The green rugged symmetrical landscape of Rangitoto is such an iconic feature of the Auckland skyline that you’d be forgiven for not knowing that up close this features an assortment of brightly coloured baches, christmas lights powered by solar and the worlds largest Pohutukawa forest. Knowing all this I feel like Rangitoto Island should be ablaze with colour and life, not this barren volcanic island we perceive it to be. I promise when you go there you’ll look at it in a whole new way too….
The easiest way to get up the hill
First a disclaimer – we cheated.
I have a long history of cheating when it comes to hills – especially the uphill part of them.
When I was in my early 20’s I bought a purple bike from The Warehouse. It wasn’t made for speed, handling or much of anything really. I haphazardly screwed a basket on the front, threw my work stuff in it and declared myself part of the cycling population of Wellington.
I lived at the time in Johnsonville – a suburb 7km out of the city and perched at the top of the Ngauranga Gorge. The Ngauranga Gorge is 2km long, eye waveringly steep and has a cycle way that regularly sees cyclists going faster than the 80km limit imposed for cars. I’m not sure if I ever got that bike up quite that fast but man I rattled down that hill with some speed in the mornings. I’d then cycle through Thorndon (the ride would be 10 minutes either side depending which way the wind was blowing) and arrive at work pumped and ready to go.
But by the end of the day I never quite felt like going up the hill (I did of course do it once to say I had done it) so I’d slink on to the train and throw my bike in the back and cheat my way up the hill. So I’m no stranger to the odd sneaky ride up a hill.
And this was a brilliant ride no less! For an extra $36 you can be chauffeured up the hill. Now we’re going Rangitoto style here so you’re sitting in what amounts to a trailer being hauled up the hill by a fairly powerful 4wd trailer.
There’s a fair few bumps so if you forgot to use the toilet at the bottom of the hill (!!) you’ll be pleased to know there are two long drops up the top of the climb…
The more powerful of the two tractors is reserved for the adults, while the smaller tractor takes the families with their littler bodies. It does have the rather nice side effect of making the trip child free if you haven’t travelled with children (which we hadn’t on this trip).
Things you may not know about Rangitoto
The other benefit, aside from getting out of a rather gnarly uphill walk, is that you get an amazing history lesson on the way up. Our guide for the day was Nate. As we wound our way through Volcanic rock and much more vegetation than I thought possible on a volcanic island Nate filled us in on various bits of history and geology about the island. Now I am notoriously bad at mishearing/embellishing/downright making up bits of stories so you may be best to get this information from Nate first hand but the bits that really stuck with me were….
- Rangitoto has no soil (but it has trees growing). Apparently it takes 1,000 years for this to happen and Rangitoto is only 600 years old. “So not in our lifetime” James whispers. It’s a small thing but it fascinates me the whole time we walk around.
- The Pohutukawa forest on the island is the biggest in the world! Now it’s not just Nate who said this (or my over exaggerations) the Doc website confirms this and this just blows my mind. I feel like Rangitoto should glow red in December with all these Pohutukawa trees. I find myself squinting in vain to see the red as I gaze at it from shore side but to no avail. It’s also the reason the trees on Rangitoto grow (remember with no soil!).
- Rangitoto is pest free. I am so scared of rats and mice so this warmed my heart no end. But aside from my personal vermin loathings as Nate proclaims it as being pest free for 10 years the last 10 years thanks to DOC to a trailer load of assorted tourists I feel immensely proud to be a Kiwi. We did this. Amongst all the shitty things we do to the world we did something good. We’re turning back the clock and making things right.
- The summit of Rangitoto is higher than the observation deck of the Sky Tower (not the whole thing, but as high as you can walk). That’s important to know when you weigh up catching the tractor up or slogging it up the hill.
The type of lava, temperatures and heights and other useful facts all washed over me but there really was something for everyone in Nate’s well practiced speech as we bumped over rocks up the hill.
The bits you don’t want to cheat at…
Now lets get back to cheating on this hill… You may be disappointed to know that the tractor does not absolve you from all hill walking. It deposits you, after almost an hour meandering up the hill listening to Nate, at the bottom of some stairs. Now the brochure says a “short climb” – it is intact some 300 steps. But given you’ve just escaped the rest of the Sky Tower walk I guess we’ve all got off lightly.
The view at the top, no matter how you get there, is worth it. Uninterrupted 360 degree views of an Auckland that looks matchbox tiny from this high up.
The Pohutukawa are in bloom all around making the city look particularly festive despite the overcast day (great for not getting too hot with all that volcanic rock around, not as great for pictures).
We pause up the top of the hill and like the others around us make up our home made (left over from Christmas) ham rolls and plan our next move.
The tour with Nate continues around the other side of the island that we haven’t seen. Or, we could walk down the hill – see a different side of the island and check out the Lava Caves.
For the tour to be honest is Nate. It’s fascinating hearing all the history. But on the other side we really feel like we have to do at least some walking while we are over here (it ended up being 15,000 steps so there was quite a bit so it wasn’t a total opt out!)
But we still didn’t feel like we could pay our $1 to get our certificate saying we’d climbed Rangitoto (although we won’t judge if you do).
So we decide to try and get the best of both worlds and grill him for a bit more information before the tractor departs.
The Rangitoto Baches and the swimming pool
The big things we want to know about is the baches and the swimming pool.
I’ll get to the pool soon, but first the baches. From the moment we drew close to Rangitoto the baches fascinated me. Bright and colourful, unique but similar they reminded me a little of the Singapore shop houses. I already knew from James that there was quite a lot of history and some fights over the baches and I wanted to know more.
