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Rangitoto - Auckland's Fragile Icon

Jacqueline Crompton Ottaway - 30/04/04

Rangitoto, Auckland's youngest, largest and most distinctive volcanic cone, stretches lazily across the Auckland skyline, dominating the Auckland Harbour and Gulf with its shifting shades of purple, grey and green. This symmetrical island has become the city's icon - a symbol of what it means to live in Auckland and to be an Aucklander.

"It's such a comfort to know that Rangitoto's always there and always looks the same," says Vonney Allan, who actually visited Rangitoto for the first time recently. "Rangitoto has always been such a lovely constant in my life."

Alan Fish first began visiting Rangitoto as a young boy in the 1920s sailing to Rangitoto in his parents' mullet boat. To-day he and his wife Dorothy enjoy taking visitors out there to show them the spectacular view of the city from the top of the volcanic cone. "It's quite a fascinating island when you think of the way that the vegetation has grown and worked its way between the rocks. All the visitors we take there are amazed at the view."

Interpretations of the name Rangitoto
There are two common interpretations of the Maori name Rangitoto. The first interpretation is rendered as the Island of the Bloody Skies. The other interpretation comes from Johannes C. Andersen who favours the story that Rangitoto is a shortened name derived from Te Rangi i toto ngia a Tama which translated means the day of the bleeding of Tama te Kapua. and marks the occasion when the Maori chief Tama te Kapua was badly wounded at Islington Bay.

Rangitoto eruptions
Geologists think that Rangitoto emerged from the sea a little over 600 years ago in a series of fierce volcanic explosions. Since then, the most recent eruption which has given us the characteristic shape of the island as we know it, occurred about 250 years ago.

Although there are Maori legends associated with the existence of Rangitoto, there are no actual legends recording its most recent eruption. But on a site on Motutapu, archeologists have excavated under a layer of Rangitoto ash, exposing the footprints of the former inhabitants and the mark of the koe dug into the ground. This excavation proves Maori occupancy prior to the eruption.

Transport to the island
There are a number of private ferry operators who run trips to Rangitoto, but Fullers provide the most frequent service. (However, it does pay to confirm departure times with the ferry company before sailing, as the timetables do change and alternative transport back from the island is very expensive.)

What draws people to Rangitoto
Day-trippers and tourists who throng to Rangitoto, soon discover the lure of this young exotic island for themselves. The pleasures of a day on the harbour and the charm of Rangitoto Island are inextricably mixed. Vonney Allan and her husband Bruce decided to visit Rangitoto on the spur of the moment, " We went there because it was such a beautiful day and the harbour looked so lovely. Part of the pleasure of the outing was the boat trip across."

John Stewart, a bach owner at Rangitoto Wharf who has been closely involved with the island since 1956, describes the place as "paradise". And on a cloudless summer's day, sitting around the swimming pool at Rangitoto Wharf, looking out at the sparkling waters of the Waitemata Harbour framed by the twisted pohutukawas in full bloom, it looks just like an enchanted island paradise.

Rangitoto Wharf offers visitors extensive timbered walkways around a swimming pool filled with salt water from the tide, the discovery of a nearby glade of translucent kidney ferns nestled under a belt of pohutukawa forest, walks around the tracks to McKenzies Bay in the west and to Islington Bay in the east, and the climb either to the Wilson Park walk before the turnoff to the lava caves or to the lava caves themselves and on to the summit, 259 metres above sea-level.

The coastal walk to Islington Bay from Rangitoto Wharf reveals much of the past history of the island. On this walk (which takes about one and a half hours to complete) there are the remnants of old baches and boat sheds near Rangitoto Wharf, the disused old quarry sites, the ruins of old defence installations including the wartime storage bases for mines and Yankee Wharf.

Visitors who are really fit can walk the coast track and take in the rugged track to Boulder Bay (previously known as Wreck Bay) on a detour to Islington Bay.

Advice to visitors
Gordon Ell has published and written a comprehensive booklet on the island. For those trampers, visitors and tourists who want to walk the tracks, he advises, "The biggest thing to watch for is the times on the tracks because there aren't many service boats around and some of the track notices are ambiguous in their timing."

Ell also emphasises the importance of good footwear and adequate fluid, "You take your drinks, and you take good footwear and whatever you need to keep the sun off your face and off your head because it gets pretty hot. You really need a damn good pair of tramper's boots because the rocks are so sharp on some of the tracks that they can just cut the leather to pieces on a pair of walking shoes."

