Rangitoto’s ‘blood-red skies’

It’s there.

It’s always been there.

And I, like so many other Aucklanders looked on it as an iconic sight, simultaneously  everyday – and spectacular.  Like Mt Eden where we  could climb any time for  360 degree views of  Auckland. Or  humble Mt Roskill where  as kids  we  hurtled over sheep ruts in  wooden sledges.  Or  gracious  Cornwall Park and  One Tree Hill,  (now better known as None Tree Hill).

And at  just about each point we could see Rangitoto. Once nicknamed by Maori ‘blood red skies’  after its eruption  600 years ago, it’s  now  evergreen, its  unmistakeable shape dominating the Waitemata Harbour.

Rangitoto is the nearest of the gulf islands – just  seven kilometres from Auckland City, but  by comparison with  Waiheke and others it has  far fewer visitors, according to Fullers though that’s for good reason. Visitors can’t stay (the last ferry leaves at 3.30pm), there’s no  electricity, no  running water, no shops.  Not that I gave any of  that  much  thought because, well  Rangi was always  there. To see it was enough to love it – or so I thought.

And then  I met  an old friend for lunch  and  we began talking about the  gulf islands.  I let on to Tim –  who turned out to be  a veteran  voyager to Rangitoto’s rocky shores, one who had absorbed its  unique history and environment – that  I had never visited the place.

What?”  he demanded, outraged at this city-slicker snub. “Never?!

Right then  I knew that  very soon,  one of my travel destinations would  be  on a  Fuller’s Ferry en route to the island.  And so it came to be when unusually,  June hosted  Auckland’s week long  weather  high – perfect for climbing  the 854ft of  Rangitoto with  my now satisfied mate, Tim. As we powered across the Waitemata, we  looked back to Auckland and on this clear day and couldn’t help but notice how its sky was sullied from east to west  by a dirty  brown miasma of air pollution. Not a peep about that in the local body election…

By contrast,  landing at Rangitoto was like reaching back to old New Zealand – fresh air, no cars, a smattering  of visitors and in front of us, a DIY transport in the form of a  tractor with an open carriage, sporting hefty seat cushions and padded handrails.  We  soon came to understand why we needed these, as our guide John hopped into the tractor seat and began our trip to the summit.

“First thing I’ve got to tell you is that the ride is going to be very bumpy” he told with laconic understatement, so we held on tight.

“And that” he explained “was because this road (about the width of a suburban driveway) was made by hand”.

“Prisoners from Mt Eden Jail were brought over here 80 years  ago and they built this road with bare hands. They weren’t given any gloves – they made it with  the  volcanic rocks you see all around you.”

We couldn’t help but notice his admiration for the men who had laboured here and lived in semi-permanent accommodation on the island. By now we knew that this would be no ordinary trip ride from sea to summit.  John filled  it with snippets of geology, explanations of the topography and his own dry wit.

“Just make sure you don’t lean out too far to the sides of the carriage” he warned us  as we drove through the pohutukawa forest, the biggest in the country.  “Had a few people lose a hand or an arm doing that… Pretty good for me though ‘cos I use them for bait when I go fishing” he added…. Silence. Cue nervous laughter. Nobody leaned out either side.

The more he tells us the more questions we have. One is  obvious: How can any tree or plant grow amidst the rivers of  volcanic rock where there is no ground water?  Where did the seeds for trees, ferns and wild grass come from?  Over time, he explained, sediment moisturised parts of the island; birds and the sea also washed seeds ashore.  You can see the struggle for  life in the aridity of lava flows – in  just one, a tree had taken root and matured. Beneath it, smaller versions grew – a process replicated all over the island.

In the 1850s Charles Heaphy sketched a Rangitoto almost devoid of trees. Colonists had introduced deer,  possums, wallabies, goats and worst, rats. A century later  most of these had been removed, but possums and  wallabies remained, so they were poisoned by the thousands in pellet drops and land traps. Finally possum hunters  stalked them, walking from one end of the  five mile island to the other every day, killing the remaining ones.

Our guide John told us that the island was now predator-free. As the predators died, plants multiplied and there are now over 200 species of trees and plants on the island.

Rangitoto has had a dramatic makeover and at its summit the views of the harbour  are absolutely unbeatable. (That’s after you’ve got back your breath back after  climbing over 370 wooden steps).  Its height dwarfs the surrounding islands and  the distant Harbour Bridge. Just as impressive is the view into its crater – a lush green basin of trees and ferns.

So on that sunlit day I paid overdue homage to the wild beauty of the island. Will I return? Perhaps, because  despite its tranquillity there’s a sense of foreboding about the place. Still, this imposing icon of Auckland’s active volcanic field will always be there – won’t it?

(Photo credits: Tim McBride)

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.