There is a cleanness to the air found in mountains; a fresh taste. This freshness can bring both the snows that cover the peaks and the rains that obscure them. Rain turns to fog and cloud, so that the vistas to be seen from the peeks are only momentarily glimpsed. Their elevation has attracted many men to seek the highest vantage points.
I have always been drrawn to mountains – either looking up to their framing of the valleys below, or standing on their summits and viewing the distant vistas they offer. New Zealand has some of the most amazing mountains outside the ski fields of Europe. I share with you now some of those discoveries.
Mount Tongariro is actually an entire volcanic complex, located 10 miles southwest of Taupo, and comprised of three active volcanoes dominating the landscape of the central North Island. We first saw the complex from the van on our arrival at Lake Taupo. Its snow caped peeks were visible in the far distance over the lake above the shoreline.
The park is roughly split into two parts. The main mountain town of Whakapapa is half way into the mountains and the base of the ski fields that sit atop its leading road. It has all levels of accommodation and comfort, but we made straight for the DOC campsite that sits between the road and a river.
The average DOC site is a simple affair, but this one was much more. It had hot water – one of the few – powered sites, a laundrette and a shop, all unlikely findings. It also had one of the greatest views in the world, at least it should have. The fog was in the day we arrived, not a mote let alone a mountain could be seen.
“There is actually a mountain around here?” Cesca asked the DOC shopping assistant as he took our camp fees.
He laughed, “Yes, usually, it’s the big one just behind this building. You’ll see it tomorrow!” We did view it the next day – through the incessantly strong rain.
The DOC has a large information centre in the middle of Whakapapa that dispenses advice about the famous Tongariro Crossing. This crossing is part of a much harder 5-day walk around the base of the entire mountain range. It is famous for two reasons: it is possible – and recommended – to do the crossing in one day, making the walk the most tramped in the country. The other reason is that because of the number of walkers (sometimes 2,000 a day), many people drastically underestimate the difficulty.
High alpine walking is always dangerous since the weather is usually changeable. The DOC info-centre has a sign board keeping the scores: 5 rescues, 2 broken limbs and 1 death already this year. Given the numbers that undertake the crossing, this was not a high percentage, but it was perhaps the reason for the moodiness of the DOC official at the information desk.
I asked the DOC official about the weather. She almost sighed,
“Have you got mountain gear, ice axes and crampons?” she asked.
“Then it’s not possible today.”
“How about guided?” I asked.
“There will be no guides who can take you, the weather is too bad.”
She gave me a stern look, but I merely shrugged.
“Never mind then, we will do another walk, perhaps the waterfall.”
I moved off to the side and the very next man in line – who had overheard all of this – said,
“What is the weather like today?”
The woman sighed again. She probably answered this question many times a day.
Instead of the crossing, we walked the fantastic waterfall route through the base of the mountains. This was a 3-hour trek around a loop of varied landscapes, well worth the effort. We went across the remains of prior volcanic flows, over fast running rivers, past amazing plants and wildlife. The falls were beautiful. High in the distance the mountain played hide and seek with us and our cameras.
The crossing remained impossible the next day, we gave up on it and moved to the other side of the mountain and Ohakune; another small village at the base of a road leading up to a ski field.
There we undertook the 3-hour Waitonga Falls, another notable walk that passed many different types of view and terrain. The path eventually opened over a sunken lava flow, which had a long snaking walkboard placed up on it. It was a clear day; we had a great view of the mountains to our left.
At the end of that section, we again entered a forest, walked down for about 30 minutes before the path came to a end at a fast running river. This river was fed by the large and beautiful Waitonga Falls. From our vantage point though, we couldn’t really see it; it was obscured by trees.
Cesca had a brainwave. Finding some timber (presumably put there to be built into a continuing path), she threw it across the waters. I looked at it balancing on two rocks. Han Solo’s words came back to me;
“I have a bad feeling about this!”
Falling in would not mean drowning (probably), but it would certainly mess my camera and mean a one-and-half-hour walk back while wet. I placed a foot on the board, drew a breath and ran across. The board twisted with my weight and then slipped!
I just made it. Looking at the boards new position – it had somehow not fallen in – I knew it would be a challenge to get back.
But the better view was definitely worth it with the sun in a perfect position to highlight the spray coming off the rocks. We stayed for lunch whilst we looked at the possibility of returning over the river. In the end we just went for it. My left foot only got a little wet, luckily!
South Island is almost one giant mountain range, at least that’s how it felt driving around it. We went up to Tekapo, at the base of the mountain, through the wilderness of Burke Pass. This leads up to a large beautiful lake surrounded on all sides by mountains and forests. The closest is Mount John. Atop this stands the Earth & Sky Observatory, New Zealand’s largest and most impressive.
We were now joined by Francesca’s older sister, Arabella; we picked up a small camper. In a few moments Arabella found a bike hire shop and hatched a plan of getting to the top of the mountain where there was a cafe in the observatory.
The bike hire guy gave us an appraising look,
“Bike much?” he asked.
“Not many mountains in the UK, but I do bike around Epping Forest. I have a Marin and Cesca has a Specialized Rockhopper” I answered.
