MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Department of Conservation”

The Heaphy Track – James Mackay Hut to Kohaihai

I believe most people take sunsets and sunrises for granted. I myself certainly do. For the sake of extra time beneath the covers, I would normally have no desire to get up early in my day to day life, and if I see the sunset at night, it is only because I may happen to be outside at the time. But when I’m on holiday, and especially when I’m hiking, I love to watch the turning of the sun, the rise above the horizon in the morning and its graceful fall at night, the accompanying change of colours lighting up the view.

As often happens in busy huts on the trail, the stirring of one or two people soon has the whole hut awake, and on this third day of the Heaphy track, I was up in the mountains at 700m. The west coast clouds thickened the air and rather weakened the effect of the coming day. It was now two days since I’d eaten a proper meal. I still didn’t feel like having breakfast and once more packed my bag and readied to set off with almost all of the food I’d started with. Before leaving though, I took the track behind the hut to a lookout a little higher up. Some streaks of light burst through the cloud as I stood there and in the far distance I could see my destination for the day, the mouth of the Heaphy river and beyond it the expanse of the Tasman Sea.

It was to be a long descent down the mountainside surrounded by gorgeous New Zealand bush. It shrouded the view somewhat but it was a pleasant trail to take. It is strange to think how these forests would have sounded before humans came and introduced the alien species that decimated the native bird populations. There was some bird activity though and as is often the case in forests in New Zealand, if I ever slow a little as my mind wanders off, it doesn’t take much encouragement for a robin to appear and keep me company. They are such delightfully inquisitive little birds, and unlike the piwakaka (fantails), they seem to like to pause for photographs, often cocking their head in anticipation, or watching closely as you interact. As a result, I will often stop to engage one if they come close.

Elsewhere as the trail got lower, a weka appeared. Depending on where you see them, these birds can either by easily spooked and take off at great knots, or they will be pushy and approach you looking for an easy meal. They, like New Zealand’s alpine parrot (kea), have a reputation for stealing hiker’s belongings. This one fussed around my hiking pole before getting bored and wandering off. As I continued I found the trail was blocked by a fallen tree. This is not an unusual occurrence while hiking, and even the Great Walks can suffer at the hands of bad weather, taking days or weeks to clear blockages. It was a bit of a scramble, but it was manageable to climb over it.

 

A few hours after leaving James Mackay Hut behind, I was in constant sunshine and gaps in the bush appeared. It seemed that I was still quite high up, but the wide expanse of the Heaphy river was now just below me, its tannin-stained water snaking through the valley. The vegetation was noticeably changing as I descended with more ferns appearing and a change in the tree type to reflect the typical west coast canopy. Another robin grabbed my attention, drawing me out the reverie that always accompanies my hikes. After what felt like a long time, I finally popped out at a clearing where the small Lewis Hut sat close to the confluence of the Lewis and Heaphy rivers. The flat lawn that surrounded it was strewn with hikers taking a breather in the glorious sunshine.

 

At last I felt like eating and managed a banana smoothie. It was a small triumph after feeling ill for so long. A couple of weka patrolled the lawn, walking from hiker’s pack to hiker’s pack, testing what they could grab and run. The river by my side was broad and brown, and had it not been for the inevitable sandfly annoyance, I could have stayed here for some time. The Department of Conservation (DoC) sign stated 2hrs to the next hut but it was yet midday and I was certainly in no hurry. But once I was ready, I set off reaching the longest DoC suspension bridge in the country to cross the Heaphy river, the valley shrouded in thick bush, the odd pop of colour from a flowering pohutakawa tree breaking up the green.

 

It was a glorious day for a hike with the sun lighting up the blue sky and the hillsides swathed in native flora. Now the trail was almost at sea level, winding its way along the Heaphy river valley. Shortly after crossing the bridge the track passed some giant trees whose trunks were wound in vines. There were several focal points on this final stretch. Aside from the bridge itself and giant trees, an area to the side of the trail was jagged and contained signs of upthrust from under the sea. I was on the look out for a cave which the ranger at the hut had told me about. Unmarked but apparently obvious once upon it, I walked and walked and failed to see it.

 

Another suspension bridge took me across the Gunner river and now I felt like I was in a jungle. Yet another suspension bridge appeared and still no cave. I asked some fellow hikers who hadn’t seen it either, and I assumed it had been missed. As I continued to head west, the nikau palms became more prevalent and all of a sudden there it was, a small, unassuming cave entrance next to a small bridge. It appeared that most hikers were overlooking it, but I dumped my bag at the side and took my boots off to get into the frigid water. Armed with my light I headed in in search of glowworms. I love exploring caves but I also feel a little frightened when doing so on my own. As much as I prefer hiking on my own, I typically do it without those that know me actually knowing where I am. So I always go underground with the knowledge that if a cave-in happened or I fell, nobody would know where to look for me. It tends to mean that I limit how deep in I go.

 

On this occasion I went far enough in to not see daylight anymore, spotting some cave weta in my light. Then I turned the light off and watched the twinkle of a handful of glowworms light up. The frigid water on my feet was painful and this also drove me back outside again. The hikers I’d spoken to at the bridge had just arrived as I exited so they climbed in as I climbed out. I later discovered that had I taken just one more bend I would have been surrounded by a mass of twinkling glowworms. Unlike most of the hikers on the trail I had at least gone in, but I cursed myself for my fear holding me back from getting the full experience.

From here onwards the trail was just delightful. The palm trees were everywhere and by now I was right on the bank of the Heaphy river which by now was very broad. The vegetation was thinning out here and I spotted shags resting on trees by the river. I could hear the roar of the ocean as I continued, and soon after the vegetation dramatically shortened to reveal the full extent of the river. Within minutes I found myself at Heaphy hut around 6hrs after I’d set off. This hut was glorious, set back from the river with a large lawn in front of it and looking out to sea. After securing a bunk, it was time to explore with hours of daylight ahead. The beach was littered with washed up tree debris, salt-weathered trunks strewn all over the place. I sunbathed for a while before the sandflies drove me crazy.

 

By this stage, I’d gotten chatting with a few people over the course of the days I’d been hiking, and although I managed only a small dinner, it was good to be eating again and it was great hanging out with fellow hikers sharing stories. As the daylight faded, several of us headed back down to the beach. The plan had been to watch the sunset but thick cloud had moved in over the end of the afternoon, so there wasn’t much hope of getting great colours. It looked dramatic though as the wind had whipped up creating the effect of spray down the coast. I stayed out as long as I could until there was just enough light to make my way back to the hut.

Unfortunately the cloud that had moved in signalled a shift in the weather and I awoke to a dull day with the threat of rain. Most of the hikers at the hut had to make the lunchtime shuttle from Kohaihai that I had used to get to Nelson a few days prior. I however had the luxury of time as my car was waiting for me at the shelter. But not wanting to get caught out if it did rain, I still got moving after finally getting to eat breakfast for the first time in 3 days. It felt utterly wild walking down the west coast of Kahurangi National Park, the grey sky adding to the blow and spray from the nearby sea. Through nikau palms the path snaked behind Heaphy beach, crossing streams and a suspension bridge as the track elevated slightly before dropping down again at Twenty Minute beach.

 

Where it was possible I walked along the sand, but mostly the trail sat a little elevated above it. The coast appeared shrouded in mist when looking north or south but thankfully any spots of rain never came to much. After Nettle beach, another swing bridge spanned a wide rocky gorge before the trail opened up a little at the Katipo Shelter. This rather exposed area was a campsite and a family there mentioned they had had some belongings stolen by the resident weka. I sat there watching the waves crash on Twin beach as these same weka nosied around my feet looking for an easy grab. I spotted a juvenile oyster catcher on the beach, still in its fluffy attire, not yet fully feathered, and as I went to leave I noticed the DoC sign had this campsite as half way between the Heaphy Hut and the end of the trail.

 

After traversing behind the two beaches that made up Twin beaches, the track skirted into a nikau palp grove once more, bringing me to Koura beach then Big Rock beach after yet another suspension bridge. Every single one of these beaches was empty, and had it been nicer weather I probably would have lingered for longer. The only other people I saw were those on the trail who were all hellbent on getting to the end of the hike as soon as possible. When I reached Scotts beach, there was only the expanse of the beach itself and a headland between me and the end of the hike. I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet so I dumped my bag and headed down onto the beach and sat there for some time, delighting in eating a snack whilst in a day dream.

 

After some time I eventually made the final move, climbing back up to around 100m inside the forest. After half an hour, a side track led to a lookout overlooking Scotts beach. Beyond here, the track descended down the other side of the headland, and as it dropped down I could see the car park and shelter where the hikers readied to board the shuttle bus. The threat of rain brought wispy clouds to the hillsides, slightly shrouding the view of the valley as I reached the final suspension bridge to cross the wide Kohaihai river. I sidled out the end of the hike to no fanfare, and with no-one waiting to acknowledge my achievement. I’d hiked the first 2 days on effectively zero calories, not to mention with dehydration, and I’d hiked the final 2 days on less than a day’s maintenance of calories. But I felt okay. The body is a remarkable thing, having carried me over 78km on barely any food and with a heavy pack on my back. I’d hiked out with almost as much food as I’d hiked in with, and as I sat on a washed up tree trunk on the beach, watching a red-billed gull saunter across the sand, I ate some of it, proud of myself for completing such a beautiful hike under less than ideal conditions.

The Heaphy Track – Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut

Hiking on an empty stomach was never going to be an enjoyable experience. After ejecting all of the previous day’s sustenance while hiking up the mountain, the lack of appetite meant setting off on day 2 of the Heaphy Track tired, exhausted and dehydrated. I was still a little nervous every time I took a drink from my water bladder, but the sterilising tablets had done what they needed to and thankfully, there was no repeat of the day before. But it was to be a long day traversing the ridge from Perry Saddle Hut at 860m to James Mackay Hut at 700m, a 6.5hr walk according to the Department of Conservation (DoC) signage. The earlier risers at the hut meant I was on the track at the back of 7am, but I was sure that I was going to struggle maintaining a decent pace, and my pack was weighing heavy on my shoulder as I followed the path through the forest.

