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Terra Australis Incognita

North Island: Rafting, Boiling Waterfalls, Steaming Craters, and Crossing Mordor

NEW ZEALAND | Sunday, 7 December 2008 | Views [1731]

The last few days have been slower ones spent in Wellington, where I've been WWOOFing at someone's house a few minutes walk from downtown. It's been a good chance to figure out my next steps, explore a city, enjoy the fantastic weather (it's in the 70s and the kiwis complain of the heat...pah!) and of course keep you lovely people updated. It's also AWESOME to sleep in a bed again, as the last few nights in hostels were pretty terrible.

Anyway, I think I left off at Uncle Boy's. After a night sleeping in the marae, we left for Rotorua, New Zealand's geothermal capital. But the tour didn't stop at any of those attractions, and just as well - there would be better and less touristed geysers and hot pools further south. Instead, we went white water rafting. I wasn't going to do this at first, because it's something I can do at home. But this river includes the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, so I thought it'd be worth a go. The trip was very short, but great fun getting sloshed around, and the scenery was fantastic - mossy, fern covered cliffs framed by a perfect blue sky. They took some great photos, including of the big waterfall, which I'd recommend you check out (link on right).

Then it was on to Taupo, a town next to the biggest crater lake in the world, where the largest recorded volcanic eruption took place, in 181 AD, and where many much larger eruptions occurred before that. There's a very large snow-capped volcano behind the lake, so it all makes for a very picturesque setting.

The next day's weather report for the Tongariro Crossing, which is the best one day hike in NZ and a big highlight for me, was poor, and I also wanted to see some geothermal things in the area, so I stayed behind in Taupo.

I woke up with a cold, and the shuttle to the best geothermal area in NZ, Orakei Korako, wasn't running for lack of passengers, so it wasn't the best start to the day. Instead I went to Craters of the Moon, another major geothermal site which featured steaming craters of various size, formed by the buildup of gas underground and the subsequent collapse of the gas pockets. I forgot my camera, so no pictures, unfortunately. But Orakei Korako, which I fortunately was able to see the next day, (despite, again, there being no other passengers for the shuttle) had similar things and much more.

The major feature at Orakei Korako are silica terraces, which are a series of escarpments of silica rock psychedelically marbled white, orange, and brown. I think they are formed by mineral buildup from the thermal water that constantly flows down them. Within these terraces are geysers, steaming holes, and cyan-blue hot pools, the most beautiful of which was called the "artist's pallete". There's also some mud pools and a "geothermal cave" with clear, warm water underground which was apparently used at one time by Maori women as a mirror. On the way back, just as I passed it, a geyser built in the side of one of the terraces suddenly started erupting, sending a gush of boiling, steaming water down the face of the terrace. I was right next to the top of this geyser, so I couldn't see the flow too well from my vantage point, but when I ran down to the bottom, it had already abated. Still pretty cool.

The next day I finally got to do the Tongariro Crossing. This is a 12 mile hike over a vast variety of terrain that is notorious for unpredictable weather. In fact, the crossing had been closed the previous day. Low clouds and moderate winds were the forecast on the day I walked it, but I'd soon understand the futility of predicting the weather in this place.

The trail had an ominous aura at its start: low clouds hung over a desolate, treeless landscape, with nothing but colorful lichens and mosses to cover the otherwise barren reddish-brown rocks. Soon a light drizzle began which went on and off, and the floodplain I now walked over had a million little trickles running through it. The Mordor analogies began here, with the landscape looking a lot like the ghost swamp from the movies.

Then the trail went upwards and upwards, and the low clouds turned into a complete fog. Only craggy outcroppings could be seen through the mist, and there was nothing to see of that fantastic scenery we had all come here for. Then as the trail relentless went up, the wind picked up...a lot, blowing wet, cold mist all over any exposed surface. A stream of would-be hikers were coming the other way, apparently turned around by the warden. This worried me, but there was no sight of him as I reached the top of this section. Next was kind of a break, a flat walk over the sandy, desert landscape of a huge volcanic crater. The feeling here was so Mordor I half-expected orcs to come shambling out of the mist. But then there was the hike up the other side of the crater, and here it  might as well have been the hike up Mount Doom (side note: one of the three volcanoes in this park, the one right next to Tongariro, which is the most conical one in the pictures I have, was in fact Mount Doom from the movies). Up until now, there had been helpful steps leading up all of the inclines. Not here. Instead it was a very slow trudge up black sand and gravel on an extremely steep incline against tropical-storm force gusts. But I nevertheless reached the "top", where there would have been a spectacular view of the "red crater". Not today. But further on, the famed Emerald Lakes, and the still-steaming volcanic slopes leading down to them were close enough to the trail to be seen, and the clouds were even clearing at times - but my camera ran out of battery power. So a very nice couple took my picture next to one of the Emerald Lakes and miraculously emailed it to me. My hands were so cold and numb it was a struggle just to write my address.

Further on was the alpine zone, still bereft of trees but sporting a quilt of colorful lichen on the rocks, and plenty of glacier-like snowbanks. And then I reached the south slope of the mighty volcano - to see a spectacular view all the way across the mountains to Lake Taupo, for which I have no picture of course.

The trail was completely downhill from here, and after I left the volcanic zone behind (a hot stream crossed the trail at one point), low scrub quickly gave way to tall shrubs, which eventually gave way to a beautiful forest. By now, the sun had long burnt away the clouds, and the air was warm, sunny except for the shade of the trees, birdsong was in the air, and a picture-perfect stream bubbled over mossy stones. I had gone from Mount Doom to Hobbiton in less than two hours. Soon I had made it to the end, but not without a sense of dissapointment - I did the crossing, which was satisfying in itself, especially given the conditions, but hadn't seen the best of it - and then when I actually could see some of the best of it, my damn camera decided not work. Hell, I might do it again.



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