, you could make Uber Eats your friend, or find a local healthy restaurant in the area for dine-in or takeaway. If you’ve gone the hotel route, order room service. Most hotels have good vegetarian options.

Cost: Approximately $30-$60 a day

A good massage

Relieving stress is absolutely essential, and nothing does this quite as well as a good massage. Thai massage is particularly good for kneading out the knots, so if you can find a clinic nearby, book a massage each day. If not, see if there is a general massage therapist and book them to come to you, or arrange to go to their clinic.

Cost: About $100 for a traditional 65-minute massage

Give up coffee and alchohol

Most retreats insist on this, probably because they don’t want hyper-caffeinated people running around and ruining the Zen moments, nor do they want clients who are drunk and argumentative and refuse to go to bed. We’re going to leave this one to your discretion – it’s your retreat, after all.

Cost: Free if you abstain, $30 if you have a couple of coffees and a couple of glasses of BYO wine


Some retreats insist you don’t talk for a certain number of hours, which seems harsh. Being on your own is a great way to be silent – but do commit. Don’t arrive at your accommodation and immediately start chatting to the person next door. Get used to the feeling of solitude and the silence it brings. If your life is particularly hectic, it might be the first time you’ve actually heard the sound of your own breathing in years! You’re allowed to have a nap or read while being silent, if you wish.

Cost: Free

A hike or a walk in nature

Studies show that time spent in nature is not only relaxing but also rejuvenating. You’d have to be mad not to include this in a health retreat, and it’s free! Plan to walk or hike for at least an hour every day in the bush or on the beach. Be thankful that you’re not at one of the expensive retreats that make you hike all day to prove how fit their “leaders” are.

Cost: Free

Cost: $50 to $200 a night, depending on level of luxury


Some retreats offer the chance to take your problems and lay them at the feet of someone who will help you deal with them. You can do this online from the comfort of your DIY health retreat. Simply make an appointment at one of the many online counselling services available in Aotearoa. Make sure you have Wi-Fi where you are staying and book as many appointments as you think you will need. You don’t have to be suffering from a mental illness to enjoy an hour of counselling. Finally, you can talk to someone who will listen to you and not intrude to tell you about their unique experience – and you won’t be interrupted by a child who can’t find their shoes! Use this time to get some valuable help for dealing with issues such as work-life balance, parenting dramas or putting yourself first for once!

Cost: Approximately $120-$200 a session

Early night

You probably won’t need any encouragement to be in bed with lights out by 9pm but this is a must for all retreats. No late-night chats or anything resembling a party are allowed. So pack a good book and tuck yourself into bed nice and early. Face mask and earplugs optional.

Cost: Free

Your DIY health retreat is planned! If you’re going for the two-night option, with yoga, massage and counselling, your total cost could be less than $500 (if you abstain from coffee and alcohol, stay at a cheap Airbnb, bring prepared food and have one counselling session) or around $1000 if you stay at a nice hotel, drink coffee and alcohol, eat out and have two counselling sessions. For a week, make your dollars go further by doing yoga and massage every second day and spreading two counselling sessions out.  Whatever your budget, you’ll have had a nice time away, some healthy mind and body regeneration and have fostered some wellness in yourself. You’re welcome! 

Road Trippin’ Around the East Cape of New Zealand

Elisabeth Easther takes a mother-and-son road trip around the windswept wonderland of the East Cape of New Zealand.

Having previously flown to Gisborne and loved the place, my son Theo decided we should make a return journey. To add a twist, however, (indeed, quite a few twists) he suggested we tackle the entire East Cape of New Zealand by road.

I took Theo’s temperature to ensure he wasn’t feverish – what 15-year-old wants to spend that much time in a car with his mother? – but it turned out he was sound of mind so, during the school holidays, we drove the 334km stretch of State Highway 35 that connects Ōpōtiki to Gisborne.

Waihau Bay on the East Cape of New Zealand
Waihau Bay

Once the built-up Bay of Plenty was behind us, we entered another world, the sort of place where a single roadside hoarding advertises “Pig Dog Training School and Book Binder”.

With no website or number to call, it was tempting to turn down the driveway to meet whoever offered those disparate services, but with no pig dog to train nor book to bind, we pressed on.

Making a quick stop at the tiny settlement of Omaio for refreshments, we discovered Highway 35, and it is no ordinary roadside café because, alongside coffee and pies, they also sell high heels and swimsuits, crown pumpkins, walking sticks, denim miniskirts and frypans. I was charmed by a hand-tooled leather saddle bag, only I don’t have a horse. Not to worry, said Lena Nepson from behind the counter, she could sell me one of those too.

Beyond Omaio, the road curved pleasantly as pheasants emerged from the undergrowth. Here and there, giant pōhutukawa reached across the road, forming glades of honour. This is also orchard country, and small holdings were abundant – botanical gold mines of limes and kiwifruit. On from pretty little Te Kaha towards Waihau there was a lot of driving, so we were delighted to reach our lodgings at Lottin Point, an unpretentious 1950s motel found at the bottom of a steep unsealed road.

