What a day! Sue and I both had restless nights, probably in part because we were worried about missing the alarm in the morning. But at 5:20 Sue’s alarm woke us. And by 6am we’d packed up and were in the car, heading out of Taradale, back to Taupo.
It was early Friday morning, but traffic was light. We were going to stop for a coffee early on but decided we could wait 2 hours and get our coffee in Taupo. So the winding, hilly drive to Taupo was going just fine. Then, at around 6:50, traffic came to a standstill. We were stuck. What was the problem? Well, after half an hour or more of sitting there waiting, a couple of truck drivers who had walked on ahead were returning with news: There’s been a crash up ahead. Traffic is now backed up because a big semi-trail ‘jack-knifed’ and they need to clean that up. It’ll be another 20 minutes for sure. Whoa! there goes all the good time I’d made so far! And then, once we started moving again, and we DID pass the dented up semi trailers, it was slow-going. Not only were there a couple of miles of trucks lined up in the oncoming lane, waiting for their turn to pass the accident scene, but we were now behind a number of big logging ‘double-trailer’ rigs chugging their slow way up and around the mountain curves. And so once again, I was driving like an Indy car racer, waiting for each chance to pass one more truck, watching the oncoming lane for traffic. The delay had set us back an hour, and although I made back a bit of time once I’d passed everyone and was speeding into Taupo, we had to text Brian and Val and let them know we’d be at least 15 minutes late for our 9 o’clock rendezvous at the car park.
We made a very quick pit stop in Taupo, got a coffee and muffin and bathroom break, and then continued the final 45 minutes to the car park at the end of the hike route. The Funks were there, waiting. They put a couple of their humungous suitcases into our parked car, and the five of us drove in their rented jeep, another half an hour to the car park at the beginning of the hike.
After parking the car and putting on SOME of the gear we’d packed into our backpacks, we set off on the hike. The total track length is 19.4 km one way. There are shuttle buses available to take hikers back from the finish to the car park where they started, but we hadn’t booked a shuttle, and we wouldn’t need one. Brian had volunteered to walk with us for the first hour or two, then turn around and drive the jeep back to where we’d parked our car at the the end point.
The crossing is a trek over steep volcanic terrain. This is not a casual stroll in the park. The suggested time for the walk is 5.5 to 8 hours. We would do it in just over 6. The forecast was for cloudy skies, a few showers, possible hail in the afternoon. We were warned to be prepared for any and all types of weather conditions. We were lucky to have the kind of day that we had — the weather for the day before and for the days following our hike looked HORRIBLE! It was cool and drizzling lightly as we set off. It didn’t take long for us to warm up and take off a layer.
The first hour or so the track climbs a gentle gradient alongside a stream and around the edges of old lava flows, until it reaches Soda Springs at the top of the Mangatepopo Valley. Along the way we met one old character who was dressed a bit like Gandalf (from the Lord of the Rings tales). At Soda Springs Brian said goodbye. He took a break, met a few more interesting trekkers, and then turned back to the car park.
We continued our climb, gaining another 340m. Quite a good portion of the walk was on steps that had been built to make the climb safer and easier. But what a lot of steps we climbed! After a fairly steep section, we crossed over two lava flows from eruptions in 1870 and 1975 — and because of the rain, we had to navigate around the path which had become a series of shallow red muddy puddles. After about 2 hours of trekking we arrived at the South Crater.
It took nearly another hour to climb from the top of the South Crater to Red Crater (1886m), the highest point on the Tongariro Crossing. As we walked up the ridge we could smell sulphur — this crater is still active. The red colour is from the oxidation of iron in the lava rock. Up here there was quite a bit of snow on the ground, and the cold wind was howling. We were glad to have our rain jackets and hoods on for this part of the hike. (And this was a GOOD day!) The mix of snow, sand, mud, and wet rocks made parts of the trek quite slippery and tricky. In fact, there were chains and cables for climbers to pull themselves up for the steepest part of this section.
The weather was quite cold and the wind was biting cold. But the views were spectacular! And if the mist and clouds obscured the scenery, you only had to keep climbing for another minute or two, and when you looked up, the mist was gone and everything was visible again.
Now the steepest uphill climbs were behind us. But that didn’t mean that what was left was easy! No, descending on some of the steep, slippery downhills was just as hard as climbing had been.
It took us about 20 minutes to come down from Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes. The steep descent on loose scree terrain was especially tough for Sue, and I had to hold her arm and keep reassuring her that we would NOT slide all the way down into the beautiful (but steaming and stinking of sulphur) green lakes below us.
And then we were on the ‘home stretch’! Still 2.5 to 3.5 hours to go, but now the walk was mostly a gentle downhill, with a few climbs just to keep your blood pumping. There was a well-maintained path leading us through forest and twisting back and forth alongside the mountain. About halfway down this section there was the first ‘official’ washroom since the Soda Springs stop — and there were about a hundred trekkers lined up for it! We hurried on by.
The final hour and a half seemed to take forever. We were tired. Sue’s one knee was making climbing down steps difficult. The terrain (and the weather) had changed considerably. Now we were walking through a lush green forest. We could hear the mountain streams rushing down somewhere beside us, and the afternoon sun shone through the leaves above us. And the trail kept twisting and turning. We could see the long narrow road that led from the highway to the car park LONG before we reached it. For the final 15 minutes of the walk it seemed that Sue and I had lost our way — Scott and Val were way ahead of us, and now there we say hardly any hikers. And we should be there already! Maybe around the next bend. Nope. Maybe just over the next little climb and then down the steps. No.
We finally emerged at the car park. Brian was there, offering us a celebratory drink from the jugs of craft beer and cider he’d bought for the occasion. It was good to get our shoes off. Sue and a small blister on one of her toes, but mostly we were in good shape.
We got into our car and drove back up to Taupo, about 45 minutes away. We’d booked a B&B there as had the Funks. After checking in and showering and changing Sue and I took a short walk up to the Funks B&B where we had a little ‘happy hour’. Then we called a shuttle van to take the five of us into town to a restaurant.
We enjoyed a final supper together with the Funks at Dixie’s Restaurant on the main waterfront in Taupo. We’ve had a very good time traveling with the Funks on and off for the last couple of weeks. They will now head north, all the way up to the 90 Mile Beach at the northern tip of New Zealand, before coming back down to Cambridge where they will drop Scott off at the Capernwray Bible School. Brian and Val are flying home at the end of January. We will still have another two months to enjoy New Zealand.
We said goodnight and goodbye when the taxi dropped us off at our respective B&Bs. Although our place was NOT one of our better bookings, we slept VERY well this night. We’d earned the rest!