When I was reading up on this trip, I found out about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It is supposed to be the best day hike in New Zealand, possibly the world. But it’s 19 km long, and that’s about as long as the longest hike T. and I have ever done together, the Rim Trail of the Grand Canyon. (My mom and dad will never forget it.) Unlike the Rim Trail, you hike up (and down) a significant amount. Then, independently, T. mentioned the Alpine Crossing and what a spectacular “tramp” it is supposed to be. We agreed to try it when we got to Tongariro National Park.
First, we had a stop at Rotorua. It was easy to get there from Tauranga, because all roads lead to Rotorua. Katherine suggested we take the scenic, winding road (we should already have realized that all roads on the North Island, no matter how major, are scenic and winding). It was pouring rain, so we didn’t look for hikes along the way. Instead, we arrived at the visitors’ centre in Rotorua and asked an unsmiling guy if he had any suggestions for a rainy day.
He basically said no. I kept waiting for his inner Kiwi to emerge and be cheerful, but he was one exception to the rule. Even Rotorua’s museum, which I read was a good one, was a no go: it was closed in 2016 for not meeting earthquake standards.
Here’s a hint: When travelers arrive on a rainy day asking what there is to do, don’t keep saying no to everything they suggest. We almost just drove out of town!
Which would have been a shame, because Ohinemutu was fascinating even in the rain. Ohinemutu is a Maori village where the meeting of Maori and European cultures is quite evident. So is the sulfury underground for which Rotorua is famous. Thermal pools bubble up from the earth seemingly everywhere, and can just erupt into people’s homes!
|Steam from underground vents|
We learned this from our own personal Maori encounter—not a commercialized cultural experience (there are lots of those in Rotorua) but a visit to St. Faith’s Anglican Church. “Welcome to our church,” one of the women said, and proceeded to tell us about the underfloor heating the timbered church gets from the geothermal source beneath.
The most striking feature of St. Faith’s is an etched window that was done in honor of the missionaries who introduced the Te Arawa people to Christianity.
Here, Jesus is depicted wearing a Maori cloak and walking on the water. But instead of etching the Sea of Galilee, the artist has left the window clear, so we can see the actual waters of Lake Rotorua.
We also saw some native birds walking around—whio, or blue ducks. From the names on the churchyard gravestones, the mix of cultures is clear, as it is from the cenotaph on Lake Rotorua, just behind the church.
The god of war, so close to the Prince of Peace. I suppose they will both continue along together until the final victory some day.
We had our rain jackets, having never put them away since our arrival in NZ, but we were still tired of everything being wet. Luckily the Thermal Holiday Park was just down the road. The woman there was very nice, and gave us a campsite right next to the women’s bathroom. (All four of the previous rainy nights, we’d had a long walk.) The weather being what it was, T. thought it was an excellent opportunity to use the washing machine and, especially, the dryer.
I think at this point I should mention the camp chairs and table which, in a fit of optimism, T. had rented from the camper van people. We should have known when they weren’t included. The table is a collapsible thing, flimsier than something you’d backpack with, and once we had the legs out we never could figure out how to fold them back together. All we’ve been able to do with it is stand it on our campsites and try to dry swimsuits on it. But of course that didn't work either, because it rained so often.
The other thing that has proven utterly useless in our camper van is the chemical port-o-pot. We didn't want this, but they have to include it or the van can’t be labeled “self-contained,” meaning you can take it to any campsite (not just campgrounds with amenities included). As it happened we never “freedom camped” anyway, but who knows, in good weather we might have. When we are on the road this stupid pot sits in the back, framed by the useless table, which we can’t get back in its bag. Because of minimal space, once we set up camp, the toilet sits in the passenger seat.
We had no further ambitions than laundry in Rotorua, but later that afternoon the sun came out. Couldn’t miss a chance like that, so we made our way a few kilometers down the road to a forest park of California redwoods. Needless to say these are not native trees—they were planted in the nineteenth century—but of all the introduced species in NZ this is a rather benign one. We had a lovely walk.
Back at the campground, we took advantage of the thermal pools. It’s good that this part of the North Island has so many hot pools, because that’s one thing we could enjoy outside in cool weather. This night, it wasn’t even raining. Amid the sulfury smell, every now and then the misty clouds would clear and I could see the stars. For the first time in New Zealand. Good thing I kept my glasses on in the pool.
The sun was shining again the next morning when we headed towards Lake Taupo. We stopped off at Huka Falls for a short walk to the lookouts.