East Cape Road Trip

Greeted by thundering surf, churning seas and glowering skies, we deserved a good stretch of the legs, and we followed a farm track to a rocky cove. There was no hiding the fact that Theo and I were two townies, fresh from the city, because we hailed every animal we saw – cattle, deer, sheep, chooks and a pig – who were unanimously unmoved by our presence.

Overnight it rained nonstop, and the next day drizzle accompanied us to Te Araroa, where we admired the world’s largest pōhutukawa, before driving to the world’s easternmost lighthouse. Grateful to my partner for the loan of his sturdy four-wheel drive, my knuckles whitened as we covered the last 22km of rutted road. Careful to avoid the menacing slips to the sea, we kept our eyes peeled for seals on the unsealed road.

My heart in my mouth, this track didn’t feel quite wide enough for one vehicle, let alone the campervans intent on tackling it, so it was a relief to park at the lighthouse base. Then, miracle of miracles, the rain kindly stopped as we climbed the 700 steps to the tower.

Being lighthouse geeks – can you imagine the windswept lives the keepers and their families endured? – we could’ve stayed longer, but Gisborne was still a windy 190km away, so Tokomaru Bay’s wonderful old wharf and pub got little more than a fleeting glance. Instead, we had our hearts set on doing Cook’s Cove Walkway, a short hike from the southern end of Tolaga Bay.

Cooks Cove Walkway
Cooks Cove Walkway

Featuring fertile farmland and ocean views, it’s 5.8km return to Te Kotere o te Whenua, a natural archway known locally as “The Hole in the Wall” and perfect for clearing the cobwebs. If you’ve even less time to spare, 30 minutes will get you to the lookout 120 metres above sea level, where ravishing views of Mitre Rocks and Pourewa Island are on display.

Once we finally reach Gisborne, a visit to Eastwoodhill, the National Arboretum of New Zealand, was at the top of our to-do list, because not only are we lighthouse geeks, we’re also fanatical tree huggers, and Eastwoodhill is heaven for dendrophiles.


This place of peace was returned serviceman Douglas Cook’s response to the horrors of World War I. Injured in France, Douglas lost sight in his right eye and was sent to a stately English home to recuperate. While there, he resolved to plant a tree library to help humanity heal.

The result is a 131ha arboreal oasis 34km inland of Gisborne. Today, Eastwoodhill is home to more than 15,000 trees, including at least 7000 species from 67 countries. The arboretum’s manifesto of “maintain, improve and educate” is kept alive by the efforts of a small staff and dedicated volunteers.

Wishing the forest a fond farewell, we mounted e-bikes with Cycle Gisborne and pedalled 28 pleasant kilometres to Bushmere Estate for lunch. Riding through countryside bursting with redolent rural aromas – you won’t get that full sensory experience in a car – we rode past fields of fruit and vegetables, as our guide Katrina Duncan shared snippets of history.

Once at Bushmere we were surrounded by 17ha of vines, boasting views to distant mountains, and the adults enjoyed a wine tasting with charismatic sommelier David Egan. As for the food, we enjoyed our meals so much that Theo and I returned the next day to order the dishes we didn’t have room for the first time.

Gisborne Railbike Adventure
Gisborne Railbike Adventure

We were also eager to enjoy a second helping of the treat that is the Gisborne Railbike Adventure. This imaginative tourist offering makes use of decommissioned railway lines, but instead of sitting in carriages, you pedal along the tracks on cleverly engineered tandem e-bikes.

We did the 32km beach loop two years prior, so this time we tackled the new Mahia coastal route. Starting at the magnificent Mahia Peninsula, we saddled up and rolled out along the rails. We pedalled over bridges and alongside a lagoon, past a smash palace of dilapidated caravans and boats, tractors, buses and farm machinery rusting into history.

Mahia Peninsula
Mahia Peninsula illuminated at sunset

In no time at all, we were in the back of beyond, a world of defunct docks and half-submerged boats, until it was just us, the rails, the rugged coast and the perfectly peeling waves, where two lucky surfers had the ocean all to themselves. At 22km in total, this is a winning combination of coastal countryside, breathtaking views and elegant bridges. Theo declared that if he lived in Gisborne he would want to work for the bike company so he could ride this way every day.

Waioeka Gorge Scenic Reserve and River
Waioeka Gorge Scenic Reserve and River

All too soon it was time to say ka kite Tairāwhiti, and home we drove via the inland road, through Waioeka Gorge with its many walks and lookouts, back to the big smoke, confident we’d be back.

“Do you know how I think we should travel next time?” Theo asked with a grin. I looked back at him. We’d flown. We’d driven. What other options were there? “Remember how Lena at Omaio offered to sell us a horse?”

Hmm, yes, well, we shall see.

The lowdown of the East Cape of New Zealand



Lottin Point Motel


The Vines, Bushmere Estate

Related article: Best Airbnbs For Summer Getaways

Beauty: Spring Brush-up

We all know about spring cleaning the cupboards, but Amy Houlihan says this is also the ideal time for her five-step refresh to ensure you’re all set for summer.

