Ok, it’s time to admit it publicly: I have a serious crush on New Zealand. It might be terminal. I could go on and on but I don’t want to make you jealous – all you out there who haven’t found that one special country yet.
Thursday after the caves, Roland drove us from Waitomo to Turangi. As we drove out of the parking lot he said to himself, “on the left, on the left….”. It was a treat to have someone else drive so I could look out the window and daydream. And relax.
One of the many things we talked about was the New Zealand military. Though that conversation didn’t last long, neither of us knew much. We arrived at Extreme Backpackers in Turangi to a few vans full of New Zealand Air Force. That evening they were too absorbed in their little circle in the corner drinking heaps of Tui beer and talking about girls to be disturbed.
Friday morning I got out of bed at 6am, fumbled around in the dark trying not to wake up the other three sleepers in my dorm. Well, two, one was already up. He was the one who woke me, right on time. While I gathered and sorted everything I need into my backpack, I also concocted breakfast. Pile of muesli, cut up apple, honey and greek yogurt. A favorite. My two-day food rations for a the crossing was this: a banana, apple and peach, two tins of tuna in sweet chili sauce, big bag of turkish figs, half bag of mixed nuts, one big bar of Cadbury’s “scroggin” chocolate (milk chocolate with raisins and nuts), baggie of tea bags, half bag of dried apricots, and one Shin Ramyun cup of noodles. It worked out almost perfectly, and I never touched the apricots. I only really like those chopped up in oatmeal with maple syrup anyways.
I borrowed a pair of gloves from Extreme Backpackers who lend out for free to their guests most of the equipment you might need for the crossing. By shortly past 7:30 me and an old-style bus with an old-style Seiko clock mounted to the front took off full of passengers. And we picked more up along the way at other backpackers, hostels and motels. Turangi is a tiny town and from what I can tell it lives off the constant stream of visitors coming to do the Crossing. It’s an extremely popular one-day walk, not too difficult so that most people of average fitness are able to do it. I saw everything from pretty young kids to people in their 70s out doing the crossing. And for the effort that you do have to put in, you are rewarded highly.
The day was rainy and overcast as we drove to the Mangatepopo beginning of the crossing. A full rainbow greeted us. I watched as one of the ends skirted along the ground, always seeming to stay in front of the tree line, even as the trees came closer and closer to the edge of the road. Lots of rainbows here in New Zealand.
I lagged behind at the drop-off point, fixing my pack and eating the peach that had already been smashed. I snapped a photo of the map for reference later:
Most people seemed to be here for the one-day walk. I had booked a night in a hut, so that I could take my time and get an evening in the park. I planned to walk to the Ketatahi Hut, which was about 11km into the 19km hike. Then I could rest, spend the night, maybe explore some more than head to the car park for pickup at 4:30pm the next day.
I was the last to start the walk, not too far behind a group of three guys. One was obvious a guide, the other two possibly English.
Off into the clouds.
I had decided I wanted to do this walk while reading about it in the Lonely Planet Guide back in New York. I remember sitting in Variety Coffee shop with my coffee, scanning through the pages. I really wanted to walk on volcanoes. I didn’t see any picture of it beforehand, and didn’t want to. I would rather be surprised and experience it myself. In the same vein, if I can help it, I prefer going to movies not knowing too much about them. Of course you have to know something to be interested in going at all. But the less I know the better. It was funny to find out a week ago that these volcanoes were cast as Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Mt. Ngauruhoe, with its almost unbroken cone, looks most iconically like a volcano. It played Mt. Doom. So, I had seen them after all. None of this ruined the multiple surprises of the walk, luckily.
Here and there I kept catching up to the guide and his clients as he stopped to point out vegetation and rocks to them. The low ground cover and volcanic rocks made a starkly different habitat from the ones I had become accustomed to on other parts of the north island. Roland and I had taken the long way into Turangi, getting closer to the volcanoes in hopes of seeing them. That was a bust but we did get a good view of the plains leading up to the mountains. They were covered with browns and dark greens all interwoven with these beautiful little purple flowers.
After the first climb, we were still in clouds. No view for me. It was cold and misty, so I had on msot of my layers and my hat. An older German man who seemed to be hiking alone began to talk to me. He had been on this same track 20 years earlier. He had done the whole circuit around, of which the Tongariro Crossing is but a section. This time he was cycling around New Zealand. I had briefly thought about doing something like that, but abandoned it for surfing instead. From his looks, I would guess he was in his 60s. Pretty damn cool. You can see him over my left shoulder in this picture:
I waited on that hill a bit, hoping it would clear. Apparently there is a great view towards the way we came. No luck. It’s fine though, I thought the misty, foggy, cloudy day added a sense of weight and mystery to the walk. I was happy the sun was not beating down on me. One odd thing about the walk so far was the absolute stillness of the air. The day before some backpackers had cancelled trips to the crossing because of high winds near the Red Crater. Today, the forecasts still predicted winds, though lighter. Well this was certainly lighter. The day was also supposeed to clear and the weather be “fine” by the afternoon. The German made a good point, though. Without winds, who would take away all these low-lying clouds clinging to the ground?
