19th January ROTORUA
It’s 89km inland and just over an hours drive to Rotorua, NZ’s famous geothermal region which is home to spurting geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pools. We had been to Rotorua before on a previous trip from Australia where we lucky to see quite a few places but hadn’t managed to fit in the Waimangu Volcanic valley.
Waimangu lies within the Taupo Volcanic Zone which in turn is in New Zealand’s Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ where the Pacific tectonic plate and the India-Australia tectonic plates meet.
The world’s youngest geothermal system, the valley was created during the violent eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886 which created a line of craters allowing geothermal fluid already present underground direct access to the surface of the earth. It completely destroyed all plant and animal life in the area. Before this event, the area was rolling scrub-covered hills with no surface hydrothermal activity.
With Mount Tarawera dominant on the skyline, the stroll through the lush thermal valley takes us past spectacular thermal and volcanic features including Frying Pan Lake, the largest hot spring in the world covering 38,000 square metres, the Emerald Pool and Inferno Crater. The water of Inferno Crater Lake is highly acidic at a pH of 2.1 and is the largest geyser-like feature in the world although the geyser itself cannot be seen since it sits at the bottom of the lake.
From the lake we take the Mount Haszard hiking trail which gives us great views over Echo crater with Frying Pan Lake steaming in the background. The walk takes us to the Marble and Warbrick terraces before the path ends at Lake Rotomahana.
We decide to take the 45 minute boat trip on the lake, also a protected scenic reserve, past steamy compact yellow rock faces and the former site of the pink and white terraces, then renowned as one of the natural wonders of the world. The presence of hot springs in the lake and also the emission of such large quantities of gas indicate that the lake is within an active volcanic crater rather than just a hydrothermal system.
Sitting on the stern of the boat and taking in the beauty and serenity, the cruise leisurely takes us to the lakes shores and the Steaming Cliffs, thick layers of compact volcanic rock from which hot water springs, geysers and steaming vents display all along its walls. The boat passes through a narrow passage to Star Hill crater and then to Fumarole Bay where intense steam vents heat up the rock walls.
23rd January TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK
It’s 184km and over a two hour drive to Tongariro National Park on State Highway 5 via the tourist hub of Taupo with great views following the Lake Taupo eastern shoreline.
Just before reaching Taupo, we have to stop at Huka Falls for some fun on their jet boat! It’s an amazing, exhilarating ride, a combination of white knuckle thrills and natural beauty which takes us right to the base of the incredible falls! Want to do it all over again! The Waikato River narrows from 100metres into a slender canyon and suddenly plunges down in a dramatic torrent of swirling white water with a volume of water pouring through at 220,000 litres per second.
The drive on the Desert Road takes in the overwhelming beauty of the three active, snow-capped mountains within the park, Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings) and Mount Tongariro. All three have a highly explosive nature and also a high density of active vents.
We check with the Department of Conservation on the Traverse 42, a trail through the Tongariro Forest following long since abandoned logging tracks through a remote part of sub-alpine NZ which had looked quite interesting. They inform us that the track is fine for 4×4’s and is open only during the summer so we make our way over. The track starts off well as we find ourselves winding our way on a wide track past native bush and unusual fan shaped plants but we soon come to the realisation that it’s not a track which is suitable for 4×4’s and had been misinformed. There is nowhere to turn around and we just hope the track starts to improve as surely they would not have given us completely the wrong information?! The only way out now is to carry on until the exit.
Suddenly the track becomes even more enclosed with overhanging plants and trees which begin to scrape up the sides of the car, we continue along the track with a constant screeching and scratching along the side of the car.
A steep downhill brings us to a water crossing along the Waione stream which we get across without too much problem.
To our surprise in front of us is a seriously steep hill which looks virtually impossible to get up and looks as if it could be clay. To either side of the track are 1½ to 2m high walls. I’m unable to get out of my door but Martin manages to get out to have a look. It’s a black volcanic sand hill.
He somehow manages to get it over but I start to wonder if this was such a good idea! The grey skies overhead also threaten rain which would not be good. The track was meant to have taken 2-3 hours but it’s taken 2 hours already and we are not even halfway there!
