Tongariro National Park and Lake Taupo

Trip Start Dec 02, 2008
Trip End Feb 27, 2009

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Where I stayed
Dunrovin Lodge

Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Saturday, December 20, 2008

After Rotorua we headed south to Lake Taupo and to conquer the Tongariro Crossing, the so-called "best day hike in NZ".  We decided to trek the crossing first then head back up to Lake Taupo, which is a nice resort town on the lake, for Christmas.  The plan was for me to do the 3 day Tongariro Circuit with Amanda only doing the first day.  Due to weather we waited 2 days in a tiny trout fishing town called Turangi (2-wrong-ee).  The DOC is the Dept of Conservation and it maintains all the federal parks and other various reserves throughout NZ.  They say the day hike takes only 5-7 hours which seems reasonable.  The bus picks us up at 7 a.m. to take us to the trailhead and its a friggin' ZOO.  I have NEVER been on a hike with this many people.  It practically redefines what hiking means but we are wowed by the expectation of volcanic peaks and steaming craters with emerald blue waters.  We set out and Amanda has 7 hours to get to the other car park which shouldn't be a problem.  The first hour is fine and then it gets steep and we hit some amazing areas that look like flat old craters with steam rising off them but later we think they were just odd clouds passing through (NZ has some of the craziest cloud formations i have ever seen).   The emerald lakes are beautiful especially when you are surrounded by hundreds of your new best friends.  We stop for lunch and realize Amanda isn't even half way thru the hike and less than 3 hours to get to the carpark.  We start freaking a little.  Luckly for me i'm only going as far as the hut which cuts out 2 hours of hiking.  Amanda makes it but she wasn't happy since we couldn't really enjoy the surroundings.  Kiwi time begins to take on a whole new meaning.  It's like island time and there is usually very little consensus on how long it takes to go from Point A to B.  It's hard to explain.  I'll let Amanda discuss this more.

So I stayed at the hut in a pretty nice bunk bed with amazing views of Lake Taupo and the colored sunset.  The next day the weather was amazing with not a cloud in the sky.  Luckily i had to retrace my steps back thru the emerald lakes in the morning and there was no one there since the hordes of day hikers hadn't yet swarmed the lakes.  It was a calm moment like hiking should be:)  Next I was off across a desert like landscape with amazing views of Mt Ngauruhoe which is an active volcano with very little snow this time of the year.  Its also where Sauron the Dark Lord made his home.  The cone is almost perfect along with the 2 little horns below where the eye stood in LOTR.  Let's just make it clear that i'm not on this hike to do a LOTR's tour:)  Mt Ruapehu is the biggest and was standing right there in front of me the whole day.  Amazing weather day...beautiful and no one around....i hate people, I really do!!!...i'm kiddin'.  Believe it or not there were 2 other Americans doing the same hike but we still couldn't outnumber the Germans or Aussies.  We actually never stood a chance.  The next hut was right on the river with amazing views of Ruapehu and the hut warden was this super cool older women who could probably out-hike me in a flash.  She was cool informing us about how they have a possum problem --which they call a "pest" --and how they go about trapping them and what not.  The next day I learned alot about NZ weather.  They said it would rain but how bad could it be after a beaufitul clear day. i was in slight denial.  It drizzled overnight then really started at 8am and didn't let up til 5pm or so.  But it wasn't just rain, there was also high winds which makes it almost twice as bad.  2 nights before a Kiwi was saying "Oh it's not the rain that is bad here, it's the wind", well now I know.  The visibility was for the dogs although that is putting it nicely.  Really the funniest part of the day were the 2 French women hiking ahead of me who weren't quite prepared for the extreme weather.  They were taking there 5th or 6th smoke break and as I passed them they turned around and i saw they had smeared mud all over their faces.  It was HILARIOUS!  I couldn't stop laughing and they laughed with me because at the point if you don't laugh then the rain and wind wins.  You have to go to a semi-crazy place to make it through the day.  It was something out of Lord of the Flies.  They were troopers (and a smoke was sounding pretty good)!  Don't worry Mom, i didn't do it.

Lake Taupo is an ok resort town and if its clear then you can make out the volcanic mtn range across the lake, but then again it's never clear.  Anyways we had a nice Xmas meal. 