The tour guide and his companions had turned left off the main track earlier, near Soda Springs. I watched them climb over rocks through a split in the hills. I wonder what there is to see over in that direction.
Walking down from this rest stop, I seemed to be in a larger valley space – but it was hard to tell. Occasionally, clouds would part and the edge of a mountain would peek out.
Very soon after, I got another firsthand experience of the radiply changing weather. From covered in clouds,
to clear, in five minutes:
Now I could see across the crater, and it was a large space indeed.
After walking across the expanse, and climbing another hill, I was treated with the first surprise, a view:
And, turning back towards where I had just come, a view overcome with browns:
Mt. Nguarahoe looked as though it was slowly lifting its cottony skirt:
I was carrying more than your average day-walker, having packed a tent and sleeping bag and two days worth of food. My hips were beginning to feel the grind from bearing most of the weight. Though my shoulders were hurting, too, don’t get me wrong. Another small summit and another surprise. This one was better than the last. Dark red and black mounds of ash and volcanic debris piled on top of and next to each other. Dotted with the bright white of patches of snow in spots that must rarely, if ever, be reached by direct sun. I have never seen anything like this in nature. Biased as I am from years of abstract expressionism in art museums, it looked like a marvelous sculptural painting.
Walking farther along the ridge, an unreal fissure in the side becomes apparent. A gash of silvery gray running vertically in the middle, surrounded by a protruding rocky ledge. I won’t state the obvious, but let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if this crater gave birth to heaps of creation mythology:
As you began to descend down alongside this crater, the path turned into soft black sand. It was fun to dig your heels in and slide a bit. To my right, constant streams of steam emitted from the ground. I walked over onto the rocky ledge and knelt to feel the ground. At one point, the little rocks were so hot I could not hold my hand on them. Moving a foot away, the ground was cold. I was standing above a very active part of the earth.
At the bottom of this hill were the emerald lakes. A waft of eggy smelling sulphur would hit me intermittently. Not too harsh, but not pleasant either. The bright yellowy-green of the water lent an otherworldly feel to the landscape:
From this height, looking out across the next large crater, I could see the blue crater lake. Sitting like a cup of tea in the sliced-off top of the next mountain.
I explored the emerald lakes up close:
After a walk farther through this crater, I turned back to take in the volcano I had just traversed. The more steep right side is where the
Up the next climb, the path comes alongside the blue crater lake:
Looking back over the central crater with the red crater in the background:
Past this point, clouds and fog began to descend again. The path passes into less agoraphobic space, winding between green hills. After about an hour walk, the space opened again revealing Lake Taupo through the clouds:
I reached a sign announcing that the path would now be crossing private land, and to stay to the track. Remembering from the map that the private land seemed to come after the Ketatahi Hut, I was afraid I had somehow missed it. I was starting to long for a rest and a hot cup of tea. Not too far behind me was a younger German guy who I had been near for the past few hours. As happens on these treks, you often pass and are passed by the same people as you each either speed up, slow down or stop for breaks. I asked him if he had seen the hut. He looked at me confused and answered in broken english and part German. Then he gestured in the direction we were going. I couldn’t imagine I had missed it, so I continued on.
Finally the clouds lifted some again and, looking down an open space of rolling green hills, I could see the hut perched far in the distance:
A bit of a cruel joke, it looks so tantalizingly close. From here the path begins to cut back and forth in extended switchbacks. My eye was on that hut for at least another half hour of walking. Upon arriving, I chose a bed near the front window. There were a fair amount of people around, mostly older, but it certainly wasn’t crowded. Or “chocker” as the Kiwis say. I boiled up some water and had a cup of tea. Sitting outside in the cool air I admired the spectacular view:
The hut had a central heater, which people were crowding around while preparing food. It was only about 4pm when I arrived.
As the evening progressed I was treated to a beautiful display below us. As the sun set, the light changed drastically and the hills and the lake took on many different guises. I stood transfixed even as I began to shiver. I will post more of those photos and more about the people I met in the hut later.
It is 8am here in Turangi. I have been up since 6am, when my other dormmates awoke and began to rummage around preparing for the crossing themselves. If there were to be a theme song for shared dorm rooms in hostels, it should be played with a zipper. It is by far the dominant song of the backpacker.
A preview of the sun set from Ketatahi Hut: