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Wild Summer

A tui on Rotoroa Island
Posted January 10, 2018

Rotoroa Island once brought healing through The Salvation Army’s addictions programme. Now, Rotoroa is bringing healing to our wildlife, through its island sanctuary. Open to visitors, Shar Davis whiled away a peaceful summer’s day among birdsong and pohutakawa.
I sat on the bench, waiting and watching as Auckland commuters arrived downtown via ferry, ready to start their working day. I, however, was escaping the rat race for a day to explore one of the few predator-free islands in New Zealand—no rats allowed!

Islands have a somewhat fantastical allure about them, so spending the day on Rotoroa Island, surrounded by wildlife and beauty stirred up something that left my spirit nourished and my soul alive again with wanderlust.

Rotoroa Island has a fascinating history—and an equally fascinating present and future outlook, which many people have no idea about. Did you know The Salvation Army has owned Rotoroa Island since 1908—and they also used to own neighbouring Pakatoa Island?

Early last century, The Salvation Army set up a home for people suffering ‘chronic drunkenness’. They were usually committed to confinement by the courts, first on Pakatoa in 1908 and then on Rotoroa Island in 1911. The island was part farm colony, part retreat, part prison. Women lived on Pakatoa, while men lived on Rotoroa (there are tall tales of skeletons lining the ocean seabed as clients tried to swim from one to the other).

Rotoroa Island became the first addiction treatment centre in the country and the longest running, serving over 12,000 New Zealanders before closing its island-based treatment centre in 2005.

National director for The Salvation Army’s addictions services Lieut-Colonel Lynette Hutson reflected on why closing Rotoroa Island’s treatment centre was the right decision. ‘Changing patterns of addictions treatment backed by research evidence confirmed that treatment provided as close as possible to the person’s real world was more effective.’ The Army wasn’t giving up on residential treatment altogether because it was ‘still a valid way of breaking the cycle of addictions and giving people tools to live in recovery, but shorter periods backed up with community support gave better results,’ said Lynette.

What could the Army do with the island without the significant capital required to develop it? That’s where philanthropists Neil and Annette Plowman came in. Passionate about conservation and education, they funded a 99-year lease of the island and established the Rotoroa Island Trust in 2008, with a focus on restoring the island and conserving native species of plants and wildlife.

Two of the trustees are Salvation Army representatives, who help preserve the Army’s interests in the island during the lease period. Lieut-Colonel David Bateman, secretary for Business Administration, said the lease fee has been invested by the Army to resource ongoing mission in the territory. ‘This is presently benefiting the capital works needs of our Addictions, Supportive Accommodation and Reintegration Services—honouring the ministry carried out on the island for many years prior to its lease,’ he says.

Getting there

It’s pretty easy to get to Rotoroa Island from Auckland by ferry, taking just over an hour with a stop-off at Waiheke’s Orapiu wharf on the way. Multiple trips are scheduled each week during summer, with weekends-only during colder months.

After spending the ferry ride on the upper deck breathing the salt air, watching the concrete jungle of Auckland slowly disappear and doing my best to avoid feeling sea sick (I’m a lightweight when it comes to boats), we finally arrived at Rotoroa Island, with its friendly staff waiting for us on the jetty.

Our welcome wasn’t just motivated by good old-fashioned Kiwi hospitality; there is a much more serious reason—biosecurity. Rotoroa Island is home to lots of native wildlife, something only possible because there are zero pests—which, in turn, is only possible because of the rigorous biosecurity on the island.

There are no shops on Rotoroa Island, so it’s BYO food and drink—and TYORH (take your own rubbish home), one of the key things to remember on the island. How many of us have thrown an apple core out the car window thinking, ‘It’s okay, it’s biodegradable.’ The problem on the island is any food scraps could attract rats from neighbouring islands. Believe it or not—rats can swim kilometres at a time!

Rotoroa Island Trust has a partnership with Auckland Zoo and works closely with the Department of Conservation to develop this unique wildlife sanctuary. They have been working to populate the island with endangered species that need human intervention to survive.

Conservation is key

Brian Ireland is leader of Rotoroa Island’s education programme. He says, ‘It’s not enough to take kids to an island and go for a walk; demonstrating conservation is key. In fact, demonstrating conservation is the driving ethos of Rotoroa Island. Our island experience is not a walk and a talk. Kids learn a range of conservation techniques and get to use them within a real island sanctuary.’

I tagged along with a group from Dilworth School Junior Campus in Auckland to see what sort of educational experience the island provides.

