Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Ngauruhoe and Taupo (Days 3 & 4)

After a good night's sleep, I woke up to an empty room - although most of the Couchsurfers were still sleeping, it seems that the people in my room are just early risers. Walking out, I had breakfast and noted that the weather looked crummy. I was hoping for good weather so that I could go skydiving with a few others who were interested. Although I was relieved in one sense, I was more disappointed as I had convinced myself that I wanted to skydive in Taupo, one of the few places in the world where you can skydive from an altitude of 15,000 feet. I suppose I will just have to return some other day to do it. Along with the 134 metre Nevis bungee jump near Queensland, currently third highest in the world, this is one of the things I felt that I needed to do in New Zealand, but am also extremely frightened of. I just want to do it and get it over with so I can experience the rush before I decide to chicken out.

With the option of skydiving gone, I decided to join most of the other Couchsurfers to go visit some natural hot springs. As it was announced how much money people owe for the trip over breakfast, for the rest of the day I had people coming up to me to give me money. Even as we piled into the cars, I had to wait as people chased me down to pay me. After a moderate drive, we found our way through Taupo and to a nearby park. After a short walk from there, we arrived at a small footbridge over a stream flowing into the adjacent Waikato River. Spa Thermal Park is a free public area where a bore has been drilled into a reservoir of hot thermal water underground (or perhaps the pipe just helped guide the water from a natural stream in the area to prevent erosion?). It seems that many of the hotels, and even some residences in the area have bores drilled into the ground to tap the natural thermal water underneath. At Spa Thermal Park, the water is gushing forward, forming a cascade of water, which collects in a few pools before flowing over the rocks and into the Waikato River.

After changing, I stepped into the water. It was hot! It was at first quite painful, but after a while of getting used to it, it became quite comfortable. I found the water just bearable, slightly cooler than the hot springs of Japan and Korea. After sitting in there for a while and standing in the hot waterfall (without inhaling the hot water and having my brain eaten by amoeba), I decided to join most of the other Couchsurfers closer to the cold water of the river. Carefully stepping over the slippery rocks, I made my way down to the tiny cove where the hot water from the stream mixes with the cool water of the river. I spent most of my time here, moving around to adjust the temperature of the soak. It was also fun trying to find where the cold water and hot water formed gradients of quickly changing temperatures. Often, the hot water would be on top while the colder water would sneak in near the bottom. The temperature also changed with each person walking past or changing their positions, which made for quite a stimulating soak, trying to balance the hot and cold water for maximum comfort.

While soaking, I noticed a lot of debris near the bottom of the stream, and the rocks seem to be surprisingly stirred up by the water to drift casually back down to the bottom. Once in a while, I would see a white glob floating past, which I tried to avoid. Eventually, I realised that all of this was was actually pumice! I bet that I my feet were pretty well cleaned of dead skin from the hot water soak and walking around on beds of pumice! Once in a while, when I started to overheat, I wondered over the smooth rocks into the Waikato River. the water, flowing out from Lake Taupo, is perfectly clear, giving me pristine views of the rocks on the riverbed, tinted slightly in a shade of light aqua. The current is surprisingly strong here, and the river made for a great lap pool, allowing me to swim while staying in place. I was careful not to get pulled into the river though, as the current was quite swift and Huka Falls was only about two kilometres downstream.

After soaking for a while and taking some Couchsurfing photos of us sitting in the shape of the letters "CS," people started to get hungry, and as it was quite late in the day, we decided to go for lunch. When we left the hot pools, the parts of our bodies that were in the water were all glowing red. Driving into Taupo, we found a parking spot on the main road by the lake. It looks like there is some kind of speedboat race going on today, but we decided to go grab lunch first. I had lunch at a fish and chip shop as I have been craving fish and chips for a while now. After lunch, the race looks like it was over, so Tom and I visited a liquor store and decided on what we might get for the party that night. After that, we relaxed on a grassy park area near the lake by the car to wait for the others. Eventually, our driver, a South African, showed up, and we all had a good nap/relaxing time under a tree until the other two Couchsurfers showed up. After a quick liquor store stop, we were on our way back to set up for a BBQ.

