Late one evening, a couple begin to argue. No ordinary couple, they are children of the Fire Gods and ‘Tapua’ (supernatural of sorts). In their frustration they curse Mahuika, the Fire Goddess. Once Mahuika gets wind of this, she goes to Mataoho, the God of Earthquakes and Volcanoes. She asks him to punish the couple for their cursing by destroying their mainland home in Auckland- a bit harsh if you ask me. So, Mataoho gets to work and swallows up the couples home and creates what is now Lake Pupuke on Auckland’s North Shore. In turn, from all the eruptions, Rangitoto Island is born. An island worthy of the dramatic myths that surround it.
I remember seeing the island for the first time and thinking that it looked like the lair of a super villain in a hollywood film. Unique and instantly recognizable by it’s perfectly conical shape, it’s a landscape that stirs the imagination. Rangitoto’s history is rich, and in geological terms, it’s recent.
It was with childish excitement that Elishea (my partner) and I stepped off the ferry from downtown Auckland and headed out for a day of walking, bird-watching and exploring on Rangitoto Island. The plan for the day was to head directly from the wharf and up to the summit of the island. Then, we’d descend the eastern side of Rangitoto, eventually following the coastal path around the island’s perimeter and back to the wharf for the ferry home. This meant as soon as we got off the ferry, a reasonably steep track for a few kilometres.
Rangitoto is a volcano. A new arrival in geological terms too. It came into being only 600 years ago through a series of eruptions, making it the youngest island in the Hauraki Gulf. A landscape of lava fields and strange vegetation make for an otherworldly island escape only 25 mins ferry from Auckland City. It’s this lava rock that made for a hot ramble to the summit. The sharp black volcanic rock makes a home for an interesting array of specially adapted plants- that expertly cope with the hot, heat absorbing rock. Our ability to deal with the heat was somewhat less expertly and the climb to the summit was particularly warm as the heat radiated from the ground.
After passing through the sparsely vegetated and rugged lava fields at the base of the island, more and more tree cover appeared as we climbed higher towards the summit. Eventually, the tree cover got so thick you could call it bush. With the denser tree cover came birdsong. A lot of it too.
Rangitoto is a pest free island. It means that rare and endangered birds like the saddleback and the curious kaka can live without fear of predation. It also means that people like myself can step on a ferry and within half an hour have the chance to see some beautiful and rare birdlife. That’s exactly what happened. We stopped in a cool and shady spot to enjoy lunch when a cacophony of birdsong began. Some recognizable, like Tui and Fantails, and other not so much. One of the voices that I didn’t recognize was that of the saddleback. A beautiful song by a beautiful bird. I wish I could have gotten a photo, but just to have seen three of them through binoculars made the trip worthwhile alone.
With lunch gone and sore necks from staring at the canopy, we made our way along the last section of track to the summit. Its an impressive sight. A huge bowl carpeted with all manner of trees. Another interesting fact about Rangitoto (of which there are many!) is that it has the largest Pohutukawa forest in the world! The bright-red flowered tree seems to love the coastal and arid environment of the island and their numbers are huge and cover much of Rangitoto.
The crater has a walking track going right around the rim. After taking in views across the crater, we walked around the rim to follow our route that would eventually lead us down the eastern side of Rangitoto.
As we descended from the summit, the landscape changed. Gone was the dense bush from nearer the top, replaced with the rocky, dry lava fields like the beginning of the walk. The track at this point was a wide unsealed road. Like much of the infrastructure on Rangitoto, this road was built by prisoner labour during the 1930’s.
In front of us, as we walked, was the view of Motutapu Island. Motutapu couldn’t be more different to Rangitoto. While Rangitoto is the newest island in the Hauraki Gulf, Motutapu its neighbour, is the oldest. They sit so close to each other that there is a small causeway between the two islands. It’s believed by archeologists that there were Maori living on Motutapu during Rangitoto’s eruptions 600 years ago. We neared our turning point at Islington bay, just before the track heading over to Motutapu.
We then followed the coastal track around Rangitoto, all the way back to the wharf. The coastal track led us past the beautiful Yankee wharf, where several boats bobbed in the shelter of Islington Bay. It provided great views across to Motutapu as we walked along the edge of the island. Then, the coastal route began to be… well… not very coastal.
The track cuts slightly inland and you begin to follow a winding and more demanding track than the rest of the walk. It’s nothing too crazy, but at the end of a long walk in the heat, it was more work than we expected. I’d definitely say that it requires decent footwear and good concentration to watch where you are putting your feet. The track continued to wind its way through some patches of trees and then spots of more arid open ground before arriving at the small bay where the wharf is.
It’s not a good sign when you see the ferry at the end of the wharf loading the last few passengers and you’re still at the other side of the bay. It was the penultimate ferry that we were trying to catch, but as we got to the wharf, the ferry pulled away. Feeling slightly disheartened at missing the ferry we sat down to decide on what to do for the last hour before the next one.
It turned out that missing that ferry was the best thing that could have happened. The island’s very kind DoC (Department of Conservation) ranger, seeing that we missed the ferry by seconds, took pity on us and offered us a cup of tea and gave us a list of things to do while we waited! This included going for a swim and having a look at the historic ‘baches’ just around the corner from the wharf.
If we hadn’t have missed that ferry I wouldn’t have got the chance to look around the Bach 38 Museum. This is a small and beautifully kept bach that’s laid out just as it would have been after its completion in 1927. The interior gave a real feel for what these 1920’s and 30’s recreational escapes would have been like. People from the city would make their way over on weekends to escape the hussle and bussle. They may not be the oldest buildings in the world, but the museum paints a very vivid picture about domestic life at that time. I’d recommend spending a few minutes to have a look around the museum if you’re over on the island.
After a quick swim, it was soon time to get the last ferry. Be aware that if you miss the last ferry back (5 o’clock), it’s a lonely night or a long swim back to the city.
Rangitoto is a real treasure trove. It has an odd but relatively recent history and boasts an array of wildlife and strange landscapes. At $36 each from Auckland City, it’s a day walk for great value if you consider everything you can see in just a day. Remember, there aren’t any shops on the island so you need to bring food and water for the day. Also, do keep a track of the time, as the ferry will leave without you if you’re running late!
Lastly, Rangitoto stays a pest-free island from the hard work by DoC and volunteers. Such a fragile and special place can be severely damaged by any introduction of pests. Please do as the ferry staff say and check your bags and footwear thoroughly. There are also no bins on the island either, so take your litter home too.
On Foot Note
Map used: NZtopo50- BA32- Auckland