Following the contours of the mountain, views were sparse through the canopy, an occasional glimpse up to the hillside next to the track, or an occasional broader view across a valley. Streams and bridges were crossed and after an hour, the forest finally opened up to the moorland of Gouland Downs. It reminded me of Scotland, the heather-like shrubbery at shin height, and the wind whipping across. Rain clouds threatened from a distance creating a faint rainbow as I walked. This was takahe and giant snail country, both endemic and rare wildlife that could be spotted here. I passed signs alerting to look out for both but saw none.

 

As the trail dropped down a little towards a stream I came across a totem pole littered in hiking boots. I’m not sure what possesses someone to abandon their hiking boots in the middle of nowhere, but clearly lots of people have done so, as there was a myriad of shoes strung up on the pole, leading to a sign declaring the spot as ‘Boot Pole Corner’. Beyond here, the rain clouds appeared to be dispersing and I saw the rainbow once more as I got nearer the first of the day’s huts, Gouland Downs Hut. This small hut lay in a flat section which was supposed to be one of the best places to spot the takahe which had been released into the wild here. Hiking alone often gives me the best chance to spot wildlife, but although I had the place to myself, there were no birds to see.

 

I’d taken a little longer to reach the hut than the signs had predicted, but I was neither surprised nor put off doing the side tracks here. A little past the hut are some side tracks that are only obvious when you are looking for them. The first led into thick forest where a couple of caves could be found among the undergrowth. When the main track went into the forest, a network of arches cut under the track making for a neat little exploration into the limestone landscape, and at the end of the forest, a track led down into the low vegetation and round a corner to reveal a large open cave with a waterfall dripping down the front of it.

What followed was a series of river crossings as the track remained mostly flat across a mostly open section. It seemed on the map like the next hut wasn’t that far away but my energy was flagging with every turn in the trail that didn’t bring it into sight. Finally the 1km marker popped up and I pounded the trail in anticipation of a break, arriving at the exposed Saxon Hut which was full of people enjoying the sunshine to eat some lunch. These were all people that had stayed at Perry Saddle, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet many of them yet due to my ill health. I still wasn’t hungry but forced myself to consume a small cup of hot soup in an effort to boost my energy a little. It was all I could manage, and so I pushed on, feeling weighed down by all the food I wasn’t consuming.

 

My destination for the night was still 3hrs away according to the DoC sign and to begin with the track continued through tussock and wetlands, close to the Saxon river. Turning and climbing up onto a ridge, a bench in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere denoted the division between the Tasman District and the West Coast District. I struggled as the track continued along a long and winding ridge following the contours of the land. Aside from that small cup of soup, I hadn’t kept a meal down since breakfast the day before, and I was really leaning on my poles as I dragged one foot forward and then the other. My pack was such a burden on my back and my patience was getting thin as the winding seemed never ending and it became difficult to work out on the map how far I’d actually come. At one point I realised that my jumper had fallen off my pack strap where I’d slung it, and I cursed myself for having to back track to find it.

Finally I reached the dual crossings of Blue Shirt Creek which was at least somewhere recognisable on the map. The curve and dip in the landscape offered a broader view across the landscape than I’d had for a few hours, and after a brief rest by one of the bridges, I felt a bit more motivated to get moving again. Finally, the trees parted to reveal Mackay Downs, and the track became boardwalk as it crossed a slightly alien-looking landscape. This section can apparently flood quite badly in heavy rain but it had been such a sunny day so far, the ground appeared relatively dry. At one point, the track passed some unusual boulders before finally a marker denoted the hut was near.

 

The final kilometre to James Mackay Hut felt like it took forever. I arrived at 4.30pm, over 9hrs after leaving Perry Saddle Hut behind. There was still plenty of hours of daylight left but I was exhausted and still feeling dehydrated. But the hut gave a sneaky peak of the rest of the hike, with the Tasman Sea crashing onto the west coast just about visible in the distance. I couldn’t even consider having dinner, there was just no desire for food whatsoever. Whatever bug I’d picked up had hit me good, but I was just grateful to not be throwing up, and happy to still be on the trail despite it. There was a definite sense that the next day would bring a change, with signs that the landscape would change quite a lot. But for now, it was time to rest again, and attempt to block out the snorers ahead of the next 2 days of hiking.

In Love with Rakiura

As I had been hiking my way back towards Oban on the last day of the Rakiura Track, my friends had flown overhead and landed on Rakiura for a holiday themselves, so once I was showered to rid myself of hiker’s aroma, I headed to one of the few eateries in Oban, a little cafe to meet them for a warm drink. It was one of those coincidental plannings where we unintentionally ended up at the bottom of the country at the same time, but it was great to see some familiar faces whilst away from home. We made plans to meet up for dinner the next day before going our separate ways that evening. I had booked myself on a kiwi-spotting tour on the off chance that I didn’t see any kiwis whilst out bush, and following my failed attempt to spot any whilst at North Arm Hut, I was glad that I made the booking. I walked along the Oban foreshore, admiring the stillness of the water in Halfmoon Bay before popping in to a restaurant for some dinner before heading round to the pier to board the boat. I had been looking forward to my first taste of paua, a shellfish that I’d never heard of before moving to New Zealand and here was one of the freshest places to get it. Unfortunately due to some diabolical service at the restaurant, not only did I never get my paua but the food that I did get was served to me half-frozen and nearly had me in danger of missing my boat.

 

When I finally got on board my tour boat, we first headed out of the sheltered bay to an outlying island in search of hoiho or the yellow-eyed penguin. As an immigrant to New Zealand, I have tried to incorporate the Maori language into my vocabulary and generally refer to the native wildlife by their Maori names, partly to be respectful to the first settlers of New Zealand but partly because the Maori names usually sound more interesting than the often bland English names. Of the 17 species of penguin that live in the Southern Hemisphere, I have been lucky on my travels to spot 8 of them in the wild across 3 continents and 5 countries. It isn’t something that I’ve particularly set out to do, but spending the majority of my life in the Northern Hemisphere, it is just one of those things that has happened as my life has moved south, and frankly who doesn’t love seeing penguins? As the boat arrived offshore at dusk, the low light and rocking motion of the boat made it nearly impossible to take a photo of the couple that we saw on the rocky shore line, and after a short while, we moved on, skirting round the Rakiura coastline and into Paterson Inlet.

Sailing past Ulva Island, a predator-free island which I would visit before leaving Rakiura, we cut down past the Neck, a north-pointing jut of land protruding from the southern coastline of Paterson Inlet, and into Glory Cove where we berthed in the darkness. At almost 47o south latitude, this is the most southern I’ve been in the Eastern Hemisphere (I’ve been further south in the Western Hemisphere) and as such the most southern part of New Zealand that I have visited. We were instructed to be silent and keep close together as we cut across the narrow isthmus from Glory Cove to Ocean Beach. There was potential to spot kiwis from anywhere within the bush or on the beach so we were all hyper-vigilant, but aside from looking for wildlife, we were as much making sure we didn’t trip over anything as we walked by torchlight through the bush. We reached Ocean Beach without spotting a thing, and now we were also on sealion alert as this beach is a favoured pull-in spot for them to rest up at night, and they are not a social creature with the potential to be highly aggressive if disturbed.

We had the length of the beach to walk and sure enough a sealion was spotted near the shoreline. We gave it a wide berth and kept going, ever watchful for signs of kiwi tracks. By the time we were approaching the top-end of the beach it was looking like a failed outing and I was feeling a little disheartened when suddenly the guide instructed us to turn off our headlamps. As we were plunged into darkness with only starlight to guide us, the guide put on a red light and motioned us to gather near him. Creeping closer we all saw the kiwi at the same time, sticking its long beak into the sand to grab the scarpering sea lice that ran around on the shore, completely unfazed by our presence. Finally my dream of seeing a kiwi in the wild had come to fruition, and I wasn’t disappointed. This particular species of kiwi is the Rakiura Tokoeka. I love that Maori names are so descriptive and Tokoeka means ‘Weka with a walking stick’. Weka are another flightless indigenous bird of New Zealand that are readily seen around coastal and peripheral bush areas, and the walking stick refers to the kiwi’s long beak. As we stood in silence in the near darkness, I happened to look up at the sky and realise that with the lack of external light sources, the sky was a brilliant array of stars, and right above my head sparkled the Milky Way. I only saw the Milky Way for the first time in my life in 2017 whilst in the Australian Outback and I was as enthralled about seeing it here as I was then. In fact, I was absolutely torn between watching the little kiwi on the beach and looking skyward at the expanse of the brilliant night sky above me. No-one else in the tour group seemed to notice the stars, and I loved that the vision was all mine. Out here in one of the wilder parts of New Zealand, I felt at peace and immensely happy. My only wish was to have had a camera and the skills good enough to photograph the Milky Way, but the memory will just have to suffice.

 

The next morning was the one completely gloriously sunny day of my whole trip. I had originally planned on going to Ulva Island, but since arriving on the island, it had been brought to my attention that that day was going to be ‘cruise-ship day’, meaning the little settlement wold be inundated with disembarking cruise ship passengers and many of them would make the journey to Ulva Island. Concerned about the place being overcrowded, I decided it could wait till the next day, and instead opted to get back out on my feet and explore more of Rakiura itself. I set off out of Oban later than planned, and already the little township was bustling with hordes of cruise passengers and bus after bus ploughed the main roads to take them on sight-seeing trips. It seemed so unnatural for such a remote place to be so suddenly overrun with people. Given that the weather was so contrasting to the day I set off on the Rakiura Track a few days prior, I decided to walk myself back to the start of the track and experience the views with clearer skies. It had been pretty enough even in the rain, but boy was Rakiura stunning in the sunshine. Past Bathing Beach and Butterfield Beach and across the hillside to Horseshoe Bay, the sand looked golden and in the case of the latter was actually sparkling.