We arrived back quite early, and after setting up and after a bunch of us tried to take a nap outside on the grass, I decided to take a quick visit to the neighbour's house where most of the tent city is set up. On Johanna's property, there were five or six tents, but at her neighbour's house, twelve tents were pitched in close proximity, forming small pockets of grass between the tents where I found people sitting, relaxing and drinking. That night at the BBQ, I had to run around collecting money from everyone. It was not fun. Although we only asked for, I think, $24 from each, about 10% were unhappy to pay or made excuses for paying less. In the end, since Kirin had made some allotments for people unwilling to pay (out of 60-70 people, there are bound to be some spoil-sports), it worked out. However, I made the bad mistake of mixing my money with the collected money, and when the accounting didn't add up as hoped, I decided just to give all of the money in my wallet, which I think means I ended up paying an extra $30-40. Well, I would rather have paid this amount extra than have accidentally taken other people's money (it eventually worked out a few weeks later). For the rest of the night, we drank a lot, had a spontaneous massage chain at one point, and just a lot of random fun. One of the most hilarious things I saw that night was when people were taking photos and people started doing "sexy" poses. When some girls asked a bunch of guys to get into "sexy position," everyone looked ridiculously gay, especially one guy who just turned around and bent over! Going to bed late, I drifted to sleep very quickly.

In the morning, after some final clean-up and accounting, we were ready to leave. We gathered on the lawn with the Couchsurfing flag to take a photo together. Johanna got a great shot from the second-floor patio of her house. A few days later, she posted a facebook photo showing an article from the Taupo Times about Couchsurfing and our visit! It was one of the coolest things I have seen from my involvement in Couchsurfing (see image at top of post).

Soon, we were off again. I was back in Tom's car, with Erica(?), recently from Ireland. Wes, who came in our car, took another car back as he had to be back in Auckland early. We decided that I would drive for a while, so today turned out to be my first driving experience on the other side of the road! Although we were supposed to meet at a petrol station first, it turned out that no one else stopped there - they must have changed the plans after we left. After contacting the others, we found that we were to meet in Taupo, so that is where I drove. The drive was relatively smooth, although I had to keep reminding myself to keep to the left when turning. And of course, I fell victim to that typical mistake people make when driving on the other side of the road for the first few times - I kept turning on my wipers when I tried to signal for a turn. After lunch in Taupo, during which Tom left me his keys without me noticing and almost losing them if it wasn't for the waiter bringing them back after clearing our trays, we were on the road again, to visit Huka Falls.

We had a very short stop-over at Huka Falls, mainly to take a few photos. Huka Falls is one of New Zealand's most popular tourist attractions, undoubtedly partially due to its proximity to Taupo. The falls are fed by the Waikato River, New Zealand's longest river, with an astounding flow rate of 220,000 litres per second. In this section, the river is squeezed into a narrow canyon between some solid-looking rocks, causing the flow to intensify to impressive speeds. The water spills out at the falls, it falls off a six metre cliff, but due to a five metre depth at the lip of the falls, the water appears to fall eleven metres into the churning pool below. The water is an unearthly shade of light blue. I judged that due to the high volume of water and short drop, it would be possible to survive going over Huka falls if you didn't get sucked into the powerful eddy currents. Returning to the car, I continued to drive, with our next stop being some natural hot springs near Rototua. The drive through this portion of the countryside was quite pretty, with gently curving roads in lush green fields, dense forests, and hills in the distance. There were numerous farmlands and one or two geothermal power plants as well. Every so often, there would be the smell of sulphur in the air. It was an easy drive following the convoy of Couchsurfing cars.

