Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

A monumental gift of history for Gulf's future

The new visitors information centre on Rotoroa Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo / Richard Robinson
The new visitors information centre on Rotoroa Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo / Richard Robinson

After a century of healing the body and soul, the Hauraki Gulf island of Rotoroa has embarked on a new century to heal the land.

On February 27, the 82ha island was opened to the public after being off-limits to everyone bar 1200 recovering alcoholic and drug addicts cared for by the Salvation Army.

In one of the biggest gifts of philanthropy for Auckland, Neal and Annette Plowman have poured more than $30 million into buying a 99-year lease of the island from the Salvation Army, restoring and building on its colourful history and undertaking a regeneration project.

Rotoroa Island's new image - "an island apart" - was conceived as an arts, heritage and conservation day out, a 75-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland, east of Waiheke Island.

The Plowmans, who made their money through New Zealand Towel Services, are an intensely private couple who prefer the seven-member Rotoroa Island Trust - which includes General Motors chief financial officer and Mt Albert Grammar old boy Chris Liddell - to be the public face for the island.

The trust includes two members from the Salvation Army, which is the sole beneficiary.

In a brief interview last year, Neal Plowman said the gift was to give Aucklanders access to the island and continue the family's support for the Salvation Army and many wonderful Salvationists who had worked for his companies here and in Australia.

Proceeds from the sale of the lease - the details of which are confidential - have been put into an endowment fund to provide an additional and ongoing revenue for Salvation Army work.

Trustee and project director John Gow says the gift is a monumental example of philanthropy which he wants to use as an example for other wealthy individuals to donate money to worthy causes. "I'm pretty pleased how it has all come together," he says.

"We set out to do it in three years and we have done it in three years - under budget."

Gow is something of a philanthropist himself, creating the Connells Bay Sculpture Park on Waiheke Island, directly opposite Rotoroa.

Gow's passion has extended to an arts programme on the island. One of four former Salvation Army homes for rent on a casual basis is to be used as an artist's residency. The idea is for artists to build on the stories built up by the Sallies over 100 years and to leave an artwork. One of the first art installations will be a 7m-tall stone work by sculptor Chris Booth, soon to rise on the southern headland.

When visitors and boaties arrive at Home Bay, they will find the remnants of the Salvation Army's treatment centre, including a primitive two-cell jail block, a simple brick chapel containing several craft works made by patients, a restored schoolhouse dating back to the 1860s, a buttery/butchery and a woolshed-style exhibition centre, designed by architect Rick Pearson.

A walkway leads to the centre with the numbers one to 12 laser-cut into special rusting steel plates, marking the guiding principles of the 12-step programme for recovery from addiction. The walkway lies on the same axis as an avenue of Norfolk pines.

Pearson says the design of the centre reflects the idea of the island being restored to its former self, like the restoration of Tiritiri Matangi Island.

The large, red-coloured roof is a protective element for the island.

The centre showcases the history of the island and conservation programme. Among the exhibits are three potent photographs by Anne
Shelton of the original dormitories - now demolished - and the green perspex numbers from the dormitories, giving a sense of how many people went through the programmes.

From the central precinct of Home Bay, a series of walking tracks and paths lead north and south among regenerating native bush, flax and grass-edged wetlands, to four sandy beaches.

Since taking control of the island in February 2008, the trust has cut down and mulched 20,000 pine trees to allow a major revegetation project that will eventually have 400,000 native plants. Two-thirds of the planting has been completed, with 80,000 plantings this year.

One of the walks goes from Home Bay, past a wetland to pristine Ladies Bay, where there are changing rooms, toilets and barbecue facilities. From there, it's a relatively easy climb through one of the remaining stands of native trees to a cemetery, surrounded by a white picket fence overlooking a dramatic headland.

The cemetery contains 25 marked graves and one unmarked, dating back to 1898. It was used for both patients and staff of the Salvation Army based on Rotoroa.

A further climb leads to a Telecom tower - a Vodafone tower is sited the southern end of the island - where there is a dramatic view to nearby Pakatoa Island and wider gulf vistas. Cellphone coverage is good.

At the far northern end of the island are plans for 10 lifestyle blocks on a licence to occupy for 95 years with a right of renewal. The economic climate has put back the plans. The trust is also toying with the idea of building an accommodation block on the island for schoolchildren, but wants to wait and see how the public respond to the new attraction.

The island will have a barista operating from the exhibition centre at weekends, serving coffee and selling the Weekend Herald to visitors and boaties.

Alcohol will also be permitted on the island for the first time in a century, although people are being asked to be mindful of the island's battle with the bottle.

Public Access: 360 Discovery operates ferries to the island seven days a week during January and on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday/Sunday between February and December.

Ferries depart downtown Auckland at 9am and return at 3pm.

$55 return for adults and $32.50 for children.

Landing fee of $5. Proceeds to the Rotoroa Island Trust.

Get more information on Rotoroa Island:

- NZ Herald

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