Empires and Dance


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Published: December 10th 2017
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Tongariro Alpine CrossingTongariro Alpine CrossingTongariro Alpine Crossing

The start of the trek. I’m about to check another item off my list. Yay!
New Zealand wasn’t on my radar as a place I would visit in the near future because I had already been there as a teenager, and, because I didn’t know anyone I could stay with there, an extended sojourn there wouldn’t fit my budget as a funemployed person. However, when I extended my Midlife Crisis Flashpacking Trip, the only mileage award flight home I could find was from Auckland. So, I decided to make a short trip to NZ to check one more item off my list - the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It also helped that Air New Zealand offered attractive fares on their B787 Dreamliner flight from Adelaide to Auckland. It was also a neat bit of serendipity that I end my travels in the country where my wanderlust was first stoked; I’ll explain that and this blog title later.

Getting to Tongariro



I landed in Auckland on the evening of December 6th and I made my way into the city on the Skybus, which dropped me right in front of Base Backpackers, my hostel for the night. I chose Base for its proximity to the bus station which I needed to get to early the next morning. After
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The Skytower at night, lit up for Christmas. The Intercity bus station was next to the tower, and Base Hostel was two blocks away.
checking in, I wandered around the Queen Street area, had dinner at a Korean restaurant, and then called it a night. Unfortunately, my room at Base was two levels above a bar, and the loud music went on until 2.30am. Even after the music stopped, the bar patrons hung around the street talking loudly. I hardly got any sleep.

The next morning, I stumbled out of bed, ate breakfast, and made my way to the bus terminal nearby. The bus to National Park Village took more than six hours, but it was comfortable and far more civilized than the bus rides I took in Southeast Asia. I arrived at National Park Village around 3pm and walked a short distance to Howard’s Motor Lodge, my home for the next three nights. I booked my transport to and from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and a packed lunch with Rachel, a young Englishwoman in NZ on a working visa, which is a program available to young Commonwealth citizens. Singapore didn’t participate in this program when I was young, otherwise I would have done it.

The Crossing



A quick word about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing might be in order at this juncture.
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Now, this is where the crossing turns into a slog. This demoralizing sign is at the start of the first steep ascent towards Red Crater.
The crossing is considered one of the best day hikes in the world. It is 19.4 km long and it goes through the flank of Mt. Tongariro, past craters and lakes. Mt. Ngauruhoe - the famed Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings - is to the south of the trail. In the past, one could also divert off the main trail to climb Ngauruhoe, but the Maoris recently closed this side trail to keep hikers off this sacred peak.

I left the motor lodge in a minivan at 7am after eating breakfast and collecting my packed lunch from Maggie, the lovely proprietress. The weather was overcast as we drove into low clouds, but the driver gave us hope when he said we may climb above the clouds. The minivan deposited us at the trailhead at 7.30am, at which point I started my MapMyRun app (more on this later). The first part of the hike was an easy gentle ascent through scrubland on a well marked path. The snow covered peak of Mt. Tongariro was to my left, and Mt. Ngauruhoe was on my right, not that I could see them through the clouds. I covered the first 5km
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The real true peak of the hike is at this point along the rim of the Red Crater.
to the Soda Springs turn off easily within 90 minutes. I then veered off the main trail to visit Soda Springs, which turned out to be a small waterfall. A little further on was where the real climb started, and it was marked with a rather demoralizing sign telling trekkers to consider turning back now if they weren’t in shape or adequately provisioned. Up till this point, the elevation gain had only been around 700 feet. The trail now went up the flank of Mt. Tongariro to the Red Crater, which is the highest point in the climb at over 6,000 feet, or almost 2,000 feet above Soda Springs. I won’t lie here. Even though I am an experienced hiker, this was a tough climb. The trail was well marked, but I did have to scramble over rocks quite a bit. Sadly, even with this steep ascent, we did not get above the clouds.

