Though you're not allowed to camp on remote Rakitu (Arid) Island, technically you can visit any time.

However, the Department of Conservation managed scenic reserve off Great Barrier Island isn't easy to reach.

Chartering a boat capable of taking 20 passengers from the Barrier to Rakitu for the day costs about $1200.

What's more, such a journey involves sailing round much of the Barrier and allows relatively brief time to explore the island.

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It's possible to kayak the 5km from Harataonga Bay to Rakitu Cove (1.5 hours each way in ideal conditions) but fast-changing currents and winds make this risky.

During summer some Aucklanders with larger craft like to land on the island, which despite its previous name is not at all arid. One half is lush bush and the other fast regressing farmland.

"It's quite beautiful but just so remote and isolated," says long-time visitor Geoff Thomas. "Remember, out there beyond the Barrier there's nothing much but ocean between you and Chile."

In 1993, the Bolger Government paid $1.8 million to buy the island from the late Bryce Rope, who'd farmed it since 1956.

Rope wanted his island to remain in Kiwi hands and it's rumoured that he withstood offers from the likes of Kerry Packer and Paul McCartney, which would have returned him closer to $4 million.

The family continued to farm the 327 ha island till 2010, when most of the stock was removed and management handed over to DoC.

Under the sale agreement one more generation of Bryce's descendants (Foster and Rope families) may use one-house-each on the island for another generation.

The next momentous step will be when the Crown hands over ownership to Ngati Rehua, a hapu of Ngatiwai.

Treaty settlement negotiations are nearing the final phase, with Rakitu one portion of Great Barrier Conservation land involved, though DoC says this will not be part of the proposed Great Barrier Island Conservation Park.

Rakitu will still be administered by DoC, which has plans to work with Ngati Rehua to remove rats and restore native birds.

Rodney Ngawaka of Ngati Rehua described the future for Rakitu as being, "the Tiritiri Matangi, the jewel of the outer Hauraki Gulf".

So it looks like this beautiful place will remain open, at least to receive the few day visitors lucky enough to get there.

Deceptive looks
My fascination began while out walking the Barrier's lonely Whangapoua Beach in 2001.

From there the island's 180 metre-high rocky cliffs resemble Tin Tin's Black Island, an astonishing view which really does deserve the title "arid".

After that I longed to visit the place and got my opportunity in 2005, when Rural News commissioned a story on how the Rope family managed one of the country's most remote economic units.

Yes, it turned out that behind the high cliffs, so-called Arid Island was the most lush and fertile place to run stock almost anywhere.

The late Bryce Rope told me few water troughs were needed, as springs run from the high outer crags to a central creek, the wonderful water supply kept things lush and fertile year-round.

The island is half bush, half (fast regressing) pasture, appearing oval from the air (2.75km long and 1.75 km wide).

Its saddle-shaped profile is excellent for catching and holding rainfall.

And what a farm it was. Before the lifting of fertiliser subsidies the island carried about 1000 sheep and 120 head of breeding cows.

My story told of barging 180 prime sheep and 65 prime cattle off the island, a 14-hour round trip voyage, beginning and ending in the dark, from Half Moon Bay.

Upon arrival we had to nudge the barge onto the sand, then build a race and persuade the wary animals to run up to the stock trucks awaiting on deck.

Bryce Rope owned a shipping company, the single biggest fact helping to make his remote farm economic.

But though his business also constructed wharves round New Zealand, including on Chatham and Pitt Islands, he refused to build a wharf on Rakitu.

Bryce didn't want to see the island commercialised. So it always remained difficult to shift stock on or off, plus send in inputs, such as bulk food, machinery, building materials, chemicals and gas bottles.

Pakeha history
But Rope, who had flown Mosquito fighters in World War II, had another means of delivering urgent supplies.

He's remembered on Great Barrier for delivering a specially repaired bulldozer part to Rakitu from a light aircraft, piloted by his friend , the late Fred Ladd.


The men dropped the gear coupling from the open door of the plane, expecting it to land harmlessly in a paddock. Instead it hit the island's prize bull, killing it instantly. The famous incident is still depicted on the flag of the "Arid Island Yacht Club" (four bulls legs pointed skyward).

The fairly informal club holds an annual race to the island and upon arrival holds its AGM on the Arid Cove beach.

Pakeha history of Rakitu has been eventful. In the early 1960s whalers built several spotting huts on Rakitu, but these have mostly vanished.

During the 1950s a bull on its way from Rakitu to Auckland jumped into the harbour and ran to the War Memorial Museum, where it charged an Auckland Star photographer and sent him and his camera flying. An English "remittance man" farmed the island about 100 years ago, but he abandoned the island his house when a fire took the life of one of his children.

A persistent legend goes back to the 1860s, when the Barrier was a major commercial centre for kauri milling and gold mining.

A robber is supposed to have made off with 1000 gold sovereigns, half of which he is supposed to have hidden on Rakitu, while making his getaway.

The legend is so enduring that for decades amateur metal detectors have scoured the island for gold.

Chiefly skeleton
A 1982 survey discovered 39 prehistoric Maori sites on the island, including three pa's, stone shelters and retaining walls.

Rakitu was heavily populated, ideal for defending and growing kumara. It's thought to have been near continually inhabited by ancient Maori.

The Rope family has discovered hand axes and - though he never gave the exact details - Bryce Rope told his son Derek that he once discovered a skeleton, possibly of a Maori chief.

"Dad told us that he and his farm worker discovered a skeleton in a feather cloak," said Derek.

"They did not tell us where, just that the remains were at risk of being exposed. They took the remains to a cave - again not saying where - and we think they must have concealed the entrance with rocks."

Derek has happy boyhood memories of his family going out to the farm. When he was older and given responsibility of rounding up animals, he'd take along some mates and a few crates of beer.

Lonely as life could be for farm managers, the Rope family had no trouble finding people to live and work on the island.

The work could be hard but the lifestyle was excellent.

Bryce pointed out to me that the abundant kina, crayfish, paua and fish taken from the waters around Rakitu represented about half of the food consumed by farm workers.
"There's never been a shortage of people wanting to live on the island, which I think would be just as true today if they (DoC) wanted a caretaker to live there," says Derek.
Pest control

The island is possum free but rats have decimated the once thriving the birdlife. A long list of birds, including whiteheads, kakariki and tomtit, pied shags, bellbirds and pipits have died out.

Tui, morepork, grey warblers, kingfishers, fantails, silvereyes, shining cuckoos and little blue penguins are still present,plus introduced pasture birds, paradise shelducks, spur-winged plovers and welcome swallows. Introduced wekas seem to be thriving.

Some members of the Foster family, which has a house on the island, have grave misgivings about the proposed use of an aerial drop of brodifacoum to get rid of the rats.

They fear that this will poison existing birds and marine life. Dane Foster has submitted plans to DoC, recommending alternative poisoning and trapping of rats by ground parties.

However DoC says Rakitu is too steep and rugged to use ground based methods to spread the bait.

Spokesman Nick Hirst says rodent bait containing brodifacoum has been safely used to remove rats from Rangitoto, Motutapu, Tiritiri Matangi, Motuihe, Hauturu/Little Barrier and the Mokohinau islands.

"DoC applies brodifacoum baits using specially designed spreader buckets slung beneath a helicopter. The pilots use satellite navigation (GPS) technology to ensure the bait is spread only where intended. The poison has never been detected in fish or shellfish after being used by DOC for a pest eradication operation on one of its islands."