Rangitoto: We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

(Note: Blame M for the title)

Walking around Auckland was a good introduction to the city, but New Zealand is mostly known for its spectacular outdoors. Luckily, such wildernesses are easily accessible even from Downtown Auckland in the form of the Hauraki Gulf islands. M and I got up at 6am on Sunday (quite the sacrifice for us!) to catch the early-bird ferry to Rangitoto Island. This island is the most recent of the volcanoes in the Auckland volcanic field at only 600 years old and lies only a 25-minute ferry ride from Auckland Harbor. The crisp morning air woke us up on the trip and we could enjoy the early morning views of both Auckland and the island we were visiting.

Auckland, with cruise ship dominating the docks.
Auckland, with cruise ship dominating the docks.
Our destination!
Our destination!

We arrived at Rangitoto Wharf at around 8am and the small group of early morning travelers quickly dispersed on the various trails. We began by heading up the popular Summit track, stopping at the various informative signs along the way but soon deviated onto the much less used and maintained Wilson’s Park track. This narrow trail led us through dense vegetation and into an area that the eponymous Mr Wilson had tried to cultivate as a botanic garden in the 1800s. Given that Rangitoto Island is comprised entirely of raw volcanic rock, it takes a special kind of crazy to think, “Hmm, yes, this is a good site for a lovely English garden.” Walking through, we couldn’t tell which areas contained foreign species, so have to conclude his park was a failure. This trail eventually spat us out onto the main road to the summit on which we walked for a bit before taking the boardwalk for the final ascent. We had some beautiful views of other gulf islands from this boardwalk:

Just a few of the many islands in view.
Just a few of the many islands in view.

After climbing some stairs, we reached the Crater Rim trail and the top of Rangitoto, where we had a snack. Even the interior of the crater was covered with trees and vegetation, which is surprising given how inhospitable the island appears to be. We’re being literal about the surprise here – scientists still don’t fully understand how the vegetative growth process has been so quick. As expected though, there were great views of Auckland and the Harbor:

Rangitoto's well-forested crater.
Rangitoto’s well-forested crater.
Auckland from the summit, with cruise ship still dominant.
Auckland from the summit, with cruise ship still dominant.

After our circuit of the crater, we headed back down the mountain a short way to join the Lava Cave trail. All the guidebooks and maps suggested bringing a flashlight for this section, but of course we didn’t have one. We expected that the trail would simply go to the lava caves but instead it went through the lava caves. Since we could see the light at the end of the tunnel from the start, we decided to feel our way through, relying on M’s phone for some amount of light. Fortunately the tunnel floor was fairly even, so we managed to make it to the end!

Escape.
Escape.

After this exciting adventure, we returned to the road and went down the mountain to McKenzie Bay, passing through more fields of jagged black lava rocks. As a road, it was quite tame compared to the trails so we made good time down to the bay. Once there, we found a very nice beach and a cove in which some small boats were anchored. I was tempted to go swimming in the calm blue water, but unfortunately we had’t brought swimsuits or towels – a major oversight! Instead, we had lunch looking out at the lighthouse and enjoying the sunny weather.

A view towards the summit. Look at those jagged rocks!
A view towards the summit. Look at those jagged rocks!

After lunch, we headed along the coast road back to the wharf, passing by mangrove trees (growing directly on lava rock instead of the mud in which they are usually found) and more idyllic beaches that made us regret not bringing our swimming stuff even more.

So tempting to swim!
So tempting!

As it was so sunny, the rocks, much like asphalt in the city, began to heat up making the walk unseasonably hot. As a result, once we got back to the wharf we soaked our tired feet in the water while waiting for the ferry. In true Auckland weather fashion, though, it turned cold and began to rain just as we were boarding the ferry.

Rangitoto is a natural preserve for native plants and animals and as a result of strict pest control, rare species have been allowed to thrive. We saw some New Zealand bird species found in very few other places.

Native bird count: 1.
Native bird count: 1.

This bird is called a tui and was the most common bird that we saw on our trip. We could hear them far before we could see them as they have a loud and distinctive song that was especially prominent in the early morning when we arrived. At first we thought these were the bellbird we had heard about because it looks like they have two little white bells around their neck. Like many birds in New Zealand, they did not seem terribly scared of people; this picture is from right near the boardwalk.

Native bird count: 2.
Native bird count: 2.

This is a terrible picture but it’s the rarest bird we saw. It’s a medium sized black bird with a reddish patch or saddle on it’s back and little red teardrops by its beak. Accurately enough, it’s called the saddleback or tieke and is found only on islands around New Zealand; they’re extinct on the mainland. They didn’t make any noise except for the rustling of the bushes as they hunted for food in the ground cover. We were lucky to see this one by the side of the road.

Native bird count: 3.
Native bird count: 3.

The last bird we saw is called the fantail. It looks like a sparrow except for its large, fan-shaped tail and cute little eyebrows. As you can see in the picture, its body is almost completely round and its wings stick out like little flippers, making it freaking adorable! It even flies as if its body is slightly too heavy but despite that was very agile, flitting from branch to branch rapidly. My favorite bird of the trip!

Despite all our moaning about getting up so early, catching the early-bird ferry was definitely the right plan for visiting this amazing island. Our only disappointment was not seeing more native bird species, especially as kiwi live there. We’ll try to rectify that with further trips to other parks and islands!

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