Thursday, 2 February 2006


Sunday through Tuesday I was in the central North Island with some very good friends visiting from the USA. The central volcanic plateau is one of my favourite places. The landscape is compelling, the alpine vegetation is fascinating, and the barely-dormant vulcanism of Ngaurahoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu is thrilling. Just thinking about the place brings back the flavour of childhood road trips with my family.

The focus of the trip was tramping the Tongariro Crossing on Monday. This eight-hour trip skirts the base of Ngaurahoe, then heads north, straight across the craters of Tongariro to descend its northern slopes. Some authorities call it the best one-day hike in New Zealand and I know no reason to contradict them.

Ruapehu over a hillock

This is a view of Ruapehu from early in the trip. Here we have tussock, but the track quickly ascends to areas with just moss, and in the craters of Tongariro, nothing but sand, gravel and bare rock.

Craggy wall

From the open country the track enters a valley with impossibly craggy walls, then at the head of the valley the trail takes a long, steep climb to the base of the Ngaurahoe cone. We had low lying cloud all day --- mercifully, I think, keeping us cool. Even so I perspired and eventually drank all two-and-a-half litres of water I was carrying. We climbed into thick cloud, which was stirred by the wind so that in one minute visibility would drop from kilometres to just a few metres and then open up again in a different direction. It was eerie and a little worrying; one wouldn't want to lose the path in that environment.

Emerald Lakes from the top of the Red Crater rim

The track crosses the South Crater and climbs again, to the top of the lip of the Red Crater. Here we could see and smell the steam of sulphurous fumaroles, and even feel the warmth of gases pouring up and over the crater rim. A little further along we got a view of the Central Crater and the Emerald Lakes.

The track continues past the lakes, through the Central Crater, around another lake and then gently down the mountainside. You pass the Keretahi Hot Springs belching steam and streams of warm, silica-coloured water. The vegetation changes before your eyes from barren rock to low tussock to high tussock and then with startling abruptness you plunge into rainforest.

It's a long walk, but not really very difficult in summertime, except for the two punishing climbs. They pushed my lungs and legs well beyond their usual operating parameters. The warnings about being prepared for sudden weather changes and about taking plenty of water are certainly no exaggeration. Gushing testimonies are no exaggeration either.

I'm looking forward to returning to the area soon. I hope to see more geothermal activity ... I'd love to be down there during an eruption. Maybe that sounds a bit pathological but I suspect it's similar to why I love extreme weather: the feeling of God tearing through the comfort of our technology and putting us in our place.

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