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.

Mount Cook and Twizel, New Zealand

14 02 2013

Stupendous view from Lake Pukaki, near Twizel!

Elwin, Angelique and I departed Christchurch for our exploration of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, lakes and fiords. We were looking forward to stunning views, sapphire lakes, hikes, and glaciers. Our first stop would be Twizel, which is the little gateway town for Mount Cook, at 12,316 ft the highest peak in Australasia.

Now, New Zealand is beautiful. You may have heard. But it is the compactness of the country, and variety of climates, that makes it so different than any other in the world. On the road to Twizel we drove through plains, mountain passes, through an infinity of multicolored lupine fields, from the palms of the semi tropical coast to majestic glaciated peaks – in a matter of hours! What you may not know, is that so much of it has been cleared for agriculture. We were surprised that sometimes it seems every scrap of land not part of a reserve seems to be converted to agriculture. Even the forests covering the mountains are often all second generation pines grown for wood production. The Kiwis are acutely aware and have ramped up preservation on land and in coastal marine reserves as well.

We arrive in Twizel. Twizel, population 1,065, is definitely ground zero for Mt. Cook exploration. This town was originally founded entirely as housing for construction workers for the hydroelectric projects on the dams nearby. Today, the remaining houses and “dorms” serve as places for the outdoors crowd. Still small, Twizel has a limited lodging landscape, and I made reservations only a few days ahead. As such I had to make do with a hostel room for all three of us at High Country Lodge & Backpackers, shared unisex bath down the hall. And parking? Outside your window – literally – on the lawn. We did make friends with some other travelers. But, the place was dirty, the beds lumpy, and it was generally noisy both at night and in the morning. If you can imagine beer drinking buddies, showering backpackers, a woman voicing her orgasms behind the wall, and people outside your window unpacking their SUV all at the same time, that describes a night at this place! And at 5:30 a.m.? Cars loading up for a day on Mt Cook, engines running and doors opening and slamming. At least we made do watching “The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers” during all of this. So, if you plan on staying in Twizel, I recommend reserving your lodgings earlier and don’t stay at the backpackers hostel! You can, however, stay at their “lodge,” and have a real room and small porch / bathroom to yourself – IF you book further ahead.

Aside from our lodgings, Twizel is perfectly fine. It has a few restaurants, it’s quiet, there are two grocery stores, it’s walkable, and generally OK.

Left sided driving to Mt Cook...

Left sided driving to Mt Cook…

The plan is to hike some of the valleys near Mt. Cook. Unfortunately Elwin comes down sick, and decides to sleep it off. So, Angelique and I head up in 100% blue bird perfect weather to hike the Hooker Glacier area near Mt Cook, and hopefully the Tasman Glacier, too.

Like the glaciers in Patagonian Argentina we saw last year, these too create miles long sky blue lakes to the east. What we saw in Patagonia, by comparison, is almost unimaginable. Lake Argentina is 1,466 sq km, and Lake Pukaki is 179 sq km.  Still, these are impressive-and beautiful.

So we head out. The trail to the Hooker Glacier is really close to the tourist center in the valley, including the Hermitage Hotel, so there are lots of folks on the way. But that doesn’t matter. It’s really gorgeous.


It is so pretty. It’s really HOT, and we seek shelter from the sun in a little hut. There are “rivers” literally spouting from the sides of the mountains. That tells me that the rock is porous, allowing underground streams to form from the melt-water from the glaciers above.

We meet lots of Australians – something that would be repeated over and over during my month in New Zealand. And they’d always tell me that, though Australia is beautiful too, it’s so expensive that they fly to New Zealand for their holidays.


Across suspension bridges, up and up Angelique and I go, with the Hooker Glacier the goal. The trail has been re-worked a few times, and there’s an old suspension bridge, plus a to-be suspension bridge we pass as we go.

Down under the area closer to The Hermitage, there is a lake with ice bergs melting from the glaciers. It’s nowhere near the size of the Patagonia lakes – but it’s still cool!


Rod and Angelique

I wish Elwin were here because it’s really spectacular. He and Angelique spent the last month in Australia, and there’s nothing like this there. Well, he’s going to just have to see the pictures I guess.

The Hooker Glacier, at the terminus, is not spectacular. It is small (relative to the massive glaciers in Patagonia we saw) and covered in an insulating blanket of rocks. But it’s still a glacier!

So Mt Cook did not disappoint. If you head to New Zealand’s South Islands, definitely check it out.

IMG_3388Angelique and I also headed to the Tasman Glacier Terminus. On the way I realized O-M-G we are smack in the middle of The Lord of the Rings Battle for Gondor! There is NO question. I looked it up and verified. I don’t have pictures. But wow! They did film those scenes right there.


Spectacular Mt. Cook, and the Hooker Glacier (covered in rocks) underneath.

When we reach the trailhead I realize just how much of a magnet Mt. Cook is in January! The parking area is completely filled up and people are competing for spots. I actually got angry and left in a huff. I didn’t go on vacation to engage in an urban combat situation. Perhaps I should have been more patient! But I’d read that the Tasman Glacier’s terminus, like Hooker’s, is also gray and less-than-spectacular…that was my only consolation.

Back in Twizel, Elwin was improving! He’s a super hiker and I knew h0w hard it was for him to miss today’s hike!

Next up – road trip past Queenstown, New Zealand, to Te Anau and Fiordland National Park!