|Today was a day for action, not sleeping.
It was a beautiful day and quite warm so we caught the 9am ferry to Rangitoto Island, in the middle of the Hauraki Gulf. As the ferry pulled away, we could appreciate the gleaming cityscape of Auckloronto (as they had become one in my mind).
Rangitoto island is something of a New Zealand gem. It only sprang out of the ocean some 600 years ago in a violent volcanic eruption leaving a perfectly round island of black lava with a classic cone in the centre. As its birth was observed by nearby Maoris, it has a special spiritual significance for them. However, it is also ecologically important as it has the largest pohutukawa forest in the country - the pohutukawa tree has distinctive red flowers in spring and is sometimes referred to as the NZ Christmas tree. This tree was one of the first species to colonise the island and it thrived despite growing on the harsh rocky landscape. The trees in turn provided shelter and nourishment for other species to colonise, creating the island as it is today.
Once off the ferry we decided to make our way around the western edge of the island and then go up to the summit from the Mackenzie light house. On the way, we made a very quick stop off at the Kidney Fern Grove, an area of the forest that has been colonised by a very pretty little fern that unfurls after rain. I think it must have rained before we arrived, because the place had a magical green aura created by the sunlight on these ferns. We also had a quick walk through the Kowhai Grove, an area of Kowhai trees that apparently have bright yellow flowers in spring, but we were just a few weeks early to see that spectacle.
Walking along the coastal track, we both began to feel that we had properly arrived now. It was a beautiful sunny day now and it felt good to be outside and soaking up the scenery. Auckland and its suburbs were clearly visible from the island, but it still felt quite removed. Only 30 minutes by boat from Auckland but a world away...
It must have been this feeling of remoteness that drew the small group of people who built the small houses (known as "baches") along the coast of the island. Built in the early 20th century, the baches are rather makeshift in character, created by the equivalent hippies of the era seeking an alternative lifestyle. Inevitably, the government declared that the baches could not be sold or handed down, and slowly they were destroyed and the community diminished. However, quite a number remain and to Kate and my eyes, looked like they were still lived in. As we walked on, we began to talk about basing a novel around life on this weird island, throwing in the dormant volcano, the strange island community, the unusual wildlife and a murder for good measure. Looks like I need to do some thinking...
Once we passed the lighthouse, we turned inland and headed for the summit, which looked quite impressive from this distance. The stretches of black lava looked just like freshly dug earth carelessly dumped in great piles, and it took a while to convince your eye that it was actually hard rock. It certainly had shades of Mordor about it, but the trees were a little too lush for Sauron country.
The walk to the top didn't take as long as expected but we were soon rewarded with fine views over the whole island (and it's adjoining neighbour Motutapu) and the gulf. The crater itself was quite impressive, some 60 m deep but now completely covered in vegetation. We checked out all the abandoned military buildings left from WW2 when the island was used as a defensive lookout for Auckland. On the way down, we sought out the lava caves and soon found ourselves stumbling through long, dark tunnels, where I was able to attempt my feeble Gollum impression for the camera. It had begun to rain slightly and the temperature was falling so we made our way back towards the ferry.
We got down to the wharf well within time and soon we were on our way back to Auckland on the last ferry. It had been a very fine day indeed and we both thoroughly enjoyed our introduction to some of the wilder aspects that New Zealand has to offer. We rewarded ourselves with a beer and food back at the Occidental and then headed back to the hotel.