One does not simply walk into Mount Tongariro National Park. Not on Thursday December 6, 2012, anyway. (While allegedly summer, New Zealand hasn’t really mastered the whole good weather thing.)
Rachel, her father Mark, and I rolled into Tongariro National Park—the original national park in New Zealand and one of the few places that UNESCO has acknowledged as of cultural worth and possessing natural beauty. We had kilos of scroggin, spiffy new raincoats, and tents strapped to our packs. We were ready to see an area that has three active volcanic mountains, crazy colored lakes, and lots of old-growth forests.
Tongariro had snow down to 1500 meters, rainstorms, rolling fog blackouts, and gale-force winds. Counterpoint.
The workers at DOC were pretty amused that we were even considering going up. “Even if you didn’t get blown off, you wouldn’t see anything.,” one of them told us. Well snow camping isn’t that much fun anyway, and they were quite happy to refund our great walk booking fees.
This left us with a few days of dayhikes, hoping for the weather to break at least long enough to hike the Tongariro Crossing. Often called New Zealand’s finest dayhike, it’s in an abbreviated version after recent eruptions have closed off the latter part of the walk. It now exists in out-and-back form.
Some research in the Doc hut led us to the Tama lakes for our day 1 hike. This was the way we would have gone anyway, only it was without packs now. It was a pretty hike, with the trademark NZ tussocks. The lower lake was quite pretty, but the climb to the upper involved some intense winds—70 or 80 k/hour. We were so exposed and just hoping not to get blown off as we climbed up.
At least we reached the top. The upper lake was, arguably, even better. The wind blew and it became clear that Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mt.Doom in the LOTR movies) was hanging out right behind us. The wind died on the way back and, all said and done, we had a solid 6 hours of hiking in.
The second day saw even worse weather. We drove (Mark had a car!) to a few trailheads. Everywhere it was the same: sleeting snain (a nefarious snow-rain mix), winds, and no visibility. At one point, high up the mountain, the wind blew hard enough that we couldn’t even open the car doors against it.
In addition to having a car, Mark had an encyclopedic knowledge of weather. (He works in weather.) “I reckon we just have to drive to another side of the mountain.” We did, and while it wasn’t exactly high summer, the weather was much better. On the way, we passed through the town of Ohakune, famous for its big carrot.
We hiked into a hut on the Around the Mountain Circuit. It had plenty of firewood and we ended up having the entire place to ourselves. While we were somewhat wet from light rain and stream crossings, it began to snain heavily after we reached shelter. It was an afternoon of eating scroggin, chopping wood, reading the visitor’s book, eating more scroggin, and watching the weather pass us by.
The next day, Saturday, dawned bright and clear. Not only could we Ruapehu, suddenly lurking right behind us, but would see the long-lost brother, Mt.Taranaki. (Our views of Taranaki were far better than we’d had when we actually hiked it.) The hike back, in nice weather (and considerably less scroggin), was half-as-short as the day before.
It was 11 when we got back to the car. We’d been planning on trying the Tongariro Crossing the next day, when good weather was predicted. But it was so nice today. We already had a warmup hike under our belts. The consensus was easily reached, and we sped off back to the other side of the mountain.
We started later than most hikers, of course, but all of us were relatively fit and we passed loads of people. (Admittedly people in jeans and not wearing proper shoes, but still, we passed them.) Most of the hike in was flat, but then there was quite a steep section up to the first crater.
And then we were amongst it.
This area lives up to and even exceeds its lofty reputation. For at least two reasons, the views were breathtaking. Not only do words fail, but this is one area where pictures don’t really even do it justice. It’s just an amazing place. Of the three months we spent in New Zealand, this was the single-best thing we did.
Here’s a small video I made with some of the best moments.