A change of season and the welcome arrival of warmer weather is the perfect time to overhaul your beauty regime. A yearly audit gives you the opportunity to reassess your make-up and skincare, and decide if you need to tweak your beauty routine. And with the temperature rising and the sun shining, it’s also time to think about how you’re going to protect your skin from the elements. Here’s our five-step plan for a spring sort-out. 

1 Spring into action

Practically speaking, a spring refresh is a great chance to declutter your cupboards and drawers, sort out your absolute must-haves and turf any unwise impulse buys that are gathering dust and taking up space. Start by attacking your bathroom shelves and getting rid of old or expired products.
Anything that’s open and hasn’t been used for a year should go. If you’re unsure, you can tell if a product is expired by looking for the little jar logo with a number on the side. This indicates how many months it’s good for, once opened. Out-of-date products may be ineffective, and they can even cause infections and breakouts. 

Once you’ve culled your collection, sort products into categories and order them in terms of how often you use them. This streamlined process will also give you a good perspective on what you actually need when you’re buying beauty products in the future.  Many companies are now either aligned to a recycling programme or have their own, so research the best place for your empties to go. 

2 Time to sanitise

Take the time to give your brushes and tools a deep clean – of course this should be done more than once a year, but this is a good chance to make sure everything is sparkling. Good make-up brushes are a great investment, but they aren’t cheap, and looking after them means you’ll get the best out of them for years. If you’re religious about your skincare regime, it’s counterproductive to then apply make-up with dirty tools.

The same goes for spending money on gorgeous make-up – it will never look its flawless best if it’s not applied with clean, quality brushes and sponges. Although it’s no one’s favourite task, set some time aside and use a specialised brush cleaner or mild shampoo to gently wash each brush, ensuring the water isn’t too hot. Squeeze out as much moisture as possible, then lie your brushes flat on a towel in the sun to dry. Don’t stand them up, as water can trickle down into the handle and affect the glue that holds everything together. 

3 Go lighter

Due to New Zealand’s humid weather, most women need to lighten their skincare in summer. Winter calls for rich creams and balms, but swap these out for lighter lotions and gels in the warmer weather, as heavy products can overwhelm and overload your complexion. If you haven’t already, consider investing in a good vitamin C serum. There are many excellent natural versions available and although it’s an important skincare step all year round, the powerful antioxidant is an ideal protector from the damage UV rays and pollution can cause – including pigmentation, lines and dullness. Vitamin C is the second line of defence, because of course SPF is your most important skin protector. You may use more of it during summer, so removing it thoroughly at the end of the day is super-important. Oil cleansers are perfect for this as they go deep into pores and dissolve all the dirt, while maintaining a healthy and hydrated lipid barrier. 

4 Nourish your body

When it comes to good summer skincare, don’t forget your body. Great skin doesn’t stop at your jawline. As well as protecting your body from the sun, it’s important to nourish your limbs and address concerns such as sagging, sunspots and dehydration. 

Have you tried dry brushing? It’s exactly as it sounds – use a reasonably firm natural bristle brush to brush your body in an upward direction. It’s said to promote blood flow, increase lymphatic drainage and encourage detoxification, plus it doubles as an energising exfoliator. Do it before the shower, beginning with your feet, moving upwards and paying particular attention to any problem areas. Once you’re out of the shower, treat skin with a nutrient-rich serum, oil or body butter designed to increase elasticity, nourish and smooth dehydrated skin, brighten skin tone and fade pigmentation. 

5 Less is more

A lighter, simple, sweat-proof base is ideal when the temperature rises.
A good tinted moisturiser, BB or CC cream should provide a sufficient amount of coverage during the day, and use a concealer only on the areas where you need a little more camouflage. For colour, cream sticks and pots are your best friend. Not only are they incredibly easy to apply, they melt into warm skin for an incredibly natural, sheer finish.

Get your summer glow

1 Goop G.TOX Ultimate Dry Brush, $42. 

Made from natural sisal, this brush exfoliates lightly and sweeps away dead skin to reveal glowing, soft limbs.

2 Jane Iredale Eternals Collection Glow Time Blush and Bronzer Sticks, $85.

Apply these creamy sticks anywhere you need colour – lips, cheeks, eyes or body. They’re infused with jojoba seed oil and coconut oil for hydration and easy blending.

3 Tronque Rich as Croesus Firming Butter, $130.

After the first release sold out, Tronque’s Rich as Croesus Firming Butter is now back and better than ever. The decadent, New Zealand-made, velvety cream contains active ingredients of the same quality as facial skincare and works to increase elasticity, smooth skin and effectively even out skin tone. It also has a new natural fragrance designed in Grasse, France. 

4 Tailor Oil Cleanser & Make-up Remover, $39. 

This award-winning oil is made with 100 percent cold-pressed pure plant oils and antioxidants, and
binds to grime and make-up – breaking it down and drawing it out.  

