Erupting from the sea more than 600 years ago, Rangitoto Island is one of the youngest land masses in the Hauraki Gulf/Tīkapa Moana.

It took approximately 200 years for the island to form to its current distinctive conical shape. There were Māori living on nearby Motutapu, one of the oldest land masses in the Hauraki Gulf, who observed the fiery volcanic explosions over the years. It must have been quite a sight to see. 

Māori history

Māori have a strong association with the island. They have never lived there because of the arid, rocky terrain, but used the island’s summit as a lookout over the Hauraki Gulf in times of war, as well as a parrot reserve/haui-kaka. There are ancient burial caves located on the island which serve as a resting place for bones brought across from Motutapu.

Māori know the island as ‘Nga Rangi-i-totongia a Tamatekapua’ which translates to ‘the day the blood of Tamatekapua was shed’. Tamatekapua was the chief of the Arawa canoe which arrived in around 1350. He fought a major battle with resident iwi (tribe) Tainui at Islington Bay on Rangitoto allegedly caused over adultery, the fight that followed left Tamatekapua’s face bloodied and bruised.

Māori myths

There are several Māori myths associated with Rangitoto. One such story tells us about the children of the fire deities, who lived in the Auckland area. It goes like this:

One night a 'tupua’ couple, started to argue. This couple were children of the Fire Gods. In their argument they cursed the fire deity Mahuika. Mahuika heard them and went to Mataoho, the deity of earthquakes and eruptions. He sent an eruption to destroy the couple’s mainland home on behalf of Mahuika.

As a result, their home was swallowed up by the earth to become Lake Pupuke on Auckland’s North Shore; this led to Rangitoto rising out of the sea. When mist surrounds Rangitoto, it is said that it represents the tears of the couple as they weep over their lost home.

European history

Although at first reluctant to buy an island that was 'all rock', in 1854 the Crown bought Rangitoto from its Māori owners for £15. In 1890 the island became a public domain and a popular destination for picnickers and boat day trippers.

During the 1920s and 1930s, prisoners built 19km of handpacked roads and trails, some of which are now used as walkways on the island. They also constructed stone walls (from discharged volcanic lava) around the landings at Rangitoto and Islington Bay wharves as well as the island’s swimming pool (no longer in use).  

Bach (pronounced “batch”) sites (summer holiday houses) were leased to private citizens to help pay for island developments. Around 30 of these classic holiday homes remain today, largely unchanged since the 1930s. Bach 38, adjacent to the Rangitoto Wharf, has been restored and turned into a museum, run by volunteers from the Rangitoto Island Historic Conservation Trust. The museum is open on some weekends and by appointment. Bach 38 Museum at Rangitoto Wharf will be opened by appointment at Opening hours are from the first Fullers ferry on the day to the last ferry of the day.

During WWII Rangitoto was a prohibited area and the summit was used as a base for harbour defence fire control and as a radar station. There was also a large complex of buildings at Islington Bay from which the harbour’s minefields were operated.

Rangitoto wrecks

Wreck Bay on Rangitoto hosts a ship graveyard. These ships were scuttled (not wrecked) between 1887 and 1947 as this was considered the most cost effective means to get rid of unwanted vessels.

Some of the wreckage is still visible on the foreshore and in the intertidal zone at Wreck Bay, Boulder Bay and along the adjacent coastline. You are welcome to explore the wrecks, but remember they are protected, so please do not remove or disturb any items.

Rangitoto Island Historic Conservation Trust

Aims to conserve and interpret the historic bach communities on Rangitoto for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

Rangitoto Island Historic Conservation Trust website

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