KIWI: This Restless Land – Hiking the Tongariro Crossing & Mt. RuapehuTongariro means ‘South Wind’ and once we had reached the first valley I could sense why it was so named. At first light we were crunching the muesli-like scoria underfoot, a well-defined trail that meandered between lichen-covered rocks and low clumps of bracken and Scottish heather where glassy streams gurgled through rocky gullies.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2011
I love looking at maps. They offer inspiration and seduce you to travel to what lies within their boundaries. Yet distances and trails always look easier when you study a map, even topographical ones. I’ve now come to the conclusion maps are deceiving! Such was the case after I’d made up my mind to hike the Tongariro Crossing – one of New Zealand’s most iconic trails that at certain times of the year, supports up to 2500 trampers daily! Followed the next morning by a daunting climb to the 2600m summit crater of Mt Ruapehu where the route challenges even the best cartographers.
Tongariro means ‘South Wind’ and once we had reached the first valley I could sense why it was so named. At first light we were crunching the muesli-like scoria underfoot, a well-defined trail that meandered between lichen-covered rocks and low clumps of bracken and Scottish heather where glassy streams gurgled through rocky gullies. At the first hut another 15 minute side trail meanders to Soda Springs at the head of the Mangatepopo Valley, an oasis of moisture-loving yellow buttercups.
The going was easy at first and the banter jovial. “I can’t believe all these young people can get out of bed this early,” said Kevin, as athletic-looking teens raced past us at a cracking pace, leaving us in their slipstream.
About 7pm the night before I’d arrived as part of a small group guided by the hiking company, Walking Legends who have exclusive use in summer of a private ski-hut, high on Mt Ruapehu within Tongariro National Park. The ski-hut is owned by the Rotorua Tramping & Skiing Club and is well furnished with double bunk bedrooms, showers, a huge lounge, balcony and large well-equipped modern kitchen.
As the sun descended over the horizon, I began studying a map of Tongariro National Park. Established in 1887, Tongariro was the first national park in New Zealand and the fourth in the world and the only one to be gifted by a country’s indigenous people. It contains the peaks of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe and encompasses some 79,598ha. Then I spotted the trails, “hmm, doesn’t look that hard I muttered to myself.” Oh how wrong can one man with knobbly knees and a bad back be?
From the wind-whipped valley the graded trail zigzagged its way up a multiple series of wooden steps to a ridge high above us. Scattered along its length were various groups of trampers of all ages, many dressed in bright, outdoor clothing like actors from the stage play, ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’
Mark and Jackie Walker were from Dartmoor in South Devon. “We were in China last month, and a Kiwi we met there recommended the Tongariro Crossing as the best hiking trail in the North Island,” said Mark. Surprisingly only about 30% of trampers who hike on the Crossing are actually New Zealanders.
Above the ridge and in the shadow of Ngauruhoe, an almost perfect cone-shaped volcano rising to 2287m, the earth’s crust turned to arid badlands, a lunar-like landscape where small tufts of grass seem to be the only living remnants.
The highest knoll of the climb is called Red Crater where a rip-snorting wind tore at our jackets. Here steam vents spewed out noxious gases. Across a valley of old lava flow on a far volcanic wall was evidence of a volcanic eruption that had blown out the side of Red Crater – another sight that was hard to comprehend.
The immediate trail down from the summit was now fine scree interspersed with pumice stones and below that lay shimmering lakes gleaming in the sunlight like two of Liz Taylor’s giant emeralds.
There was still another 90 minutes of foot-slogging to Ketatahi Hut which offered panoramic views of the desert plains of the central North island. Then the path traversed and crisscrossed stunning tussock and heather landscapes for about two hours before dropping into a verdant beech forest where we reached the end of the trail – aching from foot to foot but smiling from ear to ear.
Mount Ruapehu Crater Lake was our next challenge and in many ways it’s completely different to the Crossing as this challenging route takes you over broken and uneven terrain that is unmarked. Of the 40 or so people who tried to find the trail unguided (most without a compass or topographical map) when they left that morning, about five made it to the actual rim of the crater lake. A guided option therefore is both the safest and surest way of making it all of the way there and back.
It was a gloriously sunny day as we rode chairlifts to the 2,020m starting point. There was virtually no wind. The large group of people behind us looked bewildered as they pressed on vainly in the wrong direction following in each other’s footsteps as they heaved their bodies over the Volkswagen-sized boulders.
The terrain changed constantly as we scampered over a mixture of elephant to mammoth sized boulders, traversing large ravines, small gullies and onto fine pumice tracks that only goats would consider using. Kevin from Christchurch suddenly stated, “I’ve just realised I’ve never been this high up before.” During our ascent, to where only birds of prey breathe easily, we stopped regularly to rest and look back at our route across some of New Zealand’s finest scenery.
