Friday, January 11, 2013

Climbing Rangitoto Volcano

Rangitoto erupted in the first half of the 19th century, in what must have been a spectacular show for nearby Auckland. Sketches of the island from the 1840's show a 3 peaked black volcanic mass rising from fields of jagged volcanic rocks with only a thin scattering of brambles and bushes. The wife of a surveyor who made the ascent at this time described how her boots were ruined by the jagged rocks and her dress (of merino wool) torn to ribbons as they scrambled to the summit. It took them 3 hours of hard work and I am amazed they did it in this time, as even today with a good road, it took me more than half that.

The way to the summit from the anchorage at Islington Bay uses roads that I suspect were built by the defence forces prior to and during World War II. This island was a major part of the Auckland defenses, with an observation tower built at the top of the volcano at enormous expense (30,000+ British pounds in the 1930's). I can easily see the difficulty of getting materials to this point before the days of large transport helicopters. This post was established to direct gun batteries on nearby islands, but was used only for a year, after which it was moved to a more accessible location on Rangitoto. Other World War II building on the island included a mine storage depot (the waters nearby were mined to prevent foreign ships from entering Auckland harbour) and a substantial wharf and ramp, built by the American forces, which I used today to land my dinghy.

Rangitoto was also a summer vacation spot for many local New Zealanders who could lease a 'tent' site on public land for 4 pounds per annum. These so-called tents eventually grew roofs and walls and became bungalows. Most were built in the 1930's after which there was a moratorium on new permits as the government phased out construction of private dwellings on the public land. Some of the 'Baches', as the New Zealanders call their small summer cottages, are still occupied (under the terms of a life-time lease allowed in 1957) and the foundations of many are visible in the undergrowth around Islington Bay.

Getting back to the hike. the path follows roads through fields of magma and scattered rock. The vegetation that covers this island looks incongruous, for it is lush and green. Closer inspection shows that the smaller plants are all varieties with great ability to store water over long periods, having waxy, thick leaves. Even what looks at first like a grass or rush has thick blades that are closer in construction to aloe.

I left early and the Pohutakara trees glowed red in the morning light, bird song filled the air, and when I stopped I could hear the hum of insects in the background. A path off the main road climbs up through the forest to a series of lava tubes. The volcanic scree was covered here in mosses and the increasingly hot sun, tempered by the canopy.

At the lava tubes I met up with a young couple from Switzerland who were living in Auckland, studying English. They had come over for the day on the ferry, which makes several runs each day from Auckland. We explored the lava tubes together and then hiked the rest of the way to the summit. The view out over the crater is impressive, despite the vegetation, being nearly 200 feet deep and 700 wide. A trail winds around its circumference and at the summit there were viewing platforms. There were also many tourists from Auckland, including large contingents of Chinese exchange students.

The path down follows a well constructed board walk back to the road. The Dept of Conservation have done a fine job here as in all their other sites I have visited.

If you do this hike, I would suggest that early morning or later in the afternoon would be best to avoid the reflected heat from all the lava. Taking in the lava tubes on the way up and using the boardwalk to descend make sense, if you are coming from Islington Bay.

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