The Tongariro Crossing

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Over the past 6 weeks we have been spoilt rotten at family and friendīs homes. It feels a little strange to realise that John and I are now travelling alone. We pick up a Japanese hire car and plenty of inspiration from Jawad, and head off for a couple of days touring around the north island of New Zealand.

The drive seems to take forever down freeways and countryside that remind me of roads in the UK. Eventually our surroundings begin to look a little abnormal as we see steam rising from the ground and huge geothermal pipeways. We have now arrived at our destination in the volcanic area of Taupo.

Itīs grey and almost dark but we can make out the large lake which dominates Taupo and a huge line of touristy looking motels and backpacker joints. A little further along highway 4 we check into the 4 star Bretts thermal resort. I am drawn to the option of relaxing in their hot mineral springs pools whilst John, keeping up with his Scottish character is keen to save and also make use of our tent and his new sleeping bag.

Actually camping in New Zealand is probably one of the best ways to see the countryside. DeBretts costs a hefty 10 GBP for us both but itīs the cheapest form of accomadation and there are excellent facilities for cooking and washing.

It takes only a few minutes to set up our tent underneath a large English-looking oak tree before heading back into town for dinner. We end up eating at a Thai restaurant along the lake front. The joint is busy with the usual tourists but the food turns out to be completely different from the servings in Thailand and the Pad Thai noodles, laiden with soy sauce are not recommended.

Taupo is a good base in the northern island for outdoor activities. We see offers for waterskiing, bungy jumping and we hear that it is the worlds cheaperst place for a tandem sky-dive. We are here to hike the world famous Tongariro Crossing. In good weather this is said to be the best one day hike in New Zealand.

We have a lazy day checking out the bus connections both to and from the beginning of the walk and then visit some of the local attractions. First we stop at the Huka falls. Here we cross over a bridge and peer down into the white thunderous mountain water. Itīs a beautiful spot although I cannot help but feel sad here. In 1994 two canoeists attempted to ride down the falls. They were the last canoeists to make this adrenalin-fuelled journey which I think that youīd have to be crazy to wish upon yourself. The first guy succesfully made it in 60 seconds but the second canoeist disappeared into the undercurrent and washed up dead forty minutes later.

About 1 mile from the falls are the Craters of Moon. It feels as though we have landed on another planet. We meander around a 40 minute circuit which passes over fumaroles of steam originating from the earths centre, yellow sulphurous rocks, strange vegetation and huge bubbling pools mud.

Further up the road we stop at one of the water dams. We stay to watch a 30 minute slot where the dam is partially opened and water is released. The water begins to swell and rises about 1 meter covering all the rocks to form a thundering waterfall. We see a jet boat which reminds us our last visit to NZ and the commercial organisation that exists here. It skims along the water dangerously close to the side walls and making 360 degree turns with all its passengers screaming in their auxillarating 15 minute ride.

We very briefly make the mistake of stopping in a Maori centre but soon discover that it is a tourist trap with nothing more than a couple of paper mache models and ice creams. In general New Zealand does seem to manage to live peacefully with the Maori. The Maori are certainly more warrior like than the Aboriginees of Australia which may explain how they have survived all the newcomers to their country. We donīt linger too long in the centre, but oddly enough we watch an interesting movie at the Maori centre on Geothermal energy.

We end the day relaxing in the thermal mineral pools at DeBretts. The outdoor pools average around 40C and itīs pretty hot and steamy. As guests of the campsite we also have the privelidge of entering the private pools. We feel like Romans as we lock ourselves into small rooms containing what look like overflowing swimming pools. The pools are very relaxing and refreshing and I envy the locals that were stopping off in the pools after a day in the office.

The Tongariro crossing is a full day hike with different private bus companies offering to deposit you at the start of the walk, and more importantly collect you at the end of the trail. We opt for the later bus as although the weather has been generally dull and cloudy, tomorrow it is predicted for the showers to clear to give way to a bright day.

We wake at 6am feeling tired and grumpy. DeBretts campsite deserves its 4 star rating but the noise of the midnight trucks on the highway do not help the campers to sleep. At some points it sounded as though a truck was about to drive over and flatten us alive.