5 Essano Advanced Brightening Vitamin C Concentrated Serum, $29.99.

Concentrated, yet very affordable, this serum helps to brighten skin tone and improve the appearance of dark spots and pigmentation. It contains five percent vitamin C and has been formulated for better absorption. 

Eco Fashion: From Garbage to Glam

At Rotorua’s Recycle the Runway fashion show, a nine-year-old and his mum come out on top with their creative garments made from textiles that would otherwise have ended up in the tip, writes editor Niki Bezzant. 

The worlds of high fashion and landfill-destined refuse don’t often collide. But a fashion show in Rotorua recently combined the two, and to stunning effect. At the Recycle
the Runway fashion show local designers and dressmakers were given the challenge of creating bespoke, one-off garments using pre-loved and recycled items.

The Recycle the Runway show is an annual fundraiser for Dress for Success, a charity whose kaupapa is to empower women to achieve economic independence. Women returning to the workforce are given the gift of confidence, in the form of professional attire for interviews and the start of their working journey.

This year, a new category was created to take recycling to the next level. To generate awareness of the environmental impact of clothing, and to inspire Kiwis to love their clothes for longer, the Vanish Landfill Challenge category (sponsored by the laundry brand of the same name) asked designers to use textiles headed for general landfill waste and bring them back to life in the form of new creations. It’s estimated that in Aotearoa around 220,000 tonnes of textile waste is discarded each year. 

Essjay puts the finishing touches to his whimsical headpiece.

In the Landfill Challenge category, Angela Tamata and her nine-year-old son Essjay stole the show. Angela took home first place, followed by Essjay in second place. The duo created four pieces between them. Angela’s three pieces were a bag, arm warmers and an avant-garde jewellery piece. 

“Not long before we did this challenge, I had cleaned out my shed and we had heaps of stuff in
the rubbish,” remember Angela. “So I pulled out Christmas decorations, old pyjamas and some chains and things.” 

The arm warmers were made from an old sleeping bag, and were modelled on the night by Angela’s nephew, who couldn’t resist buying the creation himself after the show. 

Essjay made a new garment – a fantasy headpiece – with pre-loved materials including blankets, which he tore into strips, and an old Christmas wreath. Along the way he burnt his fingers with a hot glue gun and pricked himself with pins.  

“I kind of wanted it to look like Maleficent,” he says, referring to the film character played by Angelina Jolie. Essjay says he felt “amazing” when he was announced as a winner on stage. And he’s already planning his next fashion show entry. 

“I want it to look like a zombie mummy kind of thing,” he says. 

Angela and her son Essjay, who picked up second prize, with their supporters.

Both Angela and Essjay are grateful to their nanny, Ani, who helped them both put their entries together, and who is “where we get our creativity from”, according to Angela. 

Participating in this event was a natural progression for Angela, who has recently left her full-time job to dedicate her time to getting her brand, Kiddiewinks, off the ground. It’s her goal to repurpose pre-loved garments into new affordable clothing for kids, that she hopes will inspire and encourage feelings of self-worth and confidence. 

Angela Tamata’s winning creations – arm warmers made from an old sleeping bag and an original take on jewellery.

“I want to make sustainable clothing for kids, but fashionable. And because I have the knowledge to make patterns and I can pretty much make a pattern for anything, I can make cool clothes out of recycled fabrics. They’ll be one-off pieces,” Angela explains. 

They won’t be pricey, though. “I wouldn’t want to sell them as expensive one-off pieces. I can buy a bag of clothes for $5 and make four or five outfits out of it.”  

Angela’s motivation comes from her own experience. “I would like to uplift our babies,
because I know what it’s like. When I was broke – really, really broke – my kids had to wear the same clothes all the time. It’s really demeaning for them. So if I can help beat that for some people, then I’m going to.”

Tips to take your pre-loved pieces from drab to fab

  • Wear, Repair, Repurpose. You may have worn and repaired your favourite garment to the brink, but don’t throw it away just yet! Clothing can be repurposed many ways so it stays out of landfill. Some of our favourite ways to repurpose include turning old shirts into tote bags or repurposing old cotton clothing into reusable make-up remover pads or beeswax cloth food wraps.

  • Arm yourself with a beginner’s sewing kit. Whether it’s a ripped shirt, a missing button or a fallen hem, owning a basic sewing kit ensures you can quickly repair clothing. Our sewing kit essentials include a needle, black, white and brown thread, scissors, measuring tape and clothing chalk. Take your sewing kit one step further with iron-on menders. They’re a great cost-effective option to repair minor tears in fabric, such as a rip at the knee of jeans. 

  • Get crafty. Salvage an old pair of jeans, a jacket, or any well-loved clothing item by using clothing paint to add a personalised touch with a hand-painted design.

  • Wash with care. Help clothes live many lives by ensuring you follow washing instructions every time. Certain materials require a more delicate approach and cooler temperatures.

