We arrived in Taupo nice and early, but had a fairly decent and heavily laden walk to our campsite. We were back to camping for the last time on the north island which was a nice thought. We were also both looking forward to having a car and not needing to carry all of our stuff, which seems to have multiplied and we estimate now weights upwards of 30kg total including food. It was a tough walk, but we made it and got a lovely sheltered campsite on the overpriced holiday park. This gave us time for lunch in the sun, showers and then a lakeside walk and a stroll through town. Though not cheap and lacking free wifi, the Kiwi campsite had great and spotless facilities and the staff was very friendly and helpful. Taupo is a decent sized town with plenty of souvenir shops and cafes. It also has every fast food chain going including McDonalds with a plane. The cliffside walk along the lake was really nice, but the breeze a little chilly and too many clouds to see the mountain.
In the morning we set off to see the Huka falls and had a lovely walk along the Waikato river. We skipped the Otumuheke hot springs as it was getting fairly busy. The Huka falls are impressive as they funnel a wide river through a narrow gap and up to 340 cubic metre (it was about 200 when we were there) per second thunder through only to be swirled out the other end in a sea of foam. It’s not surprising that people have lost boats and lives to these falls as they really look dangerous. We later learnt that people kayak down them and survive.
We crossed the river and carried on for another 2km through the forest by the side of the sparkling blue river. We made it to the Huka honey farm where we learnt about bees and honey and got to try about 15 different honeys and a few meads. Honey is big in New Zealand and not just because they have Manuka plants which enable bees to produce antibacterial honey, but also because the average New Zealander eats around 2kg of honey per year!
Different flowers definitely give the honey a range of different tastes, but some of them were far too sweet or floral for our tastes. We enjoyed an ice cream and ‘buzzer’ coffee (Latte with chocolate and honey) in the garden before we retraced our steps back to our campsite. We had a lovely walk and then got on with the serious task of carb loading. Our burritos did the job and we went to bed early in preparation for a very early start.
Our earliest wake up in a long time found us slipping out of our sleeping bags at 5am. It was still dark and there was frost inside the outer layer of our tent, but thankfully, the hot tea and huge bowl of porridge started to warm us from the inside. At 5:40 our bus arrived and we were off to pick up our guide and the rest of the group with whom we would complete the Tongariro crossing. The trip leader Jar was next and he began giving us our equipment. This included jackets, backpacks, trousers, boots, crampons, ice axes and helmets. As the bus sped towards the mountains we saw the sunrise turn them orange and then pink. Finally we arrived and received a brief, checked our equipment and we were on our way.
The Tongariro crossing is famous as being on of the best one day alpine hikes in the world. The route is 19.4km in length and takes you through a pass of active volcanoes. During summer up to 2500 people walk the track each day, but lucky for us it was spring and our group was only 10 strong including the guide. The recent weather had called off all trips to the mountains, but we were lucky that we arrived in Taupo as the weather turned, so we had glorious blue skies and a fair bit of snow to traverse.
Our group set off fast and we were a little rushed to take photos and keep up with our group. The start took us along a stream in a volcanic valley with black basalt rocks. The valley had obviously been a little cold overnight, because in some places the stream had frozen into beautiful ice sculptures. As we walked, the mountain of Ngauruhoe grew larger in his big snowy blanket. This valley was in fact used in the filming of the Lord of the Rings (as Mordor) and walking through it we could totally see the barren unforgiving look that it has in the films. Interestingly, only the bottom two thirds of the mountains were used as the top is sacred to the Maori. Maori believe that the mountains are their ancestors with the summits being sacred (tapu), and each tribe has its own legends about the mountain.
Once we had conquered the double staircase it was time to learn how to use our equipment. It was really fun to learn how to slide down the mountain and dig in the ice axe to stop. We had a few goes learning the normal technique (‘Self arrest’) and then we had a bit more fun learning how to do it upside down. This was a little more challenging, so hopefully we wouldn’t be falling head first down any mountains soon. Next, we learnt how to put on our crampons and walk like cowboys before a test walk across the ice. From there the only way was up.
The fun side of learning to use an ice axe
We felt like explorers as we crampon-ed our way across the ice uphill. The ice itself was beautiful. In some places it had formed into cotton wool ball-like shapes so it looked like we were walking on clouds and in others it was slick like an ice rink or blown into ripples. Anything that stood up above the ground had a layer of rime ice formed into horizontal icicles. We were told to concentrate on climbing and watch out feet, but the views were breathtaking and the ice formations mesmerising. We reached the first hummock and were greeted with a whole range of snow capped mountains.
There wasn’t much more climbing left, but it was the most edgy part with a big drop down to our left. We were happy we knew how to stop ourselves from falling to the bottom again and knew we could enjoy the views. Reaching the top to turn around and take in the full panorama was marvellous. The next bonus was the revelation that we would be having lunch in a heated shallow caused by a fumarole so our bottoms would be toasty warm.
Despite the heated seats there was an icy wind and we had to move on before we got cold. Our guide revealed we might be sliding down parts of the mountain which sounded a little terrifying to Zoë. We walked along to the sliding gully and our guide went first to test that it wasn’t too icy. He gave us the all clear and it was our turn to remove our crampons and slide around 70 vertical meters down the mountain. A first for both of us and it was awesome.
From there, we crossed the frozen lakes without our crampons but as we climbed out of the crater the ice became impassable and we had to put them back on. That meant another hour crunching through the snow with the lakes coming more and more into view. Soon the snowy peaks behind us were out of view and the panorama of the lakes was in front of us.
As the snow thinned we passed craters and fumaroles and descended down the mountain. Bizarrely, the mountain sides are covered in heather which was introduced to form a grouse moor, so they look just like Scottish hillsides. Our final view of the snowy peaks came around all too soon and then we were in the forest. 3km later we reached the end of our trail and shortly after the bus arrived complete with finishers beer.
The Tongariro crossing is an incredible winter hike and we were thrilled that we went with such a great company on a glorious day. We couldn’t contemplate doing it with 2498 other people, when the volcanoes are black and barren and the sun beating down. Plus there would be no sliding or beautiful ice formations.
The only downside to crossing in winter was that we missed out on seeing the Emerald and Blue Lake.
The next day we made an early morning walk to the Omtuheke hot springs to steam away our sore muscles.