 

Cutting across towards Lee Bay where the official start of the Rakiura Track is, I cut off just before this to hike up Garden Mound, a 164m hill covered in thick bush. After all the rain in the days prior, the lower sections of track were a quagmire. There wasn’t much of a view to speak of on the way up until quite near the summit where a sneaky peak through the foliage afforded a brief view back across to Halfmoon Bay. Just shy of the summit, a lookout gave a view across the Foveaux Strait towards the nearby Muttonbird Islands, as well as across to Port William, the site of the hut I’d stayed at on the first night of the Rakiura Track. Behind there in the distance, lay the rolling hills of the less-visited portions of Rakiura to the west. A lover of solitude and wilderness, it hadn’t taken long to fall in love with Rakiura when I’d first arrived and these views on such a glorious day reinforced my desire to return here and walk the longer trails.

 

Following the trail down the other side, it joined up with the Rakiura Track to follow the coastline. I had originally planned on walking all the way to Maori Beach and back but with dinner plans set with my friends for that night, and so much to see on route back to Oban, I soon realised that there just wasn’t going to be enough hours in the day for that, so when I reached the small bay soon after joining the track, I decided to sit there and just enjoy some relaxation in the sun. I sat on a rock near the back of the beach and watched the waves in the distance and a grey heron wading around the shallows. I was very quickly joined by a large bumble bee who seemed to find me irresistible and wouldn’t leave me alone, crawling all over me and then going inside the neck of my t-shirt which was rather disconcerting. After doing my best to just sit still and not disturb it, it was really hard not to want to move when it was walking on the inside of my clothing and threatening to disappear down between my cleavage. I had to give it a bit of encouragement to come back out of my clothing and after it still wouldn’t leave me alone, I decided it was a sign to get up and get moving.

 

Returning to Lee Bay where the Rakiura Track starts, I found myself hounded by yet more bees as I tried to take a photo of the chain-link sculpture that is the twin for the chain-link sculpture at Stirling Point. Clearly I picked the wrong colour of clothing to wear on such a gorgeous day. I cut onto the beach in an effort to escape them, walking along the shoreline until I noticed a police car drive onto the beach and come towards me. My immediate assumption was that I’d done something wrong although I didn’t know what it was. I hesitated, then as the car drew up to me, the policeman said hello out the window and then kept going before coming to a stop behind me. I presume he was either taking a break or making the most of his patrol to take in the view, and with the waves crashing on the shore below a blue sky, it was certainly a stunning one.

 

Cutting back across the headland to Horseshoe Bay, I meandered along the beach which was literally shimmering in the sunlight. The sand was a mix of dark sand and sparkly particles and it just glowed. Just through the heads at the entrance to the bay I could see the cruise ship moored off shore, its wide rear end pointed in my direction, the words ‘Like No Place on Earth’ emblazoned on the stern. As an introverted nature lover who likes to explore outdoor spaces in solitude, the thought of a cruise holiday sounds awful and is so not for me. It seemed so out of place here to see this behemoth of a ship.

 

At the far end of the bay, a trail cut out across the headland to Horseshoe Point. There was an alternate view back across Horseshoe Bay from the trail and on the shore below the path I could see rock structures that resembled the strange round structures of the Moeraki Boulders on the east coast of the South Island. From the Point I had a fantastic view across the Foveaux Strait towards the Muttonbird Islands and the South Island beyond, and now I was in full sight of the cruise ship. Once more I was hounded by bees whilst I sat there soaking up the view. I watched a fishing boat come into Horseshoe Bay, dwarfed by the cruise ship, and the shore boats that ferry the cruise ship passengers back and forth were busy on their return trips to the ship.

 

The track continued round to Dead Man Beach, a cute little sheltered cove, before cutting back up to the cliff edge above it to head round Bragg Point. I came across a kakariki, a little green parakeet, having a snack before it took off loudly. Eventually I reached Bragg Bay, yet another deserted white sandy beach that I had to myself. Back on the road I passed Butterfield beach and Bathing Beach once more before cutting round Hicks Point to return to Oban. The cloud was just starting to move in a little as I returned to the settlement which was thankfully now devoid of cruise ship passengers.

 

After freshening up from my sweaty walk I met my friends for a delicious dinner at the South Sea Hotel, the pub on the front strip. After devouring that we took a walk along the foreshore where we got our obligatory photos by the Oban sign and then it was time to retire for the night. Once darkness fell, I took my head torch out to the large playing field behind the houses where I’d been told was the best kiwi spotting in Oban, but after the amusement of being one of several lights randomly walking around in the dark, I spotted nothing and eventually gave up and turned in for the night. The next day was to be the day I would leave Rakiura and there was still plenty to do before then.

Rakiura Track – North Arm Hut to Oban

Nestled among the bush overlooking a small bay within the North Arm of the extensive Paterson Inlet, the North Arm hut was a lovely hut to stay in on the second night of the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Nine Great Walks. The tide was out when I arrived, so after dumping my stuff and claiming a mattress, I headed down the steps to the rocks where I did a bit of bird watching and soaking up the sun that was breaking through the clouds. After a while, I headed up past the hut and into the forest where a separate track led up to the much more elevated campsite. The word was that this was a great spot for kiwi watching at night and I wanted to familiarise myself with the territory during the daylight hours. The other recommended spot was near the drop-toilets a little away from the hut, and I made a mental note to come and investigate both spots once darkness fell. That was still many hours away and so when I found a track disappearing into the bush, I followed it for a bit, coming out at another small bay. By now the tide was coming in as fast as the clouds were, and I was just able to walk around the rocky shore back to the other bay and return to the hut via the steps.

 

Once dinner had been consumed and darkness fell, in small groups several of us headed out up the path to go kiwi spotting. Rakiura or Stewart Island as it is more commonly known, is a kiwi hot-spot, with the local population of these flightless birds far outnumbering the human inhabitants, and thanks to reduced predator numbers here compared with the North and South Islands, the chances of encountering a kiwi here are the highest in the country. Although generally nocturnal, they have also been spotted out in daylight hours here too, which is highly unusual for the species. But alas, despite hovering in the darkness for some time, my luck was not in and I saw none that night. At breakfast the next morning though, I was gutted to hear some other hut occupants say they had had two kiwis come right up to them not far from where I’d waited, later on in the night.

After packing up it was time to head back to Oban on the third day of the hike. After rejoining the main track near the drop-toilets, the Department of Conservation sign denoted a 5hr walk back to Halfmoon Bay, but I planned on taking a detour near the end to make the hike longer and cover more coastline. This day was a good mix of bush and coast which made up for the slightly uninteresting hike the day before. The track followed the contour of the North Arm back to the main body of Paterson Inlet. Where it dropped to the coast, I would walk the beach if possible and at the larger expanse of Sawdust Bay, there was a lot of bird activity in the shallows. There were several of us walking at a similar pace so we were constantly catching up with or overtaking each other depending on where we paused as we went.

 

From Sawdust Bay though, not only did the path cut inland for a while, but we also started to spread out, bumping into other hikers less and less as time passed on. The track passed the remnants of a sawmill, then a historic dam was blocked off due to problems with the sidetrack that led there. A nearby pier allowed a brief break back across the water, but then it was back into the bush again for quite some distance.

 

Eventually it emerged at a tidal estuary deep within Kaipipi Bay. The tide was relatively far in so the water level was up to and under the bridge that crossed the tannin-coloured river that emptied into it. A little further round, a side-track led down to Kaipipi Bay itself and this offered the perfect spot to have some lunch. I initially had the place to myself aside from the odd flying insect that bothered me from time to time, but as I ate a boat appeared round the inlet entrance and moored off shore, and as I finished my lunch the grassy knoll was suddenly inundated with a large group of hikers that had the same idea as me. After allowing myself a bit of time to digest my lunch, I left them to it and continued on in solitude.

 

Aside from some muddy patches, the walk from here was easy going, through the forest and just a light undulation. Oban crept nearer and nearer and suddenly I found myself at a junction with the end of the Rakiura Track to my left and the Ryans Creek Track to my right. In an effort to prolong my time out hiking, I took the Ryans Creek track which quickly dropped altitude down to the shoreline of Paterson Inlet. It was overcast but dry and my view was of the various little islets that sat just off the shore, as well as to the far side of the large Inlet itself. At Vaila Voe Bay there was a small beach and I could see the boats moored just off the headland which marked my near return to civilisation.

 

Eventually I reached the wharf at the end of the road that took me back to Oban. The road itself skirted Thule Bay and at the head of this, another track, the short Raroa Walk took me back into the bush again, popping me out at Traill park, a short distance from the hostel I was booked into that night. I had by this stage discovered that my phone was acting up and had deleted all the photos that I had taken with it since leaving Christchurch a few days prior. Thankfully I had some photos on my camera, but I was gutted to have lost the majority of the photos I’d taken over the last few days. There was nothing I could do about it, but it was a bittersweet end to my time on the trail.

Rakiura Track – Oban to North Arm Hut

Before man discovered New Zealand, it was a land coated in dense forests brought to life by the sounds of a cacophony of birds. Over the hundreds of years since the first settlers arrived, large chunks of the forest were felled and burned to make way for villages, grazing and farming. With the habitat destruction, the hunting, and introduction of pests and diseases that followed, modern-day New Zealand is a far cry from its natural state. But in some parts of the country at least, there are pockets of nature which feel like a snapshot of the past. I’ve been to some predator-free zones where the bird life sings stronger than elsewhere, and I’ve been to dense, expansive forests where you could really feel lost within were it not for the guiding path through it. And whilst Rakiura (Stewart Island) has not been saved completely from the impact of humans, you only need to look at a map of the island to see how little of the place has been touched. Here, so far south, it is possible to feel a million miles away from civilisation.

