by Blair McIntosh*

Towering above the roily waters of the Hauraki Gulf, RANGITOTO stands as an enduring symbol of ‘Home’ for many Aucklanders. No matter which direction the maunga is gazed from, its silhouette is always unmistakable: wide slopes descend down to the sea in near-perfect symmetry, whilst its jagged peaks betray the faint beginnings of a place born from incredible heat and fire. In contrast to the sprawling, swarming and unruly concrete jungle of Auckland City, Rangitoto appears cloaked in an unceasing veil of greenery and silence. Serene yet forlorn, intimately familiar yet somehow strange, Auckland’s enigmatic maunga beckons the idle day-dreamer to venture out towards its shores and discover a place that seems to straddle the unknown.

View of Rangitoto from Mackenzie Bay, with Rangitoto lighthouse in the foreground.

Although the sight of Rangitoto Island is ubiquitous along the length of Auckland’s eastern coastline, its history is one that is little-known. Indeed, there is good reason for this: out of the four largest islands found in the Hauraki Gulf—Waiheke, Motutapu, Rangitoto and Ponui Island—Rangitoto is the only one which does not have a full-time resident population. Despite being only a twenty-five minute ferry ride away from Auckland City’s bustling port, Rangitoto has remained defiant in the face of nearly two centuries-worth of efforts to exploit, domesticate, reshape and inhabit its shores. Why is this? What forms have these attempts taken? Why have so many people kept trying? How exactly have Aucklanders across time variously engaged, imagined, interacted with and transformed this taonga considered uniquely our own?

Whilst there are no simple answers to these questions, I hope this essay series will challenge you to both reconsider and reimagine Rangitoto’s place in our harbour. Closer inspection of the Island’s history reveals that Rangitoto has always been much more than an inconsequential part of the waterfront scenery. Rather, especially in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, Rangitoto represented the dynamic frontier of a burgeoning and restless Auckland. It was a place which, to quote the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner:

did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence and scorn of older society…. For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant.”[1]

Frederick Jackson Turner (pictured left) was a noted American historian who gained international prominence over the publication of his work The Significance of the Frontier in American History in 1897. Although his work has since been discredited and revised by later historians, his vision of the frontier as being a place of endless possibilism and transformational change has and continues to allow many to imagine themselves as responding to its call (such as this painting The Westward course of the Empire takes its way by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze).

By calling Rangitoto Auckland’s ‘frontier’, I do not wish to suggest that the Island was somehow once inhabited by gun-slinging cowboys or tumbleweed saloons. Nor do I wish to pretend that the mythicised “frontier thesis” put forward by historians like Frederick Jackson are not without serious flaws, especially in relation to accounting for the voices of tangata whenua and indigenous communities more broadly. However, by expanding our idea of what a ‘frontier’ can be, it allows us to reconsider how we interact with the spaces we yearn for most.  

Crucially, Rangitoto has always occupied a liminal space between “over here” and “out there”; between the urbanity of Auckland and a space capable of representing a wilder, even primordial, place from earlier in time. To draw inspiration from Turner’s frontier framework, as each successive wave of Aucklanders sought to make Rangitoto their own— be they self-professed ’explorers’, daring ‘frontiersmen’ or finally the island’s bach-based ‘settlers’—the struggle to tame the maunga’s unruly shores allowed them to recast themselves as testing the limits of their character and project onto the island the expectations and aspirations they had for transformative change. Economically, socially or personally, Rangitoto has always embodied the most potent promise of the frontier for day-dreaming Aucklanders: that out there, on the border between the known and unknown, it is possible to forge new, better versions of yourself and the place we all call ‘Home’.


[1] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Frontier in American History”, Report of the American Historical Association (1893): 224-227.