“Cool, ok you can take these two for the ladies and you can have my bike.”
He wheeled out a bike and I eagerly jumped aboard. Then he gave us some advice about tackling the mountain,
“Head out along the river’s edge,” he said pointing to my map, “then it gets a little steep.” He looked at me. “Then it gets bloody steep and you’ll have to walk for a few hundred meters until you meet the main road heading up the mountain. From there it’s a ride to the top.”
We started by zooming down through town. We passed the campsite at the mountains base. Thence we were into the track leading around the lake.
The colour of the water was amazing. Still waters here exhibit some levels of volcanic residue; this lends the most beautiful spectrum of colours and hues. I often thought that – in this photo shopped world – New Zealand could not exhibit the colours portrayed in images. I was wrong. The greens of trees and fields are brighter than in the UK, the blues of waters and lakes are either crystal clear, or a beautiful mixture of blue and cyan. Mountains are many shades of white and silver.
We made our way up to the road. It was windy. made the ride to the top dangerous, almost impossible as the many winding turns all played close to a serious drop off. However, oncce at the summit, we found the challenge had been worth it. The top breaks into a collection of domes that houses the telescopes. These were amongst a low set of buildings and, up a small wooden path, was the cafe. This was a fantastic place to have lunch; we tucked into our scroggin’, much deserved after all that exercise. We eventually went inside to have a coffee. Our server turned out to be a university student who was one of the guides for the nightly star gazing tour. I love star watching and the chance to gaze through telescopes, especially that magnitude. We signed up for the 10:00 pm tour.
Coming down from Mount John was a contrast to riding up; took mere minutes on the tarmac road. At one point, I reached 55 kilometers per hour – breaking the speed limit! We rode around the base via the road and into town to bring the bikes back.
That night we took a bus to the observatory. Lights are banned at night due to the telescopes that are searching for new planets around distant stars. We were driven up the same dangerous road that we had biked that day – in total darkness. We exchanged worried looks, but our Japanese driver had the measure of the feat. Atop we had a fantastic glance through the lens to Tarantula Nebula and Jupiter (I could count the brown rings!). For me, this was a magical visit.
I’ve saved the best till last. Mount Cook is the highest mountain in the country and a famous sight with its curved peak. Generations of Kiwis have visited the mountain’s base, all DOC controlled parks. One brave soul was Sir Edmund Hillary who used Mount Cook as a practice for the big push up Everest. It is set amongst other large mountains, all carved by the many glaciers that have retreated up the valley. You have to drive along Lake Pukaki to reach the park. This lake is huge; its colour is a natural part of its glacial beginnings.
Here is where the climatic battle between the forces of Humanity and
the Orcs of Mordor takes place in Lord of the Rings. It is a great moment in the movie and it was filmed in this valley, The Pelennor Fields. At the small town of Mount Cook Village, we ran into a serious rain storm; we spent the day investigating the Sir Edmund Hillary Museum. It showed a short movie in tribute to his Everest climb, as well as the actual snow vehicles he used to race across the South Pole. The museum was worth a visit – especially on a wet day. It got us fired up about the possibilities of visiting the mountain.
The DOC information site here is especially large. It takes bookings for the many backcountry huts one can visit. It surprises me that the DOC is happy for people to go wandering off into serious mountain wilds, but I guess this is the Kiwi way of doing things. If you get lost and die, at least you are warned and given all the needed information.
Braving the rain again, we hunkered down at the local DOC camp site – at the start of the walk – waiting for a clear view. I awoke to see our wait had not been in vain. The walk up is called The Hooker Valley Walk – a 4-hour easy trek. It meanders up the side of a river, crossing it once, and passes all sorts of special geological features. We packed and started. The extreme wilderness of this walk was intimidating, as much as heavenly. An hour into the walk, the river turned, facing Mount Cook, giving us a photo opportunity.
The mountain holds sway over all others in this range, as though it is lord over them. Its great height imposes as much as Everest. Its peak was constantly being hidden and revealed by fast moving clouds. Must be intensely windy at the top!
Our final destination was the iceberg rich lake at the base of the retreating glacier. This opened up the view and gave us breathtaking vistas of the clouds playing across Mount Cook. It was almost impossible to take a bad photo.
We sat there and ate our lunch while gazing at the mountain. To our right some kids played a game of trying to hit the small floating icebergs with the shore stones. Eventually we went up to the glacial edge by wading through a scrabble of stones and pebbles, the pile up is the slope wall of the lake. I found some fantastic flat pebbles and took the opportunity to demonstrate my life-long passion for skimming stones. It was my first time seeing the end wall of a glacier, dirty at the ends (the mud and rock being crushed by its slithering splays across its face like chocolate cake on the face of a small child). You could sense the strength that bends nature to its will and carves whole ranges in its passing. After seeing it I was looking forwards to visiting Fox Glacier (a coming post).
We went back along the path, towards the starting point of our day. I arrived at the van, tired and happy.
The next day was sunny; we headed along the road we had driven up and thence off into the East of New Zealand. Leaving the mountain behind us, we could see it for miles and miles, such was the clarity of the weather.
I think Cook was my favourite mountain visit and one of the highlights of the entire journey to this wild and huge country.