After turning down some small side roads, we arrived at our destination, an unsightly area just past a bridge, with some dirt shoulders in a small patch of woods on which one could park their car. There were only two or three other cars around so it looks like we effectively have this place to ourselves. After walking down a short track, we arrived at the junction between two murky streams where the air was filled with the smell of sulphur. While some of us changed and headed in the stream, some others decided to just observe on land.

This area was another great natural hot spring. The two converging streams means that once again, you get to choose what temperature you want your soak to be. Moving closer to the steaming hot stream gives you water hot enough to satisfy the people who like the hottest of soaks. Moving towards the cold stream gives you access to cool and refreshing water, and it was great to switch back and forth between the two. Best of all were large stones one could sit on at the bottom of the stream, so it was just like a hot tub except for the lack of backrest and bubbles. There are even half-burned candles placed in small holes in the steep banks and short cliffs surrounding the mixing pool. The cool stream also has a surprisingly strong current, and walking into it is like crossing a vertical wall separating the swift current with the still water. The water further downstream was also comfortable - warm and evenly mixed.

After a good soak, we got out and got ready to leave. It was at this time I discovered that on the other side of the road, there is a trail that leads further up the stream. I found that this trail leads to other, calmer hot pools on the stream, perfectly suited for sitting and soaking in some extra-hot water. It was also apparent that hot water is bubbling up through the ground all throughout the stream, as portions of the stream bed had bubbles rising through it and was extremely hot to the touch. Tom told me that this is where he was hanging out for a while. I still haven't figured out what this area is called yet, but it doesn't appear to be Kerosene Creek, which everyone seems to know about. Kerosene Creek is one of the most popular natural hot springs in the area, a hot water stream with some small waterfalls along it. Although probably much more interesting, it would have been much more crowded as well.

Soon, we headed off again. After a short drive, we turned down a few small roads toward an area where steam is rising up through the trees. As we stopped and stepped out, we were hit by an unpleasant strong smell, sulphur mixed with some other metallic and tangy chemicals. Walking up to a temporary fence, we can see a field of bubbling mud. Unfortunately, some kind of construction was going on, so the area was closed. However, after observing for a while, and after a police car parked in the area left, a bunch of us decided to duck through a hole in the fence for a closer look. There is a series of newly-constructed board-walks here, following a large U-shaped pool of bubbling mud. We stood there for a while watching the mud bubbling away among the trees and bushes around it. This was quite a large mud field with many centres of constantly bubbling and mud up-welling. Once in a while, there would be a few much larger bursts accompanied by large puffs of rising steam. It was quite entrancing to watch this volcanic activity, although the smell was quite disturbing.

After we all had our fill of photos, we continued on. We stopped in Rotorua for a short coffee and snack break, where a few of the Couchsurfers stopped to spend the night. The rest of the convoy stopped at Tirau, well-known for its sheet metal sculptures. The Couchsurfers split here, and we continued on our way back to Auckland. The drive around Rotorua was quite interesting, with steam rising up from various locations in and around town, sometimes from buildings, sometimes from what appeared to be empty fields and ditches. I made a mental note to come back to the Rotorua and Taupo area to explore some more of the volcanic features in the area.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Ngauruhoe and Taupo (Days 1 & 2)

The weekend of the 30th of January 2010 was my first long weekend in New Zealand. The holiday, Auckland Anniversary Day, is celebrated on the Monday closest to January 29th throughout the historical Auckland Province, whose boundaries no longer match any modern-day regional boundaries. For this long weekend, I was going on a trip to do the Tongariro crossing with about 70 or 80 other Couchsurfers. I thought the previous Couchsurfing invasion of Opotiki was big, but this is huge! We will be based in Turangi, a town of about 3000 residents. With 80 Couchsurfers coming from all around the world, that makes up over 2.5% of the town's population! Our host will be Johanna, who has generously agreed to lend her and her neighbour's house as a base for Couchsurfers to sleep in and the associated lawns and paddocks for Couchsurfers to pitch their tents. As per usual, the trip is organised by Kirin, one of the Auckland Couchsurfing ambassadors, with me serving as the treasurer for the second time in a row.

