We had come to Turangi with the sole purpose of undertaking the Tongariro Crossing and so, when our crossing was cancelled the night before due to gale force winds, we rearranged our schedule to come back in a couple of days when the weather looked more favourable. Instead we headed south the following morning through the moorland terrain of Tongariro National Park and past snow-peaked Mount Ruapehu to Ohakune, where they have a massive carrot.As ever, we were looking for the scenic route and so took the Whanganui River Road, a winding and undoubtedly beautiful route, although perhaps not as striking as some of the roads we have driven.There were a couple of stops along the way and we had a nose around the preserved Kawana Mill which sits just on the side of the road.It is also home to a seriously dubious looking long-drop. We appreciate that some of our readers may not have experience of long-drop toilets so here is the outside of the one that we were faced with at Kawana Mill.We decided to give this one a miss and continued down the route to Whanganui, another pretty looking prosperous town where we stopped for lunch by the river. We have noticed that, in general, the highstreets in New Zealand appear to be flourishing compared to England and figured that this is probably due in no small part to the lack of Amazon in New Zealand. It makes a huge difference as the town centres are full of people shopping as opposed to simply getting from A to B. As we had both been fairly chilly the night before Caro was also armed with an excuse to visit The Warehouse of the hundredth time to stock up with some blankets against the cold.
We were planning to do a long walk at Mount Taranaki the following day so we looked for a campsite nearby. Taranaki is surrounded on three sides by sea, so we were in for a windy night regardless but we tried our best to find the most sheltered site possible, settling on Hawera about 45 minutes away.
The weather looked promising for our climb when we woke up the following morning however it deteriorated as we wound our way up to the National Park visitor centre and we emerged from the car in to the bitter cold, with the wind blustering around us and the mountain engulfed with cloud. We donned our cold and wet weather gear and headed to the shop in the visitor centre so Caro could purchase some more in the form of a pink kiwi neck scarf. On leaving the centre we noticed that the predicted temperature with wind chill was 1 degrees at base and -13 at the summit.
We had an awesome stomp on the slopes of the mountain and at several points were completely surrounded by cloud.The second half of the loop took us along the Enchanted Track which was exactly as you imagine a fairy tale forest to be.After an excellent walk, we headed down and around Mount Taranaki towards New Plymouth. The area is dominated by dairy farms, in fact there is no other land use. Our drive took us through Pukeiti Garden, a lovely oasis off the side of the road. It was established in 1951 by an eccentric chap called Douglas Cook and the newly formed Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust because he wanted somewhere to grow his rhododendrons. The is a beautiful formal garden in the shadows of the mountain and surrounded dairy farms.It is also completely free to enter. We only spent a short while wandering around as the day was getting on, but you could have spent hours taking in the views and lazing in the sun.As the weather had cleared through the afternoon we also got an opportunity to take a distant picture of Mt Taranaki with only a little cloud. Naturally there is a dairy farm in the foreground.New Plymouth hadn’t originally been on our agenda but given the reschedule we had a morning to spare and we are so glad that it worked out this way. A short stroll along the seafront gave us views of the peculiar wind wand, one of several sculptures designed by Len Lye and built posthumously. It is a 45-metre red fibreglass pole with a light on the end and it sways, sometimes alarmingly far, in the wind.Just across the road is the excellent Puke Ariki, a visitor centre/museum where we spent a highly entertaining and informative couple of hours. We had to go out and extend the parking meter because we were so engrossed in reading about the history of the area, the local industries, sport, and the natural environment and weren’t ready to leave yet. There was also a very interesting Maori exhibition which had some beautiful artefacts. We would definitely recommend giving yourself at least a couple of hours here during a visit.
We had to make our way back towards the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and, rather than taking the direct route, we opted for the Forgotten World Highway. All we can say about it is, wow! The route is 148km and the recommendation is that you allow yourself 4 hours for the drive. This may seem excessive but there are so many astonishing views to stop and admire and there are information boards at each site so after the first 20km you realise why it takes so long.In the middle of the drive is the quirky township of the Republic of Whangamomona which, since becoming a self-declared republic in 1989, has elected a goat, poodle and a turtle as president. Also, the food at the pub looked excellent if you are in need of a lunch break. The remainder of the drive was equally as beautiful and really reinforced just how stunning the whole North Island has been.
We camped back at Turangi again, made our packed lunches for the next day and got an early night ready for our early morning alarms and 20km hike. We were up early, dropped our car off at the end of the track and jumped on the very old shuttle bus to the start of the walk. James noted that it appeared to be a money printing enterprise as it was an extremely popular service with a single 30 minute route there and back for 3 hours each morning. We were prepared for the crossing to be busy, the weather had been poor for a week and was due to get worse the following week so there was only a very small window for walkers to tackle the track.
The beginning of the trail was pretty hectic but we managed to get ourselves a little bit of open space to walk in and stomped the easy 2km to the base of the mountain.At this point you are faced with a sign advising you to turn around if you don’t like climbing.Undeterred we tackled the first of the climbs and soon understood why they say it takes up to 8 hours to complete the traverse. The first climb took us a bit more than an hour and was revolting, there were many red faces, including Caro’s, and frequent stops take catch our breath. It was worth it of course, for the views.The landscape changed dramatically from section to section and we crossed a long flat plain that gave the impression that you were in the middle of the desert.It was time for the next incline up to the red crater and it was another calf and thigh burner. Unfortunately, this was also the part of the track where you felt most herded like cattle. For the next 45 minutes or so all you really looked at were the boots of the person in front and we had to stop frequently as people tackled the steeper parts of the climb. It made the section a bit tedious but we pushed on through and joined the throngs at the top admiring the red crater, which is awesome.At this point there were people scampering off to our right to attempt what looked like a near vertical ascent up a slope of gravel to the top of the cone, we had absolutely no desire to do this. We pushed on for the last small ascent and stood on the top of the world looking out over a truly gorgeous vista.Time to start the clamber down which began with a perilous slide down a narrow sand and gravel track with steep drops on either side. Some people were confidently running down, others spent the entire time sliding on their arses and there was of course one idiot wearing flip flops.
We managed to make it with just one small trip each and were grateful to reach the bottom.From here we enjoyed a stroll around the sulphurous Emerald Lakes before finding a spot out of the way in the scrub for some lunch.We had managed to find a spot that was sheltered from the wind and a bit off the track and therefore enjoyed 15 blissful seconds where we couldn’t hear a single other person. We struck out again for the final portion of the walk which consisted of a track snaking around the side of the mountain and then zig-zagged down the hill. The hour spent walking around the mountainside was worth every second of the climb and the crowds before, it was breath-taking.
From the final hut down to the bottom you essentially tramp in a single file queue for two hours back and forth across the hill and through a forest at the bottom. Admittedly, this part of the walk did get a bit tedious and we entertained ourselves with finding passing points wherever possible and pelting down the side of the track to get passed some of the slower walkers. We reached the bottom 5 hours and 40 minutes after we had set off although sadly there was no sign to pose with. Our car was parked 700m away in the secure car park so our beautiful walk was concluded by a stomp down the side of a dusty road.
The Tongariro Crossing is absolutely beautiful and we are definitely glad that we have done it, you just have to prepare yourself for the crowds because they are considerable and you won’t get many moments to reflect on the astonishing views in solitude and peace.
Back at camp we enjoyed long hot showers and treated ourselves to well-earned fish and chips before climbing gratefully in to our sleeping bags.