An Undeveloped Gem: Auckland's Rotoroa Island

May 9, 2020
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LAST summer, my father and I decided to visit Rotoroa Island. It’s a small, beautiful island in the Hauraki Gulf east of downtown Auckland.

In normal times, which is to say other than in the present lockdown, ferries regularly depart for the island from downtown Auckland: which always looks grey and dull compared to the fabulous gulf, and other downtowns as well.

Why is downtown Auckland so grey?

The flag on the back of the boat brings out the contrast.

But the gulf’s amazing. One of Auckland’s nicknames is the City of Sails. In the 1890s and early 1900s a local photographer called Henry Winkelmann took lots of lovely photos of yachts. It had only just then become possible to take action shots. Here’s a Winkelmann photo of a yacht racing past Rotoroa Island, our coming destination.

(On the wall at Rotoroa Island)

We sailed past the lovely, unspoilt volcano known as Rangitoto Island.

And arrived at Rotoroa Island..

Background map data ©2019 Google

My father Brian at the Rotoroa Island landing

It’s an island with lots of nice beaches.

And lots of walking tracks, which I walked along. I walked all around the island, apart from the North Tower Loop Track, which was closed.

Dad got a ride to Ladies Bay, where there’s a gas-operated barbecue that works when you insert coins (so bring plenty of coins!). And then to a lookout where you can see nearby Pakatoa Island, which was also an inebriates’ retreat for a shorter time before becoming a resort-island for holidaymakers from Auckland, absolutely covered in buildings and even featuring a golf course.

Going to Pakatoa Island was a big thing in the 1970s. But it doesn’t seem to be doing any regular tourist business any more, most probably because of cheap air fares to the South Pacific — in much the same way that cheap air fares sucked the life out of resorts in the Catskill Mountains near New York — and the owners are always trying to sell it.

Anyhow, Rotoroa is just as charming and isn’t overdeveloped! Ironically, its use as a treatment centre spared it from the ravages of ticky-tacky development.

My father with an island guide at Ladies Bay

Though it isn’t highly developed, Rotoroa does have some accommodation: it’s not just for day trippers. It’s really a beautiful spot to get away from it all.

You can tell it was summer by the red blossoms on the Pōhutukawa tree (metrosideros excelsa). This is the sort of thing that makes overseas New Zealanders instantly homesick.

But it has a sad history. Rotoroa belongs to the Salvation Army. For nearly a hundred years, from 1910 till 2005, it was a retreat for alcoholics (known in the early days as ‘inebriates’), who would be committed to the island for treatment by their own request, by their families or by court orders.

Some of the old buildings are still there.

Relatively harmless unfortunates shared the island with serious criminals maddened by drink. This mixture sometimes caused problems, and there was a jail on the island where the worst could be locked up if they caused too much trouble.

The Sallies themselves were ardent prohibitionists, a measure that was nearly enacted in New Zealand at about the same time as in the USA, but not quite. There’s a small museum on the island, and I took photos of some of the displays.

If you look closely at the cloven-hoofed beer baron’s money bags, you’ll see them labelled which what looks like L.s.d., short for pounds, shillings and pence. In those more innocent times LSD was a slang expression for money in New Zealand, and nobody thought it meant anything else! One issue at a time, I guess.

This photo shows my father unlatching the gate to a graveyard holding some of the former staff, and patients who expired on the island.

Here’s a 2011 radio programme on the history of the island and its opening to the public in that year. It was leased from the Salvation Army in 2008 by Neal and Annette Plowman, philanthropists intent on turning it into a wildlife sanctuary and conservation park. Here’s a 2019 radio programme on the development of the sanctuary.

Native trees are being planted all over the place.

And smaller native plants are being conserved as well.

Like another small Hauraki Gulf island that I’ve blogged about, Tiritiri Matangi, Rotoroa’s also become an important sanctuary for native birds.

As on Tiritiri Matangi, there’s a special focus on flightless species such as the Weka, the Takahē and the Kiwi.

I made a selfie of myself next a sculpture that the Plowmans had installed to brighten the place up. This is the one the maps refer to as the ‘Chris Moore sculpture’, after its creator.

And so back to the boat past all the lovely tree planting!

Anyhow, to round off, it seems that Pakatoa and Rotoroa make for an interesting pair. The one the past of tourism and island stays, the other the future: more ecological and low-key.


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