Saturday, 9 November
Scratching a start on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (3 km)
Jenny drove us the long distance from Auckland to Ketetahi and she and Olivia walked in solidarity with us for the first two kilometres of the ascending trail through the forest. “Where is the hotel?” asked Olivia sweetly, after we had done a mere 400 metres. Where indeed! We could certainly have done with one. We were rather vapid and floppy that day.
We passed a sign providing instructions about what evasive action to take in the event of a lahar. It would have helped if the sign had indicated what a lahar is (a mudslide), as not all of us have a specialist vocabulary. The evidence of unstable ground was before us though, where the otherwise well-manicured track occasionally smeared away and stream beds appeared to have changed course.
The forest faded, and shrubby, shoulder-high vegetation took its place, eventually giving way in turn to thigh-high, woody scrub. At last we had a view back from where we had come and a glimpse forward to where we were going. It was at this point Hannah declared that she simply Could Not Go On. Although we had a good few hours of daylight left and had walked a mere three kilometres (our all-time record low), two weeks of soft home living, recreational eating and Facebook had rotted her moral fibre. Moreover, she had spent the previous night at her bestie’s birthday party, engaged in all-night Teenage Evil. Against the fallout of such activities, maternal exhortations were powerless, so we camped discreetly on the only piece of flat, bare ground we could find close to the track and outside the active Te Maari volcanic radius.
Sunday, 10 November
Tongariro Alpine Crossing to the Mangatepopo campsite (16 km)
We awoke to hear some eagerly early German trampers making comments from the nearby track about our nocturnal arrangements. “Bleh, bleh, bleh, kampeeeeng… bleh, bleh, bleh,” they said. Ach so, we had been spotted! Ja, we were camping. Ja we were pathetic. Now go avay.
The morning offered a brilliant view of the valley below and Lake Rotoaira layered with low cloud.
Above, and west of the path, the Ketetahi Springs exhaled gently, and to the east, from the dark, rough tongue of pyroclastic flow, white plumes of steam pressed upwards. As we got closer, the wind veered towards us, thrusting the odour of sulphur in our faces and allowing us to hear a dull and menacing hiss. “Do you feel like skipping over there and stirring up that kettle of crazy with a nice big stick?” I asked Hannah. “I’m good,” she declined. Honestly! Where is her sense of adventure?
The trail scribbled its way uphill alongside vegetation that gradually changed with the altitude. From shoulder-high scrub it became knee-high tussocky grass and other alpines. There were yellow daisies and tiny white flowers. Still higher on the mountain were hollows of snow between rocks bearing red and silvery lichens. The higher we went, and the harsher the habitat, the more the plants shrunk their leaves, shortened their stems and clenched themselves closer to the earth, until at last there was nothing but rocks and dead ground.
A Whop-whop-whop-whop overhead alerted us to the arrival of a helicopter. Oh yes. The superbly rich can charter an airchair view of the volcanic mountain range. The helicopter flew repeatedly and low over the pyroclastic flow on Te Maari and through its resentful blot of vapour. We watched with indignation. “How can they say they’ve seen the alps when they haven’t set foot on the ground?” I asked. “They haven’t got up close and personal with the rocks or the vegetation.” Hannah was in full agreement. “They haven’t done any work,” she said. “They’re just gigantic wusses.” There was no limit to our preening self-righteousness, our scorn – or our envy. I fear we are both deeply shallow. Just scratch our grubby trailblazing surface and underneath you’ll find two thwarted, squealing girlie-girls with pink blood and handbag dogs. You may wish to wash your hands nicely afterwards to remove the dark crescent of gunk from under your nails, but don’t use the Tongariro groundwater because it has got foofy nasty volcanic chemicals in it.
We had hoped to replenish our bottles at the Ketetahi hut, but discovered that the tanked water there was labelled undrinkable. In August 2012, the hut was damaged by a minor but significant eruption. The Department of Conservation decided not to repair it and within a three-kilometre radius of the crater, no walkers are now permitted to linger and no-one may stay overnight. The trail notes did not indicate whether the water at Mangatepopo would be drinkable, so to be safe, we melted some snow in our billy.
