We left Deep Bay around 8 am on Thursday (10th May) and motored south to look into the mouth of the Coromandel Harbour. Having not actually anchored directly off the Coromandel, I wanted to take a look into the large bay and towards the mountains that run down the spine of the peninsula.
A pinnacle rock in the Coromandel Harbour with the mountains of the Peninsula beyond
We then headed west across the mouth of the Firth of Thames and past the Cow (predictably large) and Calf (predictably small) Islands. The southerly wind was not quite strong enough for us to sail at a respectable speed but we did motor-sail for a while. We were happy to see three little blue penguins swimming and chattering at the calm water surface.
Receding headlands in Coromandel Harbour
We rounded the north end of Rotoroa Island (between it and Pakatoa Island) but instead of stopping at Cable Bay at the north end of the island, we continued around to Home (or Southwest) Bay. The weather forecast indicated that the wind direction would soon swing around and be coming from the north from which we would be well-sheltered. Home Bay was a lovely wide anchorage with good anchor-holding in 13 feet (4 m) of water. We were the only anchored boat when arrived but we were joined by four more for the night.
Tregoning (left) in Home Bay seen from the southern half of Rotoroa Island
After a quick lunch, we launched the dinghy to row to the wharf where signs indicated that we should come ashore at the adjacent, small, sandy beach. After visiting the museum, we slowly walked over the south end of island while bird-watching. We recorded 19 species including 4 takahe (pukekos on steroids), several saddlebacks (easily tracked by their call that sounds like an engine turning-over), and a female and young brown teal. There were also many cheeky fantails, pukekos, and wekas. There had been not wekas on Rotoroa prior to 2002, when six of these flightless birds were introduced from the next island south, Ponui.
One of the many fantails along the trails...not fanning, of course!
During our hike we chatted with Toni, wife of the resident manager, who was checking rat traps. They were finding no rats now but last year they caught eight, which DNA evidence suggests had swum over from Ponui Island via the small, intermediate Ruthe Islands about 600 m (656 yards) away. She also mentioned that Ponui has its own variety of very pale-haired donkeys. This was the first place that donkeys were introduced into New Zealand, and their descendants were selected for their pale hair. She thought that we might see them on the shores of the other island or hear them braying at night but we did not.
There is a NZ$5 (US$3) landing fee which can be paid online or in cash at boxes on some of the beaches or at the museum/visitor center. The island has a very interesting history that is explained in great detail in the attractive museum. Rotoroa had initially been obtained from the Māori in exchange for nine guns and a barrel of gunpowder in 1826. The intended colony of Scottish emigrants did not stay, however, and the island was again sold by the Māori (for cash, blankets, cloth, and breeding sheep) to a farmer in 1841. When the island was next sold, in 1886, it was transformed into a "tourist, holiday and health resort".
Men's Bay on the east coast of Rotoroa Island
Meanwhile, a religious revival had been started by William and Catherine Booth in the East End of London in the 1860s. With a particular emphasis on temperance, their urban mission was named the Salvation Army in 1878, complete with military rank and regulation. Both a sect and a social mission, their nurses and rescue workers offered sustenance and shelter at prison gates, to drunkards, and to unmarried mothers and orphans. This social mission became popular and respected in England and, by 1883 when New Zealand was suffering a depression, officers were sent from London to establish the Salvation Army in Dunedin, New Zealand.
By the late 1900's, various laws had been enacted in New Zealand that required that chronic public drunks brought before the court by family, police, or voluntarily, be committed for six months to two years of compulsory reform. However, there was no suitable institution until the Salvation Army built a facility on Pakatoa Island in 1908. It soon became obvious that a larger facility would be needed so the neighboring, larger island of Rotoroa was purchased, and that facility was opened in 1911.
