Monday 9th November
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
5am was a crazy time to wake up on holiday, but then, so was tramping 19 km over the Tongariro Alpine Crossing!
This was a 19.4 km day walk recommended by Mike and endorsed by every guidebook and i-site advisor we had met.
This was the description on our map:- 'The traverse of the stark and spectacular volcanic terrain of Mt Tongariro is one of the most fascinating treks in the country. Among its highlights are steaming vents and hot springs, old lava flows, beautiful water filled explosion craters and stunning views.'
Being a one day walk we needed a shuttle to the start at Mangatepopo Valley, so we left Madge at the Ketetahi Car Park and hopped on the 'Backyard tours' minibus to the start at 6.15. In the way we had the luck to see sunrise from behind the volcano Mt Ngauruhoe 2287m (aka Mount Doom).
This route is so popular that up to 700 people a day walk it in summer (hence our early start). Despite this there are signs everywhere advising you about the dangers of the volcano and asking "Do you have the right kit? Are you fit enough to walk this route" etc.
If we weren't apprehensive enough already, our Maori bus driver, Brendan, insisted on saying a prayer for us before we set off!!
The whole walk was astounding, the first section was a steady climb from Mangatepopo Valley to Soda Springs, where dissolved salts make the water in the streams fizz. At this point we somehow picked up limpet-lady, walking with her two friends but who suddenly abandoned them in favour of us, and talked and talked.... We hid in the portaloos, but she waited outside, and resumed her chatter. We wandered off to inspect the soda streams more closely...
At the top of the valley, 2.5 hours into our 8 hour tramp, we were faced with a choice. Did we want to add in a three hour detour to climb to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe (otherwise known as Mount Doom in the film version of Lord of the Rings). When we arrived at its base, low cloud obscured most of the volcano and only the first two or three route marker poles were visible. We decided to go up a short way to see what it was like and turn back if there was snow and ice or if the threatened scree slopes were too difficult.
Two hours later we made it to the top, having scrambled up the steep rocky lava ridge! It was a tricky climb as between the rocky outcrops there was loose scree so that, at times it felt as if we were floundering about like an Andrex puppy on a floor covered with ball-bearings! Very much a case of two steps up and slip one back. The views on the way were, of course, magnificent and the clouds cleared beautifully for us.
As per all the guides and signs, we were sensible trampers wearing sturdy boots, trousers, hats and sunglasses with a bag of warm/waterproof clothing and endless bottles of water. We observed with some consternation some of our fellow trampers covering the same route wearing little more than beach wear and the kind of canvas shoes that a wannabe surf dude might wear when sauntering along the waterfront in Salcombe. They still beat us to the top and survived to tell the tale!
Once at the top the final fifty metres was on snow and loosely packed ice crystals. The sun sparkled on the surface and lit up the area - not at all Doom like!
Getting down from the summit was easy at first, most people sledged on their bottoms! At the base of the snow slope there were steaming volcanic vents and the surrounding rocks were warm, rather like leaning against the Aga back home. Ideal for drying soggy sledging trousers and sitting for a picnic lunch.
The remaining descent was rather more challenging, being a scree slope interspersed with larger rocks and a fine dusty ash that was very slippery.
I Scree running was the easiest and fastest way down but was tricky to do safely and without sending rocks down the slope below us. I watched, green with envy as one couple ran from top to bottom of the scree slope arm in arm, legs in perfect synchrony, as if in a school three-legged race, go-pro camera held aloft to film their descent!! They did end up in a heap at the bottom but it will be a great bit of footage!
By contrast we scrunched and slid and bumped our way down separate parts of the mountain to minimise the risk of damaging each other! (Think Mr Bean crossed with Danny from Local Hero!)
We landed at the bottom after our 3.5 hour detour, ready to resume our TAC tramp. Just another 4.5 hours to go...
The spectacular views just kept coming - the vast level floor of South Crater, the sulphurous climb up to Red Crater and its improbable colour and lava tube. Then on towards the Emerald Lakes, three brilliantly coloured lakes in shades of turquoise, pale teal blue and bright lime green. After descending another scree run (we had the hang of it this time!) we found some grassy tussocks to sit on ate the rest of our lunch. What a brilliant way to spend a day!
The rest of the walk went happily by. A large blue lake, more steaming fumaroles, distant views to Lake Taupo, smooth as a mirror in the bright afternoon sun. We had got to know the dozen or so people walking near or us and although we walked at different paces and stopped and looked at different things, it was really quite companionable in a 'We respect your privacy and you reflect ours,' kind of way. (Except for the boy in white beach shorts and plimsolls who just kept popping up and standing at the edge of everyone's photographs.....)
We made a brief stop at the malodorous Ketetahi hut and followed a path through a volcanic danger zone ('Keep moving for the next 700 metres, do not stop. If you hear a loud noise, do not enter this area'... Eeek!) the volcano last erupted without warning in 2012!
The final 4.5 km was over good paths and boardwalks, down gorse-clad hillsides and through cool forests, but did seem to take ages! We returned to the car park to find Madge waiting for us.
It was so good to climb in, take off our boots and have a cup of tea!!
We then had a bit of a planning meeting. We should be moving on to South Island soon. Our list of recommended places included a couple of volcanic areas and a river... and the town of Napier. An Art Deco town on Hawkes Bay. Lots of wine growing in the area also, sort of on the way to Wellington?
We set course for the east coast!
The sunset over Lake Taupo as we drove north and then east.
On State Highway 5, darkness fell and we started looking for campgrounds. We found a series of woodland campgrounds at Kaimanawa Forest Park. A bit further off the beaten track than intended, and a roller coaster forest road to get there, but certainly secluded! The only sound as we dozed off was the sound of the morepork owls....