Another river crossing which is a little deeper than the last one and also faster flowing is traversed and then we are back onto a rutted and rocky track which forces us to slow our speed.
We reach a steep muddy hill and this time the car gets midway up then starts to slip as it struggles to grip onto the wet clay & mud. Just as we are about to reach the top, it feels as though the car is going to slip all the way to the bottom! It occurs to us that if we do get stuck there’s unlikely to be anybody as crazy as us in here to get us out, at least not today! A second attempt followed by a third and we eventually make it to the top.
Bouncing along in the middle of nowhere, we see an older man walking towards us. We stop and ask if the track will get any worse and he assures us it is not too bad. He also tells us he is walking through NZ via the Te Araroa walking trail; at 3000kms it is the longest in the world! He is wearing very small fluorescent shorts with a vest and carrying everything he has on him, in one tiny bag.
We reach a small bridge where some cyclists and walkers stare at us in amazement as we drive through with all kinds of branches and vegetation caught in our roof rack!
Civilisation is a welcome sight as we eventually come out of the forest and arrive in the small town of Owhango. Ecstatic that we have made it to the other side, we are both in need of something strong!
First we need to check into our hotel in Whakapapa Village and then walk in to the centre. It has a laid back feel to it with a few people and a couple of restaurants dotted around. We can’t seem to find the one recommended by our hotel after so settle for beer and burgers in the local pub! As the sun sets, we have an awesome view over snowy Mount Ngauruhoe from our hotel as the skies are painted with reds and purples. At an altitude of 1119metres, we are glad of the heater in our room at night!
Established in 1887 and with dual Unesco cultural and natural world heritage status, Tongariro was NZ’s first and the world’s fourth national park, gifted to the nation by the local Maori tribe. We park up at the Whakapapa Visitor’s centre and get some information for walks in the area. It’s another beautifully sunny day and the fantastic walk takes us through alpine tussock grassland, volcanic red soils and beech forests with astounding views of the mountains.
The trail, which is also the start of the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, leads us to the banks of a rocky river which we follow before reaching some pretty waterfalls spilling into the gorge of the Wairere stream.
Taranaki Falls comes into view tumbling over the edge of an ancient lava flow which had erupted from Mount Ruaphu and down into a boulder ringed pool. We climb over the rocks and down to feel the spray on our faces.
Another trail leads us upwards with great views over the valley and Mount Doom!
We head over to Mount Ruapehu; at 2797metres it is the highest point in the North Island with a permanent covering of snow and ice including eight glaciers. We park up and walk uphill to Meads Wall, a spectacular volcanic rock formation which was used in the filming of LOTR for more spectacular views of Mount Doom, a near perfect symmetrical cone. Scrambling up some loose rocks gives us an even better vantage point. We decide to return tomorrow to take on the Skyline Ridge walk.
Mount Ruapehu is the north islands highest and one of NZ’s most famous due to eruptions in 1995 and 1996 and past volcanic mud floods known as lahars. Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe are two of the most active composite volcanoes in the world. Driving up the mountain road, we jump onto the (slightly scary) rickety and freezing two stage, open chair lift which slowly takes us up the mountain to the Knoll Ridge café, NZ’s highest café. We stop for breakfast on the deck with amazing views over the slopes of the ski fields including Mount Taranaki in the distance and miles and miles of the national park thrown in for free!
The walk starts over rocky terrain and the climb starts to get steeper and steeper, the rocks turning to loose sand, gravel and volcanic soil. We reach a point where we have to cross a loose gravel bank. The only route across is shown by other people’s foot steps in the gravel stones. Every foot step I take feels like I am sliding towards the cliff edge, with a few hundred metres vertical drop to the bottom!
We definitely weren’t expecting the ascent to be like this and are relieved when we finally reach flat solid rock at the top!
We ascend to an altitude of 2300m where we stop to take in the dramatic and stunning views of Lake Taupo and the surrounding volcanic terrain, making it all worth the effort!
Our journey to Middle Earth has been an amazing one, we would come back in a heartbeat!