After the hard slog, I got to the Red Crater and took my first break there. Sadly, the crater was covered by clouds so I didn’t get to see much. After a quick break, I tackled the last bit of the ascent to the true
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The scree slope from Red Crater to Emerald Lakes. To get down, I had to dig my heels into the loose stones and slide down, while staying away from the edges.
summit, and then psyched myself for what I knew would be the most difficult part of the hike - the descent to the lakes. This descent requires one to slide down a steep scree slope, with drops on both sides. I’ve done enough scree slopes to know that it is best to dig your heels in and slide down. I took a deep breath and started out, trying to stay away from the edges. I fell once on my butt. Unlike many other hikers, I’m a lot more comfortable ascending than descending - I have strong quads and hamstrings but dodgy middle aged knees and ankles. I have two additional whammies - apart from being afraid of heights, my confidence in my depth perception took a beating a few years back when I developed cataracts. So, this wasn’t an easy descent for me. But boy was it beautiful. There was a huge caldera on my left, and, as I left the Red Crater (it was on my right) behind, the scenery beyond the clouds hinted at two beautiful lakes - the Emerald Lakes. At the lakes, I took another short break, willing the clouds to clear, but they didn’t. During
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There’s an Emerald Lake somewhere behind me.
this break, I took off my boots, shook out the stones that had gotten inside, and felt immensely pleased that I purchased a pair of thin socks before I left Singapore. I was wearing these socks underneath my thick hiking socks and I had no blisters so far.

After leaving the lakes, the trail took me through the caldera that had been on my left. The landscape here was stark yet beautiful. At the end of the caldera, I made an ascent up the side to come to another cloud shrouded lake - this one was called the Blue Lake. I sat here with a bunch of other hikers wishing the clouds would part, but they didn’t. Disappointed, I left the lake behind and started the descent.

The signposts indicated that this descent was 10.4km. I swear it was longer than that. Up until that point, I hadn’t been paying much attention to my MapMyRun app which was mapping the hike in miles. I expected the hike to only be a little longer than 12 miles. I turned up the volume on my phone so that I would hear my app chime off each time I completed a
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Elevation during the trek as recorded on MapMyRun.
mile. The first part of the descent was down switchbacks through scrubland. It started to rain. It was a relatively easy descent to the Ketetahi Hut. After the hut, though, the descent got steeper, and it went on and on. I let a lot of youngsters with stronger knees and better depth perception pass me. It was demoralizing. Then, the scrub abruptly gave way to forest. My app chimed 11 miles, then 12, at which time I expected the hike to end soon, but this forest went on and on. I trudged on in the rain. Everything hurt - middle age really does suck. I was severely demoralized when the app chimed 13 miles. The trail went on for almost another half mile before I saw the end point - a most welcome sight. My pickup wasn’t due to depart for another 45 minutes, so I hung out until the minivan appeared.

Back at the lodge, I showered and then hopped into the hot tub, which, unfortunately, was set at only 38 celsius with strict instructions not to change the setting. Later that evening, I hauled myself to the local cafe and then called it a night.

Feel
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Taranaki Falls.
free to view my hike stats here.

Taranaki Falls



I slept in the next morning and when I woke up I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I hurt only a little. I walked to the cafe and had a wonderful breakfast of bacon and eggs. I hate the way bacon is prepared in America and so this was a real treat.

After eating, I walked to the road that led to Whakapapa Village and I stuck my thumb out to ask for a ride. Just then, a girl in a pink jacket appeared ahead of me and she snagged a ride. Luckily, a van with a nice young couple stopped for me not long after. They dropped me off at the visitor center where I spent some time learning about the local landscape, and watching a video about a recent eruption. I then set off to hike the Taranaki Falls Trail. This was an easy, two hour, 6 km loop. I briefly considered going onwards to Tama Lakes which would have added another two hours but I nixed that idea as I wasn’t adequately provisioned.

