mountaintops and lakesides: another weekend in the Waikato

I found myself this weekend heading north on Route 1 for the third time in my now nearly two months as a New Zealand resident. Having conquered both Rotorua and Ruapehu, this Saturday I had come for yet another North Island landmark: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Accompanying me on this quest was native Waikato resident and fellow Massey student Tim, the fantastic Kiwi I’m now dating. After a much-needed coffee stop, we set out early on Saturday morning.

Hey, isn't that the mountain I climbed last week?

Hey, isn’t that the mountain I climbed last week?

Two hours of highway and ten minutes of gravel road later, we arrived at Tongariro National Park. Packs on and snacks handy, we set off on the trail under clear skies. The crossing lies along the base of Mount Ngauruhoe, which I mentioned last week was the “real” Mount Doom, and ascends up Mount Tongariro. Volcanic activity here is reflected clearly in the landscape; scrubby bush and grasses are dominant on the dark, rocky plain.

Beginning of the trail, Ngauruhoe on the right

These are our

These are our “ready to hike” faces

.After only a few kilometers, we started climbing into the increasingly barren hills. Although the Tongariro Crossing is one of New Zealand’s most popular day treks, that fact didn’t make the stairs any easier – not that Tim seemed fazed, as he bounded up two at a time. Remind me again not to hike with people who do triathlons.

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Not pictured: Tim’s enthusiastic stair-jogging

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View from where we came

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Beneath Ngauruhoe

Before long, we joined the masses at the top of the mountain saddle. Here, it seemed almost lunar: little vegetation grew among the boulders, and flat craters stretched out beneath us.  After a treacherous descent down a sandy slope, we took a trail-mix-and-cookie break by the colorful hot pools.

They're all Germans, I swear

They’re all Germans, I swear

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Across the saddle

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Keeping our energy levels up

With the most difficult part of the walk over, the trail down the mountain was meandering and leisurely. Alpine flora was the foreground to a gorgeous view of Lake Taupo and the surrounding area; as usual, I was in awe of the variation and beauty in the landscape. Eventually we fell below the treeline, and before I knew it we emerged at the Ketetahi carpark, six and a half hours and a little under 20 kilometers from our start that morning.

A crater lake

A crater lake

Taupo on the horizon

Coming down; Taupo on the horizon

More happy hikers

More happy hikers

Another hour back on Route 1 brought us to our destination for the night, Taupo. A city named for the lake it lies beside, it’s a tourist destination somewhat reminiscent of Okoboji. We spent Saturday evening on the waterfront, eating delicious food and enjoying some well-deserved local brews. Although last week brought the first hints of autumn to Palmy, the breeze here was still summery and the night was warm.

Sunday morning brought good coffee, lazy breakfast, and the unfortunate pull of realities back home. Reluctantly leaving the sunny shores of Taupo, we retraced the previous morning’s route through forests and desert and arrived back in the Manawatu exhausted but happy.

In this country, travel begets travel — the more places you see, the more places you want to go.  I’m amazed at what I’ve already done, but I don’t think all the trails or highways in New Zealand could leave me satisfied.  Still, I’m going to try; I leave for Christchurch in eleven days, and plan on spending two weeks desperately seeking out every adventure in the South Island.  After that, the list of destinations goes on: Hamilton, Auckland, Coromandel, Matarangi.  And, lucky for me, it’s nice having someone who wants to show you where they’re from. IMG_1905

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