Ahead of me lay 3 days of tramping across the headland at the back of Halfmoon Bay, the Rakiura Track, one of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walks. Despite its remoteness, like the other Great Walks, the huts on this route book out far ahead, and with Southland being the wettest part of the country, any trip here is at the mercy of the weather Gods. So whilst I was disappointed to wake to grey skies and inclement weather, I wasn’t surprised. Kitted up in my waterproofs from the beginning, I set off from my hostel in Oban and started the march to Lee Bay. It is possible to organise transport for the 4km trip to the start of the hike, but I like several others, decided to include this as part of the walk. Cutting up over Church Hill, the road skirting behind Bathing Beach and cut down past Butterfield Beach before climbing up and across another headland ahead of Horseshoe Bay.

 

I was accompanied by a steady drizzle so my camera and phone were tucked away to keep them dry, but even through the rain, Horseshoe Bay with its large expansive curve of sand was beautiful, and aside from another hiker far ahead of me, and a couple of hikers some distance behind me, there was not a soul in sight. At the far end of the bay, the road cut inland across yet another headland, and climbed up over a hill and down to Lee Bay and the official start of the track. Here there was only the raging Foveaux Strait between the bay and the South Island of New Zealand. The rain was whipping in here, and the sea rolled into the beach below it. Off to the side was the massive chain-link sculpture, a twin to the one at Bluff I’d seen the day before, and once through here, I was officially on the track, the rain accompanying me into the forest.

 

At an undulating altitude, the track sticks close to the coast, although the varying density of the trees affected the level of views from one section to the next. It cut down to a small beach where a boardwalk crossed a river and here the path had a low-tide and high-tide option. As the sea was well out, it was safe to walk across the beach, finding some steps back into the forest at the far side. As the path continued on its snaking route to Peters Point, the rain got heavier and heavier and I was reminded of the fact that my 10-year old hiking boots were no longer waterproof. I hadn’t found a replacement pair since this discovery whilst walking the Mount Somers track a few weeks prior. Eventually it cut down to a river mouth and I had the option of wading across the river or heading up a high-tide route. I knew there was a nearby shelter, and being hungry, wet and cold by this stage, I was keen to get to it sooner rather than later so opted to pick my way across the river as best as I could to reach the sand of Maori Beach in Wooding Bay.

 

When I reached the shelter and found it packed with a group of fellow hikers I was rather dismayed. There was simply no dry space for me. I saw a sign that pointed to a historic site just behind the shelter so went to look at what was left of an old sawmill before cutting down to the same river a little further upstream. By the time I got back to the shelter, the other hikers were leaving and I was able to get under the roof to eat some food whilst staying dry. I was just finishing my lunch when a few more hikers arrived and suddenly the shelter was back at capacity again. It was only fair to get moving as soon as possible and give the new arrivals some space.

 

From the shelter, the track followed the beach to an estuary at the far end. The rain was getting a little miserable and I was glad to have had my GoPro with me or would have had no photos from this first day of the hike. Near the far end of the beach I stumbled across an eel in the sand, slithering across a patch of water streaming down the sand. I wasn’t sure whether to leave it or move it, but as it seemed perfectly mobile and partly submerged, I opted to leave it be. Beyond this, the track cut round the bend to a long suspension bridge that spanned the estuary and led the path back into the bush.

 

The track gained a little altitude and felt deep within dense forest, away from the coastal views. Eventually it reached the junction in the track where the Rakiura Track cut inland, and the North-West Circuit cut back towards the coast. Although I was walking the Rakiura Track, the first night’s hut involved going down to Port William where the Port William Hut serves both tracks. I was just eager to get to the hut with the rain still falling, and when I eventually made it, it was already buzzing with the activity of those hikers who had left the shelter ahead of me. It also wasn’t long before other hikers trickled in and soon the hut was full of hikers stripping off wet clothing and trying to find a dry place to hang their stuff up. When the rain finally eased by the evening, I stretched my legs by taking a wander around the immediate vicinity of the hut, taking in the view of the bay and looking for wildlife.

 

The next morning started off with better weather and once packed up it was time to move on. I was one of the last people to leave the hut but I was in no hurry to get anywhere, taking my time to walk along the shore of Port William and going out to the wharf to enjoy the view under the sunshine. It took me some time to make it back to the track junction where the Rakiura Track cuts inland, and by this stage the rain was back.

 

It was heavy as I reached the remnants of some log haulers, another historic site detailing life for the early settlers to the island. I didn’t hang around long, eager to get into the thick forest where I hoped the foliage would offer a little protection from the elements. The theme for the rest of the day was intervals of showers followed by sunshine. My waterproofs were on and off repetitively and under foot, the path was quite churned up in places. The walk threatened to become a little monotonous in places, but then something would spike my interest like an unusual looking tree, or a river to cross, and overhead the foliage changed quite a lot.

 

One such curiosity was a ball that someone had hung from a tree marking it as the half-way point of the hike. It seemed so out of place there in the middle of the natural forest. On and on the track went, past more quirky trees, more streams and eventually coming to a downhill section that was in the process of being repaired, but meanwhile was an utter quagmire. I had heard that the Rakiura hiking tracks were notorious for being muddy and this section was a challenge trying not to get stuck or slip in the various bogs and mud patches. I was glad to finally reach another track junction and realise I was close to the end of the day’s hike. My second hut, the North Arm Hut, also accommodates those hiking the North West Circuit and was once again booked out for the night.

 

The forest of Rakiura is beautiful, varying and thick, but I’d still found the hike of day 2 comparatively dull with little in the way of views other than the immediate foliage around me. But now I was back at the coast, this time that of Paterson Inlet and with an evening and another day’s hiking ahead of me, there was still so much of Rakiura’s beauty to see.

Mount Somers Track – Day Two

New Zealand’s network of back country huts are the welcome sight at the end of many a hike, although they vary in size, style, and comfort level. What they all have in common is a lack of electricity, meaning that when the sun goes down at night, everybody tends to go straight to sleep, and in the morning as the hut lights up with the morning sunlight, the first stirrings of the early risers awaken the rest of the occupants from their slumber. And so it was as I lay asleep under the kitchen bench top in the over crowded Woolshed Creek Hut at the back of Mount Somers. I don’t know if it was the light or the early risers that stirred me from my slumber, but soon the whole hut was bustling with activity. The vast majority of the hut occupants had hiked in on the shorter Miners track from the car park off Ashburton Gorge Road, which makes it a suitable walk for families. I however, was parked at the Sharplin Falls car park on the directly opposite flank of Mount Somers and had a full day’s hike ahead of me to get there.

Being in February, I had picked an exceptionally hot weekend to do the hike, having hiked in on the Mount Somers track in 27oC. For my return leg, the temperature would peak at 29oC and the majority of the return leg was exposed to the elements. I’d gotten a little deflated at the end of the previous day, having taken 7hrs to hike what should have been a 6hr trek. With the return route listed as an 8hr trek, I set off that morning already feeling a little deflated again. First things first, there was no point even putting my boots on upon leaving the hut as I had to wade across the stream back to the far side to rejoin the Mount Somers track.

 

Starting off with a wander along the valley floor, the track skirted up a low ridge to face a deep gulley across which, a long swing bridge spanned the gap. The plaque denoted that it had replaced a ladder and I wondered if that meant that previously the river had had to be forded. This seemed like it would have been a rather dodgy affair if it had. I was glad of the bridge to take me safely across, and from then onwards, the climb began. First up and over an exposed ridge from where I could still see the hut in the valley behind me, and then into a little forested section. After wading across a stream in my leaky hiking boots, I climbed back out to come across a side track leading to a waterfall. Deep in shadow, it was difficult to get a decent photo of it, but it was definitely worth the short side trip to go and view it.

 

Once back out the forest, the next section of track was probably my favourite, despite the constant climb that went with it. It was exposed but this meant the views were incredible, and as it climbed and hugged the edge of a steep gully, I could see mountains rolling off into the distance, including some distant peaks that still had snow on them. There was only a couple of other people on the track ahead of me, otherwise it was a quiet trail, and from my vantage point I could see some of the other hut occupants walking out on the lower trail they’d come in on. As the track reached its highest point for the day, it cut directly under a rocky overhang where a cut out in the rocks was known as the Bus Stop overhang. Someone had even attached a Bus Stop sign to the edge of the rocks which I passed after taking a rest to enjoy the view.

 

It wasn’t far before the track descended steeply, and suddenly the vegetation changed dramatically from the scrubby bush to reams of tussock before the stumpy trees reappeared briefly whilst the track cut down to another stream and cut back up the other side. It was then an almost flat trek across more tussock, from where there was a final view of Woolshed Creek Hut in the far distance before it disappeared out of sight. Still on the western slope of Mount Somers, I eventually came across the track junction with the Rhyolite Track which cuts steeply down to the same car park that the other hut occupants would reach on the Miner Track. For me though, it was time to cut round to the south face of the mountain and push onwards.

 

There was next to no shade on this south face, and having overtaken the couple of hikers back in the tussocks, it was just me and them some way behind me on this track. For the rest of the day, the trend was set, with a constant undulation up and down in altitude the whole way back to the car. The view south was also less interesting than the view west or the view north the day before, and under the beating sun, it didn’t take long for me to start to get frustrated again. I’ve done many hikes, including 8hr day hikes, but this was my longest hike with a full pack on my back. I’ve also let my fitness reduce and my weight increase, so it was as much frustration at my self for letting myself lose condition as it was about the monotony of the hike in the blazing heat. But there were some interesting sections as the track followed the contours of the mountainside, passing or crossing multiple streams as it went, and the vegetation was by now back to the bushy scrub or the occasional copse of trees.

 

I had my eye on a little shelter where I planned on having lunch, but as with the day before, it felt like it wasn’t getting any nearer, and eventually I decided to stop to eat in the shade of a small copse near a stream. When I finally reached the little shelter I did a quick nosey inside before continuing, realising to my dismay that there was a rather steep incline ahead. Thankfully it turned out that most of it was in the shade of a woodland, and despite the perceived exhaustion, it was actually not too bad to negotiate in the end. After reaching the top of the incline, it skirted yet another corner to suddenly open out of the trees onto the top of a large scree field. Picking my way across it carefully to avoid creating a stone avalanche, there was just another small incline until finally I found myself at the junction with the Mount Somers summit track.