After work, I met up with Thomas (Tom), and after a quick stop in Onehunga to pick up Wes, we were off on a five hour drive to Turangi. The drive took us through some beautiful New Zealand landscapes and small "highways," although it did become repetitive after a while with few spots of interest. The bypass around Hamilton provided expansive views of the flat landscapes there. This was made especially interesting by the large number of small localised patches of rainclouds drifting slowly over the plains. Another highlight was sunset, when the sky turned all sort of beautiful colours, from orange to red to violet to tan. But most memorable of all, after a discussion, it was confirmed that it was legal to drink in a car in New Zealand, so I had my first drink, Tui Beer, in a car! It was a glorious moment.

After driving in the dense moth clouds around Lake Taupo, we finally arrived in Turangi without dinner. After asking for directions, consulting a map bestowed upon us, and turning down the wrong street of Hirangi rather than Hinerangi, we finally found Johanna's house. Walking in, I was greeted by a big hug from Joanna, and news from Kirin that instead of sleeping in tent city, I have a spot reserved for me inside the house. Although I was at first disappointed that I will not have a chance to stay in tent city, it turned out to be a much better place to sleep, as rain eventually developed during the trip. After some quick shoving food in my mouth to carbo-load for the day-long hike the next day, I drank a bit, socialised, then went to bed in preparation for an early start.

At 6:30am, I woke up and got to breakfast just before the bulk of the crowd hit. It was quite chilly outside and the grass was wet from the dew. It was a very tranquil morning, but became more hectic as everyone, plus the dogs, were roused. After breakfast, we made a hasty retreat to the car. On the drive to the trailhead, we were treated to spectacular views of the morning mist drifting around small lakes and through the trees. The mist was extremely dense at times, and very localised, so that we could see thin tendrils of mist, made golden by the morning sun, wafting out slowly from the groves of trees all around the farmland there. In the background was the spectacular range of the three volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and snow-capped Ruapehu. As we pulled up into the nearly full parking lot, I realise that I forgot my sunscreen. Well, at least I have my thin long sleeve clothes and a hat with a large rim to protect me from the sun.

After some organising, a toilet stop, and a a few photos with a Couchsurfing flag that some people made, we split into three groups and headed up the trail. I was with the "fast" group of just under twenty Couchsurfers who were going to attempt the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe in addition to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Right off the bat, the only girl in our group, Capri from Montana, instilled a racing mentality in the group by shouting something along the lines of "if you're not the lead elephant, you're stuck staring at everyone else's ass," and bolting to the front. As the guys all raced ahead, she fell farther and farther back, and not wanting to ditch anyone from the group, I slowed my pace as well. After a while, we found Jake, an American who crashed at my place for two nights, trailing back as well. We decided to stick together and take the time to stop, enjoy the view, and take photos rather than running ahead. After taking a bathroom break at the last toilets until the other side of the pass, we started the uphill portion of the trail. The area around the toilets were surprisingly beautiful. It was a valley surrounded on three sides by a bowl-shaped cliff. To the left is Soda Springs, a beautiful waterfall supporting a swath of green around it. To the right and above is the imposing cone of Mount Ngauruhoe, with clouds condensing and brushing the summit. There is also what appears to be a steam vent on top, as small wafts of steam appear to be rising from the left of the summit from a source just hidden from view.

