10 January 2014

Day trip to Rangitoto

We caught the 9.15 ferry from downtown Auckland, armed with sunscreen and sunhats, drinks and lunch (there are no shops on the island, so you need to come prepared), sturdy walking shoes (or, in my case, sandals) and cameras. And the camera came out early as the huge cruise ship Celebrity Solstice was docked at Princess Wharf, the clouds were very pretty and the sea an incredible blue.

The direct ferry ride only takes about 25 minutes so Rangitoto is the perfect distance from the city for a family day out and the perfect destination for those interested in the geology, those wanting to explore the many hiking tracks or check out the native wildlife, or those who simply want to enjoy a day away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Rangitoto Island is the youngest and largest of the Auckland region’s 50-odd volcanoes, having formed by eruption about 600 years ago. Rest assured, it is now dormant (!), but it still provides a fascinating glimpse into the geology of a volcano. For those interested in such things, the hiking tracks give up close and personal glimpses of old lava flows, large heaps of scoria and, at the top, the summit crater.

The island became a Public Domain way back in 1890, with the first wharf and track to the summit being built in 1897. Prisoners from Auckland’s Mt Eden prison were used to build some of the roads in the 1920s and 30s and, nowadays, those roads and the well-maintained series of walking tracks mean that visitors can choose to tackle the summit path for awesome views of Auckland city and the Hauraki Gulf, or simply spend the whole day exploring this fascinating island.

The trek to the summit takes about an hour – it is family friendly (we saw one family wheeling and carrying a baby buggy all the way to the top – just a little mad!) but, be warned, the final part of the ascent is quite steep, though easy enough to negotiate. Those who are less mobile can pay to join the Rangitoto Volcanic Explorer tour, which takes you round the island seated on a 4WD road-train, of open-air carriages pulled behind tractors, though you still have to walk up a long series of 300 wooden boardwalk steps to get to the summit.

Of course, we joined the walkers heading for the summit – you’ve gotta do it at least once! The walk takes you through lava fields and native forest and, as you climb, there are frequent opportunities to stop for photographs of the ever-more-awesome views – the perfect excuse to catch your breath and take a drink. The 360-degree views from the summit are spectacular, ranging from the rugged horizons of the Waitakere Ranges in the west across the central city and the beautiful islands of the Hauraki Gulf to the Hunua Ranges in the south. 

We came back down the alternative boardwalk route, then made our way along the unsealed road to the Rangitoto Wharf. It was a long walk but we were entertained by tuis warbling, by more fantails than I’ve ever seen in one day before fluttering back and forth across our path, and by wrens flitting in and out of the bushes. On the summit, I also saw my very first saddleback – sadly, it was too quick for a photo.

Rangitoto is home to the world’s largest pohutukawa forest, as well as trees that are a strange hybrid of pohutukawa and northern rata. The lava outcrops seem inhospitable but, over time, they are gradually colonised by lichen and ferns, followed by shrubs and bushes, then eventually the trees. The island is home to more than 200 species of native plant, including 40 different types of fern and several species of orchid.

Back down at the wharf, we tucked hungrily into our well-earned lunch and rested a while, before taking the track west along the coastline. These days no one lives permanently on the island but, in the early 20th century, a small community of people lived in the baches (a New Zealand word for a simple holiday house) that line parts of the shoreline. In the 1970s and 80s, a large number of the old baches were demolished but, these days, those that remain are registered as Historic Areas with the New Zealand Historic Conservation Trust, and many are still used as holiday homes by the descendants of the original owners.

The Trust has done a great job of researching the families who have lived in the bach communities over the years, collecting over 50 oral histories and more than 300 photographs. At the empty sites of those baches that were knocked down there are signboards telling the histories of the places and their people. They provide wonderful glimpses of Kiwi history.

The bach nearest Rangitoto Wharf, Bach 38, has been restored to its original condition, complete with all the fixtures and fittings you would have found in a bach dating from the '30s or '40s. The bach was built in 1927 for Walter Pooley, the first caretaker on the island and then-owner of the shop and tearooms (since closed).

We relaxed some more on the benches of the information kiosk near the wharf, before joining the hordes of tourists boarding the ferry for the breezy voyage back in to the city. We were weary but content, having enjoyed the strenuous exercise, the refreshing sea air, and the entertaining birdlife. It was a most excellent day out!

Acknowledgement: Much of the historical information in this blog came from a brochure provided by the Rangitoto IslandHistoric Conservation Trust, whose objective is to ‘find ways to retain the bach communities much as they exist now and make them available for public use’. Together with the Department of Conservation, they are working to restore, preserve and maintain the baches, and have compiled an impressive archive of material about the Rangitoto community. They are making a noteworthy and commendable contribution to maintaining Auckland’s heritage. 

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