Ruapehu is translated as ‘Pit of Noise’ or ‘Exploding Pit,’ and the topography attested to how many boulders over the millennia had been regurgitated down the mountainside. Leonne, Kevin’s wife was more lucid about the views, “It’s incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it. I feel privileged just to be walking in this place. We are so pleased we chose to come here, but we couldn’t have managed it without a guide.”
It became more physically challenging than the Crossing due to the constant broken terrain until we reached the first crater rim filled with a large, debris-covered glacier and gaping crevasses, (Ruapehu holds the North Island’s only glaciers). It was then a case of following a skinny rim trail of rocks and fine volcanic ash where flumes of detritus had slithered off both sides created uneasiness until we finally planted the last of our footprints on the rim of the crater lakes summit.
Fed by snowmelt, the lake formed again in 2002 and on our visit looked peaceful and serene except for a large new boulder slide on one part of the rim. Scientists constantly monitor the lake for seismic activity 6km under the volcano, as well as for higher levels of magnesium and carbon dioxide as it suggests fresh surfaces of molten rock have come into contact with the water. In New Zealand, we use a system of Volcanic Alert Levels to define the current status of each volcano. Alert levels range from 0 to 5 – currently as of writing Ruapehu is at Level 1. Level 5 means a hazardous large volcanic eruption is in progress.
“The crater lake is a fairly big puddle and if you can heat that up to 40c, it takes a fair bit of energy.” Brad Scott, from GNS Science Volcanic Surveillance was quoted as saying this in the NZ Herald just five days after we had completed the climb to the rim of the lake. It was in response to new rumblings at Mount Ruapehu and the fact that the water temperature had suddenly risen to 39c.
On my way back down, aching knees were taking the brunt of my body weight as we relied on our guide Jamie to plot a course through the rubble-strewn mountainside. At one point I visualised that inspiring geographical map of this restless land on the ski-hut wall . . . it sure looked blood easier that this I thought . . . swearing under my breath at deceiving little cartographers who never lace up hiking boots.
Tongariro Crossing and Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake:
Approximately one million people visit Tongariro National Park each year. Be prepared for steep climbs and unpredictable weather. All hikers need a reasonable level of fitness and agility as breathing at altitude can be difficult during the climb and descent of around 1000m and 600m respectively and in the case of Mt Ruapehu to an altitude of 2600m. There is the exposed alpine and volcanic environment that can change into a ‘three season day’ over the six to eight hours it takes to complete each trip. If you are planning on walking solo and not in a guided group, you will need to arrange shuttle transport to your starting point and pick-up at the end of each journey. However, it is advisable to have a guide or guiding company handle your arrangements for guaranteed satisfaction and complete safety.
Gear for the Tongariro Crossing and Mt Ruapehu:
Day pack, good boots and socks, thermal underwear for legs and body, fleece jerseys, rain jacket, gloves, drink bottles and at least two litres of water, small first-aid kit, camera, sunglasses and sun lotion, beanie or hat, sandwich/lunch and extra chocolate and trail mix.
History of Mt Ruapehu:
At 2797m, Mt Ruapehu is the highest mountain in the North Island, and the most recent of the North Island volcanoes to have erupted. Three summit craters have been active during the last 10,000 years including South Crater which contains the currently active vent and Crater Lake; water from this lake is acidic and is frequently ejected on to the ice and snow during eruptions and can cause lahars. Major recorded eruptions were in 1895, 1945, 1995-96 with additional eruptions and lahars in 1953 and 2007. Ruapehu’s 2007 eruption during the ski season lasted for seven minutes and caused two lahars. It also produced a column of ash and rocks that resulted in serious injury to a 22-year-old mountaineer who was sleeping overnight on a hut on the crater rim. Volcanos can erupt with little or no warning. Mr. Scott is quoted in the NZ Herald as saying. “There’s no one trigger; it’s usually a combination of things such as big changes in deformation, chemistry, heat flow and earthquakes.” GNS Science is monitoring Ruapehu with 2 web cameras, 10 seismographs, 6 microphones and 9 continuous GPS stations (to record ground deformation).
This company has been specialising in guiding groups on Lake Waikaremoana (and Tongariro) for years so they are extremely experienced. All inclusive trips include transport pick-up from Rotorua or Taupo and drop-off, three night’s accommodation, all meals, some wine, services of guides and extra gear if required.
Rob and Hilary, PO Box 267, Whakatane, New Zealand
NZ Free phone: 0800 9255 69. T: 07 308 0292, M: 021 545 068
Funky Green Voyager Backpackers
This is a great place to stay in Rotorua with a good atmosphere and very friendly and helpful staff. They offer private rooms as well as double, twin, share or dorm rooms which house six to eight people.
4 Union St. Rotorua T: 07 346 1754
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