finishing off the North Island in style
07/07/2009 - 07/11/2009 53 °F
I have 15 minutes of free internet so this might not be the best composition ever.
I am presently in the New Zealand capital city of Wellington. The city has done a terrible thing because it is the first place that actually makes me think I could live here permanently. Up until now the New Zealand cities have been disappointing. Even the larger villages end up strewn with fast food outlets and sprawl, the fact is that no one comes down here for the urban culture or should I say the lack thereof. Wellington is an otherwise bright spot in the rather dull cities of New Zealand. You can just tell walking through the streets that the occupants here have the self-assured attitude that their town is the best one in the country. The coffee is world-reknowned and apart from that the underground music, arts, and restaurant scenes seem lively. I'll be here until Monday negotiating the return of my rental car, and the ferry trip to the South Island thereby ending an 18 day trip of the North.
Apart from Wellington, the other highlight of the North Island was Tongariro National Park which is right in the middle of the island. The park boasts 3 active volcanoes, one of which Mt. Ngauruhoe served as Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. Two ski mountains plus hundreds of miles of hiking, kayaking, and fishing provided me with ample activities. I used the mountain village of Turangi as my base. A small town with a few cafes, a gas station, and a grocery store. The weather was variable upon my arrival, and I spent day one white water rafting down the Tongariro river, more or less, because I did not know what else to do. The rapids were rather tame, fun of course, but not that intense.
On day two, I encountered some snow showers in the higher elevation where I did a small hike at the base of Mt. Ruepehu the volcano that exploded in 1995.
As the day came to a close I ventured into the local (DOC) to inquire about trail conditions on the Tongariro Crossing. The crossing is a 19 kilometer hike/climb over Mt. Doom and through a mountain crater before passing along the side of Mt. Tongariro and depositing you on the other side of the park. In winter its a bit technical with crampons and ice axe required. There is no point in doing the hike unless you have clear weather, as the views are what you climb for. So I found out that guides would be doing the hike on Thursday, I just needed to decide if the weather would make it worthwhile.
At 10 pm that night we had clear skies, so I set the alarm clock for 645 AM and prepared my day bag for the crossing. All in all, the crossing was fantastic. You end up getting in between the three volcanoes which provide an alpine setting reminiscent of something you'd expect to find in the Himalayas or Andes -- all above tree line, all white as we had just received about 20 centimeters of snow in the past few days, and well above the clouds so you could imagine that I was trigger happy with my camera. The climb itself is over 2400 feet in gain, but over about 10 kilometers making it less strenuous. The climb made its way to the base of Mt. Doom, ascended about 800 feet before coming to a mountain plateau that we crossed. At this point you are directly between Mt. Doom and Mt. Tongariro and you need to climb up to the spine/ridge that connects the to mountains. It was the most challenging/steep part of the climb. Once on the ridge we had reached the tallest point of the climb at 1900 meters or 6,200 feet. The landscape was all white and we had views to almost both coastlines. We did not need our crampons as the fresh snow pack made for a solid base for climbing. The final 8 or so kilometers was the descent around the north face of Mt. Tongariro and into the mountain woods below. The coolest aspect of the trip was that my group of about 15 climbers and 2 guides was the first group to set out on the crossing since the storm, meaing we were making fresh tracks. We alternated the lead climber as the front person was more or less stepping into 6-10 inches of fresh snow. A lot of fun, and quite tiring, but in the end its the obvious highlight of the north island.
I am excited for the south island and think 2 and half weeks was just about the right amount of time for the north. I missed a few things and could have easily spent another two weeks up here, but Im very happy with the places I did go -- Coromandel Peninsula, Raglan (beach town), Tongariro National Park, and Wellington.
The south island is a bit rushed as I need to get to the city of Christchurch by next Friday to meet my travel buddy Ryan. This means I am rushing through wine country in the north. I have a feeling that I will loop back around to get a second helping of this area just before I leave New Zealand in late August. But generally the next week will be a lot of wine and some whale watching off the coast. Im going to probably nurse my old man knees for a few days to get ready for the serious hiking I'll be doing later in the month.