Rakino Island is still part of New Zealand.

But Pat Withers' four grandchildren might be onto something when they lament leaving her cliff-top home on the 1.5sq km Hauraki Gulf haven, population 21.

"They've always loved coming here. When it gets to time to go they don't want to — they say 'We don't want to go back to New Zealand'."

Rakino Island might officially be part of the roughly 600 islands that make up our little corner of the South Pacific. But it's nothing like the country they know.

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Step off the ferry at Auckland's downtown ferry terminal and a smorgasbord of shops, eateries, buses, cars, bikes, Lime scooters and people unfolds far beyond what the eye can see.

It's all noise, hustle and bustle.

Rakino Island's peaceful Sandy Bay, where ferries arrive at the nearby wharf. Photo / Michael Craig
Rakino Island's peaceful Sandy Bay, where ferries arrive at the nearby wharf. Photo / Michael Craig

Step off the ferry at Rakino's tiny Sandy Bay wharf and there's little noise, not much hustle and no bustle.

The Weekend Herald arrives on the island on a Belaire Ferries ride on a Wednesday, the weekly mail delivery day.

There's a small community hall, art centre and library at the wharf, and, with no shops on the island, there's always someone coming or going to stock up on supplies.

But you probably won't see any children during the week as there is no school.

And there are only two known cats.

The residents are either retired or able to work remotely - the ferry only comes three times a week outside the peak summer period, unless you call a $300 water taxi or own a boat.

Pat Withers can't imagine returning to Auckland to live. Photo / Michael Craig
Pat Withers can't imagine returning to Auckland to live. Photo / Michael Craig

A 20-minute water taxi ride away is Waiheke Island, favourite of visiting celebrities and wine trailing groups from the city.

It might as well be Mars.

While on Waiheke you can pay to be chauffeured around in a shimmering 1979 Silver Shadow Rolls Royce, much of Rakino's fleet has, defiantly, seen better days.

Up the road from the wharf, more than a dozen cars sit parked on the grass, facing forward in brazen indifference to the almost uniformly out-of-date rego slips tucked into windscreen sleeves.

Rakino Island's imported church is sandwiched between the Home Bay house believed to be built for early owner of the island, Sir George Grey, and a battered local car. Photo / Michael Craig
Rakino Island's imported church is sandwiched between the Home Bay house believed to be built for early owner of the island, Sir George Grey, and a battered local car. Photo / Michael Craig

The owner of a silver Honda CRV, in the most waggish act of rebellion, has jammed a three-year-old rego reminder notice into the sleeve.

Many have solar panels on their bonnets, to keep the battery juiced during long absences, and more than a few have seen much better days.

As resident Kevin Hester says, Rakino is no car paradise.

His own ute is resplendent in a rich red interior, but unreliable enough that he always leaves enough time to walk to the ferry when he's planning to venture off the island.

"Our cars are dungers. This is the place cars come to die."

Rakino Island does share one similarity with its ever-growing neighbour across the water, its geography.

A local vehicle on Rakino Island. Photo / Michael Craig
A local vehicle on Rakino Island. Photo / Michael Craig

Like Auckland city, the island is all ridges and valleys and Hester had to laugh when an Onzo bike was abandoned on the island.

"We've got big hills and those bikes don't have gears."

He's yet to see a Lime scooter, but give it time.

Everything makes it to Rakino, eventually. Kitchen sinks on speedboats, weed-whackers on ferries, and houses, like Hester's, on barges.

The beds were made, cutlery was in the drawer, the pantry was stocked and beer lined the fridge when Hester's home arrived at the island by barge.

The 58-year-old had bought a 4ha block on the island with a couple of friends in 2002, and they had a 20m-long, 6m-wide house built in the West Auckland suburb of Swanson.

Kevin Hester barged his home - beds made, beer in the fridge - to Rakino Island. Photo / Michael Craig
Kevin Hester barged his home - beds made, beer in the fridge - to Rakino Island. Photo / Michael Craig

On moving day, the group triumphantly drove the house across the city to Half Moon Bay and loaded it on a barge, Hester says.

