Te Araroa 4: Taumarunui to National Park (aka “The Tongariro Crossing”)

Morning all,

Welcome to another Te Araroa post.

Having spent a grand total of 5 days in Taumarunui (I decided I wanted a bit of a rest), I set off from the Taumarunui Holiday Park highly motivated and really looking forward to the next 7 days of walking over what claims to be New Zealand’s most popular walk, the Tongariro crossing. It was therefore with a smile on my face and a spring in my step that two lovely New Zealanders found me about 2 minutes (literally) after leaving the holiday park and offered me a lift to Owhango (which is another dull road section). On this (20km) journey I learnt a fair bit about the Maori culture of helping people and supporting folks, and so this explained why I keep getting offered lifts (I’m now on 6 offers of a lift, without having had my thumb out!). Suffice to say, when I reached Owhango (which was actually further than they were planning to go!) I had an ear to ear smile on my face, and was really glad to be able to do this trip, as it is teaching me loads about things I didn’t really expect to learn. I’m now determined to bring the kiwi culture of happiness and helpfulness back to the UK with me. I really recommend anyone who’s feeling a bit down about life to head out to and just get swept up in the spirit of the place.

From Owhango the trail runs over the 42nd traverse, a long track which is used for walking, cycling, dirt biking, quad biking, and 4x4ing. It runs through some beautiful forest, which is one of New Zealand’s few kiwi sanctuaries (the bird, not the fruit). unsurprisingly, I didn’t see any kiwis (the birds, not the people), but luckily I didn’t see too many quadbikes either, with 4 or 5 groups through the day, plus one group of cyclists, and a single bloke with a child, a dog, and a very large rifle, on a quadbike. Whilst I planned to camp near the start and near the end of the traverse, my lovely lift with lovely kiwis (and the increasing day length) meant that I actually got a lot further through the traverse than I planned, accidentally almost getting all the way through!

The beautiful forest of the 42nd traverse.

The beautiful forest of the 42nd traverse.

And a more "top down" view of the lovely forest.

And a more “top down” view of the lovely forest.

The next morning I was awoken at about 5:30 by the first quad bikes passing through, though they seemed to be alone, and so I quite quickly made it to the car park at the far end. Te Araroa actually diverts away from the 42nd traverse somewhere, but with tracks all over the place and signage woefully lacking, I missed this, and so came out a few kilometres down the road from where I should’ve done. Not to worry though, with Mt Tongariro to the south, the walk along highway 47 was pretty spectacular itself, so I wasn’t too bothered. Having accidentally hoofed it through the 42nd traverse, I made it to the Tongariro Base Camp around lunchtime. With no other places to stay before the Mangatepopo hut (on the far side of the Tongariro crossing) I just called it a day early, which was fairly fortunate, as I spent the afternoon feeling very nauseous, possibly due to a touch of sunstroke or dehydration, either way, I was quite happy to spend the afternoon. drinking water and sitting in cool rooms out of the sun. As an aside here, the sun in New Zealand is bonkers, while the temperature isn’t as high as in Australia, the sun is a lot more intense (due, I’m told, to the ozone layer being extremely thin over NZ), and so sun cream is essential all the time, and even with it on, I still find I’m getting lightly grilled each day.

A rare road picture, but not a bad view from the road...

A rare road picture, but not a bad view from the road…

Happily, the next morning I awoke highly energised and ready for the Tongariro crossing, and so set off around 7:30. There was a 7km walk from the camp to the start of the crossing, but as is becoming disturbingly normal, within 200m of leaving the campsite, someone pulled up and offered me a lift. Slightly unusually, this time it was a coach driver, on her way to pick up some folks to take round to the other side of the crossing (people drop their cars on one side, get the coach round to the other side, and then walk back to their cars). She pulled up, said “you’re one of those Te Araroa walkers aren’t you” and the rest is history… but exceptionally helpful, as we’ll soon find out.

The start of the crossing was extremely quiet, as it is usually walked from south to north, not north to south as I was doing it. It offered fantastic views over toward lake Rotoroa (which sadly I won’t be visiting) despite the low lying early cloud (which I had been assured would burn off by mid-morning). However up at the Ketatahi hut (roughly 2 hours in), which (somewhat disconcertingly) was damaged during a small eruption in 2012 and is now no longer functional, the view was obscured by volcanic gasses, and for the next hour or so, the whole area smelled of….bad things.

The beginning of the ascent, looking back at land I've covered (note the sketchy looking weather, it quickly brightened up).

The beginning of the ascent, looking back at land I’ve covered (note the sketchy looking weather, it quickly brightened up).

First time I've seen a warning sign like this

First time I’ve seen a warning sign like this

This was quite a long ascent, taking the best part of 4 hours with very little respite on flat ground (you could see why it’s normally walked the other way), but on reaching the plateau at the top (called blue crater, for obvious reasons) I was still feeling pretty healthy, it would seem that my fitness is improving. I had a little break at blue crater (I still need to learn to take more breaks through the day), and then started the “final” ascent to the highest point of the crossing, the red crater. This was largely loose gravel, and so made for pretty hard going on the way up, but the view from the top was really rather impressive.

Blue crater (photo taken later in the day). I think we may have found Tracy Island.

Blue crater (photo taken later in the day). I think we may have found Tracy Island.

Not a bad view, as views go.

Not a bad view, as views go.

