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Return to Rakiura

Rakiura Herzhoff has come back to Stewart Island to be part of its future. Photo: Ben Mack

Rakiura Herzhoff has come back to the island with which he shares a name and is passionate about community-enhancing ecology and preserving culture. By Ben Mack

Perhaps his destiny really was written in his name. 

Rakiura Herzhoff had been living in Europe and elsewhere in Aotearoa for a number of years. But he was born and raised on Rakiura/Stewart Island – and the island he was also named after was calling him back.

“The love I feel for this island is what drives me to be part of its future,” he says of his decision to return in 2016.

“I probably didn’t have the experience or knowledge to know how to be engaged with the future of a place before I came back to live here.”

Herzhoff – also known as ‘Raki’ – is one of the key people at Rakiura Adventure, which is locally owned and operated (but not named after him). On many days, he takes visitors around Stewart Island, sharing stories of both the history of the island and his own history growing up as the child of immigrants from Germany.

Sometimes he does this in the restored MV Wairangi, is a wooden kauri vessel made in 1934 in Dunedin by famed boat builders Miller & Tunnage. Among the many adventures over its history, it at one point served as a wardroom (mess for commissioned officers above the rank of midshipman) in the Second World War.

On other days, Herzhoff captains a ferry called the Ranui or water taxi called the Kaian, dropping people off at Ulva Island, a 267ha prehistoric world of temperate rainforests south of Oban – Stewart Island’s main town – mostly managed by the Department of Conservation and with no permanent population. It has been a protected reserve since 1899, and pest-free since 1997.

Herzhoff feels being local isn’t just key for tourism outfits to offer insider knowledge, but help a place to retain its identity and culture.

“It is when you take the people out of the place that things start to feel rather hollow,” he explains.

“Ask people what the community and place was like in towns such as Queenstown and Kerikeri 50 years ago… you’ll find it was not that dissimilar from Stewart Island’s community.”

As isolated as it may be, Rakiura is changing, just like communities throughout New Zealand.

Covid and the closure of New Zealand’s borders has played a role. Herzhoff says the original lockdown in 2020 was an opportunity to reflect on the impact of increasing tourism on Rakiura’s people and environment. More domestic tourists began arriving after that first lockdown. 

He believes it’s important for local operators to think carefully about how they develop their business. There are impacts such developments could have on Stewart Island’s people and environment, especially as the island gears up for the return of international tourism.

“Rakiura is in a precarious position now, more so than in the past. We do need to be careful to not give away our unique character in hope of a good or quick dollar,” he says.

It’s a unique character Herzhoff – also a member of the Rakiura/Stewart Island Community Board – strongly advocates preserving.

“I want to see the ocean and forest not just kept pristine, but enhanced,” he says. “I want families and friends to be proud of living here together and living their dreams.”

Herzhoff doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the challenges ahead. But, having lived around the world, he knows there is no place he would rather be.

“This island makes you face the questions that are important. People encourage you to be involved and to help the place grow.”