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Big World; Small Adventures
14th Mar 2006
The Big Day - to hell and back!

Today was the most challenging day of my trip and probably my life! (at least in terms of adventurous pursuits). For today I, and two new friends, walked the Tongariro Crossing - 17km of gruelling hike across a barren but beautiful volcanic terrain. The trek is billed as NZ's finest one day tramp and took us up and down a volcano. Actually not just any volcano of course - this was MOUNT DOOM from LOTR and NZ's most active volcano! It last errupted in 1974 and it was about due for a repeat. It's a moderate to challenging hike, depending on which brochure you read and how fit you are so for me, as you can imagine, it was bloody difficult (Dei - you could probably do this in your sleep). I was glad I had company and in truth, it it weren't for them I probably wouldn't have gone through with it. I met Frank, AKA The Dutchman, diving in Whangarei last week and he'd done a lot of this type of thing. In fact he told us he'd done a 23 day trek somewhere between Norway and the Arctic in freezing conditions. Clearly he was a nutter but I wasn't going to hold that against him. Tom, as you know I'd 'picked up' on my way to Wellington and although he hadn't done as much trekking as Frank he came from good trekking stock cos his parents were semi professional walkers back home. So I knew I was in good hands for this and if the worst came to the worst I was confident they'd be able to carry me back.

We'd tried to be cunning and decided to take two cars so we could leave one at the end and drive the other round to the beginning of the walk. That way we weren't dependent on the bus pick-up at 4.30 so the pressure was off and we could go at a relaxed pace. It was a good plan except we had a slight hurdle to overcome in the morning in that Tom and I weren't staying in the place we'd told Frank to meet us and he'd had his phone turned off all night. So Tom and I ate a hearty muesli breakfast, packed up our all-weather clothing from shorts to fleeces and raincoats as well as enough food to last us a couple of days if need be, and headed out in the dark after Frank. An eerie moonlit mist hung over Lake Taupo and a sleepy peacefulness enveloped us as Tom drove us towards Tongariro National Park. As the day gradually broke, turning the sky amber, the morning chill wasn't easily shaken so we thought we'd have a cold day ahead of us. It was daylight when we finally and with some luck met up with Frank in Turangi. We planted the cars as planned and by 8.30 we were on our way.

The first half hour was surprisingly flat and verdant with a stream running alongside the track. We were more or less on our own until we reached the foot of the first ascent where people had bunched up and we all clambered up the rocks together. My legs soon tired and we had to make frequent rest stops. Tom marched ahead while Frank and I paused and took photos. We'd then pass him further up perched on a lookout surveying the scene and we'd carry on together. We frequently looked back over our progress as we ascended and it already felt like we were in the middle of nowhere with no signs of man or civilisation to be seen.

Each time we looked onward there was little clue as to how far we had left to climb. Whenever we rounded what looked like the last ridge, another loomed menacingly behind it. After an hour or so we did finally reach the summit and caught our breath on a rock with all the other exhausted people like basking sea lions. We had climbed 1600m and reached the South Crater, a huge pit that had actually been carved by a glacier rather than an eruption. The views back to where we'd come from were spectacular and since it was such a clear day we could even see Mt Taranaki in the distance.

The sun had warmed the air by this point and due to our exertion we were feeling somewhat hot in our fleeces et al. I'll let you in to a little secret here - I'd left my decent walking socks and trousers in Auckland with Lou while I went to the Bay of Islands and hadn't stopped to pick them up on my way back through. So, since I only had light weight 3/4 length trousers on me and being a little scared that I was going to get cold, I'd slipped my silk pyjama bottoms on underneath and was sporting a lovely pair of Tom's bright blue football socks. Oh yes, I looked fetching :o) Anyway, when we reached the summit I just had to remove my pyjamas from under my clothes to stop me melting so since there wasn't a tree in sight and there were a lot of people I got more than a few strange looks as I tried to crouch behind a rock and look like I wasn't going to the toilet.

Anyway, that done, we carried on our journey enjoying the flatness before the next ascent. The crater was a dusty yellow and ochra rock bed and it felt more like crossing the moon than any place on earth. A trail of people snaked into the distance; small and ant like ascending the rocks at the far end. To our left Mount Tongariro rose up and to our right the black conical shape of Mt Ngauruhoe/Mt Doom rose skyward. There were options to climb to the summits of both of these volcanoes for an additional 1.5 or 2 hrs respectively but we chose not to (no surprises there!). Instead we carried on towards the Red Crater, the highest point of the tramp at 1886m.

The next ascent was the most difficult because the track was part loose gravel, part small rocks. Our feet slid backwards on just about every step we took making it much harder work than before. Plus our legs were already aching from the last climb. We saw quite a few stupid people who had ignored the warnings and set out in sandals rather than proper walking shoes and they really seemed to be suffering now. More than once I found myself wondering if I could do this and whether I'd made a mistake but on we went, one foot in front of the other, just determined to get to the top. Luckily it was a shorter climb than before but it still took a good hour and lots of sweat. The reward at the top was definately worth the effort though cos not only could we see the now expansive panorama over the land we'd crossed, but to our right was the amazing Red Crater, so called because of the deep red iron oxide staining of the rock. You could see down into the crater and the black magma channel left behind from the last eruption in the 1970's. Over the next ridge we were dazzled by the spectacle of the three Emerald Lakes and the distant Blue Lake. The colours were so vibrant it was hard to believe they were entirely natural - vivid green water fringed with yellow, red and black. The landscape stretched out ahead of us into the distance and there still was so much left to cover. At least it was downhill from hereon in.

