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)