Leaving Napier we headed straight for Lake Taupo and the nearby Tongariru National Park, the only place we agreed is a must-visit before heading towards the South Island.
The area called Tongariru National Park is the first national park in New Zealand. It is named after Mt Tongariru, an impressive and awe inspiring active volcano scared to Maori. Maori of the 19th century realized that the only way to preserve this region, sacred and important to them, from Pakeha (white people) is to give it to the government as a gift with the condition to declare it a national park.
Little did they expect the masses of tourists walking through the national park in nowadays. And us, so far only having experienced the quite and tranquil Lake Waikaremoana in the Te Urewera National Park were no less surprised. At points of the track you feel like lining up in a supermarket queue. I was reminded of my previous adventure when I climbed Mt Fuji.
It was partly our fault though, choosing the most popular track through the national park: the one day Tongariru Alpine Crossing.
In one day you head straight for Mt Tongariru and the other volcanoes at the centre of the park, climb the devil's staircase up to the top of the mountains, passing sulphurous steaming hot springs and then on a slow and steady downwards path to a parking lot at the other side of the mountains. There are other walks, the second most popular being the Tongariru Great Walk, a circle walk around Tongariru National Park of several days.
Even though it was a day trip, we decided to test our newly bought professional hiking backpacks. They were a little oversized for the little luggage we had to carry, but we wanted to see if they would proof superior to our old ordinary ones. Also since it was an Alpine crossing, despite of spring/summer we packed lots of warm clothes including gloves and woollen hats. So in the end our weight wasn't that light anyhow and people would eye us curiously. Still the backpacks were worth their money: they evenly distributed the weight giving us no trouble to carry them over the mountains. :-) What a relief after our pains and struggles at Lake Waikaremoana.
The first part of the track was fairly flat and easy. We crossed through minimal vegetation slowly giving way to more and more frozen lava gravel from the volcanoes. Volcanic landscape might seem barren at first, but with all the different colours covering red, black, grey, purple, orange and yellow rocks, it is truly an amazing sight and sensation. Bilge Rat even found me a pebble containing all the listed colours. The only downside was the incredible mass of people. With us being below the average speed we had to let hurried people cross all the time, which was a bit tiresome. At least we made a game out of it and guessed which of the hikers were Kiwis and which weren't. It was quite easy though. Kiwis were less hurried, always greeted us and were apparently more polite and friendly, while in the eyes of tourists we appeared to be an annoying obstacle in their way (at best they heeded no attention to us and simply ignored us).
A small side trip after the flat part lead us to the soda springs. While the springs itself were less impressive parts of the water, that we had to cross to get there, was shimmering in all the colours of the rainbow reminding us of spilled oil. I fear it's hard to see in the picture without the sunlight reflection. It might be connected to liquid sulphur? We'll have to ask Bilge Rat's father.
The Devil's Staircase
Now the climbing started. It was less tiresome than we expected and our backpack's made worth of their money. Also we found a nut mix called "Maggie's Mix" (containing various dried fruits, nuts and chocolate peanuts and yoghurt covered raisins) is an amazing source of energy and motivation giver on hikes. So we had no problem to get to the next sight: the Red Crater. Crossing a huge glacially carved basin (wrongly called South Crater) we already could see the devil's staircase, we were warned about before the trip. There were even warning signs at the beginning of this part of the track urging you to turn back if your fitness level is low. We breathed in deep and started climbing. It was very steep and at parts slippery. Good thing was the staircase wasn't that long, just steep. When we made good half of it, we laughed at each other about the warnings, still being in good shape to proceed. However just as I started becoming careless a teenage girl in front of us also got careless, slipped and fell down some meters luckily her fall being stopped by a little platform. People got to her and helped her back to the track. She got some heavy bruises and was in big pains but luckily enough seemed to have all her bones unbroken. After that Bilge Rat warned me to be less carefree and we proceeded with caution. Also at this point we started breathing more heavily. So it wasn't that easy after all and we were pretty happy and relieved when we reached the top.
|you can see the devil's staircase in the back|
The climb was very rewarding. The view from the top was magnificient. And there were so many spectacular things to see. The first was the Red Crater. Our little guide pamphlet explains that here the magma took an unusual sideways path to the top which gave the whole crater an intense red colour. Getting close to the border you can see were the magma came out of the rock. Looking at it Bilge Rat asked me: "You know what it looks like?" and we started laughing.
|the red crater|
|close up of the magma hole|
The next sight was no less impressive. A little down from the crater were two magnificent lakes on top of the mountains. Their colour was like the colour of emeralds. The reason for the colour are leached minerals diluted in the water. The lakes are sacred to the Maori, so swimming in the lakes and eating besides the lake should be avoided. Another side trip would have allowed us to actually climb to the top of Mt Tongariru. But we were afraid to miss our ride home, so we only got a little closed to it and then returned to the main track.
The main track lead further across the mountain tops. The scenery didn't start to become less amazing. We had to cross little mountain streams, fields of ice and snow and frozen lava ever changing in colour until we reached the other end of the mountain chain, where the path lead downwards again.
And down we went in what seemed like an endlessly wiggling spiral path. When we reached the next station: Ketetahi Hut, we started to smell sulphur. A little further were the Tongariru Hot Springs, where we were told you can take a relaxing bath in hot volcanic water. However due to the mass of tourists they were closed to the public and you need to make special arrangements with the local Maori. Later a lady told us that in earlier days she would go up to Ketetahi Hut, book a bunk for the night, and walk over to the hot springs when the sun went down. Then relaxing in the hot water she would enjoy the stars unfolding over her...
|bilge rat crossing ice and snow|
|it smelled like sulphur everywhere|
Alas this was not to be for us, so we went further down to catch our bus. We couldn't see the hot springs, but we saw and smelled lot of sulphur gas coming out of the ground. After that the vegetation steadily grew thicker with white sun bleached branches giving way to bushland finally going over to beech forest. A path through the forest then brought us to a car park, where we waited for the bus to take us back to our car.
Turangi Hot Springs
We still didn't want to miss a relaxing bath in hot springs after the strenuous walk. So we checked the surrounding area for public accessible hot springs. We narrowed our search to the little town of Turangi, since we had enough of tourist masses which probably all headed back to Taupo. Searching Turangi we indeed found the springs and were surprised to be the only non-Kiwis there. In fact for a little while, we were the only visitors of the pools. Later we were joined by an old Kiwi lady with her grand daughter, who told us of Tongariru in older times. Even later an army truck unloaded a heap of soldiers, which were intimidating but friendly and always kept a distance to us and the lady. So we had our relaxing bath after all.
That day we slept like babies in our little van. :)