Brian began by asking students what conservation in  New Zealand is, and, after a few guesses, he told the surprised roomful of boys, ‘It’s about killing things!’ Taxidermied creatures were then pulled out of bags and students tried identifying each specimen. For some, it was the first time they’d seen a rat, stoat or possum up close.

Zoo staff explained the various traps used to catch or identify wildlife—some were used to record footprints of whatever creature walked across the ‘ink pad’ onto the paper strip. We learnt that even rodents have their favourite temptations. Rats prefer Nutella, possums like fruit and the colour yellow. Peanut butter, cinnamon and aniseed are other flavours used to entice unwanted visitors into a trap. All these scents are sprayed onto traps from aerosol cans.

Then it was time for the students to venture out to explore the island in two groups. Our group started walking towards one end of the island and straight away the sound we heard was remarkable. It’s hard to describe, but imagine an a cappella group made up entirely of native birds; birdcalls that many visitors would not easily recognise. The birds could usually be heard long before they were spotted, although weka were easily spotted wandering freely around the grounds.

Teaching spots scattered allow guides to spend a few minutes talking about different aspects of conservation work. We learnt about the bird houses around the island and how different birds have different requirements—it’s definitely not one-size-fits-all. Stitchbird (hihi) are picky birds requiring a deck, small hole and doorway. Kiwi choose a different burrow each night to sleep in. Saddleback (tīeke) require a triangle-shaped opening for their box. And kaka go around eating the other bird houses.

While we were looking at a chart of various birds, Brian froze momentarily, head cocked to one side, before whipping out his cellphone. He began to play a birdcall and almost instantly a saddleback flew right over our heads and perched in a nearby tree, responding to the cellphone’s call. It was a remarkable thing to watch, and when we learnt that the saddleback was once thought to be extinct, it was an incredibly special moment. Rotoroa Island’s conservation programme started with 40 saddlebacks, but is now home to approximately 100.

Rotoroa Island is full of special moments: walking along and suddenly seeing a takahē with its young chick; a baby weka running across your path as it tries to catch up to its mother and sibling; pīwakawaka (fantail) darting around you as they try to catch the insects stirred by walking along the dirt track; or, spotting baby tūturiwhatu (New Zealand dotterel) on the beach amongst seashells.

The island plays a vital role in the kiwi breeding programme that Auckland Zoo operates. Kiwi eggs are collected from the Coromandel and taken to the zoo for incubation. Once hatched, they are released onto Rotoroa and they stay there for up to two years. A muster by specially-trained dogs takes place before the kiwi are released back into the Coromandel. The public can watch as kiwi are released onto Rotoroa—keep an eye out on their website for release dates.

The Rotoroa Island Trust has been busy with other conservation tasks, too, including removing 20,000 pine trees before planting almost 400,000 native plants since it took over in 2008. There’s so much greenery now, including a field of young pohutakawaka trees. With a little imagination, it’s not hard to see the canopy of red bloom that will cover the area as they mature.

What to see and do

A state-of-the-art visitor centre and museum preserve Rotoroa Island’s history, beginning with Māori and early European, followed by a comprehensive look at the Army’s addiction treatment centre over many decades. This museum is stunning in its presentation and helps centre the story of the Rotoroa Island as a place of healing and renewal—firstly of humanity and now of nature.

The historic schoolhouse and jailhouse also speak of days past, as does the mast of Tiri II, Radio Hauraki’s famous pirate ship that broadcast from the Gulf. Decoy Gannets with an artificial call broadcast constantly in the hope of attracting real Gannet birds to the island. The island’s graveyard is the resting place of a number of former staff and clients, a peaceful place for reflection—especially for those with personal connections to those buried there.

Three of the staff houses have been beautifully renovated with a shout-out to their vintage heritage. These are available to hire for overnight stays. For a cheaper option the superintendent’s house has been renovated into hostel-style accommodation. It can hold a large group of up to 18 or individual travellers.

Multiple beaches on the island make ideal swimming or picnic spots if the weather is inviting, with barbecues at Ladies Bay for visitors to use free-of-charge. The island can be easily covered on foot in a day, with toilets scattered around as well.

Rotoroa Island is a unique part of Salvation Army history that was once cut off from the public’s view. It is now a place that all New Zealanders can enjoy. Importantly, it is a place that can enrich our knowledge of the Army, of native species, and of the importance of conservation for the future sustainability of endangered species and wildlife.

Plan your own visit to Rotoroa Island | Find out more at

by Shar Davis (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 13 November 2017, pp6-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.