In the second bus on my journey from Rotorua to National Park village, there were only four of us. And a couple of km out of the village, snow started falling. Those were signs that winter had come for good and that I would probably not be doing any overnight hiking. Ah well, I would just have to do the most if my time here anyways. There is a famous day trek, the Tongariro crossing, I might still manage to do, without having to spend a night in a freezing cold hut. My disappointment grew larger though when I got to my accomodation: they normally run shuttles for this walk, but they had to cancel the one on the next day because they considered the hike unsafe (strong winds, very low temperatures, snowfall, ice…).
So I decided to go straight to the visitor centre in the morning to get more precise information. That day, Sunday, was particularly cold, especially because of the wind chill (up to 100 km per hour). People were going up, but with proper mountaineering equipment (cramp-ons, ice axe), and preferably with a guide. They had a special early bird offer for the winter guided tour and the weather was going to be amazing, so I just signed up for that on the next day. It wasn’t much more expensive than just renting the gear and transportation, and at least we’d get some bonus background stories.
Meanwhile, with two lovely Dutch students who had given me a lift from the hostel (about 18 km away, always the same story getting to these hikes…) we went on a few scenic short walks to get views of the Park’s volcanic trio: Ruapehu (the tallest), Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Tongariro. Alright, you all want a picture of Mt Doom, so here you go.
Not as doomy as in the film, right? The snow completely changes the landscape. Our first walk brought us into the rainforest, actually really pretty (and a bit unusual) in the snow.
It was so cold that I wasn’t really willing to walk much more (for once) and my new friends drove me back to the hostel quite early in the afternoon. I was just happy I had my Tongariro crossing sorted out, I’d miss the whole multiday hike but at least I’ll get a winter alpine experience which is also great.
My expectations were high for that hike: it’s meant to be one of the most beautiful one-day hikes in the world. In fact I was so excited that when my alarm went off at six I was already wide awake. The shuttle picked us up at seven and it took forever to get the group together, equip us all with the gear (cramp-ons, but also ice axes and helmets, which appeared to me as totally unnecessary, and I was right). We finally got walking around nine and I placed myself in the head group of eleven people with a talkative French-Canadian. We started off with a view of distant Taranaki (the volcano I climbed barely a week ago!) and symmetric Ngauruhoe just in front of us. At this low altitude the volcanic terrain was not entirely covered in snow and the white and brownish colour blend was quite beautiful.
Then came the Devil’s Staircase, steps going uphill to the South Crater. The Department of Conservation (DOC) had told me this was one of the hazardous sections of the trail, really icy and slippery. As usual, they totally exaggerated and people were walking up in trainers. Sure enough, there was ice on the steps but being cautious was enough to make it up in one piece and we didn’t even wear the cramp-ons on our guide’s advice. After that we crossed a beautiful picture-perfect white flat section, supposedly where some scenes of the Lord Of The Rings was shot. It didn’t look like Mordor at all in the snow. Mount Doom was on our right (on the left in the photo). Notice the walking trail in the middle!
OK this is where we had to put the cramp-ons on. More than the snow, it was thick layer of ice that made them necessary. It made the final ascent to Red Crater on a steep slippery slope nice and comfortable, but we still passed some brave (or stupid?) people struggling in trainers. They made it all the way to the top, fair play! From here we got a view on picturesque Blue Lake, not quite a mirror because it had started to freeze. Behind it, lakes Rotoaira (in the front) and Taupo. Just below us we could also see the not-quite-so-Emerald-at-the-moment lakes, because they were also starting to freeze.
From then on it was all downhill, we passed the Emerald Lakes and the Blue Lake to have a good look at them up close. On the ridge going down we had closer views of lakes Rotoaiara and Taupo as well as on a fuming crater whose name I forgot.
This one blew up in 2012, the zone is still volcanically active. Finally, we descended under the bushline and the guide showed us some plants the Maori used for hunting or medicine, like the really solid lancewood or the shiny silver fern. And the shuttle was there as we arrived at the carpark, ready to drive us back to our accomodation.
In the evening I spent a while relaxing in the jacuzzi, while my dorm mate still hadn’t returned from the Crossing. She went without a guide and apparently decided to climb up Ngauruhoe, against everyone’s advice. It’s doable but extanuating because of the thick layer of snow making the ascent very slow. And sure enough she got caught in the dark and only returned shortly before nine, exhausted, dehydrated and hungry, and got a good scoulding from the owner who had already called the police. It was a good lesson: walking in winter conditions is much slower.
That evening a French guy offered me a lift to Taupo in the morning, I was heading North to Coromandel and Taupo is a large town on the way. Perfect!