 

It was all downhill from here, and I told myself gleefully that I was nearly finished, but as the sign at the junction attests and as I consulted my map to remind myself of the next section of the track, there was still 1/3rd of the south face track to walk! There were a few more people on this part of the track with those coming off the summit heading home too. I just focused on the thought of my car and picked my way down the lowering ridgeline before I finally entered the forest for the final section. I passed some older gentlemen that had come off the summit and they started congratulating me when they found out I’d walked the circuit. I’m never sure if it’s a genial hiker’s praise or a surprise at the fact that I’m a solo female hiker, because I’ve been stopped a few times by fellow hikers (always males) who seem surprised or overly congratulatory about my intentions or achievements. Certainly, I come across far more male hikers (solo or otherwise) than I do fellow female hikers (solo or otherwise), so probably I’m still in the minority.

 

When I reached my car, 8hrs 40mins after leaving Woolshed Creek Hut behind, it wasn’t long before the same men completed their hike and we shared in each other’s elation. In the intense heat and exposure, I had run out of water about an hour before finishing, as I had done the day before. This hike was the first time that had ever happened and I reflected on the fact that I had underestimated the hike. In the end though, I felt more proud of myself for completing it, having ticked another Canterbury hike off the list, and feeling far more prepared for the 3 day hike I had to come in a few weeks time.

Mount Somers Track – Day One

After New Year came and went and the days of January started ticking by, I had the sudden realisation that I had a multi-day hike just around the corner in February and I was generally unfit and hadn’t done much training. I’d struggled up Ben Lomond on my recent visit to Queenstown, a mountain which I should have coped with well in my peak fitness, so I realised I was in need of an overnight hike, or tramp as it is called in New Zealand, to give my body a practice run. So I decided to do the Mount Somers Track in Canterbury, a track that wasn’t a drastic drive away, was just a 2 day hike and seemed perfectly achievable, being as it went round the slope of Mount Somers without actually summiting it. What could go wrong? I knew that the hut I wanted to stay at could be busy at weekends as it is accessible also via a shorter walk and is therefore very popular with families as a reasonable walk when kids are involved, so with a long weekend, I decided to hike Sunday to Monday, thinking I’d have a better chance of getting a bunk. I didn’t have a tent to take with me as a back-up, but I did take my camping mattress just in case.

For many reasons, the trip just didn’t go the way I had anticipated. I was a little lazy getting myself going on the Sunday morning, so I was setting off later than I really should have. I left my car at the Sharplin Falls car park near Staveley, and noted the 6hr time on the Department of Conservation (DOC) sign to Woolshed Creek Hut, my destination for that night. For my general level of fitness, I find these DOC signs very generous with their estimated times, so I knew I should make the hut at a reasonable time to have a chance of bagging a bed spot if it was busy. I set off over the stream and up the winding pathway into the bush, setting my sights on Pinnacles Hut which was just a little over halfway. I planned on using it as a lunch and rest spot before pushing on to the second hut. The track was rough but obvious as it negotiated tree roots and an undulating altitude and for a while I could see little more than the bush around me. I passed several people who were hiking out from wherever they had spent the night and at one point a man stopped me and asked me where I was staying. He explained that the Woolshed Creek Hut had reached double capacity the night before and it had been rather chaotic and cramped. He wished me luck for that night and continued on his way. I continued to hold onto the belief that it was Sunday, so it had to be quieter. Shortly after, I fell on my arse.

 

A break in the trees allowed me to see Mount Somers, the mountain that I was hiking around and have previously climbed up. It was a beautiful sunny summer’s day and it was getting rather hot, peaking at 27oC. There had recently been some heavy rain so as the track dipped down to Bowyers Stream there were fresh landslips to negotiate and the water level was higher, flooding small sections of the track. My trusty hiking boots have been a reliable part of my life for nearly 10 years. I knew they were coming to the end of their life, but when the water started seeping in to them as I crossed some small streams, I realised that this hike was going to be a problem for them. In the deeper patches where the stepping stones were well submerged, I was forced to take my shoes off and wade barefoot: not an ideal situation, but it seemed the better scenario than hiking in saturated shoes and socks. Further up a stream a swing bridge offered a decent crossing across a wider section but even after this there were a few more zig zags across the water.

 

The heat was beginning to get to me and I had a feeling I wasn’t making progress at a rate that I was comfortable with. I put these thoughts aside when I came across a waterfall that the track went behind. Dripping off the moss and vegetation on an overhang, the light flow of water glistened in the sunshine and it was a nice distraction from the slight monotony of the bush. Given the roughness of the track and the use of chains to negotiate a few sections, I was a little surprised to see a family with young children swimming in a pooled section of the stream which the path came really close to. I had seen this area on the map and had decided it would be a good place to have lunch given that the hut still seemed a bit away, but when I came out of the bush I saw the children were naked and it felt inappropriate for me to stop there, so I pushed on till I found a clearing with a rock to sit on.

 

But at some point it really became evident that I should have reached the first hut by now. I’m normally a lot quicker than the DOC signs state, but once before I have been caught out by the time estimate being more realistic than they typically are, and I was coming to the realisation that this was going to be another one. It led to a bit of frustration kicking in and my tiredness was becoming a little more pronounced. It was dawning on me that I still had hours of hiking ahead of me, and I was going to get in later than I’d thought. The final lead up to Pinnacles Hut is dramatic though – the bush opening up to reveal the sheer wall of the north face of Mount Somers and some large rocky prominences jutting through the trees. As I finally neared the hut, I could see some people climbing the largest prominences a little way behind the hut. I peaked inside as I like to do when I pass by and I spied an updated time estimate sign and looked in dismay at the lies which it portrayed: It had taken me longer to reach the hut and I knew it would take me longer to reach the next one.

 

From Pinnacles Hut the track climbed steeply to reach a pass and followed the natural curve of the slope for a while. The bush was minimal now so it was a stunning view that I tried hard to enjoy through my growing tiredness. I passed some more people heading in the opposite direction before I finally reached the beginning of the long descent. The shadows were starting to stretch a little and I was eager to get down to the hut in the valley below. It was a straight-forward descent surrounded by mountains disappearing into the distance in several directions with the hulk of Mount Somers as a constant companion to my left, its appearance changing as the terrain around it changed. As the path levelled out, I was sure I had just a few more corners till the hut would appear, but again when I consulted the map, I proved to be sorely wrong. I still had a good 45 mins of hiking to go. I was quite deflated by this stage, disheartened with the miscalculation of time, irritated by the heat, and disappointed at the failing condition of my hiking boots.

 

Despite all this, when a little side-track appeared as the path skirted a tributary of Morgan Stream, I took it to cut down to the water and look at some faux caves where the rocks created some channels and pools for the water flow to negotiate. It was tempting to have a wade but I really needed to get to the hut. The path cut down to Morgan Stream proper where I was startled by a large hedgehog scuttling into the bush, it having gotten as big a fright from me as I had by its sudden movement. Where the path disappeared into the stream and out the other side, I had to de-boot once more to cross it. After climbing back up the far slope, over the ridge and down the other side, I was beyond ecstatic to finally see Woolshed Creek Hut at the bottom of the hill. There were a lot of people milling about and I realised it was going to be busy. I almost skipped the last section of the hike only to be brought to a standstill when I realised Woolshed Creek stood between me and the hut. Off the boots came again and I didn’t bother putting them back on, dumping my stuff on the decking and popping inside.

 

The hut was a hive of activity, full of children inside and out, which seemed so foreign to me at the end of a long hike. I love seeing a new generation get into hiking and the outdoors, away from electronic devices, but it wasn’t what I wanted to find after a 7hr hike. It had been an hour longer than the DOC sign had stated meaning it was almost 2hrs longer than I thought it would have taken. I looked into the bunk rooms to discover that all the mattresses were spoken for and I realised I would be kipping on the floor. I wasn’t even the last person to arrive, with a few other groups of hikers having walked in on the shorter track. We all fought for space to prepare food and eat, and once the kitchen area was clear, I set up my camping mattress and sleeping bag under the workbench where I thought I’d be out of the way. The bugs kept me company for a bit, and I read a magazine in the torchlight before one by one, all of us that were sleeping on the floor settled in for the night. I was exhausted and mentally drained, and the next day I still had to make it back to my car.

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Emerald Lakes to Whakapapa Village

When people think of beautiful landscapes and stunning scenery, they often think of rolling green hills or mountains reflected on lakes. But sometimes there can be something just as mesmerising as a stark and rocky landscape. Tongariro National Park in New Zealand’s North Island is a volcanic and geological wonderland, and it is such a contrast to what I’m used to living in the South Island. After several hours spent hiking past the dramatic peak of Mt Ngauruhoe, and climbing over the ridge of Mt Tongariro and Red Crater to descend past Emerald Lakes, I found myself at the top of a steep descent with an expansive lava field below me. To my side, steaming vents blew puffs of smoke out of the ground and as far as I could see, the ridges of lahars and the rocks from volcanic explosions littered the landscape. Here I was, leaving the crowds of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing behind and entering the wild emptiness of Middle Earth’s Mordor.

 

The swirling dark clouds over the blackened landscape created a dark and gloomy view, but the sun intermittently sparkled through the ever changing cloud base. It was a quick descent from 1700m (5577ft) down to roughly 1460m (4790ft), following the poles with orange arrow that mark out a route. Whilst the upper altitude gave a good overview for location reference, it became clear as I dropped lower that it could be very easy to get lost amongst the undulating rocky piles that littered the landscape everywhere. Whilst the peaks of Red Crater and Mt Nguaruhoe stood distinctively behind me, the rest of the lower slopes was like a rabbit warren. Initially there was some yellows and reds to the rocks around me, but the lower I got, the more the landscape darkened to the ashy black. The path was well trodden, and sprouts of vegetation poked up from the sandy substrate.

