To the North Island - first stop Tongariro N.P

Trip Start Jun 15, 2007
Trip End Jun 27, 2008

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Saturday, May 17, 2008

It was with much sadness that we made our way to the ferry terminal to cross over to the north island.  The south really is a beautiful place and there is so much to see and do.  Best of all, only one million of the four million population live there so you get a real feeling of remoteness in a lot of places.  For such a small country, there really is a lot of diversity.

We made our way from Kaikoura for the short journey to Picton to board the boat for the three hour crossing to Wellington.  As probably expected the ferry journey was pretty spectacular.  You depart Picton through the Queen Charlotte Sound and get a beautiful exit from the south island.  The ferry then enters open water and you get to see the Tasman and Pacific Oceans meeting which results in a bit of rough water even when the rest is flat and calm.  Before very long we got sight of the north island and were arriving safe and sound in Wellington.

For the first time in ages we had not made reservations at the hostel and we soon began to regret this when we were turned away from places.  We found a room at the Rosemere hostel but they only had a single room available so it was to be a couple of nights on the floor for Pat.  This wasn't a problem.  However, the inconsiderate group of French in the next room were a problem.  Now I am the first one to appreciate the community of hostels and realise that you can expect a certain level of irritation but talking at the top of your voice, slamming doors and generally being a pain in the bum can get a bit wearing especially when you have kindly asked said irritants to be quiet on half a dozen occasions.  It was only at 4am, and after Pat had physically threatened them (yes, Pat actually lost his temper with someone - thank god they didn't confront him cos he would have probably wet his pants and started crying) that they got the message and we managed to get some sleep.  Unfortunately a repeat performance ensued the next night and we just took on a feeling of submission and decided to leave Wellington earlier than planned. 

However, what we did see of the nations capital was very nice.  The national museum, Te Papa, was very interesting with lots of hands on stuff.  We then took the cable car to get some pretty good views of Wellington harbour.  The whole city had a nice vibe to it and there seemed to be plenty going off - a lot different to the cities in the south.

So, earlier than originally planned we headed off to National Park village, access to the Tongariro National Park. Here we would be getting our first ever encounter with not one, not two but three active volcanoes....COOL!!!  Also, these volcanoes, in particular Mount Ngarahoe, played a starring role in the Lord of the Rings films.  For those of you that have seen them, Ngarahoe is Mount Doom at Mordor.  Unfortunately we didn't see any Orcs or Hobbits but still it was pretty cool to let your imagination run amok.

First things first, catch up on some sleep. Thanks to our French neighbours in Wellybob we had managed approx 6 hours sleep over two nights so we were feeling pretty beat.  After a very good nights sleep it was time for some activity - which for Pat meant some mountain biking!!! For Nic, some creative time drawing. 

The chance to do some biking in NZ was a dream for Pat and he relished the prospect of seeing what was on offer.  Fisher Track is a nice 25km stretch of largely downhill biking through some stunning countryside and with some great trails.  After a very slight bit of a climb it was into a 17km stretch of downhill which takes about an hour to complete.  It was all going very well until the final gate of some private land and there he encountered a sheep.  Rather than waiting for the sheep to move, he decided to move around the sheep resulting in a close encounter with a ditch, a fence post and the ground. Thankfully no damage was done to either him or the sheep - other than a bruised ego (Pat not the sheep).

Back to base and preparations were made to complete the Tongariro Crossing the following day.  This one day hike, ranked as one of the best hikes in New Zealand, would take us 18km up Mount Tongariro (another of the active volcanoes), past Mount Ngarahoe, over past the volcanic craters and then down through lush forest on the other side.  The hostel organised a drop off service and pick up from the other end, so at 7am we set off with much excitement on the walk which is estimated to take 7 - 8 hours to complete.

It was a beautiful crisp morning with a killer chill in the air when we reluctantly left the nice warm bus.  The start of the walk was a nice easy tramp to the base of the mountain and then up we went - we should have guessed what the incline would be like as it is appropriately named the Devils Staircase.  After a lung crunching climb we arrived at a huge crater at the foot of Mount Doom (it's easier to spell than Ngarahoe) and Mount Tongariro.  This huge basin was presumably formed by some past volcanic action.  It was while walking over this huge crater that we looked up and noticed what looked like smoke coming out of Mount Doom. We only found out afterwards that Mount Doom and Ruapehu (the biggest of the three volcanoes) are all very very active at the moment and are in fact several years overdue for a good old blast.  Best of all, Mount Doom's crater is blocked so when it does go it is going to go large!!! They do have sensors in place to monitor any activity but still, it felt a bit unnerving.

There is an option to ascend Mount Doom but after having a good look up the sheer face and assessing the seismic activity, we decided against it.  Short climb later we were on top of Mount Tongariro and surrounded by the most beautiful sight (and most pungent smell) imaginable.  The cloud had cleared with perfect timing and we got the most spectacular views of the surrounding area.  On the horizon we spotted a mountain that looked like it had been super imposed on the landscape (we found out later that this was Mount Taranaki and is in fact over 100 miles away - it was unbelievably clear.  Just goes to show how clear the air is in this part of the world).

The pungent smell was being emitted by the sulphur springs at the top.  Now for those of you that spend your time on volcanoes, this may not be anything new, but for us, volcano virgins, this whole experience at the top of the mountain was just mind bogglingly amazing.  Firstly, it was FREEZING at the top, and I mean FREEZING.  The chilling wind blowing across the top of the peak was piercing - yet here we were sitting on warm rocks, and touching soil so hot that it burnt your hands within seconds.  Hot steam was rising off the top of the mountain, warming your cold cold face.  It was just bizarre.  And the colours of the rocks - yellow sulphur soaked rocks, black burnt lumps, deep red iron rich faces - just wonderful.  We spent a good few minutes up here just gawping at the marvel of volcanoes before we started to climb back down into the crater.  Over the summit we saw the brilliant blue crater lakes - stunning!! Due to the increased volcanic activity there is an advisory to go nowhere near them but judging by the smoke coming off them it is fair to assume they were hot - although parts were iced over.  We were blown away by the marvel of volcanoes and came away with a thirst to learn more about them.

But unfortunately chilling winds and aching legs meant that we had to make the slow climb down.  Fortunately the descent was a lot less severe than the ascent and took us through some beautiful forest before emerging out at the other end to the car park and our awaiting pick up. 

Truly a world class walk and well worth the cold and the aching legs.  It's not every day you get to spend a day amongst active volcanoes (or maybe it is for some people) and it was a fantastic opportunity.  Yet another unique experience offered by New Zealand's diverse landscape.
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