Most people visiting Rangitoto for the first time are amazed at the lava rock formations and the way that over 200 species of native trees and flowering plants, more than 40 kinds of fern and over 20 species of native orchids have established themselves in such harsh, rocky terrain.

Eminent botanists have continually been fascinated by the vegetation on Rangitoto. In the revised 1981 edition of "The Botany of Auckland", Lucy Cranwell states, "Botanically, Rangitoto is one of our more important areas, not so much because of the many species established on it, but because it shows every stage from the colonization of raw basalt and scoria to the formation of scrub and forest of immature but very unusual aspect."

Photographs taken 150 years ago show that Rangitoto was a lot more bare than it is to-day. As the mosses, lichen and algae have grown up and deteriorated, they have formed the soil and in that soil seeds have grown. From these seeds, pohutukawas and ratas have developed until to-day when a "new" tree has formed, a hybrid that is a cross between the pohutukawa and the red rata. Pohutukawa trees have established themselves as the dominant tree on the island and Rangitoto now has the largest remaining pohutukawa forest in New Zealand.

In the shade from the pohutukawa and rata mixture, plants like mingimingi, koromiko and puka grow and develop. The lack of water to nourish this luxuriant vegetation puzzles most visitors to the island. But as Gordon Ell explains, "Of course there's no running water on the place, but there's a miniscus of water underneath. So the trees that grow there, put their roots down and hit that water."

An island for all seasons
But Rangitoto is not merely an island for the sun-drenched summer tourist. It's an island for all seasons. Winter time provides a wonderful opportunity to explore all the tracks. The lava fields do not reach the high temperatures that they do during summer and unlike Auckland, where the bush tracks are very muddy at this time of year, the tracks remain dry.

Gull colonies
In the late spring and early summer there are also a number of spectacular gull colonies. One of these colonies lies on an area of broken rock in which the birds nest, about one kilometre from Rangitoto Wharf, where the road is signposted "to Flax Point". Anyone who takes a pair of binoculars, can get a really good close up view of birds of different ages feeding, guarding their nests and interacting together.

Gordon Ell explains that if visitors do intrude into the gull colony and disturb the birds, the parents fly off in one direction and the adjacent parent comes in and attacks the young that have been abandoned. This can cause the death of the young gulls and an enormous amount of ensuing damage to the colony as a whole. "Keep to the paths and don't disturb them," he warns.

The spring is also a good time to go and look for the fragrant native orchids that grow in the shade of the trees, on the branches themselves or in the rich humus formed from the rotting leaves and vegetation.

Alan Fish enjoys taking visitors to Rangitoto when the white flower heads known as Kirk's daisy are in full blossom during the spring months. "In the springtime you look down from the top and see the white flowers in places." These masses of perching white flowers (with the Maori name, kohurangi, meaning 'mist of the skies') form soft seed parachutes on the wind and when released look like soft snowy umbrellas. The short walk from Rangitoto Wharf (about forty-five minutes for the round trip) to the small kowhai grove, is also a wonderful sight in spring.

A haven for boaties
Over the spring and summer months boating and fishing enthusiasts crowd into Islington Bay for shelter and a safe anchorage. Islington Bay is also known as Drunken Bay because drunken crews used to lay over and sober up there, before setting out to sea again. Brian Bambury who has been boating and fishing around the harbour and gulf for over forty years, laughs, "Many boaties still do it to-day. You see them go in there on the Friday night and shoot off again on the Saturday."

Bambury, like most other "boaties" on the harbour, says that he has many memories of seeking shelter in Islington Bay from forty and fifty knot winds while watching "the pandemonium at two o'clock in the morning with guys dragging anchors and lights on and all the rest."

The bach owners
Rangitoto has an interesting history and those who have been most closely associated with the island's past are the bach owners who lease property there. Many families became entrenched on the island during the depression years of the 1930s.

But in the mid 1950s, in recognition of the unique nature of the flora and fauna on the island, the government passed a law that the people who were living in the baches on Rangitoto could stay in them until the present owner died.

At Islington Bay there are only ten bach holders left who still lease the land from the Conservation Department and there are no permanent residents on the island. "The land has always been leased," explains Alwyn Rae, the daughter of one of the remaining bach holders "and in 1990 the Conservation Department had to renew on those terms - a renewal of 33 years for $30.00 per year. We're classed as 'gypsies' because we pay such a minimal amount for the lease."

