Rangitoto

Posted by Liz Light in Auckland & Northland Travel Stories
Thursday, 10 August 2006
an image Tourism Auckland

On this blue Sunday the sun sits just above the low pointed cone of Rangitoto and, as we steam towards it on the 9.15 ferry, the island is silhouetted black, a round almost-collapsed jelly served up on silver sea. There is an eye-watering cold southerly but the jaunt out the harbour and across the straights only takes half an hour so most people tough-it-out and stay up, on the open top deck; winter sun, on the almost-shortest day, is treasured.

Kath and I hesitate when we get off the boat, studying the map and thinking about which of the paths we should follow but the decision is made already –Sam and Nick stride off up the summit path and Sam has the picnic in his backpack, so we follow.

The path, a gentle upward meander for three quarters of an hour to the 260-metre top of Rangitoto, curls through patches of dense shady bush and across bare jagged fields of lava. The suddenness of the change from one landscape to the next is surreal.

This strangeness is because, in geological terms, Rangitoto was only born yesterday. 600 years ago Maori living on neighbouring Motutapu where amazed to see fire, steam and rock exploding from the sea nearby. Its violent birth-and-growing phase took a further 200 years of intermittent explosive activity and left us with this perfectly round volcano. That it looks almost the same from any direction and its shape, the summit lumps and spherical skirt spreading gently down into the sea, make it world unique, and especially iconic for Auckland. 

In the bush, away from the wind, we soon warm up, and when we stop to unpeel clothing and slug down water we notice details in the plant life. Much of Rangitoto is covered with a huge pohutukawa forest and these hardy trees provide the shelter and the leaf litter for other species to take hold. One tree, a bubble of green in chocolate rock, shows us how this forest happened.

A pohutukawa seed lands in a lucky place in the lava, a low place, a crack perhaps, where dirt has collected and rain and dew falls. It sprouts, roots, takes hold and a little tree grows. In time it’s big enough to create shade, and its leaf litter forms humus that provides a home and sustenance for less hardy plants. Plant life thus edges out, inch-by-inch, over lava flows and scoria until eventually, two or three hundred years more perhaps, the whole island will be covered in forest.

The south side, where the summit track is, is particularly lush. Pohutukawa branches dangle beards of moss and, the underbush is emerald with ferns; oddly confused kidney ferns spread across the ground on Rangi whereas, elsewhere, they are epiphytic and grow on trees. Pohutukawa roots, dark snakes edged into the wrinkles of what was once an ooze of lava, crawl over the path providing steps.

We stop occasionally to admire when a gap in the bush opens to perfectly frame a picture of Auckland. Sometimes it’s only the harbour bridge then, higher up, the sky tower and surrounds emerge. Auckland is its clear and beautiful best, sparkling, on this grand day.

The summit gives 360 views of the Gulf, of Auckland city with its crisp angular  verticality in the south west, the long low rich stretch of North Shore bays to the west, Tiri and Kawau beyond to the north with the lumpy hills of Little and Great Barrier Islands stretching along the blue horizon in the north east. To the east, over Rangi’s dark bushy flanks, across rolling green Motutapu and the sparkling still winter Gulf we see cloud-capped Moehau and the Coromandel Range.

My eyes tear-up, not from the wind, which has dropped and warmed now it’s near noon, but in a surge of appreciation of the absolute beauty that life sometimes unexpectedly offers.

There is a little concrete hut on the summit, dug in, with windows at eye height. This was built by the military during World War II, as part of the coastal defence network, recognising that Rangi’s summit gives superb 360 degree views of the Gulf. Here hardy young soldiers scanned the surrounding sea with binoculars looking for Jap’s periscopes and other indications of invading forces. Woe to the enemy for once sighted they were going to be whammed with one of two 12 lb guns (the weight of the ammunition), one pointing in the direction of Music Point and the other towards Auckland city.

Sam is busy unpacking the picnic and, with a touch of guilt because it’s not quite midday, he unscrews the top from a bottle of mellow merlot and we toast being on top of our world. Yellow hammers and a brightly coloured flat-headed finch hop about as Sam and Nick build sandwiches. Other than these little fellows Rangi is strangely devoid of bird life. It is, apparently, too dry in summer and the young forest doesn’t have enough food to sustain most species.

We opt for a longer walk back and take the path to the west down the mountain, to McKenzie Bay. There are more and bigger patches of raw scoria alongside the path, the bush is not as lush and fewer ferns decorate the undergrowth.

McKenzie Bay is a sandy strip of beach surround by dark lava rock and two smart white launches are anchored out. Children have rowed in to run about on the sand and one is in the early stages of creating a sand castle with a pint-sized spade. It’s a pretty scene marred by the high tide band of seaweed being entwined with the everlasting detritus of a careless world; plastic bottles, bits of polystyrene, plastic bags and curled up running shoes.

McKenzie Bay Road, built by convicts from Mount Eden in 1930, circles a quarter of the island’s exterior back to the wharf. And a fine job they did, keeping a true path over nature’s dips and undulations so sometimes we walk along the seafront and, other times, its through gorgeous pohutukawa glades. It’s an easy but long walk (two hours) and towards the end tired feet and flagging interest are perked up by baches tucked into nooks and crannies, under pohutukawas, and boathouses perched at the head of rocky little inlets. 

We leave the road and walk the path that dawdles around the sea edge, stopping to admire bach’ cuteness. They are all prewar, wearing that architecture proudly, and have icky names above their front doors; Heart’s Ease, On The Rocks, Why Worry and Dinna Wearie. Some are occupied; two undies, two shirts and trousers flipping about on a line are a giveaway, a lone bloke lives in that one; some are waiting for their people to come in summer and some have been restored and are designated historic places.

Safes hang on trees, tilly lamps on porches, water is taken from the roof by heath-robinson piping to tanks on stands and dunnies are out the back in the bush - composting dunnies, now days. Tiny front yards have been created by people picking up rocks and turning them into walls, swings hang off pohutukawa branches and dinghies lie upside down waiting for summer fishing.

In the '20s and '30s 140 baches were built on the island. There were a number of permanent residents, a bus, a store and an ambulance and a high time was had in summer with Miss Rangitoto competitions, New Year’s sports day, fishing competitions and an endless round of parties and dances.

In 1937 no further leases were issued and the argy bargy between bach owners, who wanted to pass their baches on to their children, and successive Ministers of Lands continued for years, with some lease renewals but, as owners died off many baches were demolished. By 1997 the 34 remaining baches, in three island communities, had become old enough to be registered as historic areas by the Historic Places Trust, and so, it seems, they will remain.

Around the point the south wind blows straight at the wharf and the ferryboat driver takes a few minutes to tie up the 3.30 ferry. It’s cold so we day-trippers all opt for snug seats inside. As the boat points its nose towards the Sky Tower, and steams away, I promise to return, just before Christmas, and with a vision of Rangi’s dark flanks being scarlet with billions of pohutukawa flowers I doze off.

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