"We opened the big sliding doors and threw a fishing line out to see if we could catch a fish on our house on the way."

The fish weren't biting, but that didn't stop the celebrations when the intrepid new arrivals eventually got the house to its final destination overlooking Māori Garden Bay, the last few hundred metres made on a truck that was reversed 200m down a driveway off the island's main drag, South Pacific Rd, and then eased around a 90-degree angle.

"The team wanted to unload it straightaway and I said 'No, we've had too big of a day already. We're gonna chill'," he says.

The longtime sailor, who is also a former electrician, "whacked a lead into the switchboard" he had set up in a shed and within an hour the lights were on.

"We got guitars out, we had a barbecue, we had a sing-a-long and all the house was lit up while it was still on the truck. I looked around and thought 'The neighbours will be thinking this place is never gonna be the same', and I would like to hopefully think that's true."

South Pacific Rd - Rakino Island's main drag. Photo / Michael Craig
South Pacific Rd - Rakino Island's main drag. Photo / Michael Craig

He also thought about all the naysayers, the ones who raised their eyebrows and opened their mouths when he said he was taking a house to the island.

"People told me it couldn't be done. Don't tell me s... like that."

When it comes to people cruising over to this tiny dot on the globe with big ideas, Rakino has form.

Colin Maclaren, local historian and editor of the local rag, Rakino News - which comes out 10 times a year with a $45 annual subscription - has been digging around the old stories of life on the island since an ad in a real estate page first lured the then university student across the gulf in 1973.

Three years later the Dunedin native bought a 4ha block, spending blissful summers sleeping in hammocks dangling from trees below the high tide mark before building a bach in 1981.

"When I meet up with those friends [who stayed in the hammocks] they all talk about 'When we lived on the beach'. Nobody talks about 'When we lived in the bach'."

Although he didn't move to the island permanently until his Auckland publishing job and on-site home "left me" after the 1987 sharemarket crash, Maclaren had a strong interest in the history of his new home and was disappointed to discover the island featured in only one book.

Remnants of The United People's Organisation (World Wide) remained when Maclaren first discovered Rakino's charms, and the 76-year-old still considers the group the most influential of the island's century of owners before the land was parcelled up for subdivision.

Rakino Island's charms have lured many over the years. Photo / Michael Craig
Rakino Island's charms have lured many over the years. Photo / Michael Craig

In 1962, organisation leader Maxwell Rickard, a professional hypnotherapist who toured under the name The Great Ricardo and whose members pledged their belongings right down to the clothes they were wearing to be part of the organisation, bought the island for £29,000 ($5.4m in 2018 dollars).

Funds from Rickard's shows, including at the Town Hall, helped pay the bill.

The showman's plans were vast and varied, Maclaren says.

An international orphanage and a "Hotel Tropicana" were among ideas mooted, but all came to nothing and the island was subdivided in 1965, with plots selling for between £2500 and £6000 ($409,000 and $980,000 in 2018 dollars), depending on their size.

The Great Ricardo and his followers ownership was short, but changed the face of the island, making it possible for regular people to make a home, or a home away from home, on the little island in the gulf.

The hypnotherapist was far from the first high-profile person to have a hold on the island.

A hundred years earlier it had been bought by then-Governor Sir George Grey, possibly for a penal colony, Maclaren says.

Various online sources claim Sir George built a house in Home Bay, which still stands today, but Maclaren has doubts.

Prisoners from the Waikato Wars were later shipped to the island, but the Governor soon lost interest in Rakino and it was leased, and later sold, to Albert Sanford, one of the founders of fishing giant Sanford Ltd, Maclaren says.

The captain of industry's family lived on the island until World War II, after which it was grazed until Rickard and his powers of suggestion changed the island's history again.

Maclaren has seen changes of his own since ditching Auckland for good three decades ago.

Most permanent residents have a bolt hole in the city, mainly because ferry services, while good, are infrequent, he says.

Colin Maclaren is the editor of
Colin Maclaren is the editor of "Rakino News", a 10-issue-a-year magazine on the island. Photo / Michael Craig

He first moved to the island permanently because he had "nowhere else to go", but like any longtime home it eventually becomes "your place", Maclaren says.

