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Sunday 9 Feb 2014
National Park, New Zealand

National Park volcanoes

My luck with the weather seemed to have broken as I spent most of the day driving through intermittent, heavy rain showers.  I’d hoped James would be able to come down and meet me at National Park so we could walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing together tomorrow, but it had been impossible to find a bus which would get him here in time after sailing on Breeze today.  I pottered around Taupo before setting off for the drive down to National Park.  I’d booked into the hostel there in the hopes of meeting some people who I could do the walk with tomorrow or the next day, once the weather had sorted itself out a little.

The drive down was beautiful, but somewhat distorted by the rain.  The wild heathland reminded me of Scotland in some places, while the distant mist-covered hills were more reminiscent of North Wales. 

I arrived in pouring rain and checked into the hostel, then cooked myself some lunch and set up camp with my laptop in the common room.  There were a few people around who had done the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the day before and got caught in the rain a few times.  I didn’t have full mountaineering equipment with me, but I had plenty of layers, waterproofs, a hat and decent shoes, so I should have been ok, but I was still not prepared to set off alone. 

As today’s walkers got back, I heard stories of beautiful sunshine and cold wet mist, making the trek more difficult.  This is the downside of a solo road trip: not having company to do things with.  I’d driven down here with the intention of doing this walk – in fact it was one of the reasons for coming back to New Zealand, as I hadn’t been able to do it last year – but now that I was here, I didn’t want to go alone.  The Crossing is known as one of the best one-day walks in New Zealand and having seen some of what New Zealand has to offer, that’s a big claim to live up to.  It’s an 8-hour trek through quite tough terrain and the weather can set in with very little notice.  I’m certainly capable of doing the walk, but I’m not daft enough to set off alone where nobody knows me or knows where I am and without a radio or means of calling for help.  I decided to pass on tomorrow’s climb and see if I met anyone the next day to walk with.

The common room and kitchen looked out across the heath towards the distinctive cone of Ngauruhoe, better known to millions of Tolkein fans as Mount Doom.  As the sun began to set behind the hostel, it illuminated the front of the volcano in a glorious golden orange light.  As the sun dropped further and the shadow line crept up higher, the clouds at the top of the cone began to change from orange to red.  It looked like Ngauruhoe was erupting.  I joined the line of people out in the garden with phones, cameras and iPads trying to capture the effect.

National Park is dominated by its three huge active volcanoes, grouped together in the middle of the Central Plateau.  Ruapehu is the biggest and most active of the three – my photos from last year show clouds of steam billowing up into the sky, one of the reasons why I didn’t do the Crossing then.  In 1945, an eruption blocked the crater lake and caused water levels to rise, which caused New Zealand’s biggest natural disaster.  The swelling water finally burst the dam on Christmas Eve, 1953, sweeping down the mountain and taking out a railway bridge just moments before a crowded train arrived.  The train crashed down the ravine and killed all 153 people on board.

Tongariro is the shortest volcano with an uneven summit covered in coloured lakes, remnants of various craters and the minerals brought up by its eruptions.  The Tongariro Crossing passes through many of these stunning features, as well as scrubland, podocarp forest and bare scree slopes.  Lastly, Ngauruhoe has the classic symmetrical cone shape of a single vent volcano, which made it the perfect setting for Mount Doom.

Having decided not to go to Tongariro, I drove around to Ruapehu instead.  I passed through the village of Whakapapa and on up the road up to the ski fields.  I’ve walked and driven up several mountains and volcanoes in the course of this great adventure and I never get bored of seeing the terrain change and the views stretch out below.  My plan today was to ride the two chairlifts up to the ski fields.  There’s a two-hour loop walk around the Crater Lake from the top of the chair, followed by an hour’s walk back down to the car park.  Unfortunately, the weather had set in already and the top chairlift was closed.  I still went up as far as I could with the first chairlift, which was fine as we set off.  10 minutes later, I was huddled into myself against the cold wind and starting to wish I’d got a pair of alpaca gloves to go with the hat I'd bought in Ecuador. 

Between the two chairlifts, there was a lonely plateau of red-brown scree and very little else.  The second chairlift disappeared up into the clouds ahead and the wind whistled through, threatening to blow me over the edge to the path back to the car park.  This reinforced my decision not to climb Tongariro, but it limited my plans today.  I walked slowly back down with a lady from Colorado, talking about the Government Shutdown in America last year.  She was quite scathing about the Republicans and the behaviour of the Senate.  I bought a drink and a bowl of hot chips to warm myself back up again and enjoyed the views from the shelter of the café.

As I drove down the road again, I saw a bright orange coach coming the other way.  It was a Stray Bus, the company I’d travelled around the South Island and Laos with last year.  When it got close enough to see the driver, I realised it was Nat, who I’d travelled with from Abel Tasman to Queenstown.  It put a smile on my face to see her again, if only for a moment.

I stopped just past Whakapapa to follow a short trail down to the Tawhai Falls.  The shallow river splits and drops about 20 feet in two jets, collecting in a deep pool below.  In contrast to the biting wind and clouds up on Ruapehu, the sun was bright and warm down here and I almost wished I had my swimming things.  I had just got back in the car and pulled out of the lay-by when the Stray Bus came down the hill behind me.  It followed me all the way back to National Park village and I was sure they were going to stop at the same hostel as me.  I know the Tongariro Crossing is one of the options on the North Island Stray passes, so I was pleased at the thought of catching up with Nat again and doing the walk with them tomorrow.  Unfortunately, when I pulled into the hostel, the bus kept going and disappeared out of sight.  Oh well.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in the bar next door and carried on sorting through my photos, trying to get them back into the right folders and working out which ones, if any, were missing.  I seem to have lost one card’s worth of pictures from Napa Valley, Alcatraz, Muir Woods and the video of driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.  I’m sorry to lose those but at least Ailsa was with me then so I can get copies of hers instead.

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