Kim, Mark and I had left Anthea in Opua before driving 10 hours south to lake Waikaremoana, where we met up with Anson and our good friends Kathy and Yannai. From there we hiked a four-day backpacking trip, or as New Zealanders say, tramping trip, around the lake. After that, we headed north to Tongariro park and slept at a cheek by jowl car camping site. Waking up at 5:00 in the morning was not a pleasant way to start the crossing. Packing up in time to start driving at 6:20, we were able to get to the parking lot at the end of the trail in time to catch the bus that delivered us to the start. The bus ride was a time for me to stew in my nervousness about the sheer mileage, 20 kilometers, and elevation change, 800 meters up and 1200 down. Especially since I had been on a boat with not many chances for walking for the last year, my confidence was quite low.
The start of the trail was flat, walking over rocks or low wooden platforms with clear mountain streams and low, alpine shrubs surrounding us. Ahead of us was a tall, imposing, mountain that was filmed as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings! The crowds were also surrounding us. With around 400 people doing the crossing a day, there was never a sight without people dotted on the trail like ants on a hill. For the first four kilometers it was relatively flat. Then, it started to curve uphill. My feelings of trepidation grew as we approached the bottom of the saddle. As I started up the switchbacks my confidence rose, especially when I started to pass people. The path was gravely with the same small shrubs growing on loose gray rock, but we were high enough that mount ‘Doom’ didn’t seem so imposing.
I reached the summit 20 minutes after Anson and Yannai and was able to fully enjoy the view behind me. The alpine climate gently sloped down to merge with farm lands and forests before the landscape was covered with a low, dense, cloud cover. In the distance we were able to see a tall, snowcapped mountain peak poking through the low cloud veil. Kathy caught up to us soon after, but Kim and Mark took another 20 minutes, much of which was spent in a bathroom line. With what looked like only a slightly higher saddle ahead I felt surprised by how easy it felt to climb such an imposing trail. To reach that saddle we had to dip down onto mud flats, probably losing 20 meters of elevation. The mud flats were barren. With no flora or fauna to speak of they felt slightly oppressive, and I hurried ahead to reach the second saddle. I realized that this was not the highest elevation and that we had barely gone half way up! The trail curved to the left up the side of a second mountain instead of going down over the saddle! With nothing else to do I found a comfortable rock 20 meters off the trail and sat down to wait for the rest of my group to catch up. I saw Anson next and got up off my rock to join him. After a quick conversation I found out that Yannai had charged ahead to look for me. Apparently, Kim and Mark were worried because I had left without checking in. Now that Anson had determined that Yannai was ahead, he blazed up the trail to find him.
Finally reaching the actual top of the mountain (finding Yannai waiting for us there), the view was amazing. Emerald, sulfuric lakes were dotted around the path, with steam billowing fumaroles dotted around. To our right we spotted where a vein of lava had erupted and then eroded away, leaving only edges that were easily three meters thick and 100 meters tall!
Going down the side of the mountain was a great ride. The trail was a broad, sandy ridge five meters wide allowing for a fun, fast, screeing ride! The ridge ended after half an hour of skidding down the slope and turned into many different side tracks that led back to the main trail. The fumaroles produced a horrid sulfuric smell that singed our nostrils and triggered my gag reflex over and over again. The landscape was almost as barren as the mud flats with no life except bacteria in the lakes. It reminded us of Dragon Island in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
We had lunch by one of the beautiful emerald lakes, and unfortunately, a fumarole. A deposit of sulfur surrounded the fumarole, covering the rocks in the yellow element. We followed a path to a bigger fumarole and around another lake before joining back up with the main trail. Soon we were descending again and back in the alpine climate. There were a series of switch backs down the mountain that Anson, Yannai and I ran down.
With 3.6 kilometers left the trail descended into a forest and began to flatten out. By this time I was feeling tired and had to resort to “singing” “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” and “What do you do with a Drunken Sailor,” to keep myself going. The parking lot was a sweet site as I fell into the grass. When the rest of my family arrived we said our goodbyes to Kathy and Yannai and got into the car, exhausted, but feeling a sense of triumph.