It was really nice and refreshing to be on a road that we hadn't planned to take - we really need to be more spontaneous and adventurous as this is all our own time and we can do what we want (at least until the end of August when we chucked out the country).The scenery became more impressive and interesting as we moved into the centre of North Island, and as we flashed by one of these helpful road signs about road conditions we noticed that the Desert Road was closed.We'd no idea where this so pressed gaily on.As we gradually climbed we noticed more and more snow on the high hills and it wasn't long before the snow was on the verges of the road.A sign ahead said our road to Taupo was closed (yes, we were on the Desert Road) but as other traffic was heading our way and some was heading towards us, we carried on.Shortly afterwards the scenery became spectacular when we moved into North Island's high (and active) volcano country and had the most magnificent views of incredible Mount Ruapehu with perfectly conical Mount Ngauruhoe in the background, with the whole landscape bathed in snow.We were going to be returning this way in a couple of days to do a major high level walk, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.The road continued to be treacherous in places and we eventually pulled into Turangi where we found a motel for a few days.It was much colder than anything we've experienced since we left the UK and we needed to ask for an extra heater for our room (we've turned into a right couple of wimps!).After a good night's sleep (thanks to the electric blankets) we were on the local golf course for 18 holes of mixed fortunes and, weather permitting, we're on for the big walk tomorrow.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is reckoned to be NZ's best day walk.It is rated as challenging and is dependent on good weather.We got the 6:30am call that it was on, so we were up and ready for the 7am bus (driven by a real Ricky Gervaise lookalike!). It is rightly popular so we didn't expect to be on our own - and we weren't, the bus was full of youngsters. We learnt that over the past 2-3 weeks poor weather had meant that the walk had been on only on 2 occasions so we felt really lucky and exhilarated with the day's prospects. As we drove to the start at 1,000 metres we saw the sun rising on Mount Tongariro and we drove on up through clouds to clear skies and wonderful views of the surrounding area.The walk was about 20km long and we set off ahead of most of the group - we knew many youngsters would eventually catch up with us.The scenery was spectacular and as we walked and climbed through fairly recent lava flows/fields we could see Mount Taranaki behind us way over on the west coast near New Plymouth (where we would have been if we'd stuck to our original plans) - it is a conical gem of a mountain. One of the hardest sections of the Tongariro Crossing is Devil's Staircase which is a steep climb with many stepped sections (which can be more tiring) to take us up to the saddle beneath Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings). We then headed over another volcanic cone (thankfully filled in with ash) to the steep climb which would take us to the rim of the Red Crater - our highest point at about 1,900 metres.This was the hardest section as it was a steep drop on one side with the going upwards across rocks and scree all covered with treacherous ice. We were glad when we reached the top of the rim, and what views - absolutely fabulous 360° views across North Island.This was a great place to stop for lunch after the arduous 800 metres climb.It was great to be among young people really enthusing about the climb and the spectacular scenery - it made us feel good that we were there to share in everyone's enthusiasm.From there it was a steep descent slipping and sliding on loose powdery lava, down to the spectacular Emerald Lakes, some of which were frozen over, past steaming sulphurous vents, then across another flat crater for the short climb up to Blue Lake.From there it was an easy 2 hour walk on the zig zag path down to the Ketetahi Hut where we had a brief stop before the remaining 2 hour walk downhill to the car park where the buses (and 'Ricky') were waiting for us. We were exhausted but exhilarated and triumphant - we did really well and not too many people passed us.Everyone was friendly and chatty and the youngsters were impressed by our capabilities.It was probably the best day hike we've ever done in terms of our personal achievement and the unique beauty of the landscape.We were enjoying our stay in this area and at the Settlers Motel (www.settlersmotelturangi.co.nz) so much and had 'settled in' so well that we decided to stay another day.The owners, Helen and Wayne, were really friendly and helpful and made us feel very much at home.Furthermore the room rate was very reasonable and there were free local phone calls, free use of the washing machine (Helen even took the washing off the line for us one day) and a free spa pool - most other places charge extra for these facilities.We might even return during the winter season - hopefully with Jean if she manages over from Oz.After our hike we made good use of the spa pool and after a slap up home cooked meal had a great night's sleep and a long lie.
We'd planned a restful day off our feet and took to the car to drive the 'Volcanic Circuit'.We headed for Whakapapa ('wh' is generally pronounced 'f') which is the main winter skiing area.After a coffee at the ski slopes, which were busy with people looking around for the fast disappearing snow, we headed back down to Chateau Tongariro at Whakapapa .This is a large imposing hotel built about 100 years ago when tourism started in this area.It is still reckoned to be one of NZ's better hotels and is in a wonderful position on the lower slopes of Mount Ruapehu - which features in many of our Taupo album photographs and is an active volcano which last erupted spectacularly in 1996.The Chateau also has wonderful views over to the cone shaped Mount Ngauruhoe which also features in the album.But what attracted us today was the Chateau's 9 hole golf course, the highest in NZ.Even though we were stiff and creaking after the previous day's exertions, at $9 a round we couldn't resist.Out came the clubs from the boot and off we set for a grand round of golf beneath the spectacular views we've already described. The setting and the golf was so enticing so we booked ourselves into the Chateau for the next night on an off season B&B special, which was in fact really good value and not much more than we've had to pay sometimes for ordinary accommodation.
E & M xxx