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.

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