The Myth of Rangitoto

It seemed at times that Rangitoto sat in the distance everywhere I went (particularly in Devonport), towering darkly over the water, recalling ages long forgotten. It always looked a little like a timeless pocket, trapping the original wild, green forest that used to cover New Zealand.

And here I was, on Rangitoto, sitting at the top on a manmade terrace poised over the volcanic crater, relishing the tranquility of height and nature and distance. That is, I was before three blond Americans came in blasting their pop music and sporting their $100+ sneakers. I looked over at my roommate, Kirsten, and groaned. It was then that we decided, yes, it was time to go back down.

We had arrived early, catching the 7:30am ferry to take advantage of early-bird ticket prices. But we weren’t the only ones. Not quite a hoard, but still a sizable crowd of hikers, campers, and backpackers streamed off the ferry with us. Most dispersed, but a few, including a noisy and carefree group of American backpackers, continued straight to the summit path with us.

What followed was a patchwork of moments: passing fields of black, volcanic stones, boarded with violently green trees, ferns, and moss; the peak of the mountain calling to us in the distance; snatched glimpses of Auckland’s SkyTower popping up from behind the trees; and the Americans giggling and loudly commenting with their neon workout gear, iPhones, and GoPros.

The moment the path towards the lava caves branched away from the main track, Kirsten and I turned off without a second thought as the Americans continued on to the summit. It’s not that we had to be alone. We were fine with others on the path, walking with us and uttering the occasional wows just as we did. It just would’ve been nice to stroll through the lava fields and forests without catching snippets of chatty American voices or having to worry about our groups constantly passing each other as we each stopped at different intervals for pictures.

Once away from the others, the sound or rather the silence of Rangitoto revealed itself. Because the forest is relatively young, the island boasts a rather small bird population, causing the forest to stand in a contemplative quiet. Sunlight trickled in between the leaves and crisscrossing tropical branches as moss gleamed in the morning sun. Our shoes crunched the dark, volcanic rock as we continued on, alone and in silence, save an Indian couple pausing to take pictures. Before long, sign posts pointed us in the direction of the caves.

The sharp tunnels ran beneath the surface for only brief spans, and using Kirsten’s phone flashlight to illuminate the way, we slowly picked through the rock-strewn passages. It looked so otherworldly, that I kept waiting for a gobblin or orc to pop out from a hidden crevasse. Of course no monsters were living in the dark.

We eventually made it back to the surface and back to the summit track where the chatty Americans were but an echo in the distance. After an intense series of stairs and slopes, we made it to the terrace on top. The island’s forest, the Hauraki Gulf, and Auckland’s islands lay below us, layers of color and shapes that were so lovely it didn’t seem quite real. We took pictures, ate our lunch, and relaxed in the now clouded sunlight. A handful of other tourists came and went, but like us they mostly kept to themselves.

As we chilled, I read the notes and scratches left behind on the wood of the terrace. Mostly, “I was here” stuff, save what someone wrote in marker fairly recently:

“Climbed Rangitoto #nextlevelshit”

We hung out there until the blonde, music-toting Americans came. As we worked our way down, more and more people were coming up. The underprepared, the overprepared. Hikers, families, backpackers, tourists.

Back down by the shore, things were fairly deserted. While walking around looking at the white, winter flowers and tiny, lingering Baches (iconic New Zealand beach houses), we only saw the Asian men who also climbed the summit around the same time as us.

Near the wharf a crowd, however, was gathering for the ferry. I had no doubt that things in the summer were worse, but as I looked at the Baches in the distance and the tourists trailing out from the summit track, I think it’s fair to say I got a taste of what Rangitoto really is like.

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