Lessons in social isolation from a DOC ranger in the Northern Coromandel

Department of Conservation —  16/04/2020

Sierra Alef-Defoe, a ranger at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, reflects on lessons in social isolation she learned as a campground ranger in the Northern Coromandel. 

I searched the grocery store for non-perishable foods. I needed long-lasting vegetables: potatoes, onions, carrots. I raided the canned food section: peas, green beans, coconut milk, tomatoes. Instead of taking individual peanut butter jars, I grabbed the whole box. Ditto with the soy milk. I took my overflowing trolley to the checkout counter, ready for the weeks to come.

I also prepared activities, downloading podcasts until I maxed out my phone’s storage capacity, preparing an arsenal of reading material on my e-reader, and downloading a “30 Days of Yoga” video program to my computer. 

No, I wasn’t getting ready for the COVID-19 lockdown: this was back in December. Rather, I was preparing for nine weeks living at Fletcher Bay, a DOC campground located at the end of a long gravel road on the northern tip of the Coromandel peninsula. I’d be an hours’ drive from the general store, three hours from the supermarket — not that I would have a car with which to drive to them anyway.

Port Jackson & Fletcher Bay Campgrounds, two of the Northern Coromandel campgrounds that I worked at over the summer

Though December-February is the northern Coromandel’s busiest season, it is still pleasantly quiet most of the summer. Other than the holidays, the campgrounds don’t fill up completely. One night at Fletcher Bay when schools were back in session, we had no campers at all. It was social isolation, before “social isolation” was part of the vernacular. 

Scenes from around Fletcher Bay Campground

As an avid hiker, I spent nearly every evening and day off on the Coromandel Coastal Walkway, a 10k trail that started at our doorstep. I cooked my meals, did my yoga sessions, read my books. Though I had expected to get antsy for civilization, I kept myself well-occupied enough to be largely content. Towards the end, I looked forward to seeing friends and family, but was sorry to leave the simplicity and peace of Fletcher Bay.

Views from the Coromandel coastal walkway

When the summer was over, my colleague Julie drove me down to the ferry and we said goodbye, not yet knowing that we’d be together again in Te Anau. The ferry from Coromandel town dropped me off in the chaos of Auckland’s central business district. There were plenty of perks of being back in an urban area, like access to fresh produce. But there is also an allure to the simple life. So when I had the opportunity to work with DOC in Te Anau, I thought it had the perfect balance: small town, but with a grocery store!

The Northern Coromandel campgrounds team. View of Auckland from the Coromandel ferry

The first week in Te Anau felt like a metropolis compared to Fletcher Bay. Tourists everywhere! A bar! Food trucks! Multiple hiking tracks! With Julie, who’d also come to this job after summer in the Coromandel, we plotted all the activities we wanted to do. 

Julie and I hiking in the Borland area of Fiordland before the lockdown. The first snow of the season had just fallen, and Julie made a snowman!

Julie and I had been called down to Fiordland to help out in the aftermath of the severe flooding in February which had created an influx of cancellations, re-bookings, and questions. Now, Fiordland faces its second major challenge of the year: COVID-19. After only a week working at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, changes began. It started with creating distance between staff and guests, then turning away visitors who’d entered New Zealand fewer than 14 days prior, then closing the visitor centre to the public. Finally, following the prime minister’s announcement, we all adjusted to working from home.

Scenes from a quiet Te Anau in lockdown

After my time at Fletcher Bay, I am well-equipped to handle 4+ weeks of social isolation. With my experience grocery shopping for nine weeks, it’s easy for me to avoid going to the supermarket too often. I’m already accustomed to following yoga online, and only hiking on trails that are at my doorstep. Compared to life in the Coromandel, there is another perk here: cell service & wifi, enabling me to call friends around the world and take online classes. 

Sunrise from the window of our house in Te Anau. Julie and me; working from home.

When Julie and I found out we’d both be moving down to Te Anau to work at DOC, we never expected to end up locked down in a house together for at least a month. But we are grateful to be stuck in such a wonderful, supportive place. We are fortunate here to have lots of wide open spaces so we can still go on walks, runs, and bike rides. The community is strong, and even though we’re new here, we have felt so welcomed and taken care of by colleagues and neighbours. 

After a challenging start to 2020 in Fiordland, I remain hopeful that the region will bounce back, perhaps even more beautiful than it was before, as nature has time to prosper without human disruption. The strong support of our community gives me hope that this experience will bring us closer together as people, knowing that we are more resilient than we thought.