Rotoroa was a mixture of farm colony, retreat, and prison. The key factor was that the temptations of addiction were removed and many addicts were able to recover their health with the sea-air, physical labor, and simple diet. Some Salvation Army staff found the work inspiring while others were disheartened by the isolation and rigorous life. About a hundred men were packed into dormitories, had to rise early for work, and were required to attend church services at least twice a week. With hardened criminals, suicidal and sick inmates, as well as innocent victims of family committals, the island's population was often rife with discontent and the staff must have often felt that they were faced with a challenging, thankless task.
In the following decades, the fortunes of the Rotoroa facility rose and fell depending upon the availability of staff (difficult to find during WWII, for example) and the sources of funding. The large, two-story dormitory building burned-down (without injury) in 1973 and a new facility was soon erected. Isolation alone could not teach self-discipline in the face of temptation and many inmates returned to the island through choice or inability to cope when faced with the realities of life back in the mainstream. By 1982, the Rotoroa facility had incorporated the therapy aspects of addiction treatment, matching those of the new, urban residential treatment centers.
The center of the Rotoroa rehabilitation and recovery facilities with the large two-story dormitory on the far hill in the early-twentieth century (left) and today
By 2000, building upgrades and modern treatment services were looking prohibitively expensive on the island. So in 2005, the difficult decision was made to stop rehabilitative services on Rotoroa after 12,000 admissions over 94 years. Many members of the Salvation Army had fond memories of the sanctuary which had seen many births, weddings, holidays, and a few burials. Thus, sale of the island was not a preferred option.
Luckily, a philanthropist couple, Neal and Annette Plowman, wished to bequeath a special gift to the people of Auckland and they entered into two year's of negotiation with the Salvation Army which resulted in the development of the Rotoroa Island Trust. The Plowman's generous payment of the 99-year lease from the Salvation Army and the costs of all of the conservation and heritage restoration, has allowed the island to switch from being a sanctuary for addicts to becoming a sanctuary for wildlife and the general public. In respect for the wishes of the Salvation Army, no alcohol is sold on the island and the remaining enclave of buildings around the chapel will not be forested.
Between 2008 and 2011, the island saw a major transformation from dilapidated buildings and little native bush to a large-scale restoration project. Many buildings were removed, while others were restored and maintained for their historic value (e.g., two small detention cells, the butchery, and the chapel). There remains, or was built, a house for the caretakers, sheds for equipment, meeting rooms, an education center, a backpacker lodge, a few "boutique" holiday houses, and a well-designed museum. Ferries arrive from Auckland and Waiheke Island on most days during the summer.
Three takahe in front of a meeting room on Rotoroa
During the restoration program 20 buildings, 20,000 pine trees, and 2 barge-loads of scrap metal were removed from the island. More than 350,000 native trees and shrubs belonging to 25 species, plus 30,000 pohutukawa trees (New Zealand Christmas trees) have been planted. Accommodation has been provided for 44 people along with 400 nest and roosting boxes, and 2 skink shelters. Forty traps for tracking and capturing rodents have been dispersed around the island.
In 2012, a partnership of the Rotoroa Island Trust was established with the Auckland Zoo to create a sanctuary for some of New Zealand's endangered species, such as kiwi, brown teal, whiteheads, saddlebacks, takahe, stitchbird, rifleman, North Island robin, shore skink, tuatara, and giant weta. The island was declared pest-free in October 2015, after a major effort to eradicate a large population of mice. It is hoped that 15 endangered species will have been introduced by 2020.
On Friday morning, we rowed to shore again and Randall walked slowly up to the North Tower bird-watching, while I ran all of the trails around the north end and along some of the beaches. On one very steep path on the north side of North Tower, which I had to walk-up rather than run, a small flock of sparrow-like birds flew across in front of me and I realized that they were whiteheads which are quite rare. I had seen them on Tiritiri Matangi the previous year so I was confident of the identification. If seen from the back they are not easy to distinguish from house sparrows, but I had a good look at their white heads as they buzzed past. Sadly, it was too steep a trail for Randall to tackle comfortably so he has still not seen whiteheads. He was, however, particularly tickled by a sign that had been erected on one of the lawns that was frequented by many of the easy-to-spot, flightless wekas that defiantly states, "Flying is overrated".