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Sometimes it isn’t all about elevation when it comes to climbing peaks. In the case of Auckland, all you need is a volcano with a story.

Words Anis Ibrahim Photography 123rf 

Lava rocks at Rangitoto Island

The dark stony surface is still damp from the rain of two hours ago. Here and there, little shrubs peek out from between the rocks, from somewhere deep down below. I climb one of the small hills by the track and crouch on the ground for a closer look. How odd, I tell myself. There are gaps between the rocks. Spaces in between. This isn’t solid ground.

“You might want to get off from there,” the guide calls out, taking me by surprise. “You’re standing on pieces of rock, piled on top of each other. One of them might just slide. Be careful now.”

Got it. I retreat hastily from the mound of what are clearly rocks, not earth, and join the rest of the group.

A small bush plant growing in the middle of the black lava field

I’m in New Zealand on Rangitoto Island, Auckland, a city built on and around volcanoes. Maori for ‘Bloody Sky’, Rangitoto last erupted 600 years ago, making it the youngest of Auckland’s 50 – yes, 50 – volcanoes, most of which blew up between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago.

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The city of Auckland sits on what is called the Auckland Volcanic Field, quite literally a field of volcanoes, which owes its existence to a pool of magma 100 kilometres beneath the city. The volcanoes are considered dormant, but the volcanic field is still active. With 50 volcanic peaks within 20 kilometres of the city centre, Auckland holds the world record for the city with the largest number of volcanoes. Auckland’s volcanic peaks are small in comparison to most of the world’s other volcanoes. Rangitoto, for instance, is only 260 metres above sea level.

The presence of volcanoes in New Zealand is attributed to its location. The country lies within what geologists refer to as the Ring of Fire, an arc of volcanic and seismic activity that winds its way around the Pacific Ocean. Volcanoes are ancient creatures – the oldest eruptions on Auckland’s volcanic field occurred 150,000 years ago.

The appeal of going up Auckland’s peaks isn’t their elevation or level of difficulty, but their history. I came to Auckland to climb three of its most important volcanoes.

Crowds at a wharf at Rangitoto Island, Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand.

Rangitoto

Rangitoto (‘ra-ngi-toto’) lies off the waters of New Zealand’s North Island, its cone the result of a series of undersea eruptions that began 6,000 years ago. Its surface is hardened lava – craggy, uneven and jagged – and as black as coal. At the right angle, sunlight reveals fissures and cracks in the lava. Rangitoto is formed entirely of volcanic rock, and as there is no soil on the island, the presence of vegetation is quite a miracle.

There are six tracks on Rangitoto, but the main ones are the Summit Track (3.1 kilometres) and the Coastal Track (4.5 kilometres). The hike to the top takes you to the crater rim and the summit for glorious views of Auckland city and the Hauraki Gulf. Both tracks are graded moderate and only require reasonable fitness, but mobility is important. Although the tracks have been levelled so people can walk on the lava fields, some sections are still uneven, making them unsuitable for prams, wheelchairs and those who use crutches. Off-track, the terrain is rocky, and caution is essential. For a more challenging hike, combine either of the two with the Boulder Bay Track (an additional 2.5 kilometres).

Rangitoto is a pest-free island under the care of the Department of Conservation. To prevent the spread of pests, there are no food outlets or rubbish bins here. Visitors should bring their own water, lunch and snacks (food must be packed in sealed containers). Rubbish, including any unfinished food, must be taken with you when leaving the island. Wear warm layers – regardless of the season – and bring a rain jacket, sunblock, a sun hat and good walking shoes. 

Rangitoto is a 25-minute cruise from Auckland’s downtown ferry terminal. Visitors should allocate at least four to five hours for their visit and be aware of the ferry times – you don’t want to miss the last boat. For timetables and fares, see fullers.co.nz/destinations/rangitoto-island

View of Auckland city from Maungawhau or Mount Eden

Maungawhau (Mount Eden)

Maungawhau (moe-nga-foe) is another prominent landmark. Up until 1700, the dormant volcano was an important Maori pa, or fortified settlement, housing several hundred people. The early settlers rightly identified Maungawhau as an ideal lookout point against intruders from land and sea – the summit gives you views for kilometres around, particularly of Auckland’s two harbours and the greater Auckland area. There is evidence of Maori occupation like terraces, housing sites and storage pits along the upper slopes of the cone.

The main crater of Maungawhau, which erupted 28,000 years ago

Long before it was a Maori village, Maungawhau erupted around 28,000 years ago, spewing enough lava to fill 32,000 Olympic swimming pools. Lava erupted from three exit points, resulting in the formation of the three craters you see today. The path to the summit is a tarred road, making Maungawhau more family-friendly than Rangitoto. In order to reduce congestion and to respect the site’s spiritual and cultural significance, the summit is not open to vehicles.

If you’re in need of post-walk sustenance, a short stroll from the base will lead you to Mount Eden Village, where there are cafés. You can walk up Maungawhau yourself, but for a more enriching experience, go on a guided walk by a member of the Ngati Whatua tribe, the guardians of the volcano. To read about this, visit tamakihikoi.co.nz

The obelisk on the summit of One Tree Hill honours the Maori people

Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill)

Maungakiekie (moe-nga-kee-er-kee-er) is one of New Zealand’s largest and most culturally significant volcanoes. The volcano erupted 28,500 years ago, producing a lava flow covering an area of 20 square kilometres. Like Maungawhau, Maungakiekie (182 metres) was a Maori fortified village but much larger, with a population of 5,000 people living on its slopes and around its three craters.

Sheep grazing on One Tree Hill

A good way to approach Maungakiekie is via Cornwall Park, the public park that adjoins One Tree Hill Domain, where Maungakiekie is located. Cornwall Park is one of Auckland’s prettiest spots, with playgrounds, beautiful gardens and green parkland. The summit of Maungakiekie is unmissable. It is marked by an obelisk, erected in honour of the Maori people. On the summit is the grave of Auckland’s founding father, Sir John Logan Campbell, and a statue of a Maori warrior, marking the site’s significance to the community. Follow the paths to the summit, explore the craters and imagine what it was like there thousands of years ago.

The bronze statue of a Maori warrior

Irish rock band U2 makes a reference to Maungakiekie in their song One Tree Hill on The Joshua Tree album. The song is in memory of Greg Carroll, a young Maori who brought the band up the volcano on a visit to Auckland and later died in a road accident while working for the band.

There are three eateries at Cornwall Park – The Bistro, The Café and the Creamery. For details, go to cornwallpark.co.nz

The idea of visiting a city with a geological profile like Auckland may sound daunting, and yet 1.7 million people make the Greater Auckland region their home. Scientists are constantly studying the volcanic field and keeping themselves updated, so it would be a shame not to visit Auckland. It is exactly its geography that makes New Zealand such a unique country.