The Department of Conservation recommends the Tongariro Crossing be done from south to north, so all the trail operators drop their tourists at Mangatepopo and collect them at Ketetahi. The benefit for the walkers on this challenging route of major climbs and descents is that the last 9 km of the 21-km route is downhill for them. Of course, for purist Te Araroa trampers doing it from north to south, the first half of the trail is heavy going with a 15-Kg backpack. Worse is when the day’s first surge of walkers coming from the opposite direction meets you. By 11.30 am they comprise a steady flow, a bit like the happy class crocodile on a Sunday school picnic, and most of them want to greet you in the friendliest way. This is rather nice of them, but after a while you really don’t have the breath for pleasantries or the facial capacity for smiling. At some stage, your martyrdom to manners has to stop. I am no longer a purist. I think I should be upfront with you about that.
We passed at least 500 people on this day between 9.30 and 2.00. Tongariro is a World Heritage Site, so on a fair-weather day we should have expected the hordes. But we are used to seeing no-one for days on end and to having the lonely, clean and often hostile wilderness to ourselves, so it felt like an excessively mammalian day to us.
After we reached the top of North Crater, the track led us in a short descent to Blue Lake with its still, sick water and then on down to the bottom of the massive Central Crater. Above and in the distance, the Red Crater gaped, overlooked by Mount Ngauruhoe’s tight and sullen cone. Fully snow-covered, and hovering much further back, was Mount Ruapehu. We were bound for the skirts of Ruapehu and beyond, so the distance seemed huge from where we stood in this ancient, blasted moonscape.
Traversing Central Crater floor, we could see the path leading past an old, black lava flow and up to Red Crater. The steepness of the path was indicated by its spiking from side to side. The people streaming towards us on their descent from the 1886-metre summit were tiny little specks, only their movement and uniformity distinguishing them from the rocks. “Oh yay. I feel fresh and frisky for another climb!” trilled Hannah. Actually, I lie. She absolutely did not say that. However, if I am to transcribe accurately and uphold the truth, Google will shut me down and you’ll have to spend the money you’ve saved all year, to brighten the Christmas of orphans, by bailing me out of prison. I cannot ask this sacrifice of you.
Views of the three Emerald Lakes emerged as we laboured upwards. They’re beautiful, but not so much emerald as turquoise. If we’d been alone, we would have had a naughty little swim. This section of the track was the most arduous. There are steep drop-offs on each side and there is no stable surface to the path – it is nothing but sand and loose stones. For backsliding with each upwards step, it rivalled our July experience on the great northern orange dune, Herangi Hill. We threnodised all the way up. At the top, though, where Red Crater’s black edges sinking downwards into its rufous interior are fully exposed, the labour is justified. What an amazing sight, especially with those fierce colours in contrast to the almost kindergarten pastel blue of the lakes below.
There is another and rather startling feature to this crater. An unusual lava formation makes it look geologically pornographic. I can say no more in a public forum; let the picture speak for itself.
We descended once more, crossing the long and flat surface of South Crater and then climbing down past the base of Mount Ngauruhoe. LOTR fans may know that this volcano was filmed to represent Mount Doom, where the ring was forged by Sauron and destroyed after a fateful struggle between Frodo Baggins and Gollum. Yup, folks, technically we were passing the official Gollum barbecue site. I don’t think he would have sizzled much; his body fat was too low.
The path here is constructed on top of relatively young pyroclastic flow. You can see that the walk would otherwise be pretty much impossible through the loose, black stone. It would be like wading through a massive play pool of hazelnut clusters, but without any of the fun or nutritional value.
At last we reached Soda Springs and the many-channelled stream, which flowed south-west under a boardwalk for much of the way to the Mangatepopo Campsite. There, limbs trembling with exhaustion, we set up the tent.
Ah, a dung-drop toilet! Ah… a rainwater tank and tap! Our sleeping bags and a horizontal position! I bet the airchair travellers, tenderly administered to by a masseuse and helped into a spa bath where they were served cocktails, did not feel as good after their sightseeing as we did after our walk. How does their luxury compare to ours? How nice was it for them to stop? Comparatively speaking, ours was the greater luxury. The lady doth protest too much, but that’s her official position and she’s sticking to it.