There is something wonderful about Rotoroa Island and it’s not just the sandy beaches, emerald green water or the breathtaking views from every grassy vantage point. The truth is that there are many other places in New Zealand where the sea is just as clear and the beaches are just as unspoilt. No, what makes Rotoroa Island wonderful is its colourful history, and the fact that for 100 years it was out of bounds.
In fact, it’s only since 2011 that the island has been open to the public after an extraordinarily generous philanthropic gesture established the Rotoroa Island Trust. The Trust has restored buildings, planted over 400 000 native trees (there are baby Pohutakawas everywhere) and established a seriously impressive conservation programme that will ensure that Rotoroa’s unique environment will be protected and nurtured.
Beginning in May 1911, Rotoroa was the home for “Certified Inebriates” and was under the ownership of the Salvation Army. Drunkards committed by the Courts to compulsory reform, voluntary ‘clients’, and hardened criminals landed here initially for periods from 6 months to 2 years. On arrival, they found themselves in an environment that was part farm colony, part retreat and part prison. Sea air, physical labour, simple meals and above all no temptations was the Salvation Army way to reform. Only men were permitted (what did I say about no temptation?) and they were packed into dormitories and made to attend church services twice a week. They rose early and worked hard. There were rules for everything from cleanliness to smoking.
The deprivation and routine was too much for some. An article from 1927 tells of the escape of Charles Marshall in a dingy. Unfortunately for Charles the dingy had no oars so he had to rely on the tides. After drifting to a nearby island, he was picked up by a passing trawler and sentenced to 3 months imprisonment for his daring. Charles was a chemist and a drug addict and life must have been intolerable because he made a second escape from Rotoroa, this time making it to Sydney before being deported. Other inmates of the island made the best of it if stories of brewing parsnips and visits to and from the women on the nearby island are to be believed.
Today, some of the original buildings have been restored including the old school house, the butcher shop, the chapel and the jail where particularly rowdy inmates would stay until they had sobered up. There is an excellent Exhibition Hall where recordings, displays and artifacts help bring the island’s colourful past to life. There are beaches to swim at, walking tracks to follow, and breathtaking photo opportunities at every turn. Even on a public holiday (it was Good Friday when I visited) there is enough space for everyone to find a quiet spot to watch the boats sail by.
Rotoroa Island may be out muscled by big brother Waiheke and it can’t compete with Rangitoto’s volcano, extinct or not, but it truly is a unique mix of unspoilt beauty and fascinating history. The restoration of the island has been done with taste and sensitivity and this really is one of Auckland’s undiscovered gems.
Things to know before you go
There is cold water available on Rotoroa but no shops so bring a picnic, or use the BBQs at Ladies’ Bay one of the most popular, and most easily accessible, beaches.
The walking tracks are well signposted and excellently maintained but leave your jandals at home as they are mostly gravel and some are quite steep. You’ll be safer in trainers or good walking shoes.
Book online to stay overnight in one of the 4 gorgeously restored vintage houses (www.rotoroa.org.nz). It’s as close as you’ll come to having an island all to yourself.
It’s easy to relax and forget about the time, but don’t! There is only one ferry pick up and if you miss it you’ll have a long, inconvenient (and expensive) journey back to Auckland (and only if you can hitch a boat ride to Waiheke).
Watch out for the cheeky weka’s (small brown birds with a very inquisitive nature). There is plenty of food available for them on the island, so don’t feed them yours!
And finally, if you want to get involved, check the website to find out about the next Rotoroa Island volunteer conservation day.
Rating: don’t miss it