Tuomas: From Mordor to soaking in hot pools – Tongariro National Park, Taupo and Waikite Valley
Taupo, New Zealand
We left Wellington after a night of some very steep sleep. The parking lot at Rowena's Lodge was on a hill and so was our campervan while we slept in it, luckily it didn't bother us too much. We took to following the SH1 north to make our way all the way to Tongariro National Park, famous for its three volcanoes and the fact that it played a crucial role in the Lord of the Rings movies as Mordor. It was a long drive, the longest we've done on the trip yet, but we made it there a lot faster than Frodo and Sam. It was still pretty early in the afternoon when we stopped at Waiouru where we thought we would find a visitor center of some sorts. In the end there was no such thing, but the war museum they have allowed free camping for self-contained vehicles on the parking lot in the back. We thought about it for a while but decided not to stay in order to get some tramping done in the national park.
We turned to SH49 in Waiouru and made our way to Ohakune where we finally located a visitor center. The weather was not looking too great, the view from the center to Mt. Ruapehu was obscured by a combination of rain, fog and clouds. We asked about possible shorter tramping routes for the same day and they suggested trying the walk to Waitonga Falls, accessible from a road heading straight north from town. We took off in that direction and headed up the slope of Mt. Ruapehu. On the way it started to rain so we figured we should keep going after the parking lot for the walk to see if we could make it all the way to the top. Perhaps when we got back the rain would have stopped? Well, the thing about going up a mountain is that it gets colder as you go. The rain turned to snow and we had to turn back since our car didn't come with chains (not that we would have liked to put them on anyway). It rained still as we passed the carpark again and we gave up on the walk. Instead we made our way back down to the Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite Mangawhero. As a standard site it cost $6 per person and came with an acceptable pit toilet and a nice flat ground to park on.
The weather was better in the morning and we were able to do the Waitonga Falls walk without getting wet. It was mostly just very cold up there with strong winds blowing at our faces on the open parts where a boardwalk took us over some swampy areas. On a clear day you're supposed to be able to see the reflection of Mt. Ruapehu on the small pools there but with the clouds it was not going to happen any time soon. The waterfall at the end of the walk was nice and very high, but the lookout didn't really give us the best view with some trees getting in the way.
After the walk we returned to the visitor center at Ohakune to ask them about other tramping routes in the area. They suggested driving up to Whakapapa Village and taking the Silica Rapids track, which sounded good to us. We also asked them about places where we could camp the next night for free, knowing the risks. Once again the person advising us got very judgmental and went so far as to ask us twice if we'd paid for our stay at the last campsite in the "honesty box". It's only $6 per person, she insisted, refusing to tell about any free sites. I still find this weird, because they have designated free camping sites all over, like they did in Waiouru just 27 kilometers east. The only place where they have actually given us any real information about such places was in Timaru where they had a great parking lot right next to the penguin spotting beach. I can't help but wonder once again, what is the point of not telling about these places? Freedom camping is allowed in New Zealand and there are designated spots for it. Not telling about them only adds to the problem by forcing people to camp for free in undesignated areas, thus increasing the damage to the environment they are trying to protect. I just don't get it…
Anyway, we drove to the center of the national park at Whakapapa Village and started going around the Silica Rapids loop. At the beginning we were surrounded by forest and walking uphill so we even felt a little warm at some point. In the end though we came out of the forest and faced the open air again, feeling the wind once more. The walk to the rapids wasn't all that exciting but we enjoyed the rapids themselves with the cream colored sediment of the aluminum rich soil. The next part was more interesting as we continued the loop towards the two other volcanoes, Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, the latter of which must have been the one playing Mt. Doom in the movies. The clouds and the fog were giving us a small break as we approached the mountains and we could finally see them properly, though not all the way up. I'm a little confused about the whole Mordor thing here because I don't remember the mountains being covered in snow or the land being filled with all sorts of bushes and grass. Also, there was a distinct lack of Nasquls darkening the sky. They might have photoshopped the landscape a little and a good thing too, since as we saw it it was much too scenic to pass for the desolate hell of Mordor.
After the walk, which by the way ended abruptly at the side of a road (turn left), we went in to the local DOC visitor center to use their free wifi (which was limited to just 15 minutes). Trying to learn of our mistakes we avoided using the term "freedom camping" and just asked about a few of their designated basic sites, which are also free. All those were in Kaimanawa Forest Park east of Tongariro NP, which was roughly on the way for us. We were told to go to Urchin mainly because there was a nice walk there. We returned to the car and headed that way, taking SH47 north and SH46 east until we reached SH1 once more. From the intersection it was only a few kilometers south until we found the right turn off on the top of a hill where there was also had a passing lane in our direction. As implied in the DOC booklet it was smooth cruising from there for about 3.5 kilometers until we turned to a gravel road, which seemed to go on forever. After a while and some spontaneous rearrangement of our things in the back of the campervan (there were a lot of potholes…) we finally made it to Urchin campsite. Like all basic sites it was small and had a plywood pit toilet, but there was nothing wrong with it. We did the suggested Pillars of Hercules trek in the last fading light of the day and got to the shaky lookout bridge but failed to comprehend where and what the pillars themselves were. The view was nice though.
The next morning we took the same uneven gravel road back to SH1 to continue on our way north. We admired the great Lake Taupo from a rest area before heading to the namesake town. We had a special site in mind in Taupo, the Spa Thermal Park. Upon approaching the city we could see steam rising from all sorts of places like fields, ditches and small streams. The area is known for more than its trout fishing, there are huge amounts of thermal pools littered all around. One of those could be found in the Spa Thermal Park and it was free for everyone to enjoy. We parked at the parking lot at the end of County Avenue and took to following the path towards Huka Falls, a popular sight of its own. We weren't the only would-be bathers there but it was reasonably uncrowded for such a sunny Sunday morning, at the small bridge across the hot water stream we could have still found space. Anyway, we spotted steam rising from a little higher also and followed it upstream to find a perfect little pool just for the two of us! It was great, the water was hot but not painfully so and it was easy to get in and out of the pool. We soaked in it a good while before drying up on our towels and continuing the track towards Huka Falls. It took about 40 minutes on a fairly wide and busy path to reach the place where the Waikato River makes a big splash while rushing through a bottleneck before plummeting down with massive force. They had a sign there saying that the amount of water that goes through in a minute is enough to fill five Olympic size swimming pools. They also said that 15% of New Zealand's power comes from the flow of the river, which should give you an idea of how much force there is in it.
After the falls we headed back to SH1 before abandoning it for the SH5 towards Rotorua. We didn't go all the way there though, but headed to Waikite Valley Thermal Pools instead to get the most out of the geothermal wonders of the area. Six kilometers from SH5 we drove into the carpark of the springs 'n' spa and got a powered campsite for $22 per person, including the use of all pools except for the private ones (the pool entry alone would have been $15 per person, in the campground they had a good kitchen, laundry and even a drying room with a heater). We used the rest of the day soaking in the hot water and exploring the site. The water there comes from a boiling river that runs through the grounds puffing up so much steam that we could see it from far off. At 98 degrees Celsius the river really does boil as it rolls through the landscape, a thing I didn't really know was possible. But that's just the kind of thing you can find in New Zealand, a boiling river next to some of the greenest sheep lands you've ever seen. For $22 you can jump into a pool of 40.5 C water to watch the sun go down and in the morning wake up early to watch it make its way through the massive fog from the boiling river. If you are willing to pay for it, you can find and do just about anything here. We were lucky enough to discover this place that offered so much for so little, it's definitely going to our top experiences in the country!