We knew we wanted to check out Tongariro National Park and John was keen to do the three day hike before Christmas. It's a popular site and home to some active volcanoes -- one having erupted as recently as 1995! It's also where the Mordor scenes in Lord of the Rings were shot. Turangi is very much a trout fishing town and the jumping off point for the national park. We weren't planning on staying there as long as we did but when we arrived and saw the weather report (rain and high winds up at the park) we realized we needed to extend our stay so that we could do the Alpine Crossing in good weather, predicted for later in the week. After doing a bit of research we decided we could squeeze in a couple extra days before we were due in Lake Taupo for Christmas. We would later realize this is a common theme in NZ: waiting for the weather to cooperate. this is why people shouldn't come here for just a week or two -- you are certain to be disappointed since you really are at the mercy of the weather gods and goddesses. Anyway, we hung around turangi for a couple days doing a river walk one day and not much else. the hostel we were staying in was awesome so that helped. on the third day we were shuttled out to the park as john already described; i would do the day hike and john would continue on and finish the circuit. our laid-back bus driver explained he would be waiting on the other side at four p.m. to pick up the day hikers -- in "plenty of time" for us to have a leisurely time. well, after we battled to the top of the pass and scarfed down our lunch i realized i was going to be cutting it close. so i basically starting jogging down the mountain with john bringing up the rear. i hadn't brought the right stuff in order to spend the night with john in the hut so i was VERY motivated to make the return shuttle. i practically ran the rest of the way. it wasn't like we were the last ones making our way down so i was kind of confused about the return shuttle schedule. i got there with a half hour to spare but it turned out three others didn't make it and an older woman who we had passed a couple times during the day barely made it. it was my first experience with the casual NZ approach to things. also, when they say "day hike," New Zealander's probably mean "difficult mountain trek where you will have to dig deep and push with all your inner resources." i'm happy i did it (and hopefully the photos do the scenery some justice) but i was a little irritated that there wasn't a later shuttle so that i could enjoy the second half of the hike -- especially as it was a nice day and we had, of course, waited three days to do it.

so the next day I took a bus up to Lake Taupo. the bus was two hours late picking up passengers in turangi  -- for a one hour bus ride -- with no explanation for the delay. hmmm.... Anyway, I made it to Taupo fighting a slight cold and did all the x-mas grocery shopping. on x-mas eve at the appointed time i went to the bus station to meet john coming up from turangi. the bus arrives -- no john. uh oh. lo and behold, he calls my cell phone explaining that there was a mix up with the tongariro shuttle bus and he missed the connecting bus in Turangi. luckily, the hostel owner took pity on him and drove him to taupo, going two hours out of his way so that we could still spend x-mas together. that's the kiwi way -- if something doesn't work out, don't worry about it too much as someone will figure out a solution! the whole thing with the shuttle vans and delays started to clue us in that things are more laid back here, like hawaii or mexico, than we were expecting. things may or may not happen at the scheduled time. After all, NZ is made up of a couple of Pacific Islands! it's like a funny cross between hawaii and england in both the scenery and culture.

Taupo was not that exciting -- we just chilled for a few days. We hiked around Huka Falls one day -- supposedly one of the best waterfalls in the country. we took the Taupo shuttle van to get there, basically a small bus for the tourists since the town doesn't have public transit. it was scheduled to leave on the hour but of course was 15 minutes late with no explanation. you gotta go with the flow, brah! i was expecting a huge (tall) waterfall but it's actually only around ten meters tall. it's more about the impressive volume of water coming through the walls of the skinny gorge and the color of the water rather than the height of the falls. but we had a nice day hike from the falls back into town stopping to enjoy some ice cream at the bungee jumping spot above the river and laugh at the people doing it! We also signed up for a somewhat crazy "day trip" to see the Waitomo Caves and glow-worms. We had heard about it before coming to NZ and didn't get a chance to stop off on our way to Rotorua so we signed up for a tourist shuttle bus trip out to the caves and back. they are about two hours west of Taupo on these winding roads. so that means four hours of driving for three hours of cave time. in the van, it was us and a bunch of Japanese tourists. About a half hour into the drive, our teeny tiny shuttle driver Kate stops in the middle of nowhere, literally, and picks up a bunch of tourists transferring from another bus. It was pretty funny seeing all these tourists scampering across the highway to get from one to the other. The caves were cool -- we had signed up for the three cave package so we could see different things (one was a 'dry' cave with the stalagtite formations, one had glowworms that you get to via boat, and one had a bunch of everything and is supposedly haunted). even though I had asked if there was a cafe on site and if we'd have time for lunch in between the different tours, it turned out that it was not really the case. luckily we had brought some snacks with us. after the last tour, we had about 45 minutes to spare so we walked the five minutes into town and grabbed a quick lunch. as we were walking back down the highway to meet kate the shuttle driver, here she comes barreling down the road towards us. she sees us and pulls over with a laugh -- guess we almost missed the pick up even though we were right on time! so i guess the theme of the week is that you never really know what the hell to expect regarding a printed schedule!

Best meal: I gotta say my homemade x-mas dinner cooked in a motel room! proscuitto wrapped chicken breast stuffed with cranberries along with a side of green beans drizzled in almond butter. then puff pastry shells (store bought, I have to confess) with strawberries and vanilla custard for dessert.

Best experience: once we recovered from the tongariro hike, we could appreciate it more. the volcanic scenery and colors were amazing and other-wordly.

No time to come up with a kiwi saying right now for our contest so check back later for that and for some additional pics!
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