The Waikato River, the country’s longest river, is the only outlet for Lake Taupo, the country’s largest lake. It is forced through a narrow chasm at Huka Falls.
We continued towards Turangi where we saw some trees with striking autumnal colors.
A scenic lookout shortly thereafter gave us a glimpse of our climactic goal: Tongariro National Park.
Our campground at Whakapapa Village featured yet more nice staff. We were greeted with “Kia ora,” Maori for hello, which is not uncommon in New Zealand. The campground had a bathtub, lots of hot showers, a drying room (where we finally dried those swimsuits), a nice big kitchen, and WiFi. What Whakapapa also had was a bad weather forecast. In fact, the shuttle bus that takes hikers to and from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was not even running the next day.
“A fair-weather tramp” is how the Lonely Planet guidebook described it. The excellent visitors’ center informed us that the precipitation (you guessed it) was forecast to be snow at 1,500 m, plus there would be gale force winds at Red Crater, the high point of the hike. I pictured us slogging up and down in the snow for no views, and crawling along the ridge. A hike that would have put us at the limits of our collective endurance on a good day was not going to work in this weather.
But T. hadn’t bought all those layers for nothing. So the next morning we put on our merino wool and our rain pants and trudged off into the rain.
Here’s a thing about layers: Don’t wear cotton. Or if you do, don’t wear it next to the skin. Cotton’s wicking properties are so poor that you’d be better off not wearing that layer at all. Nobody got hypothermia during this hike, but at higher elevations it could be a different story.
Considering all the warnings, we got lucky with the weather. We set off on the Ridge Track, a short walk up through the beech forest where we were camped beside Whakapapanui Stream.
It was raining while we walked in the woods, but we were partially sheltered there. Then when we got to the ridge, the sky cleared. We even got some sun, and good views of two of the volcanoes in the park, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. The latter starred as “Mount Doom” in The Lord of the Rings films.
That only took half an hour so we went on to the Taranaki Falls Track, a two-hour loop. We started on the lower track and again, avoided much of the rain simply by walking through the woods.
It was coming down pretty hard when we got to the falls themselves. I asked some German-speaking women if they had just come from the upper track, to make sure we didn’t head off into an exposed wasteland! Luckily the rain eased off and we even got some sun over the tussocky-type landscape and the old lava flow that the falls plunge over.
|There was snow higher up!|
In the last, forested part of the hike it got pretty rainy again, and by the end we were getting hit with pellets of hail. Nonetheless, we got the sequence of weather in the right order. And when we got back we made the most of the drying room as well as hot coffee, Chunky Soup, and hot buttered toast.
There’s something I’ve learned in the past twenty years of traveling, and it holds pretty true for Europeans everywhere. If we run into Europeans outdoors doing something hardy, such as the women at the falls or the “kids” in the sea at Hot Water Beach, they are German. If we run into them in the camp kitchen, such as the three guys who were always in the kitchen in Tauranga or the family cooking in Whakapapa, they are French. Where are the British—holed up in their “caravans” reminiscing about their rainy childhood holidays?
No, in fact we sat at supper (in said camp kitchen) with a young British couple who were preparing to do the Alpine Crossing the next day. Weather permitting. The shuttle was scheduled to run again, at least. It was the first day in a week that was not forecast to be “sh*t,” according to the young man.
Of course, I was bummed not to be going with them, but it had been a very cold afternoon. The sun had come out, and with it my down jacket! We took advantage of the clear weather to walk over to the Chateau Tongariro, a grand old 1929 hotel that had a roaring fire in the bar. It was the closest I’d get to a Hawke’s Bay winery.
Anyhow it was time to move on. The next morning while we were packing up the van (in the rain) I was at the door when T. emptied the kettle into a mud puddle, spraying both my pants legs. She apologized, but I started laughing hysterically. It was the perfect end to our alpine visit—everything so wet that the very campsite appeared to her to be a drain. Worse than Ireland.
But there is a great story behind Tongariro National Park. Its three volcanoes (Tongariro is the other one) and the surrounding lands were part of the Land Wars, or what the colonial government called Maori Wars. In 1887, Chief Horonuku te Heuheu Tukino IV deeded the mountains to the government of New Zealand, on the condition that they become what was then only the fourth national park in the world. It was an extraordinarily farsighted decision by a chief who recognized that the land’s true value to future generations lay in its natural beauty, not in being divvied up for more pastures. It is also a good example of a government agreeing on this longterm interest with the people who lived in the place first, rather than simply taking land from them.
|Bust of the chief, Whakapapa Visitor Centre|
I am grateful for such foresight on the part of our ancestors.