Viva la Frida

Dress like an artist! Frida Kahlo’s interpretation of traditional Tehuana dress became a signature look imitated by many. She did ruffles, bows and frills, full skirts, embroidered blouses, and a mix of colour and texture that dignified a night and day look like no other.

Almost 100 years ago she was ahead of her time, yet somehow her look still appears ahead of us; something we’re continuing to draw inspiration from. Indifferent to the phases of what’s in and what’s out she was an icon for the marginalised and the outsiders. Here’s our take on her fabulousness. Dig deep into your wardrobe for the spangle and the bangle and crown your lovely head with flowers.

Above: Roshi statement earrings from Third Eye, $7.90; Pola dress Kate Sylvester, $679; scarf from Third Eye, $35; Stonehouse sandals by Kathryn Wilson, $359; Kantha cloth by Madder & Rouge, $495. Using backdrop from Resene’s Utopia Wallpaper Collection –  91071.

Roshi statement earrings from Third Eye, $7.90; Silk & Steel Heirloom necklace in gold, $159; Cooper dress by Trelise Cooper, $649.

Don’t Break My Heart earrings from Liz Mitchell, $190; Aida pump in blue, KSxMi Piaci, $390; Cooper by Trelise Cooper, $399; silk sari wrap skirt from Third Eye, $60.

Rosary Series earrings, $220 from Liz Mitchell; Silk & Steel Sequence bracelet in turquoise and gold, $39. Gypsy crop top from Third Eye, $40; Clare skirt by RM Williams, $599; Zsa Zsa heels by Kathryn Wilson, $299. Using backdrop from Resene’s Fiore Wallpaper Collection – 220483.

Tilly earrings from Third Eye, $50; brass beaded necklace from Third Eye, $62.50; Raven off-shoulder dress from Third Eye, $89; Stonehouse sandals by Kathryn Wilson, $359.

Tassle drop earrings from Third Eye, $35; Heidi dress by Penny Sage, $450; blouse by Trelise Cooper, $599; Kantha cloth by Madder & Rouge, $495.

Don’t Break My Heart necklace, $290; The Hills Are Alive dress by Twenty-seven Names, $520.

Kate Sylvester Birdie dress, $569; Ella wrap from Third Eye, $35; Ripple mini bag in basil croc by Deadly Ponies, $599.

Roshi statement earrings from Third Eye, $7.90; Cooper dress by Trelise Cooper, $579; Maya heel by Kathryn Wilson, $359.

Don’t Break My Heart necklace, $290; The Hills Are Alive dress by Twenty-seven Names, $520. Using backdrop from Resene’s Fiore Wallpaper Collection – 220483.

Tassle drop earrings from Third Eye, $35; brass beaded necklace from Third Eye, $62.50; rings stylist’s own; Trelise Cooper coat dress, $849; Cranbrook dress by RM Williams, $815.

Related article: Kate Hursthouse, Resene Artist

Rest Your Weary Head

Le Corbusier once wrote that, in addition to a place to sleep (and some bread), we all need space, light and order. A good hotel knows how to bring those things together in perfect harmony to create the perfect stay.

Eight out of 10 hotel travellers say that a good night’s sleep is one of their main priorities when travelling and staying at a hotel. The quality of your sleep sets the tone for your holiday or business trip and often creates a lasting impression of the hotel you have chosen.

Seasoned travellers have learnt what works for them and what doesn’t, and have become highly selective of their hotels based on the quality of the rooms, linen, pillows and lighting. 

Sleep is so important to travellers that many have set their expectations high and arrive with sleep aids and a long list of requirements to ensure a good night’s rest. 

Sleep wellness is at the heart of the Cordis Hotel in Auckland. Their mission is to help guests rest better and enjoy not only their hotel stay, but also the rest of their trip by ensuring a good night’s rest that caters for their individual needs.

In conjunction with their world-renowned Chuan Spa facilities, the Langham Group’s Cordis Hotels have created a Sleep Matters by Chuan programme. It has been developed in conjunction with the World Sleep Society, whose mission is to advance sleep health worldwide through sleep medicines and scientific expertise. 

“Sleep is one of the essential connections between our hotels and our guests,” said Bob van den Oord, Regional Vice President of Operations for the Langham Hospitality Group. 

“There is a direct link to guest sleep quality and their happiness with their hotel. Sleep Matters by Chuan is deliberately designed to enhance the wellness of our guests with new rituals and habits that they can take home and use long after they have stayed with us.

“Each of our hotels across the world have embraced Sleep Matters by Chuan and are introducing their own packages and local elements to delight their guests. We’ll be able to introduce our guests to the knowledge of our Chuan Spa wellness concepts, in collaboration with the World Sleep Society, in one holistic programme, to help them achieve better rest while they are staying with us.” 

Cordis Auckland have a new overnight accommodation package called Heart of Dreams, in one of their many stylish rooms with their signature Cordis dream beds. It includes breakfast in bed for two, a “sleep well kit” with Linden Leaves bath essentials and oils, ear auricular therapy for sleep and access to their wellness app, plus pool and spa facilities, and starts at $457 per night. 

