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Eroded volcanic ash layers, Rangipo Desert, central North Island

The Rangipo Desert in the central North Island is a desert by name only and is not a true ‘desert’ as such – although to look at it, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Instead of a lack of moisture, it is a combination of a harsh subalpine climate, volcanic activity and high erosion rates that keep the Rangipo Desert mostly devoid of vegetation, maintaining the starkly barren landscape of greys, yellows and browns that characterise this area.

In some places a few hardy tussocks and shrubs do manage to eke out an existence, but this is a marginal environment for vegetation at the best of times and few plants thrive here. It is not uncommon for shrubs to have their root systems left exposed by severe wind erosion, or for tussocks to suffer a similar process by which they are left standing on ‘pedestals’ of soil, the incessant wind having completely stripped away the surrounding surface. Rainfall and frost also play a part in shaping this environment: the heaving action of frost keeps the volcanic substrate loose and easily eroded by frequent and sometimes heavy rain, dishing out further blows to any plants bold enough to try and take root here in the first place.

The action of water has eroded a great number of shallow channels throughout the Rangipo Desert, sculpting spectacularly-coloured layers of volcanic ash into a multitude of forms. The channel in this photograph is a typical example, one of many to be found near the Desert Road (State Highway 1) that passes along the eastern side of the Rangipo Desert.


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Rangipo Desert, central North Island