 

I naively thought once I was on the valley floor that it wouldn’t be long until I reached my hut for the night, but in fact this section of the walk felt like it went on forever. It had been many hours since I’d left Mangatepopo Hut behind, and I was getting tired. But there was so much to look at. There was evidence of rocks from a historical river bed, as well as so many formations of different rock types, created by a mix of setting lava flows, lahars, and rocks deposited by explosive force. To my left a tall ridgeline slowly dropped down, and behind me I regularly looked back to see Mt Nguaruhoe and Red Crater. The plant life around me was typical of an alpine landscape, with low shrubs and occasional flowers. The closer I got to the Oturere Hut, my bed for the night, the more it even felt a little like sand dunes, such was the dusty ground of ash.

 

Even though I knew State Highway (SH) 1 was out of sight in the distance, I felt a million miles away from anywhere, having not seen another soul since I’d taken the turn-off for the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Finally the Oturere Hut (1360m/4462ft) came into view, nestled near a drop in the landscape, and I was relieved to take my backpack off. This was another small hut for what I was expecting. Some of the hikers that I’d shared the hut with the previous night, had opted to push on to the next hut, but even still with hikers walking the trail in both directions, it was booked out for the night, and several people were camping outside.

 

I was told about a waterfall not far from the hut, so walked to the edge of the drop, and followed the worn path down towards it. The Oturere falls are a multi-tiered waterfall that spills down the mountainside, having come from the ridgeline I’d just climbed down from. It was peaceful here, and I walked slightly up stream from the falls to get a varying view of the Oturere Stream and the river valley below. Some other hikers had taken a dip here but I wasn’t brave enough to get in the cold water. Back at the hut, I wandered around the immediate vicinity inspecting plants and watching the rain move in over Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, before heading back to the hut. Shortly after, the heavens opened and the rain moved in. I was so glad I wasn’t camping as it rained a good part of the night.

 

The next day’s hike was a short one. It is easily possible to hike back to Whakapapa Village from Oturere Hut in one day, and a few of my fellow hikers were doing so. I and a few others, had decided to follow the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) suggestion of walking the circuit in 4 days. So with the DOC signage showing the next hut was only 3hrs away, I didn’t hurry myself in the morning to get going. Many people set off ahead of me, and I took one last look at the waterfall before heading off myself. It remained dry but was overcast. The hike effectively cuts up and down the old lahar ridges that mark a historical volcanic eruption. Nearest the hut there were lots of large and jagged rocks, but as the time wore on, these grew few and far between.

 

Again I mused how easy it would be to get lost if the path was left behind, although I knew SH1 was getting closer as I walked, and indeed on the lahar ridges, I could just about make out the odd truck ploughing the road in the far distance. It takes a hardy plant to live in these conditions, and it was a constantly changing patchwork between the rocks and alpine plants, and the loose ash scree between them. On the third lahar ridge, the path changed course and trees were suddenly in front of me. It was strange seeing such tall vegetation when the rest of the hike so far had only had the stunted alpine flowers and bushes. The path led right up to the trees then dropped down within them to a broad and fast-moving stream in a shallow valley. This was more like the South Island hiking I was used to, and at the bridge to cross over, I met some hikers heading in the other direction.

 

Once over the stream, the path climbed back up the slope within the forest. My legs were a little tired from the previous day’s hike so they grumbled a bit as I regained the lost altitude. Eventually breaking out of the tree line again I could see Mt Ruapehu peaking through a gap in the cloud. Some of the landscape that I could see contained the track I would follow the next day, but for now I was winding past more alpine bushes and round the corner I could already see Waihohonu hut, my bed for the night. Climbing down through the trees once more, I crossed over another mountain stream and found myself at the hut (1120m/3674ft).

 

This more modern hut was huge compared to the previous two huts, and with many hikers in both directions combining two days of hiking, there were much less people staying here, making it seem even more spacious. There were several familiar faces already there and arriving after me, and several of us had been chatting multiple times over the 3 days, and had got to know each other a little. The Great Walks of New Zealand are a mecca for tourists as much, if not more so than Kiwis, so there was a veritable collection of nationalities amongst us, with a range in age also that made for some interesting life stories. While often these are people that come into your life for only a few hours or a few days, they are people that have shared an adventure with you and some of my memories from this hike revolve around the hilarity and stories that were traded between us.

On the morning of day 4, I was one of the last to leave the hut. Many of the others had a long drive ahead of them or a bus to catch so were keen to get going. It was another grey day, and although I had a bit of driving to do myself that afternoon, I knew I wanted to explore the side tracks on this day’s trail. Close to the hut is the turn-off for another multi-day hike, the Round the Mountain track that circuits the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu. One of the hikers with me on the Northern Circuit had completed that hike recently and after she talked about it, my appetite was whetted to hike it on another occasion. I left my backpack at the junction and followed the Round the Mountain track for 20mins to reach Ohinepango Springs. On route I had a view over the eastern plains that spans the area between the Tongariro volcanoes and the Kaimanawa Mountain Range. Not too far away, SH 1 paves a route through here, where it is known as the Desert Road because of the apparently barren and ‘sandy’ landscape. From where I was standing though, there was plenty of vegetation everywhere I looked.

 

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the Ohinepango Springs were not overly exciting. It was effectively a fast-flowing river coming away from a pool of water that had a slight bluish tinge to it. Probably on a sunny day they look more spectacular, but had it not been for spotting a whio (blue duck) which are rare and endangered, I would have been a bit annoyed with wasting my time. As it was, I enjoyed watching the little duck swimming around and got excited when he made his distinctive whistling sound. The whio are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world, and it is estimated their numbers are under 3000. They only live around exceptionally clean water, so whilst their presence is a good indicator of the health of a waterway, it is the contamination of waterways and more so the predation from introduced species that have played major parts in their decline.

 

Returning to my backpack, from where I could see the clouds roll over the Kaimanawa Ranges, it was only about a 10min walk to the next turn-off for the historic Waihohonu Hut. Painted in bright red, it was a remnant from a bygone era where men and women were separated for sleeping. It is open to have a nosey around, and it is littered in etchings from past occupants, as well as a few artifacts to look at. Built in 1904, it remained in use until the 60s and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. It is now managed by the Tongariro National Historic Society. By the time I had returned to the Tongariro Northern Circuit, an hour had passed since I’d left the newer Waihohonu hut behind, and I still had quite a bit of ground to cover. It was time to push onwards to Whakapapa Village.

 

The landscape was a mix of bare exposed ground with the odd plant or areas completely covered with alpine plants. The mountains I’d hiked over two days prior were shrouded in cloud as I walked towards a river bank. There was some incredible erosive patterns in the banks nearby and shortly after leaving the river out of sight, a section of boardwalk crossed a rather marshy zone. Although there were mountains flanking the valley either side of me, the valley itself felt open and expansive. It was some time before I caught sight of the depression in the ground that was hiding one of two lakes near the trail. But even then, there was a bit of dropping and climbing and circling before the turn-off to the two Tama Lakes was reached.

 

As the lakes are a little over 2hrs away from Whakapapa Village, this was a popular walk for visitors from there, and so suddenly there were other people about after I’d spent all morning on my own. I left my backpack at the junction and took only my water sack and snacks with me to go to the lookouts. It is only a short walk to the lower Tama lake viewpoint, and as I walked there I met a couple of hikers who’d stayed with me at Waihohonu hut and were on their way back from the lakes. The lower lake filled a small portion of the crater that it sat in, and it was only later after reading a book about the National Park that I discovered that the whole crater would have once been filled with water, but that part of it had filled in with sediment, and eventually so would the rest of it. There was a couple of viewing areas around the 1335m (4380ft) plateau, but although many people went no further, I was keen to head up to the higher viewing area to see the upper Tama lake too.

 

It was a good climb up to the higher viewing area at 1440m (4724ft). The upper Tama lake sits below the southern flank of Mt Nguaruhoe who’s summit remained under wraps the whole day. Under the grey sky the water took on a steely grey colour, and far below, the lower Tama lake looked more blue. Behind the lower lake, Mt Ruapehu also remained shrouded in cloud. It was an enjoyable spot to take a break, and the vista was impressive despite the lack of sunshine. To the west, the landscape rolled in hillocks towards Whakapapa village and beyond. I took my time absorbing the view as I retraced my steps back down the hillside and back towards the Tongariro Northern circuit.

 

The track cut a snaking path up and down through the rolling landscape as it cut across the valley to the west. There were plenty of people coming in the other direction, many of whom seemed dismayed with my answer when they asked how far they still had to go to reach the lakes. Eventually I saw some buildings in the distance which meant the village was within reach and a short while later I came to a track junction. Both paths led to the village, one directly, and the other cut down past a waterfall to join the track that I had left the village from 3 days prior. This junction was at the top of a large rocky drop where the Taranaki falls tumbled over the cliff. I left my backpack once more and climbed down the steps to the bottom where I soon came face to face with the waterfall. There were so many people here as I acknowledged my return to civilisation. It was a beautiful waterfall and well worth seeing. Even the cliffs were interesting to look at.

I climbed back up the stairs to retrieve my backpack and continued on above the falls, crossing the stream and negotiating the ridges of a historic lava flow. The DOC sign had stated an hour from the falls to the village, but it wasn’t even that long, and as I looked out over the vegetation for the last time, I suddenly found myself coming out at the car park by the hotel at the end of the road. Then it was just the trudge back to my car and the final removal of my backpack. Like the Kepler Track which I hiked a few years ago, the Tongariro Northern Circuit definitely peaks in terms of views on day 2, but I still enjoyed exploring the volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park, circuiting between the impressive volcanic summits of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Nguaruhoe and Mt Tongariro. Despite the crowds in some parts, this geological wonderland is most definitely worth exploring.

