Rotoroa - an island apart
By Karyn Clare and Bachchat Staff
Rotoroa Island, in the Hauraki Gulf, was NZ’s first and longest running drug and alcohol addiction treatment centre. It was bought by the Salvation Army in 1907, and provided care for over 12,000 admissions until its closure in 2005. For nearly 100 years it was completely off-limits to the public and had a certain mystique because, not only was it out of bounds, but it was the ‘dry out’ island for NZ.
In 2011 the island was opened to the public as a visitor attraction, with a great museum and a host of heritage buildings. The island also features beautiful beaches and extensive native planting. Three homes which were once occupied by staff who worked on the island have been renovated, and since 2012 have been offered as holiday accommodation. Two of the houses are built with bricks made on the island itself at the Rotoroa brickworks - new trades were all part of the recovery process.
The houses themselves are typical 1970’s buildings and because of that, the Rotoroa Island Trust decided to renovate them in vintage retro style. They are now boutique holiday homes with a fabulous feel and enviable views. All have been decorated with art and objects from the island’s history, from maps and paintings done by island occupants, to stencils used to mark wool bales exported to Auckland and black boards from island sports’ tournaments.
The houses tell something of the story of the island itself, and guests in these properties almost have the island to themselves. Along with the scenic surrounds, visitors can explore the heart of the old treatment centre including the jail, chapel and school house.
The jail was used for prisoners who arrived drunk or who were unmanageable. In later years, it was little used and was a storage depot for sports equipment. Treatment on the island was driven by Salvation Army techniques of understanding the cycle of addiction, the triggers and causes. Faith, the restoration of self-esteem, providing new trades and isolating people from the situations which caused problems were all part of the rehabilitation process. There was counselling, good food and plenty of occupation through work and training. Trades included brick-making and metal work, carpentry and farming - the island was almost self-sufficient with occupants feeding themselves from the island farm, orchard, fisheries and chickens. Music and handcrafts were important too – there were lots of pictures made from seashells!
There were over a hundred occupants on the island at its peak. The schoolhouse was used by the children of Salvation Army staff, with up to a dozen children living on the island at any one time. These days, the schoolhouse can be hired for meetings. The current island manager, Phil Salisbury, spent a few years on the island as a child, and he is very interesting for visitors to talk to.
There are four beaches - two in particular (which face north and Coromandel), are very beautiful. They are sandy and sheltered; one is called Ladies Bay (and was for ladies-only swimming), the other was Men’s Bay, for obvious reasons. Around 350,000 native trees have been planted on the island and old pines and introduced species felled. The trees are small to medium sized at the moment, but are growing fast. There are many walks over the island - visitors can go up to the southern headland and admire the fantastic Chris Booth sculpture - a good hour’s walk. The island walks are not challenging, more pleasant ambling to discover nooks and crannies and gorgeous views. Some trails are buggy friendly, and one can push a wheel chair over to Ladies Bay without too much trouble (although the paths are gravel).
Rotoroa Island is 70 minutes by ferry from downtown Auckland. Ferry bookings are through 360 Discovery.
The island is still owned by the Salvation Army. In 2008, philanthropists Neal and Annette Plowman negotiated a 99-year lease from the Salvation Army, and established the Rotoroa Island Trust, designed to return island access to the people of New Zealand. The independent trust now runs Rotoroa Island as an arts, conservation and heritage park. With its lovely beaches and stylish, retro baches, Rotoroa Island is a place to explore a unique slice of New Zealand history, in a dazzling seaside setting.