Rangitoto: Auckland’s Youngest Volcano

There are fifty volcanoes in Auckland. Fifty! Fortunately most of them are dormant, but that was not always the case–as Rangitoto reminds us. This iconic island rising out of the Auckland harbour came into being in its current form 600 years ago. Today it is a pest-free reserve that you can visit. So I did.

Rangitoto is separated from the rest of Auckland by the Rangitoto channel, so to get there I headed to Auckland’s ferry terminal. Sadly, this charming old building is not in operation as the ferry terminal any longer, but the new terminal is pretty cool. I grabbed my ferry tickets and tour ticket, did some last minute shopping and hopped aboard the Rangitoto ferry.

 

The last minute shopping was necessary because Rangitoto doesn’t have any shops or restaurants. There are three boats to the island every day and that’s it. You have to take anything you need with you–and take it away with you afterwards. I haven’t hiked in … a decade, but I really enjoyed making my preparations for this trip.

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Rangitoto has three types of scenery. This is the mangrove.

Upon arrival you can set off on your own to explore, but I decided to take the tour. I thought that it would be good to have Rangitoto’s features explained by a guide, and I’m really glad I did. For a start, I’ve never seen landscape like Rangitoto. The island is mostly made up of expanses of black, pumice-like rock. These are the remains of lava flows. The top of the lava cooled faster and became rock, even while the lava beneath it stayed molten and moving. The still molten lava carried the rocks with it, breaking them up into the smaller rocks they are now.

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Lava rocks with pohutakawa ‘islands’ in the background.

When water falls on Rangitoto, the fresh rain water goes pretty much straight through the lava-rock, and sits on top of the saltwater, beneath the island. Pohutakawa, a native tree here, are able to penetrate deep within the lava rock to reach that fresh water. They grow, eventually spreading branches and forming a canopy, beneath which other plants can grow, surviving in the shade the pohutakawa provides and living on the dirt formed by the pohutakawa’s fallen leaves. Amidst the black oceans of rock, islands of greenery form around the pohutakawa trees. In places, the islands have joined together, and a bush is forming. Rangitoto is home to the largest remaining pohutakawa forest.

 

As you climb the summit of Rangitoto, the forest is more established. It’s hard work walking over the lava-rock, but the forest paths are cushioned by dirt and shaded by many trees. The pohutakawa give way to a variety of trees. This is where Rangitoto’s celebrated birdlife is. After the island was established as a pest-free reserve, a number of endangered species were reintroduced to the island, including the saddleback. I’d never seen one, but was really hopeful I would. The only problem was would I recognise it if I saw it? I know what most of New Zealand’s more outlandish native birds look like, but had never heard of a saddleback prior to visiting Auckland.

 

The tour dropped us off at a series of steps leading towards the summit. It was an easier climb, but I dawdled, letting most people pass me, hoping to see some birds in the forest. I was lucky! Three kakariki–a type of parakeet, green except for a splash of red above their beaks. I then heard something digging through leaves and spent a good ten minutes anxiously stalking my unseen quarry along the track, only to discover it was a common blackbird! I decided to complete the climb to the summit, and ate my lunch enjoying the view across Auckland harbour. On my way down, I saw a British tourist trying to spot a tui that was eluding him. I helped him identify the tui, and from his description, a fantail he’d spotted earlier. He was delighted. ‘I saw a saddleback too,’ he said. ‘I knew it was a saddleback, because it had the patch of brown on its back.’

Now I knew what the saddleback looked like–and that it was close by! I wasn’t lucky enough to spot it before those on the tour had to meet at the bottom of the summit track, to continue the tour, but I was coming back. After the tour, I’d decided to double back and head to the lava caves. After the birds, the lava caves were what attracted me to Rangitoto. All I knew about them was that you needed a torch, which had to promise fairly considerable caves!

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Lava cave. Currently without lava! 

The caves were cool. Not as big as I’d imagined, but I really enjoyed following the tunnel through. The walk there was pretty tough going–40 minutes across the lava-rocks, which were hard to walk on. As there was no cover from surrounding trees, it was really hot–probably not helped by the rocks, which can sometimes have a temperature above 50 degrees celsius! Once I reached the forest it was a lot more pleasant. Shaded, and the path was much more comfortable. I took my photos of the cave, stopped for another snack, then started back to catch the boat.

On my way back, I saw a black bird over head. I couldn’t tell whether it was a blackbird or a tui, so I paused to watch it. I was looking for the white tuft of feathers that identify a tui, when another walker appeared. ‘Spotted something?’ he asked. I pointed at my bird. ‘Nice! A saddleback,’ he said. Saddleback! I looked again–yes, there were the brown feathers in a saddle shape on the bird’s back.

The walker pointed out the saddleback to his two friends, who just caught up with him, pointing out the shape and length of the bird’s beak as other identifying features. He then spotted a whitehead and its chick in the trees, watching us. The whitehead is common–but only in the North Island, so this was another good find for me! I not only visited a volcano and climbed through lava caves, but can add three more NZ birds to my ‘have seen for reals’ list–but I had to get back to catch the ferry.

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The one bird I managed to get a decent photo of–the whitehead! Note you cannot actually see its white head, but trust me. It had one.

I would love to end my Auckland adventures with triumphant cannoli eating at the Italian restaurant on the Viaduct that M Caspian told me about. Unfortunately, that is not what happened! I would have been in time, except that when I got back to the pier, there were two boats waiting. I followed the crowd and climbed aboard the first boat to depart–which turned out to be the wrong boat. Whoops! I had a really enjoyable time on the harbour cruise, but I did not get to try my Italian pastry.

Obviously, I need to return to Auckland!

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