Continuing from the toilets, we immediately hit the Devil's Staircase, a series of steps leading up the side of the valley. I was happy to find that the steps were not nearly as bad as I feared it to be, especially with a name like that. It did seem that people around us were getting tired - maybe it's me walking over a hill to work everyday that has gotten me into better shape! As we gained altitude, the valley spread out below us. It became clear that this was a volcanic valley, as the patterns of the solidified rocks were clearly solidified lava flows. Mountain ranges, forests and farmland beyond the valley in the distance also became visible. As we gained altitude, we met up with some additional Couchsurfers in the fast group, and at the top of the Devil's Staircase, we met up with the rest of the group, who were relaxing with some beers.

This is where the best of part of the trip began! The top of Devil's Staircase is a small ragged plateau right at the base of the amazingly symmetric cone of Mount Ngauruhoe. Ngauruhoe is an imposing mountain. At 2,291 metres in height, the mountain looks like a stereotypical stratovolcano, conical and nearly symmetric. In fact, it looks so imposing that it had been filmed as Mount Doom in the recent Lord of the Rings movies. As with the other volcanoes in this range, Ngauruhoe is still active, with its most recent eruption in 1977 generating pyroclastic flows, which are visually depicted on a sign at the base of a volcano. The simulated image on the sign shows the same view up the mountain in real life, except with a giant cloud of burning ash cascading down towards the vantage point. I would have hate to see that in real life! Although the previous indications of possible activity in 2006 have by now settled down, there are still numerous volcanic tremors weekly, and the chances of an eruption in the area is still large enough that volcano drills are conducted regularly on the ski fields of adjacent Mount Ruapehu.

From the plateau, we followed the trail to the base of the volcano and started up its steep slope. Progress was slow and frustrating. The terrain was dusty and made up of many tiny chunks of porous rocks. Combined with a lack of any sizeable plants, the terrain was extremely unstable so that you would lose your footing and slide back every few steps. The constant climb also resulted in a very slow progress rate as it would get tiring quite quickly otherwise. About a quarter of the way up, I suddenly hear "ROCK!" Looking around, a saw a rock about the size of a head rolling down the hill about ten metres away at speeds that looked like it would be painful if it had hit. I was really uncomfortable with this, as this was the first time I had seen falling rocks so close and hoped that it wouldn't happen again. Little did I know that due to the terrain steepness and make up, this would be a common occurrence, with shouts of "ROCK" every five or ten minutes from this point onwards! At one point during the climb up, I saw a rock tumbling at a very high speed towards a girl, and bouncing unpredictably off a boulder the girl was trying to place between her and the rock, it missed her head by only about four or five metres. This was a quite a close call, as a hit could have been fatal!

The trail had long since disappeared at this point in the climb. As we inched upwards, I followed the edge of a large tongue of boulders to "follow the ridge," remembering the advice from a woman I chatted to as I waited for the toilet earlier. This was about half way up the mountain and already uncomfortably steep. If I had slipped here, I could have rolled down for quite a ways over the rocks. After a few changes in terrain colours, from grey to yellow to red, I finally emerged in what appears to be a tiny valley near the top of the volcano. The view was amazing here! I was just at around the cloud line, and can see small tufts of clouds with flailing tendrils blowing past the green and blue forests, pastures and lakes in the distance below. Looking down closer to the base of the mountain, we can see the trail of the Tongariro Crossing going past a dried lake and up hills in the distance. The people walking on this trail were tiny dots, almost too small to see. Beyond the closest hill are a series of barren ridges and other hills with a few lakes hiding in its midst. To the right and above is what appears to be an enormous conical pile of red porous rocks about 20 metres tall. to the left is another hill, nearly as high, but the top of which was steaming, with floods of vapour rushing out and blowing away. I could also catch some glimpses of Mount Ruapehu among the clouds.

