The drive north is a long one. Google maps will try to sell you on 4+ hours. But the reality is much different. And if you are driving a little gas guzzling van with a little engine the difference is even more stark. So when four becomes six hours, what do you do?
We took an extra coffee break and reminisced about the road trips we used to take as kids. I detailed one experience where I forced my mother to play the Pocahontas soundtrack on repeat for days on end. Colors of the Wind has been etched into my memory ever since and I was only too eager to offer up my sing along reenactment as soon as I could make him find the song on Spotify. Denis made an off hand joke about how funny it would be to sing the song while we were on the trails. Done, sold, downloaded for offline use and I got to work replaying and re-memorizing every word and inflection. I tried to learn his songs too.
Raindrops are falling on my head
And just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed
Nothing seems to fit
Those raindrops are falling on my head, they keep falling
Apt because his feet are too big for the little van bed and rain was in the forecast for the next few days. We were going to need the warm hearted sign along songs for the rainy trail tramping that we were about to experience. Adele stepped in to mix things up and by sunset we rolled into Ohakune, the last town with a grocery store before the next big excursion, Tongariro Crossing.
The Tongariro Mountain is very relevant in Maori culture and history. So much so that the Maori lobbied with the Queen of England in the late 1800’s to protect it. And for good reason. In one hike across this mountain hikers will experience “steaming vents, glacial valleys, old lava flows, alpine vegetation and vivid crater lakes.” Not long after, in 1894 Tongariro National Park became the first National Park of New Zealand and the fourth in the world. Today it is also recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and also happens to be the filming location of Sauron’s infamous home, Mordor and Mount Doom! We were about to embark on Frodo’s final journey! Once the weather cleared. You can only go up when the weather cooperates and you have to book a shuttle which only operates when its safe to ascend.
To pass the time we opted to do a shorter hike to some smaller crater lakes. We swung past Taranaki Falls and over to Tama Lakes. At first glance it looks like a barren landscape. But when you get into the details of the brush there is rainbow of diversity — cherry wine colored moss, tussock grass patches that blend from yellow to orange to green all in a single blade, white and purple flowers, and greens of every shade and texture. Pictures will never do it justice. On the walk back rain accompanied us the whole way. We observed how the trail drain ways filled up and I was so proud of in my new Goretex jacket that I purchased on super sale just the day before. Denis wasn’t so lucky.
With the weather still in shambles the next day, we drove ourselves up to Taupo, a lakefront city with a free public park with natural hot springs. It was so wet and rainy when we got there that we didn’t even want to deal with the hassle of changing and figuring out a towel protection plan. I opted us into the community center which features three huge pools, hot showers, and a sauna. The warmest pool was outdoors but it was almost as warm as bath water and about the size of a house. The quality and design of community centers and public playgrounds in this country continue to impress me. We swam until after sunset, used the sauna and showers, had a nice dinner and then drove back down to National Park Village.
The shuttles for Tongariro Crossing would be running the next morning and we had to be ready again by 8am. The owner of the shuttle company allowed us to van camp in front of their house and we so appreciated the extra sleep time. Crazy Tracey, our shuttle driver the next morning, was born and raised in the area and shared all her knowledge with us on the way over. She detailed every section of the trail, its checkpoints, the history of the mountain and the village, the surrounding land owners and efforts of the Department of Conservation. She warned us that storm was coming in at 1 pm so we needed to get out of the crater by lunch time. If things got bad though, she was a volunteer on the search and rescue team and would come fetch us if needed. Wow. Ok.
The hike up the volcano was pretty good — sunny, mild and very scenic. We kept seeing cool rock formations and thinking, “Frodo might have hidden there!”
We moved up from a landscape of babbling brooks into scraggly old lava flows with some seriously jagged rock formations. This was definitely the birthing place of Sauron’s army. When we reached the first crater we had an excellent view of Mt. Doom.
We crossed to the other side and as we sat down for lunch we watched as a think wall of cloud moved straight toward us, covering our tracks and engulfing the slower hikers. No time to dilly-dally. Crazy Tracey wasn’t kidding.
Up to the next crater we went and then we were disarmed again my the magnitude of the landscape. The first crater and the second crater were completely different. Sulfuric gas was seeping from the sides of the trail.
As we tramped down the next hill our boots would sink into the cushy pile of rock rubble. At the bottom of the rubble are Blue Lakes which are flanked by large clouds of escaping gas. On our left was another flat lifeless looking landscape. Look back to the right side and ‘whoop! There’s a rainbow!
One kilometer later we hurdled ourselves over the last big hill and directly into a rain cloud. The whole 3 hour trek down the mountain was covered in either thick cloud cover or all out rain. The fog was surreal in its density. One’s imagination can run wild with either a sense of isolation or mysterious company.
During the last hour and a half the whole trail actually became a high-speed waterway. No high top boot or strategic step could save us now. It was sloshy time!
Somehow we ended up at the back of the pack and felt compelled to run through the tropical rain forest section at the end to catch our 3 o’clock shuttle back to town.
19.4 Kilometers, one volcano, and one wet rainstorm —all conquered by 3.02 pm. We earned ourselves a fancy dinner.