One of Auckland’s Best Day Trips
Ironically, the youngest island in the Hauraki Gulf, Rangitoto Island, sits beside one of the oldest, Motutapu Island. The contrasts continue into the history of these islands: where Motutapu is steeped in Maori and European history, Rangitoto has a fascinating natural history. In this guide to Rangitoto Island and Motutapu Island, we’ll go through how you can make the most of your time on the islands.
With the conjoining islands being a 25-minute ferry journey from downtown Auckland, they are practically begging to be explored! The distinctive symmetrical cone of Rangitoto Island, seen from Auckland city, reminds city dwellers that a bushwalking day trip lies mere moments away. Visitors can also extend their trip by camping on Motutapu.
How to Get to Rangitoto and Motutuapu
Ferries run from Auckland Downtown ferry terminal and Devonport to Rangitoto Wharf daily. However, with limited facilities on the island, you need to catch the last ferry if you don’t want to spend the night surviving in the wild! Timetables for Rangitoto are available on the Fullers website.
When planning your day, don’t forget to pack plenty of water and food as you will have no access to it on the island (see at the end of this article for your packing list).
Motutuapu ferries only operate weekends and public holidays, and this is usually if the Department of Conservation organises it for volunteer days. An alternative is to take the ferry to Rangitoto and walk to the causeway that joins these two islands. Timetables for Motutuapu are on the Fullers website and Explore website.
Finally, kayak tours also depart from Auckland taking you to Rangitoto Island. Check out this trip with Auckland Sea Kayaks.
Learn more about the Auckland ferries in our guide to Public Transport in Auckland.
The History of Rangitoto Island
As the largest volcano in the Auckland volcanic field, Rangitoto is the most dominant natural landmark in Auckland. Dramatic in its look, the island also made a dramatic entrance between 550-600 years ago in a serious of eruptions out of the ocean that formed the island we see today. These eruptions occurred in two stages that were 10-50 years apart. It was also the biggest eruptions that the Auckland volcanic field has seen!
Native forest and black volcanic rocks dominate this island. As a pest-free zone, this has allowed more than 200 species of plants to thrive here, including the largest Pohutakawa forest in New Zealand. You can’t help but notice the chorus of birdsong as you walk quietly through the forest. Native birds like kaka, saddleback, bellbird, kiwi, fantail, tui and takahe have either returned naturally or have been reintroduced to the island.
As for people, the only people you’ll see here are visitors as there is no permanent population. However, you can still see the remains of baches (holiday homes) along the shoreline, from when the island was populated in the 20th century.
The 4WD Road-train
There are two ways to explore Rangitoto Island: via the 4WD road-train or on your own legs.
The 4WD Road-train
The ferry and road-train is a combined 4-hour trip with the ferry that is available on weekends and public holidays. It is a guided tour starting from the wharf and takes you to the base of the summit cone.
From there you’ll need to climb about 300 steps to get the summit. The view over the Hauraki Gulf and the Auckland skyline is well worth the effort! Then the road-train will take you down a different route back to the wharf.
Book your Rangitoto Tractor Train Adventure here.
Walks on Rangitoto Island
Pick up a walking track map from the ferry terminal before you arrive in Rangitoto to know where to go when hitting the shore.
The Walk to the Summit
If you have limited time on the island or feel super paranoid about missing the last ferry, then it’s worth taking the most popular route to the summit and return the same way. Just follow the signs to the summit! At a slow pace, it takes an hour to reach the top. Not only will you get to see the impressive crater, but you’ll get 360 views of the Hauraki Gulf and Auckland. On the way up (or down), don’t miss the short detour to the lava caves. Use a torch to navigate through them, however, it can be pretty fun without.
From the summit, you can take the 2-hour walk on an unsealed road until you reach the Boulder Bay track, where lies a shipwreck site…
The 2-hour coastal track takes you along the southern coast and through the forest to Yankee Wharf. Detour to the remains of a WW2 controlled mine base then can continue on the unsealed road at Yankee Wharf past some historic baches and across the causeway to Motutapu Island.
The track follows an unsealed road past New Zealand’s largest black back gull colony and historic baches to Beacon Lighthouse and McKenzie Bay which is also a good place for a swim.
The History of Motutapu
Motutapu shows a stark contrast to its rugged volcanic neighbour Rangitoto. The lush green grassy areas show the island’s use for farming, however, there is a current operation to restore the natural landscape. Either way, you’ll find a number of sand beaches and scenic walking tracks across the island.
Motutapu has a rich human history. In fact, preserved human and dog prints have been found in the layers of volcanic ash left on Motutapu, indicating that the Maori settlers witnessed Rangitoto Island’s eruptions around 600 years ago!
There are more than 300 Maori archaeological sites including pa sites (fortified areas). The island has also been used for farming which is evident from the Reid Homestead built in 1901. More buildings can be found in the three gun emplacements set-up as Auckland’s defences in WW2.
Walks on Motutapu Island
Exploring Motutapu Island often means a hike through Rangitoto Island, as the ferry departures are far less frequent here (see above for ferry details). However, once you get to the island you will be rewarded with an abundance of easy walking tracks, beaches and scenic lookouts.
The walk from the causeway to Rangitoto and Home Bay (Motutapu ferry arrival point) takes 1h30min on an easy track to a viewpoint and past areas of plant restoration. You can also take a detour to Emu Point for more fantastic views of the gulf!
Islington Bay Track
This is your access from the Rangitoto causeway to a series of short walks on the northern end of Motutapu. It also provides access to excellent beaches like Pigs Bay, Administration Bay and Sandy Bay. A side trip on the Pohutukawa Track leads to Billy Boat Point for more views over the Hauraki Gulf.
The WW2 Military Sites, Northern Junction
These junctions are a highlight of the island’s history with a 6 gun emplacement with three gun pits, underground magazines, shelters and stores. There are several different access tracks:
- Sandy Bay to Northern Junction, 35 minutes
- Billy Goat Point to Northern Junction, 1 hour
- Mullet Bay to North Junction, 20 minutes
- Home Bay to North Junction, 40 minutes
Camping on Motutapu
To make sure you make the most of the two islands, there is the option to stay at the Department of Conservation (DoC) managed campsite at Home Bay. The campground has basic facilities, such as non-powered tent sites, flushing toilets and water supply. The fee is NZ$6 and bookings are essential.
For groups, there is bunk accommodation at the Motutapu Outdoor Education Camp where you will need to enquire to make bookings.
Volunteering on Motutapu
The Motutapu Restoration Trust holds regular volunteer days every month throughout the year. It’s a great way of visiting the island while doing something worthwhile. Check volunteer dates on the trust’s website to see if it coincides with your visit to Auckland. The volunteer opportunities include:
- Tree planting
- Nursery Work
- Weed bustling
- Beach cleanups
- Fencing, property repairs, ground maintenance
- Wildlife monitoring and seed collection.
What to Take for a Day Trip to Rangitoto and Mototapu
Remember, there are no shops on the islands, so make sure to take some essentials:
- Water for the whole hike
- Suitable walking footwear
- A torch for the lava caves
- Your return ferry ticket
What not to bring: pests! Not that we thought you’d sneak pests onto the ferry, but just make sure your shoes are clean.