So my potted history of the baches gleaned from Nate, a bit of googling, the bach museum on the island, some of the plaques outside the baches is this and of course my own take on it all…
In the 20’s some sites on Rangitoto are made available for lease. Now strictly speaking this really shouldn’t have happened because Rangitoto was a public domain so couldn’t really be sold to anyone.
By 1927 59 baches have been built and prisoners have swapped Mount Eden prison for a life building roads, swimming pools and a hall. The pool is still there and it is glorious! A salt water pool that fills and empties with the tide. I desperately wanted it to be high tide and I think I will catch a ferry over to Rangitoto one sunny day at high tide just to swim in it!
By 1937 there are 140 baches. It’s decided that as the baches and sites are not strictly legal that existing leases are given 20 years. Twenty years passes and another reprieve is given – leases are lengthened but under strict conditions, including that on death of a lessee the bach must be removed or demolished. So they did what most people would do and transferred it into the name of the youngest in the family.
In the 70’s and 80’s a significant number of baches were demolished. Walking past them all that remains is a plaque and an old photo that speaks to that golden time that the bach holders must of had when there were 140 families, swimming pools, tennis courts, balls and bonfires. All kept quintessentially Kiwi by the lack of power, sewage or water and by the inventive ways they had to build these houses so far from everything.
In 1990 34 baches get a further reprieve. And now, as the baches start to pass into historic building phase they are no longer being torn down but restored and kept as a lasting monument to an idyllic moment in history. Reading the signs out the front of some of the baches you can see the rich diversity of the bach owners – from company owners to caretakers.
You can find out more about the island and the baches here.
The bach walk for me was every bit as fascinating as the summit and you can take amazing detours like the Kowhai Grove.
I’m all for the preservation of this history. Nate told us a story about the Maori on Motutapu who watched, startled as Rangitoto (translated as bloody sky) emerged from the ocean below. Rangitoto is so close to Motutapu that the two islands are separated only by a cause way. Motutapu Maori understandably fled, but anthropological evidence shows that they came back – for what we can only guess at. But the baches are a bit like this too, more layers in our youngest volcano’s history.
And speaking of startling skies… You may notice that some of the photos in this post start to take on an orangish glow. That’s because when we were just about to leave the skies over Auckland turned orange as smoke from Australia’s bush fires swept over the city.
It seems I’ve got very sidetracked by the baches and we haven’t even got off the summit yet. So where was I? Ahh, the decent…
Walking down the hill
There is something quite strange about seeing people red faced and puffing as they come up the final stages of Rangitoto and you feel quite, well, fresh. Sure we’d walked 300 steps but that was nothing really… On the one hand there was a little bit of smugness. I nudged James as he called out to the umpteenth person in a cheery voice “almost there”. And of course there was the guilt. Maybe that’s why we were congratulating every person as they neared the summit – it wasn’t to be part of a group we hadn’t fully earned our way into, it was to allay our guilt!
We walked down through the lush leafiness. This wasn’t the Rangitoto we remembered. James had been there with his Dad as a kid and I had taken Bella and Sophia when they were pre-schoolers and had aborted the mission when the complaining got too much. “We definitely didn’t go this high” I told James.
We came to a clearing with well weathered stumps scattered around. It looked the perfect spot for a picnic where some wood elves may pop out and join you and looked just like it had come out of the pages of Enid Blyton’s Far Away Tree.
From here is the path to the Lava Cave. We hadn’t done any research on this at all, save for seeing it on the back of the tractor carriage and overhearing someone else talk about it!
What I did find out is that the tracks are very rugged and the caves when we got there, far too small for me to consider squeezing my body into. I had somehow imagined it to be a bit like the gold mine we’d walked through in Thames a couple of weeks back or the Windows Walk. It was not. To illustrate this best here’s a video from a small boy at least half the size of me crouching down to get in…
So we wimped out again. But hey, you came forewarned – this is the lazy girls guide to conquering Rangitoto Island. There were many lycra clad, lithe bodied souls who would have taken on these caves without batting an eye. We just were not one of them.
Body still in tact we made our way back to the main path (James was in charge of directions after the Billy Goat disaster on the Pinnacles a few years back that I was responsible for). Actually thinking about the Pinnacles I feel like they would do well to have a tractor option too, although I can’t see that working over the stone steps…
45 minute walk to the bottom and still the path didn’t look familiar from our previous attempts to summit Rangitoto!
As we made our way down the lush greenery gave way to more volcanic rock and the familiar profile of Rangitoto began to emerge above us.
And the city landscape tilted to a more familiar view.
We passed a huge flat field, yellowed with something not quite grass, with borders carefully made of volcanic rock. Google didn’t give me an answer as to what it was but I bet Nate knew…
We made our way further down the path with the wharf now in site. I turned to James, triumphant “now this looks familiar” I declared. Moments later the enormity of my rather short, yet torturous previous walk up Rangitoto dawns on me as I see we are in fact only minutes from the wharf. I’m not saying don’t do this walk with children, I am saying, don’t do it with my children.
Oh and while we are on the advice – bring loads of water, go early in the day (we went at 9.15 and had to race to get the 2.30 ferry) and try to go on an overcast day because the volcanic rock really heats up.
So it’s fair to say we loved Rangitoto Island! It’s not often I write 2,500 words (gulp) about one place but there was just so much to say! It’s a place we see most days if you are living in Auckland but just don’t make the time to get over there.
James and I went sans kids for this adventure but we’ve already talked about bringing them back with us next time. I have to admit though without kids is pretty relaxing – especially with the wine and cheese on the ferry on the way back….
You can find out more about the ferry and the awesome tractor ride up the hill – which is actually called The Rangitoto Island Volcanic Explorer Tour here.