08 March 2011 | Tongariro and Lake Taupo
Yesterday, we achieved bragging rights ... we did The Tongariro Alpine Crossing: a 19.4 kilometer trek (12 miles), with a 2500 foot vertical climb, a 3700 feet descent to the finish, and reputed to be the best one-day walk in New Zealand. And although it's the only one-day walk we've done here in the land of world-class walks and treks and tramps and tracks and hikes, we do believe it was the best. I wouldn't exactly call it a "walk" however -- a trudge at times, a slog at others, and yes, thankfully, a walk for much. But it was a great achievement and we're glad Gloria and Michael encouraged us to do it. They did the crossing a few days earlier and gave us all the details on when, how, where. Gloria and Michael are both athletes and in great shape, whereas Allan and I are better at water sports and less athletic on land, so we were both a bit hesitant to make such a big commitment, fearing the resurgence of old and still-lurking injuries halfway through the long hike, but with a bit of push from them, and some good ol' peer pressure, not to mention a huge amount of curiosity, we (as I knew we would) inevitably signed up.
You see, it's not just that the crossing is the best one-day walk in New Zealand, or that it takes you past two active volcanoes, along 3 gorgeous aqua-colored thermal lakes, above numerous craters, and ultimately through lush jungle-forest. It's not just that it's a fantastic view of the stunning Red Crater, of giant Lake Taupo presiding below in the valley, and across a hundred miles of beautiful mountainous terrain all around. What really inspired us was Mount Doom. Mount Doom, officially known as Mt. Puukekaikiore, lurks menacingly to the right, towering over the first half of the track, smoking quietly, looking really austere and mean. For those of you who are not Lord of the Rings fans, The fires of Mt. Doom are the ultimate goal for Frodo the Hobbit, into which he is to throw the evil Ring of Power. And so, as LOTR fans, and since we're both reading the series while we're here, immersed in the lore and the lure, it seemed imperative that we make this trek, bond for a little while with Sam and Frodo as they make their agonizing march toward their presumed end.
Let's start with all the reasons this was an amazing and unusual event: first of all, we started the hike at 6:15am, while it was still dark. That meant, in order to have a proper hiker's breakfast (granola, fruit, coffee) that we were waking up to an alarm (!!) at 4:45am. Normally, you won't see much happening around our camper until 7am at the earliest, and of late, more like 8am. (We are still on vacation.) Second, we woke to sub-freezing air temps, ice crystals on the window, and a thin layer of ice crusting the rain puddle in the lawn. Being fair-weather folk, we had almost everything we own on our wimpy, tropical sailor-bodies, braced against the frosty air and worse, ready for chill of forecast high winds. I inherited a fear of the cold from my father, so I was so layered until I looked like the Pillsbury Dough boy, and still I was nervous it wasn't enough.
It's not a guided walk; there are numerous companies that will, for a price, drop you off at the start of the walk and pick you up on the other side in the afternoon. At G & M's suggestion, we stayed at the Discovery Lodge campground and took advantage of their transportation service and their knowledgeable advice. They boast that they're the closest to the start and make the earliest drop offs, giving their hikers time to themselves before the rush -- we learned that on a good-weather day, an average of 500, and as many as 1,000 people make the crossing! On the bus at 6am, the driver gave a briefing with the latest weather for the day and tips on how to be most comfortable and make the best of the hike. Yesterday they made a strong point of ensuring that everyone was dressed "in really warm clothes."
We intentionally paced ourselves rather slowly, Allan being especially sensitive to a few nagging injuries I've had in the last few years, so the rest of the bus-load of hikers took off, leaving us alone on the track which was fine with us. It was totally silent except the increasing howl of the wind, and we marveled at the beautiful sulfur and mud ice crystals crunching under our feet. Throughout the entire walk, which ultimately took 8 hours, we saw no animals, heard no birds, and for the first half of the walk, saw very little vegetation. The terrain was austere, yet it was gorgeous. Hints of the sun, as it rose nearer the ridge in front of us, created a gleaming corona of light around the rough volcanic rocks. Behind us in the valley, the morning light turned the fields an ethereal yellow-green with a sharp line of shadow cast by the mountains. Somewhere around 8am the helicopters started making their sightseeing trips overhead, following the winding path of the trail and seeming to mock us in our tenuous climb. One of the helicopters was transporting a small film crew to the flat area of the South Crater, where they are making an i Touch application that hikers can use for the crossing.
We reached the highest point in 3 hours, and as we came over the ridge, we saw the most magnificent and breath-taking sight: the Red Crater -- brilliant red, rust, gold, and brown lining steep, rutted walls. It made the entire climb to that point worthwhile. The ground steamed in white sulfur clouds, and felt warm to the touch, the heat of the Earth warming the mountain all the way to where we stood at 1886 meters (6,188 feet) above sea level.
From there it was a mostly easy walk down, starting with a fun walk-slide down the steep ridge from the crater in soft, warm dirt to the first of the three Emerald Lakes, each a slightly different yet unreal hue of blue-green, clear and striking in the rough landscape. The entire area is steeped in Maori tradition and of great importance in Maori culture, as described in this DOC brochure:
"Tongariro National Park is New Zealand's oldest national park
and a World Heritage area ... forming the nucleus of the Tongariro National
Park. The park's dual World Heritage status recognises its important
Maori cultural associations as well as its outstanding volcanic
features. The mountains are ... the matua (parent of the land) and the focus of their mana (pride). The spiritual and cultural values are part of the landscape."
It was a sobering privilege to walk beneath those still-active volcanoes, in the beautiful, Mars-like terrain, amongst the rich history and cultural importance of the area. The last stop along the well-maintained track is the Ketetahi Hut, where everyone rested, splayed out on the deck in the warm sun, peeling off layers of clothing and diving into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, granola bars, and always lots and lots of water. We rested there for about 30 minutes then set off on the last march of the day, having successfully tossed the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom, given each other the high five, rested up, and were now ready for the final trek back to Hobbiton. Oh, wait, that wasn't us. No, we were the ones who suffered mightily through that last 6 km, the flattest and certainly easiest part of the whole day, through cool green moss-laden trees alongside a beautiful little stream. For us it was 2 hours of shoes are too tight - back hurts - gotta pee -- shoulders ache from the pack -- when will it end, when will it end?? And finally it did end, at a busy parking lot crammed with cars and buses, the lawn littered with dusty, tired but satisfied hikers waiting for their particular form of pickup back to the start of their trek.
We ached, but we felt fantastic. We were glad none of those old injuries and sprains came up to haunt us, glad we didn't twist any ankles or sprain any wrists, but we wanted a hot tub. Badly. As luck would have it, the lake Taupo area is steeped, quite literally, in thermal pools. So we snagged a campsite here in the Taupo DeBretts Spa Resort (and campground) with the Taupo Thermal Park right next door. 3 natural mineral pools, which are drained and refilled from the ground each day, welcome the achy hiker with a cool, a warm, and a hot pool -- huge, clean, and in a delightful tropical setting. They even have a giant slide. Since I didn't get my giant slide ride in Waingaro, way back at the beginning of our Kiwi adventures due to the flooding of the water park, we decided to take another day and hang out today. More therapeutic soaking, a chance to blurb and download photos, do laundry, take a jaunt around town, stock up on groceries for the last 6 days of our camping adventure, and take a winding, twisting ride down the giant slide!