Hung around in a cafe for a while while it rained outside
Eventually the shuttle to the airport arrived and we loaded in our gigantic bike boxes
The attendant argued with us for quite a while about whether we could get our boxes loaded and how much it would cost.
The transfer to the international flight in Auckland was even more hurried than the first one. The design really was a bit ridiculous.
Flight was just as cramped and uncomfortable as before, a kind of endurance test. I know it’s a miracle that we can cross around to the other side of the earth in less than a day, but even making the journey in first class is extremely uncomfortable, for the simple fact that you cannot lay down anywhere, for even a moment.
Hung around in a cafe for a while while it rained outside
Today was a day off, at least from traveling. We spent most of the daylight hours slowly disassembling our bikes and packing them into the Crateworks boxes, along with the rest of our gear.
For anyone curious to see how two tandem bicycles can fit into three Crateworks boxes – one long, two short – and still pass the airline weight requirements, this hyperspeed video shows exactly how we did it:
In the afternoon we took a break to walk to a truly horrible French restaurant – our first seriously bad dining experience in New Zealand. Perhaps the country was throwing a tantrum because we were about to leave!
Fun fact: New Zealand has more cute roadside ponds per capita than any place else in the southern hemisphere.
(Note: Today’s Fun Fact has not been peer-reviewed.)
We slept in late, and checked out of the Plateau Lodge even later. The 12-mile mountain hike we did yesterday was probably slowing us down. What a surprise!
Nevertheless, we were in good spirits. It was all downhill to Taurmaranui and the weather was fantastic. Plus I was all stocked up on dark chocolate:
In the photo you can see the New Zealand flag attached to the bike. It was part of my fabulous plan to boost our visibility to drivers, but in retrospect it was mostly a nuisance. If it was smaller I could have attached it to a pole like recumbent riders usually do. Oh well… Wisdom for the next trip.
Knowing how much we obsessed about weight, it’s odd that I didn’t just discard the flag somewhere along the way. But on the other hand, when you’re visiting a country, you shouldn’t throw their flag in the trash – that’s just rude!
During the chocolate break I looked back to the east and saw Mt Ngauruhoe – free of clouds for the first time in a week. The weather wasn’t that clear yesterday when we hiked it. It’s true what the locals say: The mountain makes its own weather system, and it’s only sometimes related to what goes on around it.
Looking to the north I saw what looked like a smaller, flatter version of Ngauruhoe.
In the evening I got obsessed and spent an entire hour on the laptop, browsing around topograpic maps trying to identify the plateau. My best guess was that it’s Mt Komokoriri?
Since it was the last day we would be riding cross-country, I decided to do what I did for the first day, and record some video. This time I attached the camera to the front of the recumbent instead of my helmet. “Now it’ll be nice and steady!” I declared. Nope. Every single tiny ridge on the pavement made the camera jitter like crazy. It looked like I was riding a bicycle with square wheels.
About halfway through the ride we stopped to chat with some outdoorsmen walking along the road.
The guy on the right is Mark Watson, a nature photographer and fellow cycling enthusiast. I barraged him with questions about photography equipment and techniques, which he answered gracefully.
Stopping for photos of a mountain and seeing smoke in the air
Checking in: I’d grown quite a beard.
Odd sockets and switches:
Up at the crack of dawn with our backpacks and snacks! The weather was looking ominous but the shuttle driver claimed it would clear up and get warmer later in the day, so we boarded the shuttle with a handful of other explorers.
When we unloaded at the base of the trail, we immediately met a park ranger. Her purpose was to quickly examine the people starting the hike, and stop the ones that looked like they weren’t prepared well enough, and sternly warn them to turn around and leave. She was not as optimistic about the weather as our shuttle driver had been, and her information was more up-to-date.
“With wind chill, the temperature up there will drop below freezing,” she said. “And the wind will be blowing all the time.”
