Tongariro tortoises

Posted by John Horscroft on 22/04/2005
Photo: John Horscroft.

The Tongariro Crossing on New Zealand’s North Island is a seven-hour walk through a scorched, volcanic landscape. Ascending to a maximum height of 2000 metres over rugged terrain, this, ladies and gentlemen, is mountaineering.

Oh, maybe not if you happen to be a Mick Fowler or an Andy Cave, but with my short fat hairy legs, dodgy knees and pathological aversion to walking uphill, it might just as well have been K2. However, I did it because it was there and because the guidebooks described it as a must. Oh, and the missus said we should.

The omens were good. Arriving at the hostel in National Park Village, we found aspirants from a dozen nations grumbling about the interminable wait before conditions were suitable. Lucky old Brits eh? We just turned up and did the walk the next day.
Now, if I sound a tad triumphalist, it’s because I became swept up in the competitive spirit permeating the hostel. I swear I saw some of our more teutonic brethren going through a warm-up routine prior to embarking on the vintage bus that was due to drop us at the start. Prayers were more appropriate given the state of the ancient jalopy. On board everyone was busy checking out the Goretex quota which involved either looking down on those with too little, or sneering at those with too much. The missus and I fell into the latter category having packed enough warm gear to withstand a nuclear winter.

However, the bellowed pep talk we received over the bus-driver’s shoulder suggested we might actually have the right idea. He made great play of the overnight snowfall creating tricky conditions and suggested we consider turning back if things got nasty. As if I needed an excuse.

As we disembarked, I wondered for a moment whether I’d missed the starting gun. It was more like the start of the London Marathon than a gentle stroll in the hills.

“And there go the Israeli team setting the early pace followed closely by the Germans, French, Spaniards and Kiwis. And where are the plucky Brits? Still back at the bus trying to decide whether to wear gloves.”

As you can tell, we opted for the Hare and Tortoise approach. The early part of the walk is gentle, through undulating hills that screen, at least initially, the travails ahead. Thanks to a homesick Scotsman, these foothills are wreathed in heather. Yet another example of an introduced species running amok, it is decimating the native grasses, lichens and mosses. Thankfully, as height is gained the grasses reassert themselves, the view opens and Mount Fuji appears resplendent in a necklace of clouds.

That can’t be right. No, it was Ngauruhoe doing an impression of the holy mountain. To it’s left, a straggle of walkers were ascending one of the ancient lava flows, which looked uncommonly steep and arduous. By now the scant vegetation was giving way to a blasted landscape of pumice stone-like lava populated by primitive lichens and mosses. The aforementioned lava flow proved to be as laborious as anticipated. I was now being overtaken by elderly ladies who seemed to view this steep ground as an excuse to act like mountain goats. I was using a pair of walking poles and was frequently asked whether I was “planning to go skiing mate?” Walking poles, still a rarity in New Zealand, are obviously viewed as a sign of senility. I put this down to a nation so competitive and sport-mad that even complete strangers engage you in arcane debates about the intricacies of the offside rule in rugby.

Sweating copiously, we exited the top of the geological staircase and found little knots of people enjoying a break in the sun. At this point, signs indicate that keener exponents of the perambulatory arts can take a three-hour detour to the summit of Ngauruhoe. The missus and I looked at each other, at the steep slopes of Ngauruhoe and decided that this adventure was plenty big enough already.
So instead we marched off across the South Crater. A vast, unsettling amphitheatre, devoid of vegetation, as flat as a snooker table and exuding a subtle menace. Even surrounded by other walkers, it seems a lonely place to find yourself. Numerous fumerols dot its flanks, accusatory rock digits marking the sight of ancient vent holes. It is easy to understand why the area was used as a location for The Lord Of The Rings.

Climbing the flank of the crater, I realised that the top was in sight. Well, not the top exactly, but the rim of the Red Crater, our intended high point. The summit of Tongariro was another two hours’ walk away and plastered with snow. Any summit ambitions were quickly forgotten as the Red Crater opened up before us. The red is as intense as the black is absolute, and the blasted crater speaks of ancient geological violence and Mother Nature’s stupendous power. It would be easy to assume we’d only just missed an eruption. But enough philosophising. Standing at 2000 metres in a brisk cold wind was freezing my little pinkies.

Heading down a scree slope we were almost instantly brought to a standstill by the sight of the jewel-like Emerald Lakes. An intense, unnatural turquoise, this trio of lakes is surrounded by active vents filling the air with a sulphurous stench. We decided it was an ideal spot for lunch. Tucking into our sarnies, we feasted on the view, the eye constantly drawn back to the Blue lake nestling in yet another crater on the horizon.

Warmed by the sun, it would have been easy to tarry too long so we shouldered our packs and headed off. As we breasted the short rise leading to the Blue Lake, ethereal skeins of cloud swirled eerily around us and, for the first and only time, we truly felt alone on the mountain.

I’m not sure I would choose to go solo on this particular walk intimidated as I am by the numerous tales of sudden weather change. Quite by chance earlier in our trip, we’d met a father and son who acted as stunt doubles in a TV reconstruction of a celebrated rescue. The real father and son rapidly succumbed to hypothermia when caught unawares by a vicious snowstorm. Unable to change into the warm clothes they were carrying, they would surely have frozen to death but for the intervention of a fellow walker. It pays to be prepared and alert on Tongariro.

The descent from the Blue Lake is as long and quite possibly more arduous than the ascent. In an attempt to limit erosion, the path has been constructed in a series of enormous meanders across the hillside to prevent artificial watercourses from forming. Thousands of steps have been built which have themselves been massively eroded and my walking poles suddenly came into their own - although my shoulders soon began to feel as tired as my legs. As a result of the serpentine path, I managed to delude myself that I was catching some of those fellow travellers who had scampered off so long ago. However, I soon worked out that travelling 300 metres as the crow flies meant negotiating a kilometre of path.

At the Ketetahi Hut, one of an extensive network of refuges in the Tongariro massif, we paused to finish our grub amongst a throng of “Crossers”. Once again I was struck by what I had taken to calling the Kiwi Phenomenon. There is a strange insularity about the legions of tourists flooding New Zealand. Sitting amongst a similar group in Britain would be an excuse for chat and ribaldry, but in New Zealand, travellers seem to be intent on perpetuating the myth that they are somehow alone in their endeavour. Striking up a conversation was a thankless task on the whole. It was as though people were travelling in some kind of hermetic bubble determined that the antipodean experience should be theirs alone.

So we didn’t hang about. Off we strolled confident now that we were on the final lap and, as if to confirm it, we descended a dozen steps and experienced the most remarkable change of scenery. From rough alpine grass to proto-rainforest in the blink of an eye. Trees draped in moss and ferns of every hue, tumbling streams and the shriek of unseen birds. It was a breath-taking transition. The meandering path through this enchanted forest gave no impression of distance covered or remaining and it was a complete surprise when we finally arrived in the car park, now full of bored looking Hares. Us Tortoises chuckled as the bus hove into view almost immediately. Last laugh to the Brits I think?



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