New Zealand is a bit weird, really. The country and its people are just not normal. Never mind a worryingly high volume of mullet haircuts or the curious national obsession with beetroot – both of which are bizarre – and ignore also the tricky place names (try and pronounce Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu without drawing breath). What’s most odd is the land itself and the normality in which these oddities are received by its people. Farmers graze their stock nonplussed around abnormal rock formations across the country, mighty glaciers sweep down into civilisation and on the one occasion we experienced an earthquake last August, it was to the locals what catching a pocket on a door handle is to me – infrequent, annoying and mildly amusing but not worthy of mention. There is however, an area in New Zealand that takes the biscuit in terms of its strange natural offerings. As a name, The Central Plateaux may sound massively dull and uninspiring, but in reality? Well you’ll be blown away, possibly literally.
That exact scenario occurred on two occasions at the end of last year, when Mount Tongariro grumbled, coughed and spluttered into life – spewing hot ash clouds and volcanic rock for miles around. It made the national news, more so as it was an inconvenience rather than anything dramatically unusual it seemed, as no one here was that fussed. We were fussed however, and were even more fussed when the DOC info centre casually advised us the mountain was currently standing at ‘Amber’ as -and I quote – “the old girl could blow at any time“. We were here for the Tongariro Northern Circuit, another of the ‘Great Walks’ and a three day 47km circumnavigation of Mount Ngaurahoe (more famously known as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) which would incorporate the more famous Alpine Crossing day walk.
Why we’d opted for the longer option, I don’t know. We hadn’t done a walk of any real length since the Abel Tasman coastal track in November, and apparently we hadn’t learnt much since then either. Our tent was still the size and consistency of an oversized paper napkin, and we’d opted once again for a pre-cooked pasta and meat diet. Our bodies groaned in advance. Setting off from the hilariously named incestuous hotbed of Whakapapa (the ‘wh’ becomes an ‘f’ in Maori pronunciation – work it out), the foreboding conical shape of Ngaurahoe dominated the view to our left. The first day was a long one, over 10 hours of walking. I don’t think we’d walked a total of 10 hours in the previous three months and so it was with rapidly blistering feet that we crossed the barren Tama Saddle and took in the lower of the Tama Lakes, as blue as it was parched, before marching onward to the immaculate Waihohonu Hut for lunch. It was abundantly clear that this was no repeat of Abel Tasman, where the view was never more than 20 yards ahead, but always colourful and always full of life. We could see the volcano continuously here, and with little to no life around us in the blackened earth our far reaching route was dishearteningly plain to see. There were few other walkers either. Aside from some lycra clad nutter who jogged past us we saw barely anyone that first day, something which merely alleviated the eerily quiet emptiness.
Day two began in much the same fashion. From the Oturere Hut we found ourselves amongst huge volcanic boulders and lava flows in which we picked out faces – including that of Bruce Forsyth according to my scribbled notes, incidentally also an ancient old rock (or something similar). Our sparse surroundings almost felt like another planet such was the landscape, and it was as we were beginning to question the existence of life on Mars that we saw them. High up above us sat the lip of the Red Crater, upon which teemed the ant like figures of a billion day walkers. From 28 hours of near solitude, we all of a sudden found ourselves in the midst of shrieking, posing and chattering hordes swarming everywhere around us. I’m not moaning about them being there, not at all, the Alpine Crossing is a more than hefty walk in itself, but why do some of them – *cough* Americans *cough* – insist on being so bloody loud about it? It comes to something when you find yourself climbing a mountain for some peace and quiet in which to eat lunch, but that’s exactly what we did. A side track took us up to the summit of Mount Tongariro itself and from here we ate, in silence and in awe. In front us, to the south, towered the fearful looking Mount Ngaurahoe – its black scree slopes and conical shape as perfect a volcano as you’ll ever see. To the east we could see for miles, past the beautiful Blue and Emerald lakes and back across our path that morning and the long expired paths of former eruptions. The distant Mount Taranaki hovered on the horizon to the west, beyond our hut for the night and the remainder of our walk the following day, while behind us to the north lay the next part of our adventure. Vast, sprawling and shimmering in the mid afternoon sun – we gazed out at Lake Taupo.
