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Auckland's Icon: A trip to Rangitoto, the harbour volcano

Published
May 16, 2020
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FROM most places in Auckland you can see Rangitoto, the city’s iconic harbour volcano.

Map data ©2020 Google

Rangitoto Island is almost perfectly round and symmetrical, sloping gradually up to a peak that is 260 metres, or 850 feet, above the water. This map gives you a better idea of just how much it dominates the eastern beaches.

Map data ©2020 Google

The island is entirely covered in dark green jungle rising out of rocky black basalt, like a scene from tropical Polynesia.

View of Rangitoto Island from Cheltenham Beach, Auckland [ca. 1908]. Price, William Archer, 1866–1948 :Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2–000432-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. natlib.govt.nz/records/22885397, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

It was probably upon Rangitoto that John Logan Campbell, the city’s principal nineteenth-century founder, was gazing when he wrote to his wife Emma that “Today is one of Auckland’s ravishing days of exquisite beauty, enough to make a man foreswear [sic] heaven & worship the beauty of the lower earth.”

Just imagine that photo above in brilliant blue and green, with golden sand. I also took some pictures of the island on my recent ramble through the eastern suburbs.

And on the way out to Rotoroa Island, which I blogged about last week.

The only thing spoiling the symmetry is the fact that another island, Motutapu (‘Sacred Island’), is just behind Rangitoto and can generally be seen peeping around its right flank.

Rangitoto is only about six hundred years old! The island erupted from the harbour, from scratch, in the days when Māori were as yet Auckland’s only occupants. Amazingly, human and dog footprints filled in by ash from the erupting Rangitoto have been found preserved on Motutapu.

Display on Rangitoto Island

Rangitoto erupted only once, and then fell silent. This is typical of Auckland’s volcanoes. Early colonists were fooled into supposing that Auckland’s volcanism was as extinct as the volcanoes on which Edinburgh is built.

In reality, there will be a next volcano in Auckland. It’s just that nobody knows where and nobody knows when.

In the middle of March, the day before my eastern beaches ramble, I decided to catch a ferry (still running at that time) to Rangitoto with the local hiking meetup group Feet First and its founder Stephen French, who I mention in this earlier post.

On the boat to Rangitoto Island, with Stephen French and another Feet First member

Here is some video I shot on Rangitoto Island. It’s incredible to think that island is a huge, unspoilt volcanic island right in the middle of Auckland Harbour! Just how unspoilt, well, you can see in the video.

First stop is the jetty and the welcome sign.

You can get a vehicle to the summit, a sort of rover vehicle with trailers, or you can hike it if you want. When you get to the top, there’s a huge crater, twice the size of the crater of Maungawhau / Mount Eden.

The island used to have a penal colony on it, and there are still a few old structures from that time.

The overwhelming impression is barren rocky basalt, on which vegetation somehow manages to grow. If you could image the moon with trees on it, that’s pretty much what Rangitoto is like. It looks greener side-on than up close, because when you are there you can see the rocks between the trees. It gets quite hot in the full sun.

I hiked along the coastal track to a place called Boulder Bay, and had a swim. That’s in the video.

Boulder Bay is on the north-eastern side of Rangitoto Island. That means that, if Rangitoto Island is like the moon with trees, Boulder Bay is on the far side of the moon.

There is no sign of the city of 1.6 million people on this side of Rangitoto Island. You might as well be in the most deserted part of the South Pacific.

Sadly, you can’t have everything and what Rangitoto doesn’t have, in contrast to Rotoroa Island, is anything resembling a decent beach anywhere.

In spite of all that, lots of people came to get away from it all in the past, and to erect baches, a Kiwi word which comes from ‘bachelor’ and implies a small place big enough for a single man but not big enough for a family to live respectably. The term probably originated in the early days of mining and logging, but later on it came to mean a holiday home into which the whole family would be squeezed for a few weeks.

I bet the kids had the best-ever holidays in places like that.

Later on, the erection of any new baches was banned on conservation grounds, and there was a lot of controversy about pulling down the old ones. Eventually it was decided that they, too, were part of the island’s heritage and even started getting plaques. All a bit fancy for an old bach originally cobbled together from bits of timber and tin!

I carried on hiking up the hill and eventually made it to the top, next to the vast crater you can see in the video. Unlike Mount Eden, the crater on Rangitoto is heavily wooded. It’s hard to convey what the crater’s like in a single photograph, which is partly why I shot the video, but here’s one anyway. Just imagine the forest in the background curving around to meet the green shoots in the foreground, the whole lot forming something deep and symmetrical like an upside-down bell.

Interestingly enough, early colonial sketches show the crater area with almost no vegetation. It seems that only in the last 150 years have the rocks broken down enough to permit a forest to grow at the top. That tells you just how young Rangitoto really is, geologically speaking.

There’s a World War II-era lookout with old black and white photographs of the soldiers assigned to that boring-but-safe job, and also what we call a ‘trig station’, used by surveyors in the region to check their exact location by measuring the angle to two or more trig stations from where they were.

I wonder if the old diggers ever thought they’d have this much company.

Here’s a view of Auckland from the top.

Here’s the downtown, contrasted with the jungle in the foreground.

And here’s another, of Auckland’s North Shore, that gives you an idea of the green and spreading quality of the island as seen from above.

Looking in the other direction, we can see Motutapu Island, which is agricultural: completely different to Rangitoto. And Waiheke behind it, along with other islands and mountain ranges.

Oh yes, one last thing, also mentioned in my video. The top of Rangitoto Island was where the Auckland tramping club was founded, initially on terms that excluded women. No girls allowed in this boys’ treehouse. Quite comical today but it certainly put the bachelor into bach, I guess!

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