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is widely rated as New Zealand’s best day hike. Traversing a barren volcanic landscape that appears at times as if on another planet, the scenery is for many people, like nothing they’ve seen before. Cutting up past Mount Ngauruhoe (famous to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies), and swinging past Mount Tongariro, the full track is just over 19kms (11.8miles), and reaches an altitude of 1886m (6188ft). Roughly 109,000 people hiked this trail in 2015, and the numbers continue to rise. We were told by the warden at our hut that in the height of summer, you have to queue to get onto the track from the hut we were staying in that night, such was the density of people walking the trail at times. He told us to get going early to beat the crowds that pile onto the trail from the shuttle buses. I had tried to do this hike twice before, in 2012 and again in 2014, but the weather had stopped me going. With day two of the Tongariro Northern Circuit incorporating the best part of the Alpine Crossing, I was set to finally join the crowds, no matter what the weather would be.

I awoke at Mangatepopo Hut to clear skies, but by the time I’d had breakfast and packed up, the clouds had piled in and the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. We’d been given a disheartening weather forecast the day before, and I was sad to see it was coming true. I had no choice but to set off, and I acknowledged with sadness that I wasn’t going to get much of a view. I left the hut behind early, but not early enough. After the short walk from the hut to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track, all I could see was a stream of people walking up the trail. I sighed internally and slipped into the crowd and set off. I go hiking both to get out in nature, but also for solitude and to get away from civilisation. Straight away I was met by people jostling to get past and others that would just stop suddenly in front of you. This wasn’t going to be the hike I hoped it would be.

 

The path up the valley was plentiful with vegetation, but narrow in places. This meant that there was regularly impatient people walking off the trail and trudging through the vegetation to overtake. Early on there is a sign stating that the landscape is fragile and to keep to the path, but this was repeatedly ignored and I became silently annoyed. After a gentle climb, the path becomes a boardwalk as it passes by a historic lava flow from Mt Ngauruhoe. Under the grey sky, the dark landscape took on a gloomy hue. Carrying a large backpack as I was, I attracted a bit of attention from the day hikers who needed only supplies for the day, and who didn’t realise that there was a multi-day hike in the area. As I marched onward with the others, I tried and failed to pick out where the path would climb up the mountainside.

 

After a while, a side track leads to the Soda Springs, a volcanic waterfall that comes through the rocks from Mt Tongariro. Many of the day hikers ignored them, but it was only a short detour to take, and I dumped my backpack at the junction, giving my back a brief rest whilst I picked my way across the rocky path to them. From the vantage point back towards the mountainside, I could start to get a vague idea of where the path went and it looked very steep. My backpack was around 13kg, and I readied myself in anticipation of the strain. In 2013 I injured my back and have been left with chronic back pain. Frustratingly to top that off, I injured both my shoulders in 2016, and am still on the long road to recovery from that even nearly a year later. Chronic pain has become my life, and whilst it has changed my mental outlook in some ways, I am grateful that I can still do the physical activities that I enjoy, even if I can’t do them in comfort. The climb with my pack was going to hurt, but I was going to do it anyway.

 

Near the bottom is a sign telling you to stop and think about whether you are fit enough to do the hike. In some respects, the walk has almost been sold as such a must-do activity, that I think there are (and indeed saw that day) people out on the trail who weren’t necessarily prepared to do it. I have repeatedly seen tourists hiking mountains in New Zealand at the wrong time of day, wearing the wrong clothing or footwear and often with little water or supplies. Once again, I looked around me, and saw people pushing up the steps with just a small water bottle to sustain them all day. One woman on her own who had nothing with her other than the clothes she was wearing, breathlessly commented on my large backpack as she struggled up the first flight of stairs. How she got on for the rest of the hike I do not know, but I suspect she would have been pretty damn hungry and thirsty by the time she finished.

 

The only toilets on the hike until either the shelter near the end of the Alpine Crossing or the next hut on the Northern Circuit are just up the first few steps. For about 5-6hrs on either trail, there are no more facilities beyond that. As the steps continued their steep climb up the mountainside, the vegetation grew patchier and patchier. Either side of the track were lumps of volcanic rocks, and above me the cloud was still hanging over the summit. Below me it became increasingly obvious that the rocks formed a lave flow and the landscape began to take on that other-worldly feel that I had read so much about. A little below the summit plateau, a sign pointed out the fact that this is an active volcanic zone. The most recent eruption was only in 2012, and I was already living in the country when it happened. A side vent on Mt Tongariro known as the Te Maari craters blew themselves open sending rocks and debris into the air which damaged the Ketetahi Hut near the end of the Alpine Crossing and closed the track for a few months. Following the hike, I purchased a fascinating book about the volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park that gives some background information to the various eruptions in the area, as well as how the volcanoes formed and why the landscape looks the way it does. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before I did the hike, as I would have appreciated what I was walking through even more.

 

By the time I reached the plateau of South Crater (which isn’t actually a crater), the cloud had lifted enough to reveal the plateau but the mountain tops were still shrouded. Soon the turn-off to climb up Mt Ngauruhoe was reached, and considering the lack of visibility, there were plenty of people heading up there that day. When I was reading up on the hike before I set off, I had decided that I wanted to summit both Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, but the former has no official route up and is effectively just a scree field on the flanks. Several websites listed it as dangerous, and even the warden at the hut recommended not attempting it. If the wrong route is taken, it is apparently easy to get hit by rocks loosened by people ahead of you or descending, and it is a major slip and fall hazard. Standing at the sign watching the others disappear into the clouds, I just didn’t see the point in attempting it. There would be no view to speak of, and no way of knowing in the clouds whether you were keeping to a good line of ascent or descent. It seemed the sensible thing to skip it and keep on moving.

 

The South Crater is a large flat plateau where finally a bit of colour starts to poke through the previously perpetual blackened landscape. Volcanic zones are very much coloured according to the minerals of the rocks or the algae that grow in the often acidic environments of the waterways there. There was a distinct yellow colour to the rocks here, and the trail was enjoyably flat for a while. Here, the crowds seemed to thin out a little although it was nearly impossible to take a photograph without other people in it. The summit of Mt Tongariro was hidden in the clouds to my left, and Mt Ngauruhoe was hidden in the clouds to my right, but by the time I reached the far side of the crater, the clouds had noticeably lifted higher, and as a result, the landscape seemed to open up a little.

 

Another short steep section brought me up to the first of many incredible views that day. Despite the clouds behind me, the view east was almost clear, and far down below the expanse of what was Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies stretched as far as the eye could see. It was a steep drop, but that didn’t stop many of the other hikers balancing precariously on the edge to pose for a photograph. This was one of many spots where large amounts of people were congregated on the hike, and whilst I was gradually losing my crankiness about having to share the hike with so many other people, I was still wishing that the place was more quiet. For me, grand landscapes demand quiet and reflection, but it was time for a snack, so I stood for awhile amongst the changing crowd of people.

 

My reward for waiting there was that the sun was starting to break through, and looking behind me, the beauty and majesty of Mt Ngauruhoe was suddenly very evident as it broke into view. Near the summit, a patch of red stood out in stark contrast to the neighbouring grey-black of the rest of the rock and I briefly had an internal conflict as I wished I’d gone up, whilst at the same time looking at all the loose scree on the slopes, and wondering how it was actually possible to summit it. I turned to look across South Crater to see that Mt Tongariro was about to poke out the clouds too, and I knew that I would definitely be taking the side track to visit its summit.

 

From this first of many viewpoints, the track narrowed down again and became both steep and loose under foot. A short section has a chain nailed to the rocks to help negotiate it, and I had heard that this was a particular bottle neck for the crowds during the peak season. Hiking as I was in March, New Zealand still has plenty of tourists at that time of year, and once again, there were plenty of impatient people who barged past the slower hikers. Looking around though it was nice to see such a diversity of ages amongst the hikers, with plenty of older hikers that were much fitter than many of the younger ones. A series of blue poles marked the route up, and from the south crater at 1659m (5443ft), the track climbs up to about 1845m (6053ft) where a path junction marks the turn-off to Mt Tongariro. This rocky plateau was littered with people taking a rest. Seeing that Mt Tongariro was still clear of cloud, I wasn’t going to waste any time in heading off for its summit.

 

Dumping my backpack at the start of the track, and taking my water sack with me, I was glad to see this route was very quiet. With the majority of hikers tied to the schedule of the shuttle buses that pick up and drop off at the track ends, many of the day hikers just don’t have time to do the side tracks. Getting away from the crowds made it all the more enjoyable for me, and the views were incredible, looking both over to Mt Ngauruhoe now completely devoid of cloud, but also across the rest of the walk towards Blue Lake and North Crater, as well as to the surrounding plains on either side of the mountains. There was also a stunning yellow colour to large sections of the hike and the rocks were jagged and dramatic in places. The path was very narrow, and in a couple of places felt a little treacherous where it crossed loose scree at an angle above a drop. As I approached 1900m (6233ft), I was a little dismayed to see the cloud blow in over the summit and my view started to disappear.

 

The summit itself (1967m/6453ft) was a high stack of rocks that took several attempts to find an accessible way up. The guys at the top pointed out the way that they had come but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the foot and hand holds that they had used, and so I was forced to backtrack a little and approach from a slightly different angle. When I made it up, I was completely shrouded in cloud and couldn’t see a thing beyond the large boulders immediately next to me. The others headed off leaving me on my own, and after rock hopping a little, I stood on the summit surveying my cloudy kingdom. Then out of nowhere a break in the clouds appeared and I could see a carpet of low cloud below me. Suddenly I found myself above the clouds, and out popped the cone-shaped summit of Mt Ngauruhoe, and behind it, the snow-capped peaks of Mt Ruapehu. It was utterly amazing, and I had the view all to myself.

 

The clouds came in waves as I headed back. The rocky peaks in front of me stood out against the swirling clouds and both Blue Lake and the lower of the Emerald Lakes popped in and out of view. Plants grew in patches amongst the mostly barren and very yellow rocks of Mt Tongariro’s ridgeline. Finally though I was back at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and unfortunately thick cloud had rolled in once more. It was windy and cold, and unsurprisingly the plateau was now quite devoid of people. From here the Alpine Crossing climbs to its highest point on Red Crater. I’d already seen that the cloud was passing through in roughly half an hour waves. Had it not been so frigid in the wind I would have waited it out in order to get a view, but knowing how the afternoon usually brings a deterioration of the weather in the mountains generally, I also had doubts whether it would clear at all, so I made the decision to just get on with it and sacrifice the view here.