Tips for getting through the lockdown

  • Make a list of things you’re grateful for. It can be large things like “I’m grateful to have a house” to small things like “I’m grateful for sunshine today”
  • Read books — either what you already have on your shelf, or what you can download to an e-reader or as an audiobook. Start a virtual book club with friends!
  • Follow free online yoga classes; it does wonders for both the body and the mind
  • Call up friends or relatives, or even bring “pen pals” back by writing long e-mails
  • Take your camera out for a walk around your neighbourhood and use it to help you see the beauty all around you — perhaps a neighbour’s garden will catch your eye
  • Take a free online class in an area that interests you — this is the perfect time to build your skills and exercise your brain
  • Listen to podcasts — a great activity for multi-tasking while cooking, cleaning, or walking
  • Try cooking or baking a new recipe that you didn’t have the time or dedication to try before
  • Practice a language you’ve always wanted to get better at
  • If you have a patio, porch, or yard, and the weather allows, enjoy it —  wave to the neighbors, listen to the birds

15 responses to Lessons in social isolation from a DOC ranger in the Northern Coromandel

    Stefan Hohmann 12/05/2020 at 7:32 am

    Only 5 weeks back after a wonderful holiday I’ve got almost tears in my eyes while reading this story… It was just too good. We’ll come again to visit this wonderful unique island.
    Greetings from Germany

    Tony Parfitt 09/05/2020 at 12:00 pm

    As an ex-pat Kiwi living in Sydney, I really enjoyed your article, having spent some wonderful weeks in both Coromandel and Fiordland. Take care and stay safe in these troubling times.

    Sue Bradbury 27/04/2020 at 12:16 am

    Really enjoyed reading about your adventures.
    Camped at Fletcher’s Bay & we were the only ones there. Really want to go back and walk or bike the trail.

    Hopefully Nature is enjoying some peace & tranquility & humans are reveling in some time out & smelling the roses (so to speak).
    Looking forward to getting back into the hills & exploring more of beautiful NZ. Proud to be a Kiwi 🙂
    Great article 🙂

    Thomas W Devine 25/04/2020 at 11:17 am

    Hi, Sierra – I was the first “campground ranger” at Fletcher Bay in the Christmas season of the year the property was purchased by the Department of Lands & Survey. Fortunately, with the isolation, I had my family with me and the use of a car but – with that road – we only made the 1 trip in & out. Most exciting event was getting 3 children & self out of the water when two sharks came into the bay.


    You made me excited to go back to Fletcher Bay I was there with my family in the 1960’s!


    What a great article and photos. As a Canadian dreaming about visiting “someday” reading about New Zealand and especially the DOC newsletters have been another Covid-19 distraction. Amazing work accomplished!!

    David Chartres 24/04/2020 at 5:45 pm

    TeAnau, the real NZ! Nature is smiling, now she can rest. Perhaps all of humanity can take a rest, and reflect.


    Really enjoyed this article. Camped at Fletchers Bay with my school friend Jimmie Muir in 1955. We Both lived on farms in Matatoki and every road was metal. Took 2 hours in Jim’s old car.
    We camped under the pohutukawa trees at he south end and saw nobody for 100 the ten days we were there. Snorkled for Crayfish on the point and caught snapper off the beach.
    don’t seem to have changed much, and there were always 1.5 meter Rays basking in the shallows.
    DOC does a great job and I am a supporter of conservation for ever.

    Just like to stop the 1080 as it kills everything.

    Serge Ivanov 24/04/2020 at 1:59 pm

    I see how Port Jackson campground changed, was were 20 years ago , very nice pictures of Fletcher bay. Good reading , plenty to think about .

    Praemi Perera 24/04/2020 at 1:08 pm

    Great photos, some inspirational writing! Thank you.


    Love it Judy fantastic story and photos

    Eddie C. Bufe 17/04/2020 at 4:06 pm

    Love the photographic captures!! Your experience and advice on shopping is appreciated. Sometimes one does not have the confidence to try new “ANYTHING”. Lockdown in such a good opportunity as there is no one besides your immediate bubble companions to giggle at any flops, and giggles are good. Thanks for sharing. Regards, Leonie.

    Peter Hallinan 17/04/2020 at 11:02 am

    Your glass of water will always be half full.

    Ben de With 17/04/2020 at 1:58 am

    Thx a lot, I loved reading your experiences and thouths.

    Tony Lovelidge 16/04/2020 at 8:34 pm

    This is a great read. Thanks