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Terra Australis Incognita

Volcano Hopping

NEW ZEALAND | Wednesday, 14 January 2009 | Views [777]

The only highlight of my brief second stop in Wellington was the giant squid on display at the national museum. It was pretty gross. Giant squids only inhabit great depths with strong pressure, so when they are pulled to the surface, they kind of decompress and come apart, like people would on Mars or something. So it was missing an eyeball, some tentacles and much of its formerly bright red skin, but you still got a sense of the frightening immensity of such a creature - especially as it's an invertebrate, which in all other environments can't even approach that kind of size.

I was headed back to Tongariro National Park to give the Tongariro Crossing another go. When I had hiked it the first time about a month before, the clouds and wind had been too bad to see anything for the most part, and my camera ran out of batteries besides. But this was a major highlight for me, and I wasn't going to give up so easily.

But first I decided to hike Mt. Ruapehu. This is maybe the most impressive single mountain I've ever seen. It's flanks seem to have more snow than almost any other peak in New Zealand, and it is massively wide. It has a ski resort, which I took a shuttle halfway to and hitched the rest of the way. The lifts still operate in the summer for hikers, and I was surprised at the number of doughy tourists and their families going up to give it a try. The dour ranger at the visitor's center had told me crampons and icepicks were required, and that going on an expensive tour was a good idea. So I thought it was all a bunch of cautionary nonsense as I rode up the lift, which was plenty scenic in itself, with good views of the Tongariro volcanoes and the top of Ruapehu itself. The top didn't seem that far of a climb.

The first part beyond the top of the lift was a tough rock scramble with no trail to speak of. That was the easy part, because then I saw what the ranger was talking about: a vast, steep bowl of snow that I would have to climb. I had to side shuffle, spider crawl between rock islands, and make up a lot of ground between sliding. I managed to get beyond the snow by going up the side of this bowl, but I still had to climb loose rocks and muddy sand up an extremely steep slope. The top always seemed "almost there" - but a new horizon of rock kept appearing.

But then I made it - not to the top, but to the top of a ridge which made for a more level climb to the summit, which is really more like a wide basin where I assume the volcano erupts. The walk beyond this was a spectacular white landscape with rings of jutting rock cutting through the snow. And then, my destination: the steaming crater lake of Ruapehu, situated in a deep bowl surrounded on three sides by a jagged ridge. I really hadn't thought I'd make it, and the feeling of being there was just incredible. Getting down was an absolute blast, too. Instead of fighting the slip and slide that comes with ascending a snowy slope, you just go with it and butt-ski the whole way down! It's numbing, and a bit of a thrill when you're going too fast to stop and there are rocks below, but fantastic fun nonetheless. And I even saw another ice cave on the way down, with a river running between the rock and a shelf of snow above.

So the next day was my final showdown with Tongariro, and while there were clouds, they were all on distant horizons. Everything was clear, and being able to actually see my surroundings made it seem as if I had never been there before. When I reached the lip of the Red Crater, which is the highest point of the trail and it's highlight, the whole Tongariro complex was visible: the archetypal volcano Mt. Ngaruhoe, with its nearly perfect cone shape, the deep crimson of the Red Crater itself, the Emerald Lakes, sparkling in the sun this time like jewels, the more distant Blue Lake, and the desolate volcanic landscape all around, up close and into the far distance. But the trail was no less exhausting, and the swim in the idyllic babbling brook in the forest below never felt better.

I had struggled for a long time to figure out what to do next, but decided to continue on my volcano tour and go to the Taranaki region, home of the volcano of the same name, which was actually visible on my climb of Mt. Ruapehu.

Besides "The Mountain" as it's called, Taranaki is known for its great surf. So that was another drawcard, as well as the famous "experimental art" museum in the region's capital, New Plymouth. I went surfing first, at the town's main beach. But despite this, it was relatively uncrowded, especially as the surf fluctuated during the day. But when it was going, it was such great surf - the waves were all groundswells, breaking cleanly in the calm water. As always, the limiting factor was my own skill. But these were great waves to learn on, and between either wiping out or not picking up enough momentum, I did get some good rides, and I think I felt myself improving.

But I paid dearly for it. I forgot how little overcast skies block UV rays, and neglected to somehow get sunscreen on my lower back, which developed one of the most painful and long lasting burns I've ever endured.

That night was a free concert at the local park, part of a month-long festival with events every night. It was an (all white) kiwi afrobeat band, which is kind of like jazz with an african...beat. They were alright, but the park was amazingly lit up, including a waterfall that had changing colored lights for each of its terraces.

I took it easy the next day, which was rainy anyway, and checked out that "experimental" museum. I thought most of the art was kind of trite or uninspiring, as so much modern art can be, but the exhibits by internationally-famous kiwi Len Lye were pretty cool, including a trippy animation that seemed to show weird microbes evolving, and a big electrically powered metal band that rolled back and forth while hitting a hanging ball to make cool sounds.

But then it was time to experience the big mountain, but I was ready for a relaxed hike that just took in the views rather than climb it, as I felt fulfilled in volcano climbing after Ruapehu. A two day circuit skirting the mountain and weaving through the adjacent Pouakai range was recommended to me by a local, so I did that.

The first day of the hike undulated back and forth along and between the spines of the mountain, whose upper reaches were inevitably and annoyingly shrouded in cloud. But the views beyond were quite good, including a massive bubble of dried lava that had cracked, creating a deep gorge, and very ecologically important and fragile swamp between Taranaki and the Pouakais.

The trail crossed this swamp next, and steeply traversed the Pouakai mountains up the hut, my accomodation for the night. I had been mildly anxious it would be full and I would have to sleep on the ground, as reservations cannot be made for this hut, but I was the only one there. In fact, between crossing the swamp and at the end of the trail, a period of over 24 hours, I saw not a single fellow human being. Just before the hut was a fantastic view of Taranaki - the clouds were finally parting. And on the other side, the twinkling lights of New Plymouth far below began to shine, with the Tasman Sea beyond. I had to build a fire to boil water for my dehydrated meal, which took me maybe an hour, but was highly satisfying when I did, as I was extremely hungry and getting the wood lit from matches alone had been a challenge. And just as I had a fire roaring, the clouds were alight in one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen, and Taranaki was finally free of clouds. It was just about perfect, and I slept more that night in the hut than I have in the past month.

The next day was harder, with my sunburn flaring to new levels of pain, and the trail becoming a rough, vaguely defined path through a rugged, wet rainforest, crossed by a multitude of ravines and streams with only roots for steps up and down the muddy, steep slopes. But there are few things more satisfying than the completion of a multiday hike, and few better excuses to pig out on kumara fries and mint fudge afterwards.

So that brings me to Auckland for the grand finale: a surfing, trekking, and snorkelling tour through the far north of New Zealand, which I'm in the midst of as you read this.



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