 

The path was easy to follow in the cloud, but it was completely exposed to the strong cross wind that buffeted me as I made my way up. There was no point in waiting at the summit, so I was quick to cross over to the descent on the other side, and this was the one place where I felt quite unsafe due to the heavy weight on my back. The track descends on a steep scree slope with little security under foot, and I was forced to adopt a skiing type movement, sliding down as gravity pulled the rocks away below each foot placement. A few times, I nearly lost my balance, as I carefully positioned myself to counter the pulling force of the 13-odd kg on my back. The rate of descent was fast but as I emerged once more below the clouds, and I looked at the path in front of me, I couldn’t decide whether it was a man-made ridge or not. It didn’t seem natural the way the scree was piled up in a narrow ledge-like ridge, but as much as a lot of the landscape is volcanic, there are also plenty of aspects that are remnants from a time of glaciation, and I suspect this was how that particular ridge had formed. But soon my attention was grabbed by the contrasting colours of the Emerald Lakes that came into view as the clouds were left behind.

 

There are three Emerald Lakes: the first two sit side by side and are the same colour as each other, and the third sits further along the track and is quite distinctive. Between the duo and the single lake, steam vents belch puffs of steam out of the ground. The swirling cloud continued to rise and fall, dancing around the upper of the lakes. This was another spot where there were plenty of people milling around as well as many people walking off the track. Whilst the first two lakes were interesting enough, it was really the third one that grabbed my attention, and oddly this was mostly ignored by the day hikers. It was near this third lake that the Tongariro Northern Circuit separated itself from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The Northern Circuit cut down to this third lake whereas the Alpine Crossing skipped past it.

 

I dumped my backpack by the third Emerald Lake and continued on the Alpine Crossing across Central Crater (not actually a crater). With the remnants of a lava flow from Red Crater to my left I was among a large crowd of hikers pushing on towards Blue Lake. Behind me, the cloud had lifted again and I could see Red Crater in all its glory. I’m sure the view from the summit would have been incredible, but considering I had thought I would get no views at all when I set off in the morning, to have only missed out on 1 viewpoint was not that bad in the grand scheme of things. Climbing up a rocky path once more, I reached the expanse of Blue Lake which was mostly shrouded in cloud. I found a handily-shaped stone that made a nice bench to sit on, and I waited a little here to see what the clouds would do. They lifted slightly to let me just see the far shore, but not for long. With the day hikers continuing on past the lake to skirt past North Crater and descend towards the forest below, I retraced my steps back to the third Emerald Lake.

 

Leaving the Alpine Crossing behind, I took the Northern Circuit turn-off back to the lakeside, reclaimed my backpack and paused here for a while to take a last look at the volcanic behemoths before leaving them behind. Finally, I was back to solitude and peace and quiet away from the busyness of the popular day hike. I stood out on the brow overlooking the upcoming descent, and stretched out for a great distance in front of me was the volcanic landscape of Mordor…

Mount Ruapehu and the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The maiden mountain of Pihanga was much admired by the warrior mountains Putauaki, Tauhara, Tongariro and Taranaki. The warriors fought for her hand in a great and fiery battle, until Tongariro was victorious. Defeated, in the hours of darkness, the other mountains retreated, leaving Tongariro and Pihanga to look upon each other forever. Putauaki and Tauhara fled north until the morning sun froze them in their place. Taranaki headed south, carving a trail behind him (which later filled with water to become the Wanganui river), before he turned west, becoming frozen near the west coast. Although the exact details vary a little from storyteller to storyteller, the Maori legends about the volcanic landscape of the Tongariro Volcanic Centre in New Zealand’s north island provide an intriguing alternate history to the fiery geology of the region. Since moving to New Zealand, I have discovered a previously unknown love for geology. From the fault lines in the Southern Alps, to the volcanic centre in the north island, there is a fascinating insight here into how the Earth’s crust changes and adapts over millennia.

I awoke on my 34th birthday to discover that Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe were hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds. I was to be starting the Tongariro Northern Circuit that day, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, a collection of 9 walks throughout the country that are well maintained and cover a diverse range of scenery. For just over 43km, this walk is one of only 3 loop tracks within the 9 walks. I have previously walked the Kepler Track, and like that hike, although I chose to walk it in 4 days as laid out on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, it could easily be walked in less. This particular hike incorporates the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the country’s most popular day walk, and whilst it can be started at varying access points, the walk effectively cuts between the volcanic mountains of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Tongariro, traversing across old lahar fields and debris spilled out historically from previous eruptions. This hike couldn’t be more different from the south island if it tried.

After breakfast at the Station cafe in National Park village, I had a short drive to the nearby Whakapapa village where I was to start the hike. On the drive over, the local radio station was reporting beautiful sunshine on nearby Mt Ruapehu, but with nothing but low cloud for company, I didn’t really pay it any attention. The village is a collection of accommodations, including the large, grand and well known Chateau Tongariro which greets you as you enter the village. There are lots of walks that head off from here, and a decent sized visitor centre which incorporates a DOC information office is on the main road. I parked up here, and inside found a reasonable exhibition display about the geology and eruption history of the region. I had a wander around, logged in my intentions to set off hiking, and then overheard that despite the cloud hugging the lower land, the ski centre up Mt Ruapehu was definitely above the cloud and basking in the March sunshine. With just a 3-hr hike to reach my first hut, I decided that there was plenty of time to explore the area before setting off on the hike.

 

So I jumped back in my car and followed the road out the back of the village, climbing higher and higher until suddenly the cloud broke away and I was in another world. A sound of excitement escaped my mouth involuntarily as I continued to drive up and through a rolling scene of black boulders, crust and apparently barren rock face. Behind it all, the dramatic peaks of the summit of Mt Ruapehu jutted up against the blue sky and white patches of snow sparkled in the sunshine. It was a little like Iceland all over again, but yet different, and I was giddy with excitement. At roughly 1600m (5249ft) altitude, there was a chill in the air, so after putting on some layers, I grabbed my camera and headed straight to the ticket office to get a chairlift pass up the mountain. Heading up the first chairlift, the distinctive cone summit of neighbouring Mt Ngauruhoe (familiar to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) poked up above the cloud base. Taking me up to roughly 1750m (5741ft) altitude, I swiftly headed to the upper chairlift and continued to grin widely as I headed up to the Knoll Ridge cafe at roughly 2000m (6561ft).

 

The view back down the mountainside was incredible thanks to the low cloud hugging the land beyond in every direction. The pinnacle ridge of Mt Ruapehu stood dramatically to the side, and everywhere I looked there were rocks and boulders of varying sizes. There was little to no vegetation and it felt wild and foreign. After taking a nosey at the map of the upper slope in the cafe, I realised there were some options for walking up here. The going was rough, uneven and even unsteady in places, but suddenly there was a mountain peak to explore and there was no stopping me. Early on I realised the error of my ways: having not expected to be hiking yet, I had come up the chairlift with no water and no sunscreen and as the exertion level increased, I found myself stripping off layer after layer of clothing, whilst also being paranoid about burning my face. Following first a well worn path, and then a series of poles up the rocky slope, I climbed a further 200m (656ft) to reach the ridgeline of Pinnacle Ridge.

 

The view from here was phenomenal. The cloud continued to hug most of the western land, but Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro behind it, stood tall and proud above the cloud and as I moved around the pinnacles, the line of view was in places broken by the vertical statues of rock that jutted up from the side of the mountain. Whilst I wasn’t purposefully looking for movie locations, I had been made aware that this too was used in the Lord of the Ring movies, and with all the barren volcanic rocky landscape here, I can see why it made a good set for Mordor.

 

I hung out here for a while, in no hurry to leave. It got a little cold and I had to put all my layers back on, but otherwise it was glorious. I looked longingly up at the continuing pathway that headed up to the true summit of Mt Ruapehu. The volcano has a composite summit, made up of lots of peaks of similar altitudes separated by glacial deposits, a plateau and a crater lake which is the source location for the volcano’s eruptions. Following this hike, I sourced a fascinating book, A Volcanic Guide to Tongariro National Park, which gives a lot of information about the formation and activity of the volcanoes in the region. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before my trip because I didn’t appreciate what I was standing on or what I was looking at at the time.

 

I yearned to keep going, and probably there were enough hours in the day to do so, but I had no food or water with me, and no sun protection (never mind my other usual hiking staples of a first aid kit and survival gear), and I knew deep down that to continue without these things would be a rather stupid thing to do. On such a fine day, I probably would have been okay, but I know enough to be aware how fickle the weather in the mountains can be, how much the clouds can change out of nowhere, and there was snow up there which added a whole other hazard. With a top altitude of 2797m (9176ft), it would have been a fantastic summit to tick off, but I had enough common sense to know I should leave it for another day. After accepting my decision, I retraced my steps back down to the cafe and sat outside for awhile, realising that the clouds were starting to retract a little down below. Perhaps the day’s hike wouldn’t be too bad after all. On the chairlift rides back down, I stared out at the black rocky landscape and watched as Mt Ngauruhoe popped back into view, still with the clouds swirling dramatically at its base.

 

After an unintentionally hair-raising drive back down to Whakapapa village, I kitted up, checked all my hiking gear and set off on day 1 of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. My destination was the Mangatepopo Hut, 9.4km (6miles) from the start at the edge of the village. Cutting down Ngauruhoe Place behind the Chateau Tongariro, I reached the first of two access points to the Taranaki Falls track. I was reminded a little of the vast heather moors of Scotland as I traversed the tussock and bushy vegetation. The cloud by now was indeed dispersing and I had the constant companion of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro for company almost dead ahead. The larger snow-speckled peak of Mt Ruapehu remained behind me, and then the path dipped briefly into some trees where the route to the hut split off from the track to the falls. Remaining within the trees for a short while, it crossed a couple of streams before emerging out the other side of the woods, and from then onwards, was completely exposed.