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Rangitoto Island

Written on: Thursday April 10th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Island of Rangitoto, New Zealand

Author: Julie

Kia Ora (Hello in Maori)!

Today's plan was to visit the volcanic island of Rangitoto, in the Hauraki Gulf. Rangitoto is an iconic landmark of Auckland as its distinctive symmetrical 260 metre (850 feet) high shield volcano cone is visible from much of the city. It is the most recent and the largest (2311 hectares) of the approximately 48 volcanoes of the Auckland Volcanic Field. It was formed by a series of eruptions between 600-700 years ago. Scientists are in dispute about the length of the eruptions, which are thought to have lasted (with interruptions) for 10 to 200 years. In any case, the amount of mass that erupted from the volcano was about equal to the combined mass of all other eruptions in the Auckland Volcanic Field before.

We could see it quite clearly the day before when we were at the SkyTower. A large island with a rounded cone in the center, covered in forest. There are many walking trails on the island and a quick ferry ride could take us there for a day's hike. We took the 10:30 ferry, just by chance the informative tourist ferry which provided a running commentary on the city of Auckland, the bays and channels in the area and most especially the island of Rangitoto. The island is administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC) so there was a shady sitting area, clean toilets, a detailed map of the walking trails with expected walking times, and most importantly the ferry return times. We looked at our options and time we had remaining till the last ferry. We had packed a lunch and plenty of water so we had a good four hours before our return ride home. We decided on the Summit Track (1hr one-way): the most direct to the top, described as a climb through open lava fields and scattered forest cover.

The relatively recent eruption of the island from the gulf depths means its creation is within historical memory of the local Maori iwi (tribes). The island is linked by a natural causeway to the much older, non-volcanic island of Motutapu, where it is possible to view the remains of Maori habitation caught in Rangitoto's eruption paths. "Rangitoto" is Maori for "Bloody Sky", with the name coming from the full phrase Nga Rangi-i-totongia-a Tama-te-kapua ('The days of the bleeding of Tama-te-kapua'). Tama-te-kapua was the captain of the Arawa waka (canoe) and was badly wounded on the island, at a (lost) battle with the Tainui iwi at Islington Bay. A number of Māori myths exist surrounding the island, including that of a Tupua couple, children of the Fire Gods. After quarrelling and cursing Mahuika, the fire-goddess, their home on the mainland was destroyed by Mataoho, god of earthquakes and eruptions on Mahuika's behalf and Rangitoto rose from the sea. The mists surrounding Rangitoto at certain times are considered the tears of the Tupua couple for their former home.

There are virtually no streams on the island so plants rely on rainfall for moisture. It has the largest forest of Pohutukawa trees in the world, as well as many Northern Rata trees. In total, more than 200 species of trees and flowers thrive on the island, including several species of orchid, as well as more than 40 types of fern. As lava fields contain no soil of the typical kind, windblown matter and slow breaking-down processes of the native flora are still in the process of transforming the island into a more habitable area for most plants, which is one of the reasons why the local forests are relatively young and do not yet support a large bird population. The brush-tailed rock-wallaby was introduced to Motutapu in 1873, and was common on Rangitoto by 1912, and the brushtail possum was introduced in 1931 and again in 1946. Both were eradicated in a campaign from 1990-96 using 1080 and cyanide poison and dogs. Introduced stoats, rabbits, mice, rats, cats and hedgehogs remain a problem.

The first 30 minutes of trail took us along a dusty trail over an old lava flow. The thousands of footsteps that had previously trodden here had turned the rock below our feet to a soft rounded rock but the flow on either side was still sharp, as if it had just cooled after its trip from within the center of the earth. It was a warm sunny day and we could feel the heat radiating from the rock below our feet. The trail was dotted with informative panels, explaining the islands volcanic history. We soon entered the forested section of the trail and the gradient of the trail increased. We decided to follow a side marked trail that took us to a few shallow caves caused when lava tubes cooled. There were three caves we could enter and follow through to the other side. They weren't very long, only about 20 meters long and 1 to 2 meters tall. It was a nice little aside and continued on up the trail. We finally climbed up some stairs and were greeted with a gorgeous sight of Auckland and its bays far away and below us a perfectly rounded volcano caldera covered in forest. At the bottom stood out a very tall silver tree fern. We looked around for a trail that descended into the deep depression but found none, so we settled down on the wooden viewpoint and ate our lunch under the warm sky, watching all the little boats far below plying the waves.

We spent an hour enjoying the sun before descending. It took us a lot less time than climbing and soon we were back at the entrance hut to wait out the ferry. Other hikers had congregated at the pier by that time, so we knew it hadn't arrived just yet. On the way back, we bought a couple of beers and settled down for the 30 minutes boat ride back to the CBD.