The pile of red rocks appeared to the be the summit, so I decided to tackle that first. The terrain here is even more unstable, causing me to lose my footing often, sometimes having my entire foot sink into the light loose rocks. After a final climb to the top, the crater of Mount Ngauruhoe fanned out in front of me. Although I was hoping I could visit the crater, it was immediately apparent that the crater was not accessible. The crater was almost perfectly round and surrounded by a vertical wall of multi-coloured rock. There is some indication of large rock slides inside the crater and a few enormous shattered slabs of rock inside. Realising that I needed some sunscreen for my hands and face, I decided to ask loudly if there was anyone here from the Couchsurfing crowd. It turns out that although no Couchsurfers in our group were here, there was a Spanish Couchsurfing couple sitting just beside where I was! I guess you can meet Couchsurfers anywhere - even at the top of Mount Ngauruhoe!

After a quick lunch and break with Jake and a few other Couchsurfers, we decided to head over to the vents on the other peak, about a 5-10 minute walk away. Sliding down the scree back into the small valley, my shoes were filled with sharp jagged rocks. As I approached the top of the hill with the steam vent, I can see that the steam was escaping through a pile of boulders near the top. Although there were other steam vents around the crater, this was by far the largest. There was one particularly large vent at the base of the rocks, which created a constant "air through a hallow tube" sound and had condensation dripping and being blown out from the hole in the rock. I moved my hand around the edge of the steam vent to try to touch it, until I felt really stupid for trying to touch a volcanic vent.

As we sat on the rocks enjoying the view below and having the steam on our backs to keep us warm, we were joined by a bunch of the other Couchsurfers. After a second lunch, we decided it was time to head down. Jake was especially in a hurry, as he had the Couchsurfing flag, which the other Couchsurfers not coming up to the peak of Ngauruhoe wanted to take a photo with. Oh well, it was kind of their fault for not taking the flag when Jake tried to give it to someone who was not going to summit Ngauruhoe.

We took a different route down. At first we just followed a vague trail until we started climbing over some rocks and sulphurous yellow patches hiding small steam vents. Eventually, we intercepted a well-used path straight down the mountain filled with dust and scree. Apparently the dust is dropped out of a helicopter to help stabilise the terrain for hikers. Going down the mountain was a lot of fun, as it involved just jogging down, and combined with sliding, progress was quite fast but required a lot of effort and balance. At one point, I heard "ROCK" from above, and raising my head to look up, my eyes went wide as I saw a large boulder, the size of a torso, rolling down the track towards me. In fact, this rock was so large that later on, we bumped into people who were not on the mountain but said they saw a boulder rolling down the slopes at around 40-50 kilometres per hour. Jake had knocked loose the huge boulder, and Mark, another Couchsurfer, even scraped his hands up trying to stop the boulder by pushing it downwards into the ground just as it became dislodged. Luckily, I had about 10 seconds to react to it due to the early warning, so I just watched it and passed on the message below. As the rock rolled closer, it veered off course and missed me by about 3-4 metres. However, as it passed me, it bounced back onto the track, and seeing Capri still not realising what was coming at her, we started shouting at her, along with some other hikers between me and Capri. As we were freaking out, Capri finally looked up, and with only about three seconds to react, her eyes went wide, she rocked left and right a few times and leaped out of the way at the last second. As I arrived at her location, I found her knees and hands were scraped and bleeding, and the other hikers were tending to her and providing some bandage cloth. Using my knife to cut the cloth, she fashioned quite an effective bandage and we continued down together.

As we arrived at the bottom, we sat to rest and take the rocks out of our shoes. It was seriously like one of those TV moments when someone just keeps dumping rocks out of their shoes. There was a surprisingly amount! My shoes looked kind of like planters when I first took them off. From here, Jake ran off to see if he could catch up with the rest of the Couchsurfers to deliver the flag. After taking a few photos, Capri, Mark and I just continued on the trail at a slower pace to make sure everyone can complete the crossing successfully. At this point, we were probably not even a fifth of the way through the actual Tongariro Alpine Crossing, so we knew we still have a full day ahead of us!