It’s not often you can sit in a public bathing area, feel unnaturally warm water move around you and be confident that it’s not someone taking a leak nearby. Well here in the middle of the north island, you can. Well I think you can- it’s just occurred to me as I write that everyone probably uses the warm water to disguise the fact they’re having a wee. Hmmm, anyway. The geothermal zone that encompasses the area not only shoves up the odd volcano here and there, but also provides a widespread and constant supply of piping hot natural water. It’s an amazing natural phenomenon that they more than make the most of here – geothermal power stations dot the landscape, there’s free central heating for homes – while over in the much colder but similarly volcanic Iceland, they pump the water underneath their roads to keep them free of ice and snow, amazing! We’d also taken advantage of this within 30 minutes of completing the Northern Circuit; finding some commercially captured thermal pools to soak our broken feet in, but now sat on the edge of the Waikato River just north of Lake Taupo and immersed ourselves in a completely natural and completely free steaming hot pool. We’d been lucky enough to cross paths with my parents – out here on an eight week Oceanic tour – earlier than expected, so after enjoying an afternoon and evening by the lake and having taken in the fury of the Huka Falls, we happily wallowed in the sunshine and caught up on the past six months apart. Without weeing, I promise.
It was above Lake Taupo that we’d skydived five years ago, my only one to record and a definite highlight of our previous trip here. In contrast to this, our next destination was a place which amid its sulphuric stench we’d found over populated, overpriced and ultimately, over hyped. Rotorua is a tourist Mecca, and unsurprisingly so. For some considerable cost you can see geysers spouting here, be caked in mud at thermal spa days and even experience an authentic Maori village experience, where authentic costumed dancers perform for busloads of tourists. Authentic? We’d found it anything but. This wasn’t what we had come for however. The Kaituna River, which runs out past Rotorua before spilling out into the Bay of Plenty, is a resourceful river. Deriving from the Maori words of ‘Kai’ (meaning food) and ‘Tuna’ (fish – and not just the tinned stuff) it had for centuries been a sacred river to the indigenous people of Aotearoa. Now, however, it was a sacred river to the shaggy haired, extreme sport loving lunatics who spend much of their spare time trying to kill themselves, in this case by White Water Rafting. It was certified as a Grade 5 river – one step below the highest Grade 6 and certain death apparently – and also had the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world at seven metres. So despite all of this, we booked ourselves up for a go.
What followed was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, anywhere. After a quick but straightforward safety briefing (“if you don’t do this, this or this – you will die”) we wound our way downstream through some quite stunning native forest; where we dropped over thundering falls and were spat out across gushing rapids. The seven metre drop went as well can be expected, for me at least. We lost Jamie temporarily due to a minor error on her part of forgetting to hold on as we dropped 22 feet into torrential water, easily done eh? We visited former cave burial sites of Maori chiefs, their dead bodies a gift back to the eels and fish, and were even encouraged to jump out the boat and let the river drag us along on its rampant course. 45 minutes later, saturated and exhilarated we dragged ourselves back onto dry land and back to the relative safety of Rotorua, where we took a stroll in the city park amongst the scattering of piping hot water and mud pools that can be found there. Last October, this was the scene of one of those news stories you know you’ll wind up watching on ‘The Worlds Dumbest Criminals’ at 2am on some obscure TV channel in years to come. Having been spotted breaking into a car, a local thief found himself being chased by the police and in his undoubted wisdom decided to seek refuge in the park. You can probably guess the rest. That’s right, not content with hiding in a bush or up a tree, our light fingered friend opted to immerse himself in a pool of boiling sulphuric water in his attempt to make an escape. The result? A near drowning and some nicely boiled flesh. What was I saying about the locals and their quite unusual surroundings?