A few people turned around. Plenty of other people hurried by, as if they were trying to sneak past the ranger without being noticed — as if they were sneaking past a bouncer to get into an exclusive club. I spotted a young couple dressed in shorts, the boy charging up the trail with selfish bravado carrying only a water bottle, and the girl trailing nervously behind him with a fanny pack. She threw a glance back at the ranger but clearly didn’t have the guts to stop her boyfriend from making them both miserable.
And they surely would be miserable. Hours later Kerry and I would pass by clusters of people hunched behind rocks, their exposed skin turned purple, trying to decide what to do now that they were miles from civilization and anything warm.
We didn’t want to interfere with the ranger’s work, so we chatted with her just long enough to get news about the weather. Then we stepped onto the causeway and began the hike!
The causeway zigzagged to the east over alpine tundra, across tiny slow-moving streams and clusters of fragile-looking succulents and grass.
Most of the rocks were rough and porous, and they quickly became boulders as we went along.
As the route got steeper, Kerry and I remembered all our conversations with the locals about roads and bicycling and hiking trails. We decided that New Zealanders were so used to going up and down hills that they eventually stopped noticing them, and only remembered that a given route involved climbing when it went straight up an actual mountain. A while back we asked one of them to describe the Tongariro Crossing and he actually used the words, “It’s flat all the way up.”
Flat all the way up. That’s some serious “ancient Greek philosopher” logic, there.
While pondering the terrain’s obvious non-flatness, we posed for a couple of dramatic photos with Mt Ngauruhoe – a.k.a. Mt Doom – in the background.
The trail continued towards the left-hand flank of the mountain, and soon the stairs began.
At first it was little sections of stairs, a dozen steps at a time, and then we reached a rest area with some pit toilets and beheld one extremely long staircase that went lurching up the shoulder of Mt Ngauruhoe towards an unseen plateau to the north. Small groups of people were standing around trying to reach consensus over whether to continue, or turn back. Other people were just hunkered down eating snacks.
It was interesting to see how people dealt with the extreme weather. By this point most of the people with inadequate gear had been filtered out. We spotted a trio of older ladies who looked like they were in their late 60’s, each carrying a heavy pack. They had thick clothing but it was too porous to block the intense wind, so they compensated by moving quickly. I was more the plodding, cautious type, and spent a lot of time standing aside so other people could pass by without breaking their pace. It was a constant reminder that I wasn’t nearly as in-shape as I imagined.
The trail split, offering a partial route up the side of Mt. Ngauruhoe for the especially brave, but Kerry and I skipped it. A while later we met up with a group who made the climb, and they expressed disappointment that the peak was drowned in mist when they reached the top.
We followed the trail straight ahead, across a wide, flat plateau. The wind was still bitterly cold. Ahead of us we could see a hillside scattered with the bright dots of people in hiking gear, zig-zagging up to the top of a ridge, then following the ridge to a peak way up on the left.
Here’s a line showing the route:
Once we got up on the ridge we took a few shots looking back:
We climbed, then rested for a while in the shelter of some boulders on the ridge. Anyone around us who wasn’t resting out of the wind was getting more tired instead of less, and we heard plenty of tense muttering around us as clusters of people tried to decide whether to turn back. It was safe to assume that almost every one of the hundreds of hikers around us was doing this hike for the first time – like us – and wasn’t completely sure how much rough terrain lay ahead. (In retrospect, we were about a third of the way along the crossing.)
The trail got narrower and more hazardous. Cables were attached to the rock wall in some places, and we used them gratefully.
When we followed the ridge all the way to the top, we could see the Emerald Lakes down the other side, to the north. The trail also split off to the west, and to the east we could look down into a steep crater — the remains of a huge volcanic explosion.
We were standing on the top of Mount Tongariro – or at least, the highest remaining peak of it, after the top was blasted off long ago. The Tongariro crossing is actually named after this mountain, and the volcanic complex surrounding it. Even the much taller Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) behind us – is technically just a vent of the Tongariro complex.