On reaching the top, I met a pair of blokes who had just been up to Tongariro summit (about an hour and a half from the main trail and back, at a height of 1967m) and said the view was pretty spectacular from up there. Looking at my watch I saw that it was only half past 12, and would take about 2 hours to get down to Mangatepopo hut where I would stay that night. Plenty of time to take a little side trip. However I couldn’t help looking up at Mt Ngauruhoe, thinking “I bet the view is good from up there”. The Te Araroa book told me that Mt Ngauruhoe was 3 hours up and down, so I figured, if I’m going to go somewhere for a better view, I might as well get the best view I can.

…ah, the wisdom of naivety…

Following the suggestion of my bus driving friend, I stashed my big bag in amongst the boulder field at the base of the volcano (not thinking too much about how the boulders came to be there), taking all of the valuable stuff and putting it in a waterproof day pack (which is normally my food bag) for the ascent. Mt Ngauruhoe is an interesting climb (scramble) because there is no path up it, you just make your own way up. From the bottom looking up, this seems a bit odd (you would have thought there would be a common route up), but once you are 100m into the climb, you fully understand the reason. The whole mountain is symmetrical, virtually vertical, and entirely coated in very very loose scree to a depth of approx 50cm (not joking). This means that climbing up from any point is very similar to swimming against the current in water with a slightly higher viscosity than normal. If you stop, you either slide back down or (at best) settle on a slightly more stable pile of scree, where you can’t particularly relax your muscles (because then the scree will give way), and setting off again will begin with cartoon-style running (legs spinning round, but not actually moving) until you get some momentum. This makes it an exceptionally tiring climb, and really quite tough (with many expletives).

A perspective photo of general rock size up the whole mountain.

A perspective photo of general rock size up the whole mountain.

A perspective photo of the gradient and texture of the mountain.

A perspective photo of the gradient and texture of the mountain.

However, on reaching the summit, all of the pain and struggle of the ascent is forgotten, as the spectacular view of the whole Tongariro crossing is revealed. The summit of Mt Ngauruhoe marked a new high point (literally) for me, at a glorious altitude of 2287m, this is now the highest I have ever been on my own two feet.

The view of Tongariro from Ngauruhoe... Not bad.

The view of Tongariro from Ngauruhoe… Not bad.

The descent of Mt Ngauruhoe was a fair bit faster than the ascent. You pretty much take one step and the tide of scree carries you the rest of the way. By this point it was around 4 o’clock, and so I decided to start heading down to the Mangatepopo hut. Amazed at the amount of energy I still seemed to possess, I was down relatively quickly. The hut was along similar lines to other huts, but because it’s on one of the “Great Walks” (there are 7 “Great Walks” in New Zealand) I had to pay for it, even with my hut pass! I also discovered that the crossing had taken its toll on my boots, and the stitching on the inside of both boots was in the process of disintegrating! Having had 3 pairs of Scarpa footwear in the recent past (I have a pair of Cyclone boots back home, had a pair of Mojito shoes for the whole duration of Australia and a bit before it too, and now these Cyclone boots, which I’ve had for 2 months, but only really used since coming to NZ), I was shocked and appauled to find them falling apart after a month’s use! Sure, it’s been fairly tough use, but I’d expect a pair of boots to survive a heck of a lot more than 30 days in the field. Unfortunately, with this turn of events, and the weather set to deteriorate, I had to make haste toward somewhere I might be able to solve the problem.

From the hut, I then followed the Mangatepopo trail over heathland (side note: New Zealand’s heath is getting invaded by Heather (the plant, not a woman), which is an interesting juxtaposition with the state of Heather in the UK) which was very pleasant if somewhat cloudy and damp, to Whakapapa village. Whakapapa is a small ski resort/walking base which is dominated by the château Tongariro, a vast hotel which was built in 1929 for the gentry of the time, and is still rather a grandiose edifice on the landscape. Whilst staying in the château is highly recommended by all of the guidebooks etc, for an unemployed person who is living off a small pile of savings, it’s a little over my head. I compromised by getting a small coffee in the cafe/restaurant there (which I must admit was very good, and not outrageously overpriced), and sitting in the ludicrous warmth (the heating was pushed to 11!) for a while, before heading out to find the Whakapapa campsite, more within my price range.

A nice bit of heathland.

A nice bit of heathland.

That night the rain began and didn’t stop until around lunchtime the following day. This tested my tent to the max, and I’m pleased to say it held out fairly well, though the tent area quickly became a boggy pile of mulch. Sadly I had to leave while it was still utterly bucketing down, and so my tent was totally soaked when I packed it up, and everything else was totally soaked after an hour or so of walking (in sandals – my only other footwear!). It only took about 3 hours to get to National Park Village though, and so I quickly checked into the YHA hostel there, and started drying stuff. With the problem that I can’t send the boots off to be replaced (I’d then have no boots for a while, and it would cost tons), I’ve resorted to taking a photo and sending it to Scarpa to complain, and in the meantime I found some boot seam sealer (made by the same folks who make tenacious tape – bomb proof tent repair stuff) in the National Park Petrol station (the best stocked petrol station I’ve ever seen!) to fix them up, so we’ll see how that goes.

Now all that remains is to fix my boots, and see what the weather is due to do for the next week or so. In the meantime, I will write Ed’s equipment post (I think I figured out a way to make it “not the most boring post the world has ever seen”) and hopefully schedule that for release in a few days.

Until next time.

Dave

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