Tongariro National Park and Mt. Ruapehu Serve Up Pestilence from Above and Below

13 03 2013

Mt. Ruapehu

Tops on our bucket list for New Zealand’s North Island was Tongariro National Park. New Zealand’s oldest national park is a high altitude volcanic wonder. Inside its borders is 9,177 ft Mt. Ruapehu, the country’s largest and most active volcano. New Zealand’s largest ski area, Whakapapa, lies on its slopes. Plus 7,513 Mt. Ngauruhoe, a perfect cone with a blackened, smoking plateau beneath – which was filmed as Mordor and Mt. Doom for the Lord of the Rings movies. Tongariro lies under the other two and is composed of multiple cones.

Model of the three volcanoes

Model of the three volcanoes

Rained out in Wellington, we hoped the improving weather forecast for the park would turn out to be true. We stayed at the Rainbow Motel in Tokaanu, on the southern shores of Lake Taupo – 40 minutes from the park.

The entire region sits directly on top of clashing of the Australasian and Pacific Tectonic Plates, and thus is full of volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, calderas, and endures the occasional earthquake. Our accommodation at the Rainbow Motel had two single rooms plus a bed and couch in the living room, with kitchenette facilities. While the bed was positively awfully unsupportive, the Rainbow Motel has one perk which served us marvelously. Sitting on top of a geothermal area, it sported hot spring baths!

Often lauded as New Zealand’s greatest hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was a must-do. This challenging all-day hike climbs in between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe and takes hikers directly into Mordor! It is full of blackened fields, sapphire volcanic lakes and steaming, stinking fumeroles. Elwin and I were itching to get on it. It is not possible to get to the trailhead by your own car. You must ride a bus which takes hikers inside. The hike is supposed to be one-way. Hikers meet the bus at the other end of the crossing.

This day we planned to hike the slopes of Ruapehu – taking a chairlift to a high trailhead. We drove up to Whakapapa Village, which is the base area for hikes on Ruapehu. But today hiking was not to be. Completely at odds with the meteorologists forecast, we find everything closed due to wind, rain, snow, and even more!

Wind/rain/volcanic activity conspire to ruin our day!

Wind/rain/volcanic activity conspire to ruin our day!

In fact the Ruapehu volcano itself was adding its mischief to ruin our day…throwing threats of eruption and lahars at us! NO hiking today. With 70 kph winds, possible eruptions, and lahars, the chairlift was closed as were most of the trails!


So, sulking, we headed back to Tokaanu to figure out what to do. On the road we see a sign for hot springs.

With a day to fill, we had nothing to lose! So we checked out the Tokaanu Thermal Pools. We weren’t interested in soaking in the pay-to-soak part of the park.

However, there is a trout stream and free walk amongst very interesting hot springs, thermal pools and plopping mud pots.

If you recall the Lord of the Rings movie “The Two Towers,” the scene of the “Dead Marshes,” where Frodo is advised “Don’t look at the lights!” in the water, you know what it’s like here. There are wooden walkways meandering amongst completely transparent steaming pools which tempt one to look deeply. So deeply you feel drawn in!

Trout like cold water. Interestingly there is a cold water stream running right through the area, and it’s choked with rainbow trout! We walk a bridge across and 4-5 pound trout swim beneath.

Now what to do? Well, we are very close to Lake Taupo. So we choose to hike a ways along its shores.

Lake Taupo is another geologic wonder. This lake is a caldera formed by one of the largest eruptions on Earth in the past 25,000 years. I kept thinking about another caldera, Crater Lake in Oregon. And one of the largest eruptions in human history, Tambora Indonesia. And Lake Tahoe.

For comparison, let’s look at surface area. Lake Taupo=238 square miles, Crater Lake=21 square miles, Lake Tahoe=192 square miles. Depth: Taupo=616 ft, Crater Lake=1,949 ft, Lake Tahoe=1,645 ft. Volume: Lake Taupo=14 cubic miles, Crater Lake=4.5 cubic miles, Lake Tahoe=93 cubic miles. So although Lake Taupo has the largest surface area, Lake Tahoe dwarfs Lake Taupo in total volume. Lake Tahoe is big AND deep!

Everybody likes volcano eruption comparisons. You probably have heard of Mt. Mazama, which blew up to make Crater Lake. Or, Tambora. Or, Krakatoa. But you might never have heard of Taupo. Let’s see: Tambora ejected 38 cubic miles of matter, and is the largest eruption in recorded history. Krakatoa, the loudest in recorded history, ejected 13 cubic miles. Mt. Mazama, 93. But Taupo’s Oruani eruption ejected 330 cubic miles of matter!  The Volcanic Explosivity Index is a 1 – 8 scale with 8 the highest. Krakatoa is 6, Tambora is 7 and Taupo is 8. Why have you not heard of it? Because it was before human history, 26,500 years ago. So, this entire region of New Zealand’s North Island seethes with the earth’s violence!

All along its shores are feather light rocks. Can you guess what type?

If you guessed pumice you are right. Pumice is ejected by volcanoes and is full of air pockets from the gas. Back at the Rainbow Motel, we soaked ourselves in the on site thermal baths. That made for a relaxing day, despite the weather. We’re crossing our fingers for a hike tomorrow.



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