Sunday, 27 October 2019

Rangitoto Summit Track (Rangitoto Island Scenic Reserve)

A small volcanic island located off the coast of Auckland, the Rangitoto Summit track takes trampers to the summit of the area's most impressive volcano. Starting from the island's main jetty, the trail heads up the mountain through lava fields to excellent views of Auckland from the summit. Featuring historic WW2 military bunkers and a side trip to some lava caves, this is a great introduction to hiking in New Zealand

Distance: 7 km (return)
Gradient: A continual ascent and then descent, with a mix of gradual and moderately steep sections
Quality of Path: A well constructed and maintained walk track
Quality of Signage: Generally well signed and clear, with a good trailhead and directional information along the way
Experience Required: Some Bushwalking Experience Recommended
Time: 2 Hours
Steps: Many
Best Time to Visit: All Year
Entry Fee: No, however ferry fees apply
Getting There: The trail starts from the main ferry jetty on Rangitoto Island. Ferries depart from Auckland's wharf and can be booked from Fullers 360.

After the heat of Darwin and its stunning top end scenery, another work project saw me heading further east than my usual transcontinental journeys to Melbourne. Needed for an on the ground review in Hamilton, I flew to New Zealand for the first time ahead of the holiday Alissa and I had planned for the end of the year. With limited time in Auckland, I decided to keep in simple and tackle something nearby that I would require a car hire for, with the volcano of Rangitoto Island coming highly recommended. After recovering from the brutal five hour time zone change, I made my way to Rangitoto Island on the regular ferry service. Given the Rangitoto Summit Track is easily the most popular attraction on the island and the weather was clear and sunny, everyone was basically heading in the same direction meaning this was going to be a fairly packed walk.

Following the signage to the right of the jetty, the track initially follows broad vehicle tracks through the main visitor information area. Even at this early stage, I was realising just how cutting and hot the sun was going to be. The temperature forecast was 27°c and with the lack of cloud cover it felt even warmer. While I was not planning on heading up the mountain as fast as the guy running the picture above, I was nevertheless determined to travel as fast as I could to beat the tourist hordes.

Given the lack of cloud cover, the sections of the track that were more shaded were a welcome relief. While Rangitoto is a fairly young island - having emerged out of the ocean only 600 years ago - it has a mature vegetation system that is considered home to the largest Rangitipōhutukawa Forest in the world. An attractive tree with red flowers, it was sadly not in bloom at the time of my visit.

While vegetated pockets provided some shade, the majority of the walk was through open lava fields. The black jagged volcanic rock creates an alien landscape that was very different from the often metamorphic and highly weathered rock of the Australian continent, and served as a bit of a precursor for what Alissa and I would be experiencing in December on the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

Rangitito Island was declared pest free in 2011 and it is clear that the Department of Conservation are serious about keeping it this way. Before boarding the ferry we were given a spiel about how important it is to check our bags are closed so animals cannot stow away on board, and all throughout the island are boxes that appear to be large rat traps.

Given the trail is almost entirely uphill, it was hot work getting to the summit. Shaded pockets were once again a welcome respite.

Along the ascent, a lookout point in a forest clearing provides views of Auckland.

The view is nice enough but is a far cry from the even better and unencumbered view that is possible from the summit. Additionally, I'm not one who gets super excited about city views and it falls quite far behind the magnificent views, for example, from Mt Wellington's summit in Hobart.

Beyond the lookout, the vegetation becomes more dense and more consistently forested, which is just as well given that it becomes steeper and more unrelentingly uphill from here on.

Initially my plan had been to tackle the side trip to the Lava Caves on the way up the summit, however I decided to instead get the climbing over and done with first.

After ascending a mix of stairs and more slopes, I reached the start of the Rim Crater Track. Being an extinct volcano, the trail loops around the edge of the volcanic crater.

Given I was keen to get the climbing over and done with, I decided to make my way up the last few staircases to the summit.

At the summit, a broad boardwalk provides an excellent lookout platform at the summit while keeping visitors from trampling the surrounding vegetation.

The view from the summit is far better than from the lookout point below. This photo unfortunately does not capture how lovely the view is, even if I don't think it holds a candle to the view of Hobart from Mt Wellington.

The summit of the 260 metre high 'mountain' is marked by a fairly elaborate trig point. Not dissimilar to Rottnest Island in Western Australia, Rangitoto Island features a number of decommissioned military bunkers from the 1940s. The bunker at the summit serves as a nice spot to either get out of the rain or to get out of the sunshine, depending on weather conditions.

After taking in the views from the summit, I descending the stairway to complete the rest of the Rim Crater Track.

While the crater is mostly a tunnel of vegetation, it does feature some points of historic interest. One such point is a secondary bunker that is actually more extensive and interesting than the one at the summit. This is definitely worth checking out and exploring as it only takes a few minutes.

Given the mostly vegetated nature of the rim, a section without any tall trees provided a good lookout point to take in the surrounding landscape and the waters of the Hauraki Gulf.

Not far from the end of the Rim Crater Track's loop is a lookout point that provides a glimpse into the crater of the volcano.

Thankfully extinct (or at least very dormant), the volcano is filled with forest rather than the rocky and often barren interior of an active volcano. After taking in the views, I began my descent back down the mountain.

At this point I took the side trip to explore the Lava Caves which runs behind what looks like a semi-subterranean shelter and picnic area. 

The trail through here is mildly undulating but relatively flat as it passes through shaded forest on the way to the lava caves. 

Located to the side of the trail and marked by trees growing out of it, the first of the lava caves is fairly small and requires a bit of a crawl. 

It only lasts a few metres, but walkers should be careful not to rush. Volcanic rock that has not been eroded is often sharp and jagged, and in spite of my being cautious, I still knocked my head on some sharp rock as I made my way through. 

Out of the small cave and continuing along the trail, a second lava cave can be found just off the track. This cave is much longer, darker and more impressive as it forms a relatively sustained tunnel that I was able to walk through upright. 

Halfway through the cave is an open section featuring trees growing out of the cave. The feel of this section was very similar to the slot canyons in the Blue Mountains, bringing back memories of the Dry Canyon from our Blue Mountains trip earlier in the year. 

Beyond the open section, the trail continues through a constricting tunnel leading to the end of the cave system. 

At the other end, a sign helpfully indicates that this is the end of the Lava Caves Track, with markers pointing the way back along the trail to rejoin the Rangitoto Summit Track. 

With the hot work of pushing up the volcano behind me, I had a relatively leisurely stroll down the mountain that allowed me to take some time out and enjoy the finer details of the plant life growing along the walk. 

Back at the main visitor area, I made use of the brief time waiting for the return ferry by checking out some historic features of Rangitoto Island such as the above arch. Built by convict labour, this archway had once been the entrance to the mens toilets. Some additional features I didn't get to explore were the historic baches or beach houses that are located near the jetty but are apparently also worth checking out. 

With the North Island filled with volcanoes ranging from extinct to very much active, Rangitoto served as an excellent introduction to New Zealand's volcanic geography that in less hot weather would have been a fairly easy walk. While New Zealand has many more impressive volcanoes to explore, its close proximity to Auckland makes it a perfect day walk option for visitors with limited time. As my first hike in New Zealand, it was a perfect taster for our two week holiday at the end of 2019. 


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