"I can understand why some people would stand to the last man to defend their territory."

It's hard to think of a place further from the troubles of the world - even the threat of cashed up Auckland developers is blocked by a condition that the 4ha blocks, Hester told the Weekend Herald .

Except one, which now has multiple houses on it, the blocks cannot be subdivided, he said.

Mowers - the four-legged, woolly kind as well as those with an engine - keep the fire risk down, a vital task in a place where a few water pumps run by volunteers are the sole means of battling fire until Auckland firefighters can be ferried to the island on a police launch.

Three days before the Weekend Herald visited, a two-storey home known for its extensive rock 'n' roll memorabilia was razed by fire, but the efforts of about 40 people - permanent residents and visitors - saved neighbouring properties in the 55 minutes before city firefighters could cross the watery divide.

The fire is the talk of the island, just another example of the challenges of living in a place without the services taken for granted mostly everywhere else.

A Rakino Island home - known for paying homage to rock n roll - was destroyed by fire in December. Pumps operated by locals could only prevent the fire spreading. Photo / Michael Craig
A Rakino Island home - known for paying homage to rock n roll - was destroyed by fire in December. Pumps operated by locals could only prevent the fire spreading. Photo / Michael Craig

Withers was forced back into city life in January last year when she tumbled off a moving trailer and a resulting haematoma on her leg later became infected.

"I spent the whole of April in hospital ... and I was probably bloody close to losing my leg."

Four operations and a slew of checks later she's in good health, but the deep scarring on her leg is a reminder of what could have been.

Because she lives alone, Withers has a system where if no one hears from her for more than a day, she's checked on.

Otherwise, she's left to her own devices.

The pensioner runs everything on 12V, except her 240V fridge, lives off rainwater and has mobile data to connect her to the outside world — although she sometimes has to stand on the barbecue to get reception.

"You guys have a power cut and everyone freaks out. I've got everything here; you can do what you like in town."

Any inconvenience is far outweighed by a way of life that can include arriving home to find a bag of fresh snapper hanging on the doorknob.

And then there's the view — sunrise, sunset and everything in between. Withers never tires of it.

As for that place around the corner, New Zealand, she can't imagine going back.

Her working days might've been under the fluoro lights of a Waitākere City Council office helping sort transport contracts, but Withers' spirit of adventure pulled her far from the easy comforts of suburbia and across the water to the island she now considers her forever home.

Pat Withers and her grandchildren love to scramble down a hill on her property to a secluded swimming spot with a favourite rock to jump into the waters of the Hauraki Gulf. Photo / Cherie Howie
Pat Withers and her grandchildren love to scramble down a hill on her property to a secluded swimming spot with a favourite rock to jump into the waters of the Hauraki Gulf. Photo / Cherie Howie

She retired to the island in 2015, almost 40 years since she first set foot on the island as a guest.

"We couldn't keep inviting ourselves back [to the friends' bach], so I talked to the neighbour. He had a rumpity shed so I used to come here with the children.

"It was rough, but it was good fun. You could walk out and pick up half a bucket of mushrooms and that was breakfast and lunch."

The biggest pest for many islanders, the pervasive pūkeko, is protected.

Withers has industrial-strength netting coating her strawberries, and has seen an apple tree "stripped overnight" by the brightly-coloured swamp hens.

Hester once lost an entire plum crop to the gobblers' naked greed.

"I used to get bags and bags of plums and last year the pūkeko got every one. They didn't leave me one — I thought that was really cheeky."

Watch out for kids - and thieving pukeko. Photo / Michael Craig
Watch out for kids - and thieving pukeko. Photo / Michael Craig

Efforts in gardens and, wider, in the volunteer-run Rakino Island Nursery have drawn even more birds to the island.

Hester, a socially-minded "rebel" who proudly flies a Palestinian flag in solidarity and the Irish Starry Plough flag his Irish republican grandfather did a 23-day hunger strike under in 1920, still loves the pūkeko in spite of their plum-thieving ways.