Our timing turned out to be quite good, as by the time we left the base of the mountain, the upper portion of the mountain has already disappeared into the clouds, eliminating the view from the top and making the trail much more treacherous due to hidden falling rocks. In fact, the clouds started arriving just as we left the summit, which made for some cool views on the way down, seeing the clouds drifting in just behind us. After some walking, we started climbing up again, this time to go over the Red Crater. Luckily, the climb was much easier than Ngauruhoe, and we had reached the summit before I even realised!

The Red Crater was also a fascinating sight. Parts of the ground were steaming in addition to numerous steam vents and fumaroles around the area. In fact, the steaming landscape of the Red Crater was also used in filming the Lord of the Rings as a close-up representation of Mount Doom when the actors would be in the scene climbing the mountain. The Red Crater is very aptly named, as the soil around the area was red and black, which reminded me very much of the volcanic sand I saw in Thira (Santorini). There also appeared to be some humongous vents big enough to fit houses in, but they appear to be no longer active. In and around the summit were more cool views, including clear views of Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro, which looks like a typical volcano, except with the top half cut cleanly off. I wondered what would have caused this formation. There are also numerous other valleys and formations around, which appeared to me like the remnants of old craters, some of them larger than the base of the current mountains there. Around this area were also other fascinating formations such as solidified lava fields, clearly delineating where the lava flow stopped, and small protrusions that looked like lava domes scattered around.

At this point, we have been joined by two of Mark's friends, who climbed Mount Tongariro earlier in the day and have been waiting at the fork in the trail. I was even tempted to go visit Mount Tongariro, as it is not nearly as difficult as the Ngauruhoe climb, and I was very curious to get an up-close view of the flat peak. Alas, no one else was interested so we decided to skip it for this trip. Following a narrow ridge leading around the Red Crater, we came to a steep descent in loose scree. Although we had been warned about this section, it was not nearly as bad as the descent on Mount Ngauruhoe! Once again, it turns out that this section of the track is maintained, with sand being dropped on the ridge to make it safer for visitors.

As the bottom of the this hill leads to the Blue Lake, the view during the descent was uniquely beautiful. Behind and above us is the steaming Red Crater. To the left is a volcanic valley surrounded by what looks like volcanoes, including the oddly shaped Mount Tongariro, with its perfectly flat top that looks perfect for a soccer field or stadium. To the right are more mountains, with farmland and forests in the distance, and the view of patches of rain drifting across the landscape, sometimes dousing us with a layer of cool water before moving past. In front of us and below is Blue Lake. Blue Lake is actually a series of what appears to be three lakes, turquoise blue is colour, no doubt due to volcanic minerals and metals. There are hints of yellow, brown and other sulphurous compounds on the bottom of the lake as well. This entire area is surrounded by steam vents, constantly billowing out volumes of white steam, giving this area a very "live" feel and reminding me of a budget spooky stage set with patches of mist coming out everywhere. In fact, it isn't just me who sees a particular uniqueness to this area. The Blue Lake is tapu (sacred) in Maori culture, making it disrespectful to eat or drink in the area. I found out later that the summits of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu are tapu as well, so I will have to keep this in mind next time I visit.

After the Blue Lake, we passed through a variety of fields and hills with interesting rock and lava flow formations. It was at around this time Capri convinced me to stop and smell the flowers - literally. It was more difficult and less enjoyable than not stopping and smelling the tiny flowers on the ground of this desolate volcanic terrain. Eventually, we reached Ketetahi Hut after passing through a beautiful section of ridges with a great view of Lake Taupo. At the hut, a group of Couchsurfers were waiting for us. As we sat for a while waiting for the next group to arrive, some were stretching, some were eating, and everyone was chatting for a while. It was quite busy there, as the families who have booked the hut for this long weekend were busy chatting and appeared to have started preparing dinner and snacks. Eventually, Jake and I started down the track. Although it felt like we were nearly there, it turns out that we were still only about two-thirds of the way through the 19 kilometre long track, although were past the most difficult sections. Although I kind of wanted to go to the toilet here, the toilets were very busy, so I decided just to skip it, which turned out to be a huge mistake.