Allan O’Bryan, Executive Director of the World Sleep Society said: “In today’s demanding world, regular healthy sleep is a critical foundation to a healthier future. This new global partnership aligns with our aim to draw attention to the importance of good sleep for achieving a healthier everyday quality of life.”

Some of the additional sleep-oriented offerings for guests staying at the Cordis in Auckland include:

• A Sleep Matters Turndown Kit with items to help guide each guest to the best night’s sleep possible, including herbal tea, branded earplugs and a Sleep Tips Card courtesy of the World Sleep Society. 

• A Sleep Matters Menu, which allows guests to order a selection of wellness-related items during their stay to borrow and enjoy. These include a yoga mat, fitness ball and a fitness kit with resistance bands and massage aids for pre-sleep stretching. There is also a buy and take home menu, including Chuan elemental oils, mini facial kits and bath products for a restful soak before bedtime.

• Bedtime reading is aimed at sleep with a special edition of Healthier Sleep Magazine by the World Sleep Society with articles for developing healthy sleep habits, improving children’s sleep, jetlag recovery, circadian rhythms, mindfulness and other useful sleep wellness topics for those on the go. 

•  A Spotify playlist of specially curated audio tracks from around the world to help guests relax as they get ready for sleep. 

•  Ear auricular therapy and an in-room bath menu.

About Cordis Auckland

Cordis Auckland is part of a collection of timeless five-star hotels by the Langham Hospitality Group. The hotel is situated in a vibrant neighbourhood in the heart of Auckland on Symonds Street. There are 640 rooms and suites, an exclusive Club Lounge, state-of-the-art meeting spaces, a fitness studio, swimming pool and the award-winning Chuan Spa. Perfect for gatherings, Cordis Auckland features the city’s favourite, Eight restaurant, a unique interactive dining experience with eight specialist kitchens, each dedicated to a type of different cuisine, hosted by an expert chef. The Chandelier Lounge serves a variety of options for High Tea by Cordis with TWG Tea. Cordis Auckland’s newest destination bar, Our Land is Alive, offers the best of New Zealand-made food and beverages. Cordis Auckland has been an EarthCheck accredited hotel since 2016, receiving Masters Status in 2021.

To find out more, phone (09) 379-5132 to book or visit


In Love and War – Life in Ukraine

This is the story of a Ukrainian couple, Vitali Shypilov, 34, and his wife Lilya Veli, 36, who, with their two-year-old son Mark, were caught up in the maelstrom of President Putin’s invasion of their country in February 2022. In a conversation with Peter Macky in Kyiv, they talked about their experiences.

Vitali and Lilya have a thoroughly modern marriage; they met online and because of the Covid pandemic, Vitali became a house husband with Lilya pursuing her career in television. She’s been with a production company for the past 13 years directing television commercials and short films. 

The couple live in Bucha, a city of 40,000, known for its parks and amenities, and within commuting distance of Kyiv, 30km to the southeast. Lilya relocated there 10 years ago to be close to friends, moving into a spacious third-floor apartment in a well-maintained complex. Her home benefits from large windows, which provide plenty of sun and make the most of expansive views across single-storey dwellings to Hostomel Airport, in the distance to the north. It’s a military airport, famous in Ukraine for hosting the world’s largest cargo plane, the Antonov-225 Mriya. 

When they first chatted online six years ago, Vitali was a self-employed businessman from Ukraine’s northern city of Kharkiv. Two months later, Vitali, deciding he “couldn’t live without Lilya”, moved to join her in Bucha. 

Lilya and Vitali with their son Mark.

Two years ago, Mark was born. Neither of them would know at the time that Bucha would soon have an international reputation as a place synonymous with war crimes as chilling as those committed in Srebrenica during the Bosnian War, and that their proximity to Hostomel Airport would be potentially lethal. Or that Kharkiv, Vitali’s home city of 1.4 million residents, would be under relentless bombardment by President Putin’s forces, with parts reduced to rubble.

Putin’s forces crossed the border with Ukraine in the early hours of February 24. Russian troops entered the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, attacked Snake Island (now famous for its commander’s response to the suggestion his forces might surrender), and the invaders reached Bucha, on Kyiv’s outskirts. It was expected to be a stopover en route to the prize, Ukraine’s capital, whose armed forces were determined to frustrate Putin’s forces. Against all odds, they prevailed, but not before Vitali and Lilya and their fellow citizens went through hell. Many didn’t make it. I ask Vitali and Lilya: “How did you know the war had started?”

“We remember this morning, every second of it,” Vitali says. “It was 6am. I woke early and was not sleeping because they were very turbulent times; we were suspecting that something might happen. 

“I opened the Facebook feed and read the news. When I heard an explosion I realised: It’s started.

“Lilya was still asleep and didn’t hear anything. I approached her and Mark, they didn’t wake up, they’d not heard the explosion. I was standing in front of them and didn’t know what to say. Lilya sensed I was there and as she sat up I said: ‘Everything is bad, the war has started’.”

