I’ve never been great at getting up early. The jet lag did manage to get us rising with the sun for a few days, but that was back in Sydney and it had already worn out by the time we got to the Tongariro National Park.
Nevertheless, we had to get up quite early more often than not. If you only have two weeks to travel a country that’s on the other side of the world from your home, you better make good use of your time. Another good incentive is “The bus leaves at 7am, with or without you.” Something similar to my Nikola’s mountain guide brother’s rules of multiple-day hiking: “Everybody goes to bed whenever they want; everybody gets up whenever they want; we start at 6am sharp!”
So, we had to wake up around 5:30 or 6 in order to be able to get some breakfast and equally, if not more, importantly COFFEE in us. It was quite chilly when we left The Crossing Backpackers but the driver assured us that the weather would be just fine today. Actually, he assured a tourist wearing shorts, thin-soled sneakers and a cotton shirt that it will be fine. Man, did he lie to him!
Some part of me was glad that it wasn’t a really hot day, because there’s literally no shade in the Tongariro national park. After the jungle-like forest around Piha it was rather strange to see nothing but medium to large tufts of spiky grass all along the way. The way, which meandered about 50cm above actual ground lever for a good part of the hike, reminded me a lot of The Moors where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum crossed on the way to Mount Doom. The visibility didn’t improve that image either:
We decided not to spend the 20 minutes there and back to the Soda Springs, since the path was too crowded as it were, plus among all the waterfalls we’d seen in New Zealand so far, this must be the least impressive one. Judge for yourself:
This was pretty much the view the whole day. With this for variety:
We believe this picture here was the Central crater because it was a vast flat region that came after the Red Crater – the highest point of our hike (1886, we started at 1100). The weather there was pretty much the same, only a little wetter so we made a very short stop:
That was about what the most exciting thing about that spot that day – the sign and me blowing my nose. And to think that in good weather, we could’ve taken a side path, gone up to Mt Tongariro (1967) and still got to the other end in time to catch the bus back to our car.
From the South Crater that was about 200m lower than the Red one, we could’ve even gone up to Mt Ngauruhoe (2287), and possibly thrown a ring into the fire or not. You know, because that’s Mount Doom! Seriously, that’s the spot that the whole Mordor/Mount Doom part of LotR was filmed. So the nerd in me would’ve been quite happy to conquer that peak, but with us walking in the clouds the whole time, it just didn’t seam like such a good idea to wander into the unknown. Especially since what we did know was that we were not supposed to walk off that elevated path because the soil and flora were really fragile, apart from it being wet and muddy. And then, of course, were the signs:
I did try to keep my eyes open for this picture (and there are several others to prove that), but the wind was so strong, it kept pulling my hood down. So, the sign, the wind, the drops of water handing in the air all around us – you get the idea.
So we powered on, heading (according tot he map) to the Emerald lakes. Later, we found out there are actually three of them but we barely managed to see two:
We did smell them from afar, though. You guessed it! Bad eggs and farts. Isn’t that a lovely spot to stop for a sandwich? Which, contrary to all sound logic, we did, because we were hungry and it was impossible to stop anywhere else in the last hour. At least it was in the lee here.
Since it’s a very popular trek and people between the ages of 7 and 70 are doing it, the park administration had seen to secure the path – with lots of steps and non-slip insulation on the way up. On the way down from the lakes however they couldn’t do much about it for about 100 meters worth of descent. It was gravel all the way, and it was steep. Whoever had set on this crossing with sandals or anything less closed than sturdy walking shoes – my sincerest condolences. I even pebble-proofed my shoes (very good shoes but below the ankles) by wrapping my socks outwards around them. It did the trick.
After that dusty nightmare we finally saw some change in scenery. Mainly because we were able to see a bit further ahead than our own feet. Of course, we thought, the season’s are not the only thing that’s backwards down here, the weather in the mountains is too. From what I know about hiking, in the mountains the weather is only as good as it gets in the morning and if it’s going to turn, it usually does so in the afternoon. Another reason to start at dawn and have most of the walking for the day behind you by lunch time. Not in New Zealand though. As soon as we were well past the middle and too far away from all the possible detours, this view opened before us:
And it just got better from there. You can actually see the clouds receding from above the Katetahi Hut and our loooong and winding road down:
And that’s the Blue lake in the background, which was in fact quite beautiful. And did not seem like it smelled at all! 🙂
You’d think that it’s over, that you basically see the car park where the bus is waiting. You’d be wrong. It really was a long way to go! As with every descent, the last leg of it is always the most tedious. At some point there’s no more challenge, there’s not more scenery and you just want to be at the end. Strangely enough, this long and winding path wasn’t the last part of our walk down. And thank god, because if it were like that the whole way down to the parking lot, it would have been just torture. I enjoy a nice and even pathway down some hills as much as the next gal, but everybody’s got their limits. Luckily, about the time I was approaching mine, the scenery changed again into some pretty nice forests with a good amount of steps to boot. During a break in the shade – yes, we actually got to some shade in the end – we observed that it’s all rather organised in these national parks. Not much room for exploration and adventure. But hey, in a country where they check your luggage for stray apples, what do you expect?!
There was one last twist during the final hour of the hike – the path was crossing a shallow but wide river. And no, there wasn’t a bridge, not even a makeshift one. We were rather reluctant to get our only hiking shoes wet so we took our time squeezing between small trees and jumping from stone to stone across this last hurdle. I was a little worried for the old lady with the branch for a cane for a while, but she had a couple of young and capable enough guys to help her so I was not surprised to see her at the car park some time later.
Since they warned us that we would surely need a lot of time to do the compete crossing, we had moved at a good clip the whole time. That meant that in the end we had some time to spare, as the trek wasn’t really demanding even in bad weather, so we took a couple of leisurely detours in the forests. It was a good thing in the end, because a forest always lifts the spirits more than the view of a vast prairie of sorts.
We were in a good mood at the end of the trek, not too tired, not too excited. All in all, it was a day well spent, considering. We were still quite upbeat once back in the car, even though we were yet to travel all the way down to Wellington.
Sadly, we didn’t have time to see the capital because we arrived there quite late and had to get up in only a few hours to embark on the first ferry heading to Picton. It was time to say goodbye to the North Island, but certainly not forever! 🙂