An elderly but sprightly German driver who apparently makes the run every day comes to collect us from DeBretts at 6.40am precisely, and we join another 20 or so other passengers. I try and sleep on the bus whilst John keeps proding me every 5 minutes to excitedly point out another volcano siting or snowy white mountains.

At 8am we step off the bus still half asleep. The bus driver tells us that he will collect us at 4.15pm at the end of the track and he will need to wait for everyone. I jump off the bus first and make a quick run to the compost toilets before all the other passengers and then meet John at the beginning of the track. The track seems to be extremely well signposted but I am really demotivated to hear that in our haste John accidentally left our two walking sticks behind on the bus. We borrow someoneīs mobile phone to try and call the driver back but there is no phone reception. Itīs too late to worry and we are both going to have to endure the 17km walk without our walking sticks.

The beginning of the trek is on low level land with a huge red volcano, Mount Ngauruhoe, dominating the landscape on our right hand side. It looks just how I expected a volcano to be. Across its sloped sides are strewn huge boulders of black lava and when we look closely at the top we can even see some white smoke being vented off.

The clouds are already clearing as we start to hike up what is known as the Devils Staircase. We see people ahead of us crawling up the sides of the mountain like tiny ants. We begin our ascent.

Itīs pretty hot work climbing over the huge boulders of lava but the climb is well worth it. Some brave hikers make the optional side trip up to the top of Mount Ngauruhoe which billows out wafts of smoke, but we see that the climb looks incredibly steep up small pieces of scree with many hikers just giving up and returning back down again. We decide to take it easy and just enjoy the standard walk.

We continue walking around the ridge, down and across a huge circular crater and then up onto another ridge. Here we can peer down into a huge red crater with strange red rock formations inside.

The sun is shining in a blue sky and the views just get better. We cross over the brow of a hill and are met with steam rising from the yellow sulphurous enriched ground. Below us we can see 3 brilliant blue Emerald lakes and on the horizon we can see the North Crater which contains a perfectly circular lake. It is a pretty amazing site.

We eat lunch beside the lakes and then continue up to the North Crater lake. The weather changes quite suddenly and soon we are walking in the clouds. We begin descending and when the clouds clear we are on the other side of the pass.

We stop briefly at Ketetahi where it is possible to stay overnight in the clean and modern looking hut, but we continue walking along the path which meanders through an area of long grass. The Ketatahi hot springs emit huge plumes of steam into the air and eventually we pass over a bubbling stream which is lovely and warm to the touch.

Near what we think is the end of the walk it begins to rain heavily. We begin to wish that we hadnīt listened to the weather advice which had predicted that the afternoon would be bright and sunny. At least we are prepared for the rain unlike many other hikers who have just come in sneakers and jeans. We walk quickly as the rain begins to pour down. This continues for about 3km until eventually we reach a small shelter which is full of our fellow hikers who are all trying to shelter from the rain. We have reached the end of the Tongariro Crossing.

Half an hour later the German guy in the bus arrives. We retrieve our walking sticks from exactly the same place where we left them and return to DeBretts campsite. When we arrive back itīs raining there too. We settle down to another uncomfortable night of roadside truck noise but wake in the morning feeling refreshed after a very good nights sleep. We wonder whether there were no trucks passing through last night but after speaking to some other Brits realise that we must have been pretty tired after our one day hike.

So, is the Tongariro Crossing the best one day hike in NZ? I donīt know, but we certainly enjoyed it a lot, and the number of fellow hikers didnīt really detract from the experience. Of all the choices, it was a pretty spectacular and we were fortunate to experience it in good weather.

We drive north to Rotorua where we stop for lunch and visit the Paradise Valley Trout Springs. Lots of children enjoy the lion feeding session and stroking the two baby cubs. I am not a keen zoo lover but the wild trout are worth raving about. We see hundreds of huge 2 ft long brown and rainbow trout sitting at the bottom of tannin coloured streams. The trout swish their tails to keep in one position and are extremely territorial over their area. We throw in small pellets of fish food and watch the trout quickly gulp up the delights.

We donīt hang around in Rotorua because it looks like a real tourist trap, and a good place to waste a lot of money. So we head North taking the country roads to Athenree in the Bay of Plenty, where we hope to meet up with Johnīs Aunt Elizabeth.
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