He is among locals who help grow native plants at the nursery for a re-wilding project, and he loves that his home now teems with the chorus of bellbirds before dawn, tūī whose faces glint orange in the sunshine after gorging on native nectar, and morepork whose melancholic calls pierce the darkness.

Once, he even saw a kākā — considered by DoC to be "at risk (recovering)" in the North Island — near the nursery, Hester says.

The cacophony of birdsong in his life, and knowing he's part of the reason for it, is a good antidote to the gloom he feels studying ecology, an interest and concern he channels into co-hosting hour-long monthly show Nature Bats Last on New York's Progressive Radio Network.

"There's a great quote that 'Action is the antidote to despair'. That's what I function by."

Rakino Island is where
Rakino Island is where "cars go to die", resident Kevin Hester says. Photo / Michael Craig

There's also reality, though — Hester knows of two pet cats living on the island, one a neighbour's and adored.

"I love one of them, but my personal view is cats and flightless birds are incompatible. We should pick one."

Withers doesn't have any domestic animals, but keeps a chicken and 70 sheep — "lawnmowers", she calls them.

Around her home, she's planted for the birds.

Flaxes and red hot pokers draw in greedy tūī and bellbirds, but nature's feast also attracts less welcome visitors, the 74-year-old says, her bare feet scrunching in the overgrowth where the garden ends and paddocks begin.

"I have to watch the magpies because they dive bomb the chicken."

But don't take the her concern as a sign of affection for the plump ball of feathers scratching the dirt nearby.

"It'll be a hole in the ground for her, if she's not careful."

Pat Withers has planted a garden to attract the birds, who also enjoy a spectacular view north to The Noises island chain. Photo / Michael Craig
Pat Withers has planted a garden to attract the birds, who also enjoy a spectacular view north to The Noises island chain. Photo / Michael Craig

Withers is joking — sort of.

Over the fence is the vege garden, and among the patchwork of tomatoes, beans and silver beet — all carpeted in wool to trap moisture on this island where residents have to sort out their own water, waste water and electricity supplies — are rooster-fed carrots.

That's what happened to the last fowl to cross Withers.

"I'm down to one chook. I had a rooster but he attacked me. Savage bloody things, so I shot him."

It was a decision she mulled overnight, after the doomed bird had launched what would be his final charge.

"I thought 'Tomorrow, I'll get someone up here to put him down'. But then I thought 'No, it's my chicken.

'I'll have to do it myself'."

The rooster who roared one time too many is now compost in the garden, doing his bit to grow a good crop of carrots.

"It was sad because he was beautiful, but he just got nastier and nastier. He was going to fight me to the death. Well, sorry mate, I've gone one weapon that you haven't got."

A number of residents live on 4ha blocks of land, which are not allowed to be subdivided. Photo / Michael Craig
A number of residents live on 4ha blocks of land, which are not allowed to be subdivided. Photo / Michael Craig

When her own time comes, she hopes it's not in "New Zealand", she says, as she looks down at her secluded swimming beach below, where the grandkids dive off the rocks at high tide and shriek in delight at orca encounters offshore.

"My biggest worry is that I'll end up incapacitated and not able to be here. If I drop dead here, that'd be fantastic."

Only ill-health would force Hester back across the water permanently, as well, and although he rents his current home after he and the other original owners sold it a few years ago, he has another property on the island he'll move into when the new owner wants the keys back, Hester says.

Rakino Island is his forever home, too.

"I can sometimes see dolphins and orca without lifting my head off my pillow on my bed ... I live in paradise and I'm fully aware that I live in paradise."

Rakino Island

Population:

21 permanent residents.

Getting there: Belaire Ferries run an immediate turnaround return service from downtown Auckland (a 21km distance) two days a week in the off-season, with an afternoon return service some Fridays. In summer services increase. Water taxis from Auckland or Waiheke Island are also available.

House prices: The median price is $377,500, based on eight properties with sales ranging from $138,920 to $810,000. But the most expensive property sold on Rakino in the last decade went for $2 million in 2013. *Source: REINZ

Amenities: A community hall, art centre, library and wharf.