Immediately past the hut, we walked past the private Ketetahi Hot Springs. We could not see or get close to the source of the springs hidden in a small valley, as it was closed private land, and apparently it is very dangerous due to unstable terrain and boiling water. I believed it, as the volume of steam rising from the hot spring was amazing - we could see the large billows of steam rising up kilometres before reaching the hut. However, we did cross a stream containing the run-off from the spring, and although I didn't want to touch the water due to possible toxic chemicals and acid, I could feel the heat coming off of it. At around three kilometres from the end of the track, I realised that I really needed to go to the bathroom - the kind that needed a toilet. Jake and I sped up until we were passing people quite regularly. From this point, we also descended into a jungle - the typical type of fauna that can be seen in tramps around the Auckland area quite often.

Although we kept thinking that the end of the track was going to be close, it wasn't. Apparently other people though this part of the track stretched on for much longer than they expected too! Eventually, as we caught up with Capri, I ran off and jogged nearly the remainder of the trail, with a quick stop at a spur track to view a waterfall. The waterfall and streams around it were slightly turquoise in colour, probably due to volcanic run-offs from the hot springs. Passing groups of other Couchsurfers, I exploded out into the open, where everyone else was resting and waiting for the last few groups to finish. I dropped my stuff and headed directly for the toilets, and although it was hot and smelly in there, I was glad to have found one!

Afterwards, I enjoyed a (warm) beer and relaxed while we waited for some other groups and to sort out all the rides. I even bumped into the other Couchsurfer I met up at the top of Mount Ngauruhoe in the parking lot. As I waited and relaxed, I was impressed at how clearly I can see the steam from Ketetahi Hot Springs - it was the centre of attention for me - half way up the mountain is a valley, and from that valley, copious amounts of steam was rising and drifting away, sometimes merging with the low clouds floating around the area.

From here, after everything was organised, we headed to the Tokaanu Hot Pools, where we rented one of the private pools fed by natural hot spring water. We can tell that this was in fact natural hot spring water from the light sulphur smell, the debris in the water, and the fact that there is steam rising from the rivers and creeks surrounding the hot pools. At first we got our heads wet from the hot water, until someone noticed a sign warning not to put your head underwater due to amoebic meningitis! I actually found the sign quite humorous, as it showed a smiley face outside the water and a frowney face under the water. It turns out that amoebic meningitis had caused deaths before, but is extremely rare and can only infect someone by having them inhale water deeply, causing the amoeba to come into direct contact with the olfactory nerves. Although rare, it is exceedingly deadly, with a fatality rate of 97%! Effectively, the amoeba, once it gets onto the olfactory nerves, explode in population, eating the nerve cells and following the nerves up to the brain and down the brain stem. Sounds like a terrible way to die, having your brain eaten from the inside!

Unfortunately, the tickets only allowed for twenty minutes in the private pools fed by natural spring water. After this, we all moved to the public pool of heated municipal water. Here, we stayed until quite late when everyone was hungry. There were some interesting things going on in the pool, such as Thiago cradling other guys in his arms while other people tried to copy him - he was showing us relaxation techniques he uses in the pool at his work as a physiotherapist. On the way back, some people stopped for fish and chips, while we tried to find a liquor store around the area. When we got back, we got in the car, which appeared a bit different. "Wait a minute... is this the right car...?" I asked. We looked at each other and suddenly realised that we had got in someone else's similar-coloured car parked beside our car! We quickly got out, hoped no one saw, and drove away back to Johanna's house.

We got back, ate some food prepared by everyone, and relaxed with some drinks. I collected the receipts to prepare for collecting the money from everyone, but was reminded that because it was the long weekend, we still have another day to sort everything out. I relaxed, chatted, and went to sleep just after midnight to rest after such a long day and to prepare for the next day here.