Even before the view, the first thing we noticed was the wind. It was up to 40 miles per hour, and it blasted us continuously from the north. We had to be careful to lean in that direction no matter which way we were actually walking.
In the distance we could see the shimmering, chilly surface of Blue Lake. What a view!
Some hikers were taking the more ambitious western trail, which continued along the top of the ridge and bent around to the south, eventually returning them to the brutal staircase and the shuttle station. We followed the majority, stomping and slipping our way down the loose rock towards the Emerald Lakes.
This descent was tricky. Kerry couldn’t go four steps without slipping, and some other people were slipping and falling constantly, dropping their butts and hands into the soil. It looked painful. I went down the way I would on the chalk hills near my childhood home: Turned sideways, planting my heels very heavily to dig in each step. I didn’t fall over but I got a huge pile of gravel in my shoes!
The lakes grew more enchanting as we approached them. Soon we could see their strange coloring and watch the mist percolating and oozing out from the hills around them.
We went right down to the shore, then sat around resting and drinking the water we brought with us. I gobbled a bunch of snacks from my backpack. Kerry discovered that there was exactly one boulder in the whole area large enough to provide cover to pee behind, and when she went around it she found wads of toilet paper everywhere. Eeeew.
A fellow hiker snapped this nice photo, just before we set out again:
Fortified by the rest, we made good time across the plateau to the north, and then climbed another hill to arrive at the edge of Blue Lake. It was gorgeous; the kind of rugged-looking primeval terrain that an artist might put on the cover of a fantasy novel to grab the reader’s eye.
We took the opportunity to make silly poses in front of it. Kerry’s fantasy novel is called “Space-Queen Of The Freezing Teapots.” Mine is called “I Can’t Believe How Silly Kerry Is.”
I couldn’t help asking myself, why would this terrain be so inspiring? As I walked along I came up with a pretty good theory: It inspires dramatic tension because it’s exposed. Unlike a dense forest or the crowded streets of a city, this terrain is composed only of things that are gigantic – the lake, the ridge, the sky – and things that are tiny. Anything medium-sized that you construct in it, or send wandering through it, can only look fragile and insignificant by comparison. … Or it will be so far away that you won’t see it at all.
So either you’re lost, or you’re totally exposed and vulnerable. Quite a setting for drama! There isn’t even a single bush growing around the shore of the lake that you could hide behind. About the only way you could surprise someone would be to bury yourself in rocks and wait until they wander past you on the trail. (I bet some treacherous bandits in Mongolia have done just that!)
Eventually we passed around the side of a hill, losing sight of Blue Lake, and discovered one good hiding place:
… So we took another pee break and ate snacks there. The wind was not as bitterly cold as before, but still cold.
Eventually we passed around to the north face of the Tongariro complex. From this point the trail only went downward. It felt like we were more than two thirds done with the crossing, but for the sheer distance we had to walk, it was closer to halfway.
We were treated to another lovely panorama, this one quite different from the last. We could see Lake Taupo in the far distance.
The track below looked easy enough to walk, and we thought we were right on schedule to make it to the shuttle stop at the end by 5:00pm. We didn’t reckon that most of the remaining path was hidden in the forest beyond.
Along the way we saw some more geothermal activity, and a sign sternly warning us to keep our distance.
After an eternity of foot-numbing descent, we arrived at the Ketetahi cabin, a structure that used to offer overnight stays and cooking equipment to hikers before it was damaged in the 2012 volcanic eruption.
In 2012 an explosion shot thousands of rocks high into the air, and one of them came down right through the roof of the cabin and smashed one of the bunk beds. Thankfully, it was not occupied at the time!
Now the cabin is only good for temporary shelter and bathroom breaks, while the forestry service decides what to do with it. The current proposition is fix up the cabin but seal off the damaged room – including a plastic plate over the hole – and turn it into an exhibit showing the power and unpredictability of the volcano.
We got a good look at the bas-relief map on the table and saw that yes, now we were more than 2/3 of the way. Sheesh!