Molly Carter, another of the remaining bach holders, remembers a strong sense of community where families worked together to help each other, to put out bush fires, to provide mutual entertainment with dances in the hall and an annual sports' day every New Years' Day.

The Te Hira family built the first bach on the island and they have had a foothold on Rangitoto since the turn of the century.

Minnie Te Hira is now the last bach owner and the Historic Places Trust have approached her about preserving the bach for historical reasons. "It's very sad. The bach should pass through the family but we're not allowed to do that. If anything happens to me, that's the end of the place," she laments.

Her son, Andrew still goes down to Rangitoto almost every weekend. He enjoys the life-style that Rangitoto has to offer while the family still own the bach. "I go down almost every weekend. I love fishing, I love the bach. I get lifts with mates who'll take me out around the islands and drop me back." He says that a lot of visitors don't realise that they can still lease the hall for an evening's entertainment from the Conservation Officer for a nominal sum.

Down on Rangitoto, Andrew virtually lives off the land. He takes a few essential supplies with him and catches fish and seafood. "There's still fish around Rangitoto. It's really a matter of getting the tide and the time of day right. I've got nets, long lines, a boat or I can go fishing off the rocks." His diet also includes kina, crayfish, ducks, pippis, mussels, rabbits and a supply of mutton, beef and turkey from the farm on Motutapu. "There's watercress and puha growing that you can eat and," he adds with a grin, "when all else fails there's always home brew!"

Alwyn Rae's two children, Sarah and Brendon, are the fourth generation to stay on Rangitoto. "Grandad Rae used to be captain of a scow. Grandma Rae was an Ellis. She used to go down to the bach next door to us. When she married she heard that the bach was being sold so she persuaded Grandad Rae to buy it."

Her father, Alan Rae also remembers his "happy childhood" spent there.. "They started to pull down the places when people died and you'd go down and there'd be a hole in the trees and you'd go down again and there'd be another hole in the trees. It was a bit ghoulish."

As children, Alwyn and her other brothers, sisters and friends used to spend their holidays on Rangitoto rowing in the dinghy, swimming, going for picnics, playing games and running over the hills and valleys of Motutapu. To-day she and her husband Malcolm Fisher enjoy going there for the peace and quiet. They take simple tramper's provisions and don't use the old generator any more.

Conservation programme for the island's future
What of Rangitoto's future? Since 1987 the Conservation Department has been responsible for the day to day running of the place as well as the eradication of pests and the conservation of native forest areas.

Until quite recently the whole island was largely endangered by opossums and wallabies. Fortunately the Forest and Bird Society were offered some royalties from a wine company who became co-sponsors for the eradication programme. These royalties were directed towards the eradication of the opossums and wallabies.

The eradication programme has proved very successful. "In the first year they got 87% of them and the whole thing flowered again and the trees recovered and it's wonderful," says Gordon Ell who is also a member of the New Zealand Forest Conservation Society and the representative of the Forest and Bird Society which advises the Minister about the administration of National Parks.

Jim Henry the Field Centre Manager for Auckland South is responsible for Rangitoto. He explains, "The Department identifies priority areas right throughout New Zealand and Rangitoto came up fairly near the top. So money was allocated to Rangitoto in 1990. We employed six people and made a start on the Rangitoto job, which includes Motutapu." The Conservation Department wants to restore and conserve the native flora and fauna on the island." Progressively we want to restore the island back to its original state."

The botanical and ecological balance on the island is very precarious. As Gordon Ell comments, "Rangitoto is that fragile as a botanical place that one tree can ruin the balance." Lucy Cranwell harbours the same fears. "Because of the ability of so many exotic plants to find wide-open niches here, the island might well suffer a major botanical disaster."

The Rae family are also concerned about the silting up effect that has taken place in Islington Bay since the erection of the causeway between Motutapu and Rangitoto during the second world war.

The real challenge to Rangitoto's future, remains with the battle against encroaching pollution, exotic vegetation and introduced animals. Let's hope that our own generation and future generations will work hard to ensure that Rangitoto remains an ecological survivor - Auckland's unique botanical, geological and maritime icon!

Sunset on Auckland City taken outsite Islington Bay
Sunset on Auckland City taken outsite Islington Bay
Photo Source: Ottaway Family
Click here to view a larger version

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