We're back on the Big Orange Bus for the first time in three weeks and on the road to National Park. Before we got there the driver stopped and allowed us to walk down to Tawhai Falls. This is where Smeagal/Gollum splashes around trying to catch a fish in the Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. Our first proper LOTR location visit. That wouldn't last long though.
Our accommodation becomes a ski lodge in the winter but caters for backpackers and tourists throughout the snowless months. It has a bar, restaurant, hottubs and great rooms. We were in a studio attic room with another couple.
Our first day was the Big One. The (in)famous Tongoriro Crossing. A 19km climb up and over Mounts Tongoriro and Ngauruhoe. Surrounded by three active volcanoes. Duration: 7hrs.
First things first: it was no walk in the park. The beginning is easy enough but any complacency is pounded out of you by the Devil's Staircase. Every time that we thought the stairs had ended we were presented with another set of nigh-on vertical ones which stretch as far as the eye can see. It is enough to make a grown man cry (although we only witnessed one woman do so). At this point more than half of the active volcano was covered in dense cloud so that we couldn't see the top. It is probably a good thing because I may have been tempted to turn around.
After 2.5hrs we reached our first summit. Unfortunately we couldn't see much of a view at this point due to the cloud. I say unfortunately but it was actually quite atmospheric. We couldn't see anything over 10m away. We walked across a desert-like crater with no idea what we were heading towards. It looked like a different planet. Eventually we came across the next section - a tough climb to the higher summit. It was a ragged, rocky, trek on a precarious ledge and it probably took another hour or so. By this time I thought the hard part must be over.
We reached the summit proper and had our packed lunch in what must be the craziest place that I've ever devoured a Nutella sandwich. The landscape had changed from Dartmoor on steroids at the foot of the mountains, to Mars up top. I was a bit weirded out until the clouds broke just as we finished our lunch. Out of nowhere the peak of Mt. Ngauruhoe popped out of the haze. This active volcano doubled up as Mt. Doom in LOTR and the land below was Mordor. It was an awesome sight. We thought we were high enough but Ngauruhoe looked down at us like little hobbits.
After checking out a cavernous red crater and climbing another ridge we were hit by the best view yet. There were two bluey-green sulphurous lakes surrounded by dark, steaming volcanic rock. Looking past the lakes there was another huge crater with mounds of rolling rock - the remnants of a pyroclastic flow from the last eruption. We had to slide down the loose sandy rubble at this section to see the lakes and navigate the crater to get to the next climb. Looking back up where we had just been was rewarding and disheartening at the same time. The next peak was just as high.
At this point we were pretty tired but were nearing the last climbing section, encouraged by the fact that it was mostly down hill from there. We stopped briefly at the blue lake - the largest - and then climbed further and eventually began our descent through ragged grey rock overlooking what Steph described as 'Never Neverland'. Big lakes at the base of the volcanoes with green land creeping in to a peak. I could definitely see what Steph was saying.
The descent seemed to take an age. It was mostly easy hiking but occasionally we were hit by bursts of uphill track that didn't feel much like a descent to me, so I made audible signs of frustration every time a set of steps presented itself:
Despite the petulant moans of a lazy Brit, it was completely peaceful and untainted by modern distractions on the track down. No strong winds like the other side, no traffic noise (no roads as far as the horizon in fact), and far fewer fellow hikers. Just peace and serenity. Sweet sweat and blissful blisters. Heaven.
There was a strange transition nearing base. The mountain hike turned into a bush walk and we found ourselves in jungle-esque territory with waterfalls and blazing sun. It was a nice way to finish but by this time our legs were like jelly and we were glad to reach the car park (under the expected time I might add).
The next day we did absolutely, positively, unadulterated, well-deserved nothing.
The day after that we punished ourselves with a 5.5hr hike. By accident. We asked at the hostel reception if there were any walks that didn't require transport to get to. The Tupapakurua falls walk was the only one. So we hiked our way over via asphalt, dirt road and mud track. We were still aching in the morning so it was nice to stretch our legs and work out the knots from the Tongoriro Crossing. It was a good long walk and we didn't see a single human on the track leading to the falls or back. Apparently nobody bothers to do this walk as it is overshadowed by the crossing. Their loss. It was stunning. The lead up to the waterfall lookout was mostly under cover of trees and branches so we didn't see much. However, when we arrived at the lookout this made the view even more impressive. Out of nowhere a 50m waterfall surrounded by bright green moss and ferns appeared. The established track ended here but a route down to the base of the waterfall had been marked out with blue ribbons on trees. It is advised that only well seasoned hikers do this section, but we were only told afterwards. At some parts this route was treacherous and we had to walk on ledges narrower than my feet. But the climb down was mostly easy going.
The waterfall from the base was even more impressive. A stream of water coming from such a height turns into a haze by the time it reaches the bottom and the life that flourished because of it was amazing. It must have been the craziest place that I've ever eaten a cheese and chutney sandwich.
This is when the hard work began. Climbing back to the track was tough going and it was a hot day. There was no established path so it was unstable in parts and dangerous in others. It took us around 3.5hrs to get back up what took us a couple of hours to get down. I am undecided as to whether it was more challenging than the crossing, but it was definitely up there. Needless to say a beer and burger sorted us out when we got back to the hostel. This was quite possibly my favourite few days so far.
National Park: Done.