We walked as fast as we could, very conscious of the time. The trail finally leveled out and the forest closed around us. Soon we passed this sign:
So what in the world is a “lahar”?
The USGS website has an answer: It’s an “Indonesian term that describes a hot or cold mixture of water and rock fragments flowing down the slopes of a volcano and (or) river valleys.”
Basically a flash-flood of cement that comes roaring down out of the mountains without warning and half-drowns, half-bulldozes everything in its way. Terrifying!
At this point we were almost jogging, trying to make the 5:00pm pickup. For the last half-hour we did jog, when our sore feet would allow us to. I still paused to snap a few pictures of the amazing foliage around us — I couldn’t help it!
Those leaves do not belong to the tree – they are actually yet another parasitic organism. New Zealand is crazy.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a huge specimen of this type of lichen anywhere before…
The shuttle driver waited a few minutes after we arrived, since there was one more group behind us on the trail that hadn’t appeared yet. If we’d known that the driver would wait past pickup time, we wouldn’t have taxed ourselves so much on the last few miles. Oh well.
Back at the hotel we exploded our luggage and took the longest showers ever. Then we rode to the restaurant for a huge dinner:
We checked the weather for tomorrow, and the transportation out of National Park, and decided to do one last day of cross-country riding, all downhill to Taumurunui!
When we got back from the canoe trip we had to make some hard scheduling decisions. We had only six days left before our flight in New Plymouth.
According to the original itinerary, we should have already done the Tongariro Crossing, giving us plenty of time to cycle towards Egmont National Park, and check out the Goblin Forest hiking trail. But now we had to choose between the two: Tongariro Crossing, or Goblin Forest?
We were absolutely exhausted, and we really wanted to spend a day resting instead of traveling. Also, the hotel offered a shuttle ride directly to and from the Tongariro Crossing trailheads. I poked around and discovered a bus connection from Taumarunui to New Plymouth, and that gave us a pretty good plan: Rest up today, do the crossing tomorrow, and then cycle downhill out of National Park towards Taumarunui the next day. The ride would be nothing but easy downhill, so we wouldn’t be taxing ourselves for two days in a row.
With the decision made, we booked another day at the hotel, then rode out and stuffed ourselves silly at the restaurant.
While eating I saw this in the newspaper rack:
Looks like we finished our river trip just in time! Now here’s hoping the weather stays clear for the next day, while we’re doing the Tongariro Crossing…
It’s funny… I think if we’d only spent a week or a few days in New Zealand we wouldn’t have seen enough to realize how much we missed. But a month is enough to see and try many things, and pick up ideas for many more along the way… We skipped the dolphin encounter, White Island, skydiving, Sanctuary Mountain, Frying Pan Lake, various caves, and all the museums along the way so far…
We could always see more on a second trip, but if we do come back, it will be to cross the south island. Oh well. Life is too short!
Inside the paper I found this editorial:
1080 is a poison that is formed into large pellets and dropped into the forest by helicopter.
First they make a “feeder batch” of pellets that contains no poison and drop that into the woods, to get the critters used to eating it. Then they drop a load of 1080.
The idea is to kill possums and other mammal pests that are terrorizing the native birds, without the invasive process of setting traps. There are concerns about the poison creeping into waterways, about other animals dying from eating contaminated corpses, and about kiwi birds eating them directly and dying.
What I like about this editorial is that it claims the people opposed to 1080 are an illogical “brigade”, and then fails to present even a single referenced fact as counterpoint – just a lot of angry bluster.
Good job, Richard Steele! Not.
Where do I stand on this issue as a tourist? Am I even allowed to take a position, given the contradictory nature of my presence here? I was drawn to New Zealand in part by the native wildlife, but by tromping around I contribute to its degradation. I guess I’m on the side of the 1080 users – it seems to be better than doing nothing – but poisons are always nasty things and I sympathize with those who are alarmed to find trace amounts of it showing up in unexpected places.