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Jason Burgess

Where the earth meets the sky: Mount Ngauruhoe under heavy cloud above Oturere Valley.

From high above the Rangipo Desert on the lunar-like eastern flank of Tongariro National Park, the giant energy-carrying pylons that tower over State Highway 1 look no bigger than Transformer toys. The volcanic summits of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, snow long gone, brood under a veil of cloud. Sporadic sunbursts on the track ahead transform ochre and grey scoria into pools of mauve and yellow. There is no sound other than our footsteps. 

This is day three on the Tongariro Northern Circuit walk. Having spent the morning of our second day among the bustle of Tongariro Crossing day trippers, we now feel like the only people on the planet. This primordial terrain lies at the southern end of a 2500-kilometre-long chain of volcanoes spanning the fault line where the Pacific Plate subducts under the Indo-Australian Plate. The term 'active' is an understatement. Looking back, I can trace our passage by the steady plumes of volcanic steam floating from a ridge line above the Emerald Lakes. Since the 2012 eruptions the rocks up there have remained warm to the touch. 

Mountain safety is paramount to the Department of Conservation rangers who man the three back-country huts. Each night lodgers receive a briefing before their passes are checked. Last night at Oturere hut, the understated Boyd began his with, "If you hear a tsunami warning, you're pretty safe. But if you see or hear a cloud of ash, rock and toxic gases rushing towards you, this would be a good time to get out of the way. Don't run away; move to the side of it. If it's lava though, head for higher ground."

A convergence of trampers receives a reminder of the 
risks of walking on the shoulder of Mount Tongariro

Jason Burgess

 

A convergence of trampers receives a reminder of the risks of walking on the shoulder of Mount Tongariro

His anecdotal avalanche continues. "My sister experienced the Ngauruhoe eruption in 1975 on a one-day school trip. I've been coming up here for nine months and I have yet to see one. I have eruption envy! On average Ngauruhoe has a blow every nine years. We're long overdue, so stay safe."

Visitor numbers to the park have been growing exponentially since it starred as a backdrop in The Lord of the Rings films; legions of LOTR fans make their pilgrimage to the Tongariro Crossing section of the track. It's easy to see where Sir Peter Jackson found his inspiration.

In the space of an hour the fantastical landscape can morph from post apocalyptic, with ancient calderas that appear fashioned by the fist of some hard-hitting giant, to vast, rolling scree fields pocketed with random flower gardens that look as manicured as those of a Japanese temple. At other times I half expect a posse of Navajo horsemen to come charging out of the saw-tooth canyons.

Young DOC ranger Whai surveys the landscape on which he grew up.

Jason Burgess

 

Young DOC ranger Whai surveys the landscape on which he grew up.

This eastern topography bears little resemblance to that of the first day's walk in from Whakapapa. The three-hour walk to Mangetepopo hut mostly undulates over watercourses and deep-sided lava flows. On those gentler north-west slopes, beech, flowering hebes, broom and heather flourish amongst tussock and bracken-filled plains. In the distance, the King Country's endless ranges are cast in muted blues.

At Mangetepopo the DOC warden nervously starts his hut talk. "Hi, I'm Whai. I'm 16 years old and this is my second week as a warden." While Whai is DOC's freshest face, he is no newbie to the Central Plateau. He is a child of the mountains, Ngati Tuwharetoa through and through, his father from National Park, his mother from Turangi. 

For Tuwharetoa the mountains have always been Te Kahui Tupua, the sacred peaks. The tribe's highest-ranking leaders gifted the parkland to the Crown in 1887 as a "sacred place under the mana of the Queen" to keep it safe from encroaching settlers. Tongariro subsequently became New Zealand's first National Park, one of only four in the world at that time. In 1993 the park was declared a dual World Heritage Area, recognized for 'its outstanding natural and intangible cultural values'. 

A broom-bordered track.

Jason Burgess

 

A broom-bordered track.

Mangetepopo is just 30 minutes from the beginning of the Tongariro Crossing. You need to start early if you want to beat the first wave of day trippers. From here the ascent towards the old Devils Staircase follows the Mangetepopo Stream. All across the mountains narrow tributaries and rushing creeks feed the Whanganui, Whangaehu and Rangitikei rivers.

According to legend, the path of the Whanganui River was scored from the tears of Mount Taranaki who was driven off the Central Plateau when Tongariro blew his stack after discovering that Taranaki had been making amorous advances to his wife, the lovely Mount Pihanga.

Boardwalks and well-formed tracks lead to wooden staircases and packed-gravel pathways that lift us skywards to the Southern Crater where views of the western lowlands, dominated by the lonely presence of Mount Taranaki, open out to the Tasman Sea. Towards the summit of Tongariro the sheer cliff falls into the scorched black walls of the cavernous Red Crater. The Emerald Lakes come into view at the base of a vertiginous scoria slope. We skid down to take lunch lakeside. 

Boyd farewells trampers at Oturere hut, offering sightseeing and hazard tips for the day ahead.

Jason Burgess

 

Boyd farewells trampers at Oturere hut, offering sightseeing and hazard tips for the day ahead.

Looking up, I track two trampers doing the Northern Circuit anti-clockwise, making a slow, sweaty ascent and running the risk of becoming human skittles for out-of-control downward Crossers. As the Crossing traffic heads for the Blue Lake, we peel off for Oturere hut. The lava field below is a fantasy landscape; beds of tiny gentians and daisies spring impossibly from rock shelves and mosses flourish in isolation.

 A day later we find ourselves once again climbing through thick beech forest. On the skyline we almost stumble over Stewart, an American retiree, sitting beside the track. "I'm having trouble finding the right words to describe this place," he says. "I can't get past 'alien landscape'."

Tomorrow we will depart for civilization through an unearthly scene of swirling mists across the Tama Saddle. The weather gods will not be kind but we are safe in the knowledge that a room and a hot shower are waiting at the Chateau. For now though the Waihohonu Stream is calling. One dip in this glacial flow and all is good with this other world.

Time out on the ridge of Tongariro’s southern crater, looking east towards the Kaimanawa Range

Jason Burgess

 

Time out on the ridge of Tongariro’s southern crater, looking east towards the Kaimanawa Range

NOTEBOOK

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand's Great Walks. To fully appreciate the environment, the suggested walking time is four days/three nights but those with limited time and a good level of fitness can do the 43 kilometres in as little as two days/one night.

A scenic section of the Tongariro Crossing walk forms part of the Northern Circuit trail. While the Crossing still lives up to its reputation as the best one-day walk in New Zealand, the experience can be something of a trampers' rush hour. Apparently on Waitangi Day this year 4000 walkers were recorded on the track so expect company, especially over Tongariro's saddle. 

Walking season is October to April. Hut accommodation costs $32 per adult per night; bookings essential. For information and bookings, phone 0800 694 732 or visit greatwalks.co.nz

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 - NZ Life & Leisure

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