Looking back, its surprising how much we’ve fitted in to the last few days. It’s also unsurprising that we’re now playing catch up with our New Zealand budget. South of Auckland we’ve been 65 meters below ground, 2000 meters above sea level, hurtled down a mountainside and bathed in volcanicly heated mud. Not your average late April week. We are now in Wellington, the southern most port of New Zealand’s north island, awaiting our ferry crossing to Picton on the South Island tomorrow morning. We had been hoping to cross this evening (giving us a perfect one third two third split of north and south island) but the ferry was full so we are holed up in the car park of a hostel overnight.
The peak of our New Zealand exploration so far (literally and figuratively) was the Tongario Alpine Crossing, a 19km hike across a volcanic range that we decided to lengthen by ascending Mount Ngauruhoe – Mount Doom in the lord of the rings films – leaving us a tad tired by the end of the day. After hiking the Grand Canyon and parts of The Yosemite Park in the last few months we felt we were seasoned hikers but we were still given lots of warnings about leaving enough time to complete our “tramp” (New Zealand for hike, weirdly) which we heeded and so caught the 6:30 am bus transfer to the start to begin at just after 7am. Leaving the bus we were told that the trek up the active volcano (Ngauruhoe) might be closed due to sacred festivals. Thinking now that it was unnecessary to have got up at 5.50 am we were a bit gutted. The first 4ks were quite, uneventful, we walked slowly uphill waiting for the sun to peak above the mountains infront of us. When we got to the turn for the Ngauruhoe path we found it was in fact open with a few people heading upon it so, with it only being 8.30 am we decided to attack it. It was only a volcano after all.
The hike map/information sheet we had been given described the climb up mount doom as only semi sign posted and dangerous. But given the warnings we had listened to in the Grand Canyon but then found to be overstated we thought it was overly cautious. If this hike had been in America you would definitely need a permit, it definitely wasn’t the strait forward but tough hike we were expecting. The only instruction we had was to look left a third of the way up and follow the sold lava flow. We had looked left, we had seen it and we were following it, we thought, but the loose sandy ground we were trying to walk up was very hard going and we were informed by some people coming down the we should be on the lava flow as the hard ground was easier to walk up. After making our way across the steep side to the undoubtedly firmer footing we scrambled up the slope to the volcanoes summit. It took us just under 90 mins and it was easily the hardest hike we had done, but the views at the top were more than worth it (both of the eruption Crater and the landscape below) and we stayed atop for a while before the hairy decent down which we did half on our heels and half on our bums.
After that adventure, the remaining 13km of the hike were relatively straightforward but unnecessarily hard. Turns our hiking up and down a volcano without a man made path is quite tough. To keep us going the live volcanic earth offered some incredible scenery; baron bleak landscapes punctuated by glistening green, blue and emerald lakes that looked completely out of place and to be honest could have easily mistaken for a mirage. You could quite easily sit and enjoy them all day if it wasn’t for the smell of the sulphur escaping for vents in the earth that characterise the whole of the centre of the north island. We managed about 30 minutes while having lunch before carrying on. We completed the hike through dense, fern packed forest just after 3pm 8 hours after we had set off. Better than an office job but I doubt I could do it every day!
We had acclimatised to New Zealand’s volcanic atmosphere by spending a few nights by Lake Rotorua, a hub of activity for thermal activity as well as tourist attractions. Our first port of call was the Rotura city’s skyline: a ski lift type gondala which lifted you up the hill side for some magnificent views of the lake and the town. From the top they had a dry luge area that included 3 luge runs and two chair lifts. We took the opportunity to fly down each of the luge runs, negotiating all the required turns without any hastle. After a brief walk around the hills we took the gondala back down to the car park to be reunited with our camper.
As the day got older the notorious smell of sulphur, attributed to the regions thermal activity, became more apparent. Given that there seemed to be steam rising from every gap in the earth it was perhaps understandable. As we drove towards our next stop, a living Maori village, steam and water could be seen spouting up infront of us. The Maori village is built on land that was literally bubbling with heat; mud pools, hot springs, steam vents and even a geyser were dotted in between buildings where Maori culture and tradition is a way of life. We were treated to a cultural performance as well as a guided tour of the village. At the end of the tour we were taken to a look out where we could view the active geysers (large spouts of water erupting from the earth) there were three and all were busy while we were there, demonstrating the amsome power of the landscape.
Having viewed the thermal activity we felt it was proper to actually feel it. Hells gate, hopefully a tongue cheek name, is another highly active geothermal area in the region. As well as offering tours around the mud pools and hot springs they offer the customers chances to bath in the mud and sulphur pools which we did. For about an hour we covered ourselves in mud or floated in the salt water which apparently has many medicinal properties (the Dr wasn’t comvinced) when the heat got too much we braved the cold plunge pool the help regulate the body temperature although this wasn’t nearly as pleasurable as then warmer water.
To complete our stay in Rotorua we visited Wai-o-tapu, to see the apparent jewel in the crown of all the geothermal activity. It was like something our of a horror movie, surrounded every where by raising steam mostly from deep craters bubbling with mud and water. Water that hadn’t evaporated sat in flouescent pools of green blue and orange surround by baron sandy terrain. It was like someone had just rubbed out all the green that has been so abundant everywhere else in New Zealand. The champagne pool was the most striking of all that was on show, apparently the regions deepest and widest spring it boasts gold among it many elements that lurk in the waters leaving the edges with a glowing orange look. The bubbling water gives off a think steam that, if your stood in the right (or wrong) place, can leave you a bit damp!
Before we were even conscious of the bubbling waters of the volcanic region, we made our way underground in the Waitomo Caves for some black water rafting. This consisted of an over inflated inner tube and a deep but fast flowing river. The caves themselves were awsome, huge and empty. Filled with glow worms that lit up some ceilings like starry skies. We negotiated two waterfalls, having to leap backwards tube first followed by bottom into dark cold water before floating down the river trusting that the guides knew what they were doing and would find a way out. They did, but not before we had gotten cold and wet, although when you consider the guides spend each working day in the caves it was fruitless to complain much better to suck it up and enjoy a once in a lifetime experience.
And so ends 11 nights on the north island of New Zealand. We have almost twice as long to explore the larger southern island. Weather or not we will climb another volcano or float down a sub terraineon river I’m not sure, but if its anything like the last week I’m sure we will have plenty to do!