With that the phone rang. It was Lilya’s mother phoning from the Crimea. Even though it was annexed by Putin in 2014, she’s still based there. “ ‘Darling, you don’t need to worry,’ she said.  ‘Putin has promised that he will kill not one civilian; the operation is about military structures’. 

“While she was telling me this, I could look out our windows and see houses which were close to the airport in flames,” Lilya says.

Of the intelligence reports, did they believe them? “It’s been an issue of family conflict!” Lilya says. “I said we need to pack an emergency bag but Vitali’s response was: ‘This is so unbelievably crazy, a person cannot act like that, it is so crazy’. So we did nothing to prepare.” 

Vitali, moving on: “I knew we were almost out of petrol and rushed to the petrol station. It’s normally a 10-minute drive but it took me two and a half hours to get to the front of the queue and they ran out just as I got there. 

“We had zero petrol. We normally walk around Bucha and don’t need it.

“Our apartment has plenty of windows all around. We realised it was not safe that day (on February 24). We put tape on them and made a safe place behind the sofa, far from the windows near the walls, which were shaking with each explosion. Some windows started to crack, and Mark started crying. 

“That’s when we realised we needed to move to the ground floor, when Mark was so scared. He’s only two, but he helped us with the decision. He helped us see sense.

“We had friends in the same apartment block who lived on the ground floor and we asked them if we could move in with them that night because it was safer. None of us had a cellar. We stayed one day and one night. We were too scared to go anywhere because there were explosions all around us.” 

Lilya continues, happy to tell their story: “Before we moved downstairs at around 11am there were Russian helicopters, about 30, we could see from our apartment windows. We are on the third floor with views to the northwest. A helicopter was hovering over our neighbours’ houses, firing missiles towards the airport.

“The first night (February 24/25) was the worst night. You don’t know anything, you can’t see anything, but you can hear and feel the shelling and missiles. They started coming from one direction, then both, 180 degrees: the Russians in one direction, our forces from the other.

“On February 25 we decided to move to Mykhailivka-Rubezhivka, a small village 7km to the south. We had friends there with a large house and a big garden. It wasn’t the best choice because it was under occupation by the invaders, but we didn’t know that at the time. 

“We decided to move there, a bit further out, because there were explosions all around and I knew from online chat that Russians were shelling and using grad missiles which are notoriously inaccurate. They can land anywhere. It was a hard choice to know where to go because it wasn’t safe anywhere.”

Vitali: “We managed to get petrol from our neighbours and used back roads to avoid the Russians, taking 40 minutes instead of 10, never knowing whether we would make it. We saw houses in flames and smoke rising up everywhere but we knew a safer way to get to the village. When we approached it, there was a plane overhead, flying very low, which kept returning. We felt very vulnerable.”

Rifle ammunition is seen scattered on a road in the frontline nearby Druzhelyubivka City, Ukraine.

Lilya: “Having got there, we were stuck in this small village in a perilous position, in a big house which was very cold, close to freezing. We ended up being under occupation until March 12.”

Was this the worst experience? “No,” Vitali says. “The worst was yet to come.” 

Wanting to know more about their living conditions, I asked, when you were in Mykhailivka-Rubezhivka, where did the groceries, your food come from? 

“When we were moving out on February 25, we knew we had to take the most important belongings with us,” Lilya says. “But we were so frightened, all we took were some small cans and a big bowl of food for our cat. No clothes for us or Mark, no food for him, but [laughing] we did have food for the cat.”

Vitaly lost 10kg because with so little food available, it was important that Lilya ate well since she was breastfeeding. And, as they related their story to me, they had to think about their cat. Vitali told me, almost apologetically, how he had “something small in the morning, like porridge” and then “a small snack” in the evening. The situation was dire, with no means to remedy it, other than to risk their lives. They heard from their neighbours who only had chicken wings, which had spoiled because there was no electricity. After they ate them they were very sick. Then they had nothing.

Vitali and Lilya also forgot their documents, and Mark’s birth certificate, but they did take a “huge toy” for him. When the war started, Vitali made a CD of their photographs. “We had all our life on that CD, it’s very important, it’s precious, but then I forgot it too!” Vitali says. This charming, intelligent, loving couple made some terrible decisions, but you can’t blame them. They were under attack and in mortal danger, with the added responsibility of their young child.

Having moved to the small village of Mykhailivka-Rubezhivka they were still at risk; it’s less than 10 kilometres from Hostomel. On the rare occasions they had cell phone reception, they each heard, on two instances, that their apartment building was on fire. Lilya didn’t know what to do. “Shall I tell my husband? When shall I tell him?” Five minutes prior, Vitali had to make the same decision because he’d heard the same story. They ended up confiding in the other, stories the other already knew. Fortunately, there was no truth to the story. Their
home survived.

So, what was the worst thing? On March 12, they saw cars with white flags and realised something had changed. With their neighbours leaving, they decided to leave too. It wasn’t an organised evacuation, it was impromptu. They had no internet and in the absence of information, put some white tissue on the car to show the Russians they were civilians, hoping that might help their chances, and set off.