We talked to other adventurers along the awsy including a party of hobbits in the shape of 40 school children. They were accompanied by their brave teachers who had the task not only of carrying a lot of the gear, but also motivating the stragglers. It was challenging enough pursuading my own legs to keep going let alone those of a stroppy 10 yr old who was convinced he hadn't agreed to do this in the first place! Dispite this, one teacher, Miss Wilson, recently relocated from England, was celebrating her 40th birthday and at the highest point we all sang happy birthday to her.

As we slid down the gravel to the lakes a pernicious sulphorous stench thundered over us from the steaming volcanic vents. Every step brought more magnificent scenes; this was like nothing else on earth. Refreshingly it was utterly unspoilt by man: except from the track poles and miriad footprints from trampers gone by there were no man made objects in sight. Only one rule mattered on this trek - everything brought into the park had to be removed.

At the bottom we stopped for lunch between two of the lakes and enjoyed the peaceful, if slightly pugent surroundings. Our brie, avocado and tomato rolls were a definite success and the envy of all around. Gorged and content that our packs were now suitably lighter than when we'd set out, we continued the long descent.

The environment changed to resemble more of a heath with mosses, heather and small green foliage starting to emerge. As we continued to descend moths and butterflies began to appear and even the throb of cicadas returned. The hut that awaited us was an oasis for weary trekkers. It had bunks for the lucky few who had booked and were continuing the longer 3 day walk as well as running water and toilets. Exhausted bodies flopped everywhere and we just found a vacant spot and joined them, allowing our feet momentary freedom from our shoes.

The final descent back to the cars was less painful than the ascent but brought a more prolonged discomfort, especially for knees and ankles owing largely to the million or so steps added to the track at staggered intervals. We passed the tempting Hot Springs but were unfairly unable to take a dip since they are now sadly privately owned. We made vain attempts to try to protect our burning skin from the scorching sun that had unrelentingly been beating down on us all day. Thoughts of applying sun protection hit us quite late but luckily my skin seems accustomed to NZ sun now and didn't burn. Tom wasn't so lucky and had quite a red neck but luckily his humorous ginger stubble that had been blossoming over the past 24hrs and now made him look uncannily like Inspector Clouseau detracted attention from the sunburn. Frank was sporting a glowing red head but in truth he had that to start with.

After a couple of hours we reached the welcome shelter of the forest and the cool air gave us a sudden burst of energy and we strode off at a fast pace excited at the prospect of reaching the car now. Staggeringly we were passed by a couple running at breakneck speed and after much disbelief we agreed they couldn't have done the Crossing and must simply be out for a run in the forest. The forest seemed endless as it twised and turned, took us over a stream and past a waterfall. Eventually, aching but triumphant, the trees gave way to a clearing and the car park where we had left Frank's car 9 hours earlier. I can only describe my feeling as that of sheer jubilation. We had ventured out in trepidation this morning and marched determinately up and down a volcano. And now we had reached our destination and could look forward to a soak in the Hot Springs back in Taupo.

As we drove back round to pick up my car we passed the couple who had run past us in the forest and he flagged us down. It transpired that they had indeed just done the Crossing and even detoured up the difficult and unmarked slopes of Mt Ngauruhoe. However despite doing the same as us with two cars, they had inadvertantly left the car keys in the wrong car and were now running back round to the start of the walk, another 10km or so. Needless to say we gave them a lift to the car park. A little further on we were stopped by 2 guys who had missed their lift round to pick up their car so they too hopped in the back and our party continued round to the car park. Waving them all off and quietly chuckling to ourselves, we loaded ourselves into the car. I put the key in the ignition and turned but mysteriously nothing happened. I tried again but still nothing. Then I realised the lights had been left on from this morning and the battery was as flat as my expression. It was too late to call back the people we'd just dropped off and we looked about at the now lonely car park. Since the car was an automatic, bump starting it wasn't an option. Luckily we had AA cover so we called them up and sat back to wait for a chap in a van to come and rescue us. It didn't dull our spirits though and we chatted and laughed as the sun went down over a couple of slightly warm beers that had been stewing in the boot of the car.

Once the AA man arrived it took no time at all to start the car up and we haired back to Taupo in the hope of making the pools before they closed. Cruising most of the way in neutral to narrowly avoid running out of petrol as well, we made it to the spa with 40mins to go. We swiftly changed into our swimming togs that we had luckily brought along and submerged our spent bodies in the hot water. Paradise is the only way to describe the way we felt at that moment. Within minutes my feet felt part of me again and my muscles loosened. Despite brave talk of going out to a bar for celebratory drinks we simply couldn't muster the energy so back at the motor lodge we simply cracked open some more beer and a bottle of red for me and recounted the day's events until we fell asleep.

Next: A good day to jump
Previous: Arty Farty Napier

Diary Photos

After the first climb

South Crater

Crossing the South Crater

Just a bit higher

Tongariro Trio

Red Crater

Red Crater

Emerald Lakes

Emerald Lakes

And now for the climb back down

Steaming volcanic vents

The triumphant trio

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