Auckland Days Out: Rangitoto Island

I’ve been gazing at it daily from our window since we arrived.

I’ve seen it shrouded in cloud and soaked in sunshine. But last week I finally got around to making the journey to Rangitoto Island.

It’s one of several Hauraki Gulf islands which nestle in the curve of Auckland’s sprawl along the mainland. It is also a volcano. Well, an ex-volcano, really.

Some 600 years ago it came heaving and splurting out of the ocean – witnessed by some of New Zealand’s early Maori settlers, who no doubt got a bit of a shock (Rangitoto means ‘Bloody Sky’ in Māori).

This makes it the youngest of Auckland’s volcanic peaks. The city is littered with them: some like Rangitoto still obvious cone-shapes, while others have been flattened and excavated by human hand.

I’ve seen a few news articles in the NZ press recently, which have been getting all hot and bothered about the likelihood of reignition (not a technical term) ie whether one of the old volcanoes might come out of retirement and decide to go all molten and squirty on us again.

The jury is out as to whether this prospect, or the risk of an entirely NEW volcano erupting is a) more likely and b) more worrying. But let’s just say the first possibility was not entirely out of my thoughts as the ferry sped away from downtown Auckland and towards the volcanic rocks of Rangitoto.

The 20 minute boat-ride was a joy. And I say that as a notoriously vommy sea traveller. We were out on deck, with a breeze blowing in our faces, the sun beaming down and a bonus commentary of fun facts, due to the fact our boat was shared with people doing a Harbour Cruise.

Approaching Rangitoto Island

Approaching Rangitoto Island

Once we arrived, there were two options. The first was to head straight for the summit track. Which is what everyone else seemed to be doing.

But, as it turns out, I am deeply anti-social. Who knew? So not only did I turn off to take a loop route, which heads first towards Mackenzie Bay, but I also looked anxiously over my shoulder for the first half hour of the walk, to ensure no other ferry passengers were sharing the path.

When that was established, I turned my attention to the fantastic geology lesson going on all around me. I am, it also appears, a massive geek. I won’t go on about it but basically, Rangitoto Island is an awesome living demonstration of how soil gets made and how an eco-system begins. Think about it. One day a bunch of lava comes spouting out of the sea. Once it cools down you’re left with a mass of black, volcanic rock. Bare, bleak and barren of life.

Gradually mosses and lichens start to cling to and grow on the little crevices on the rough rocks. They die; wind and weather cracks off little bits of rock dust and it all starts to meld together to make humus (geography word – don’t try eating it with flatbread). Then little plants start to grow in this baby soil and the cycle goes on from there.

Mosses and lichens

Mosses and lichens

Fascinatingly, some areas of the island are now well-established and lush with trees and bushes and vegetation. Others are still totally bare. Others still are at the lichen/moss step. You can see the process at all stages in this beautiful, but sometimes alien landscape.

The most unusual places are perhaps those which remain more or less bare lava/scoria. It isn’t smooth black rock as you might imagine. Apparently the surface cooled before the underneath had settled and as the lower part continued to move, it ruptured the surface which consequently looks rather like a giant ploughed field, covered in massive clods of earth. Only they aren’t earth – they’re solid rock.

Lava rock with the summit beyond

Lava rock with the summit beyond

I won’t go on. I’m not even a geographer – half of the above witter is probably wrong. But it did make for a very interesting walk. And that’s without mentioning lava bombs, lava caves and all the other things I learnt about that day…

The other thing that made things a little more exciting was the fact that the last ferry of the day leaves at 3.30pm, after which one faces a rather chilly night out on the lava. There are no facilities on Rangitoto, bar a couple of public toilets. So no food, water, Holiday Inns…I was NOT about to miss that ferry.

No rooms at this inn

Beautiful landscape – but not many hotels

Fortunately, as a result of this sentiment, I set a fierce pace and actually had time to spare at every stage. Next time I plan to detour to Mackenzie Bay and take a pitstop there.

Tiny was sleeping in the baby carrier (what a surprise) under his hood, which was lucky because there is very little shade on Rangitoto. However as we veered inland towards the peak, we started to walk through pohutukawa forest. These gorgeous trees are all over New Zealand and come Christmas time, they burst into red bloom.

Pohutkawa are notoriously tough and will cling on to the rockiest, most weather-beaten spot. A couple of years ago we saw the famous one perched on a craggy rock at the very tip of New Zealand’s North Island, at Cape Reinga. Its scraggy form survives wind, waves and weather, and Māori believe the spirits of the dead cling to its roots before leaping off to make their journey back to the homeland of Hawaiki).

Anyway, this toughness meant they were one of the first trees and plants to establish themselves on the bleak volcanic rock of Rangitoto, which now has (I believe) the largest expanse of pohutukawa forest in NZ…and (I’m guessing) the world. I am definitely coming back nearer Christmas. I can only guess how awesome the island looks when they all come into flower.

By lunchtime, I was feeling very Mad Dogs and Englishmen. The black lava underfoot had warmed up and although I’d reached the shadier forest, two hours or so of carrying a baby in the sun had made me hot and sweaty. But the views were the only pay-off needed and we broke for lunch overlooking this.

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Lunch and some trouser-free time (for Tiny, not me)

Lunch and some trouser-free time (for Tiny, not me)

Revived, we hiked up to the summit and peered over into the crater, trying to imagine how, not so long ago, it had been belching smoke and fire.

Looking into the crater

Looking into the crater

As I tried to give expression to these wonderings, I discovered a plaque, which brought to my attention that a previous visitor to Rangitoto had already done so – better than I could hope to.

"From this orifice, resistless force hurled the atomic constituents of the mountain-to-be..." Good Lord, Tom Bracken. Well put.

“From this orifice, resistless force hurled the atomic constituents of the mountain-to-be…” Good Lord, Tom Bracken. Well put.

The panoramic views from the lookout were superb. The city – and even the shore we had walked from – looked so far away.

View from the summit

View from the summit

All that was left was to hike back to the pier, where we had time for a wander along the beach to the row of bachs (Kiwi word for beach hut/house pron. “batch”) – and the ghostly sites where former batchs had stood.

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I returned home and later that evening, I looked back towards the dark cone-shaped island. I pictured myself earlier that day, standing at its flattened tip looking back towards our house and the expanse of water between us felt smaller than in all the weeks since we got here.

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[Note: I sort of made up my route a bit, but one of my main sources was this really well-described walk from Tramping Tracks, with clear instructions,  excellent pictures and realistic time estimates from point to point. I didn’t do the lava caves this time, as I figured with a baby in a sling might not be ideal conditions. Next time maybe, when I have a baby-carrying helper…]

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