Others will fulfil Dog Island’s promise

Dog Island project instigator Peter Ridsdale. Photos: Allison Beckham/supplied.
Dog Island project instigator Peter Ridsdale. Photos: Allison Beckham/supplied.
Panorama of Bluff Hill.
Panorama of Bluff Hill.
Panorama of Dog Island.
Panorama of Dog Island.

After more than five years of determined effort, Bluff resident Peter Ridsdale has enabled a trust to lease a predator-free island in Foveaux Strait to be developed as a conservation, heritage and tourism destination. But the milestone is bittersweet.

Diagnosed with motor neurone disease 11 months ago, Mr Ridsdale can no longer visit the island and knows his involvement in its future will be limited. He talked to Southland reporter Allison Beckham about the project and about living with a terminal disease.

Peter Ridsdale has a vision.

Now that the Dog Island Motu Piu Charitable Trust has leased the island, Southlanders will get involved in its restoration, preservation and enhancement.

Walks will be created. Native species such as tuatara, brown kiwi and titi (muttonbirds) will be re-introduced.

A bed-and-breakfast will be established. And tourists will flock to visit its wildlife and heritage sites.

It could take a while to achieve all that but Mr Ridsdale believes it is not an impossible dream.

"The island has a huge amount of natural beauty and history ... and those things are really saleable to international travellers.

"They can hop in a plane at Invercargill Airport and 12 minutes later they can land on the island.''

Flying is the only way to get there, as Dog Island has no wharf.

There are five structures - the distinctive black and white striped lighthouse which dates back 150 years, the first lighthouse keeper's house, made from stone hewn from the site, another house built in 1917, and two houses built in the 1970s, one of which is still usable.

Mr Ridsdale said restoring the original house might not be a priority because of the expense, but the other houses could be turned into overnight accommodation.

"There is potential for nine double B&B bedrooms.''

From his Bluff home, Mr Ridsdale has a panoramic view from Bluff Harbour to the north to Foveaux Strait and Dog Island to the south.

Across the harbour is the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter and the long smelter wharf.

He and his wife Rhonda bought the house for the view eight years ago but the Dog Island project was not on the agenda then.

It had its beginnings about six years ago, when Mr Ridsdale was executive manager at the Invercargill Licensing Trust's flagship Ascot Park Hotel.

At that time, the catchphrase in Southland was "turning green into gold''.

Hospitality and tourism business owners and managers were encouraged to think about sustainability and adopt an "ecological adventure'' project.

At the Ascot, Mr Ridsdale introduced recycling, a herb garden and chemical-free cleaning.

"As far as a project went, I tried the easy way first. I had the idea of making Omaui Island [near Bluff] predator-free - all 4ha of it. It wouldn't have been too hard. The Department of Conservation guys had a bit of a laugh then said Maritime New Zealand was seeking someone to pick up and run a project on Dog Island.

"We flew out out there and I could see strong potential for historic and ecological improvements which could be beneficial for tourism.''

He said he soon realised the project was bigger than he could handle by himself, so approached business and community leaders to form a charitable trust.

Among others, Dean Addie, chief executive of Invercargill engineering and electrical company EIS and lawyer Sarah Dowie, now MP for Invercargill, came on board.

The ambitious plans for the island were announced in 2010, but it took until this month to formalise the 20-year lease.

In November, Mr Ridsdale retired from the hospitality industry after 35 years, moved out of the Ascot and into the Bluff house and took up a management role with a farm machinery company.

The future was looking rosy for the 54-year-old until he was told he had motor neurone disease - a neurological disorder that destroys control of muscle activity such as walking, speaking, swallowing and breathing.

About 300 people in New Zealand live with the disease at any time and most die within three to five years of being diagnosed.

Mr Ridsdale first began noticing strange symptoms in January last year.

A keen outdoors man, he was on a hunting trip when he became unsure of his footing and stumbled and fell twice. On a later fishing trip he struggled to fillet a fish.

He was diagnosed on February 2 and was told "he might not see a year out''.

"It's my anniversary soon and I'm still here [although] I've lost the use of my arms and 75-80% of the use of my legs.''

There have been the practical adjustments. He needs help from carers, including Rhonda, and uses a motorised wheelchair.

A friend altered his bathroom to accommodate his wheelchair and he had to buy a van.

Then there have been the mental adjustments.

Mr Ridsdale said although his diagnosis and its aftermath were difficult to deal with, he had now accepted he was living with disabilities - with all that entailed.

"I can understand now why disabled people get upset when all the all the disability parks have gone, when buildings have no disability access ... or when there are difficulties accessing funding.

"When you have a disability you live with a completely different set of challenges, and I am learning to deal with [mine].''

Last month, Dog Island trust members surprised Mr Ridsdale by naming the restoration part of the project after him.

Mr Ridsdale said although he knew he would not see his vision for the island fulfilled , he "felt quite satisfied''.

"I'm reasonably chuffed I had the tenacity to see the project to the stage where a good board has been appointed [which has] a really good idea of the potential for the island ...

"They will become the guardians that could help Southland have another significant tourism product.''

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