“The route we needed to take was across an embankment, it was narrow so tanks couldn’t drive there but cars could,” Vitali says. “It was terribly exposed. Occasionally tanks would fire at cars as they crossed, killing or harming the occupants. It was the only way we could go. We were heading to the west of Ukraine and luckily, we still had enough petrol.

“The most scary moment was crossing the embankment and then the expressway [the main road between Kyiv and Lviv]; there was no other way to the west. It was random, whether you got through. We knew we could all be killed but we really had no choice. 

“There were a dozen cars in the convoy. After we crossed the highway, my body was shaking from the stress.” 

They showed me a video of the same area, taken at
the same time. You can hear the sound of bullets hitting the car. Being on that road then definitely was a life-or-
death gamble. 

I ask, “Did you think halfway through, this is crazy, we should turn back?”

Vitali: “We didn’t have a choice. Nowhere was safe and we didn’t have a way back. The place where we were staying wasn’t safe. It was very exposed. Of course it was a big risk but we had to get out of there. Yes, it was a big gamble. We were very lucky.”

So on March 12, they left their refuge for the safety of a town in the west of Ukraine and got through.

Lilya: “We drove as fast as we could, at 120km an hour. I kept telling Vitali to drive faster! We wanted to get as far as possible before the curfew. We didn’t think about the car. Our little Ford Focus was an angel with strong wings that day. For us it was psychological. There was almost no traffic in the other direction, but we passed wrecked cars which had crashed because someone was driving too fast. It was wartime. No one was going to stop them or us.” 

Vitali: “This is the first time I’ve recounted this, had to recall all this.” 

Lilya: “It takes a lot to remember, because of the stress but we know it’s important to record the memories for the family. And for others to know what happened. We both know this. We went to a place. We didn’t know anyone. Our friends arranged it. It was our first normal night in three weeks. We’d not been able to go outside because of the Russian tanks. We did not dare. 

“There was no electricity from February 26. There was no heating. We were afraid to have a fire. All we could do was close the windows and pull the curtains. 

“We tried to keep warm as best we could. It was no more than 10 degrees; with a small fire we hoped the Russians wouldn’t see. Water came from a well 30 metres from the house, but it was dangerous outside, it was a risk every time. It was Vitali’s job, and he went early in the morning, when it was safest.” 

Vitali: “One time I got water and saw tanks quite close and managed to get back to the house. We’ve since heard people were killed looking for water or supplies. We were lucky. One day when we were in the village, someone destroyed the Russians’ fuel tankers, and starting that day, the Russians were furious and started targeting civilians. Out for revenge, they were crazy. It was another reason for us to leave. The tanks, the planes, the helicopters and now crazed troops. A lot of people died.”

Vitali was alluding to the atrocities which put Bucha on the map. The city is now synonymous with war crimes. According to local authorities, 458 bodies were recovered from the town, including nine children under the age of 18. Ukraine’s government has asked the International Criminal Court to investigate what happened in Bucha as part of its ongoing investigation of the invasion, to determine whether war crimes or crimes against humanity were committed by Putin’s forces.

Vitali and Lilya can now start to think about their future. Vitali’s career as a private entrepreneur has been on hold with his business being affected by Covid-19 and now with the war. Being out of work for him is a short-term situation. 

In the meantime, Lilya: “We share the housekeeping, since Mark was born, we do everything absolutely equally. Whether washing the dishes, playing with Mark. It depends on who’s busier, it’s very liberal, very modern and it works for us. We’re very happy.

“My career’s been affected by the war. On my channel I’m happy that they didn’t fire anybody, they just cut our salaries. Regardless, if I didn’t work, as was the case in January, I still got paid. It’s a private company and they paid us. On other channels they paid the full salary but with fewer employees.”

I ask, “Did you think the Ukrainian army would win when the war started?”

Vitali: “I didn’t have any doubt. I knew the army would keep them out. I had no doubt. And if I was called up by the authorities, I would join.” 

To conclude the interview, I ask Vitali and Lilya: “Has anything good come out of this?”

Vitali: “Yes. It’s consolidated the nation. I can tell you this: before the war, I used to speak Russian, we all did. Now it’s only Ukrainian. I still swear in Russian, or when I’m annoyed with our cat.” 

Lilya has the last word. She pauses and focuses. For a woman who was relaxed during the interview, she now chooses her words carefully. There was no doubting her resolve: “We’re all in this now and we’re going to win.”

Vitali and Lilya were interviewed by Peter Macky on September 19, 2022, in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, Ukraine.

Translator: Aryna Satovska in Kyiv.

Copyright Peter Macky and Aryna Satovska.

Subscribe & WIN!

Subscribe to WOMAN+ for only $19.99 for the year and you’ll have a chance to WIN 2 Nights for 2 at JetPark Rotorua +
an Evening in the Polynesian Spa.

*You can unsubscribe at any time. By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.