The hike was a nice, sedate one. After hiking through a
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Mt. Tongariro as seen from the trail.
forest for about 50 minutes, I came to a bridge with a waterfall under it, and I thought it was Taranaki Falls. I felt a little let down and I considered turning around and not completing the loop. Fortunately, I carried on, because the real waterfall came into view a few minutes later and it was a very pretty waterfall. After admiring the waterfall, I stayed on the loop as it ascended into scrubland. It started to rain at this point so I knew I made the right decision to forgo Tama Lakes. Back at Whakapapa Village, I started looking for a good place to hitch a ride back to National Park Village when I saw the same girl in the pink jacket snag a ride. I couldn’t believe my luck. I then bumped into Dave, a Scotsman who was staying at the same lodge as I was, and he said he was waiting for Mathias, a German guy with a rental car who was also staying there. I tagged along for the ride when Mathias arrived.

My stats for this hike may be viewed here.

I spent a lazy afternoon sitting at an outdoors picnic table uploading
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Cute little lambs, a few months old. Their tails were still intact.
photos and writing this blog. During the afternoon, I investigated some bleating I heard and found a farm with dozens of fluffy lambs with their tails still intact. They were so cute.

Empires And Dance




I visited in NZ on a geography school trip in 1986. Growing up in Singapore, there was only one music channel on the radio, and it played lots of really soppy and/or melodramatic love songs which, rather inexplicably, were highly popular in Singapore. I hated the local radio and I used to tune in to the BBC’s John Peel Show every chance I had. At that time, Simple Minds was riding high after their success with the Breakfast Club soundtrack, and they were about as alternative sounding as you could get in Singapore. I was eager to learn more about this band, so when I went to NZ I headed to HMV in Auckland as soon as I had spare time. There, one of the cassette tapes (remember those?) I bought was Empires and Dance. I popped the tape into the Sony Walkman (remember those?) knockoff I borrowed from my brother-in-law, and my mind was blown. It sounded nothing like Don’t You Forget
My Last Breakfast in NZMy Last Breakfast in NZMy Last Breakfast in NZ

I’m not much of a meat eater, but I detest bacon in America so much that I just had to have the good stuff here.
About Me. It was a brooding, introspective, infuriating masterpiece fueled by post-punk and Cold War angst. It immediately became my favorite album and it remains at the top spot even today. The first track on the album is I Travel. Appropriate, isn’t it? I played this song repeatedly during my last weeks at my old job, wanting the time to pass quickly.

I left Howard’s Mountain Lodge after saying goodbye to Maggie and her staff, and I walked a short distance to the bus stop. It started to rain. Lots of thoughts were swirling through my head, mostly centered around what an incredible experience this flashpacking trip has been. I was trying hard not to cry and look like a wanker. I was also trying hard not to smile maniacally and look like a wanker. My bus was late, and my wandering brain went back to Empires and Dance, in particular one track called Capital City that goes something like: “My train is late, I hesitate, to the city that they live on, dance the dance of violence, to the city that they live on, to the city that they crawl on”. Cheerful stuff huh?

I’ll probably
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Aotearoa is weeping with me over my departure.
expand more on Empires and Dance and how NZ turned me into a travel fiend when I write my summary blog.


I’m sitting in the Business Class lounge at Auckland Airport as I finish this blog. Apart from going home in style, my flight home to Honolulu will mark two firsts for me: it’ll be my first flight to cross both the equator and the international date line, and I will also hit one million flown miles somewhere over the Pacific. I can’t think of a better way to end this. Jeff and kitties await me in ten hours.










Additional photos below
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Auckland

Skytower.
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Auckland

Christmas lights.
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Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The start of the trek - a nice, gentle ascent in the clouds.
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Tongariro Alpine Crossing

At the top of the ascent is the Red Crater. It’s in there somewhere among those clouds.
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Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The clouds cleared briefly at the Red Crater.
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Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The caldera at the other side of the Red Crater Summit.
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Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Here is the start of the scree slope going down.
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Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Another view of the Red Crater from the scree slope.


10th December 2017

New Zealand contrast!
Wow, what a contrast between this and your other blog entries on this trip. Cold, stark and windswept landscapes seem a world away from tropical Southeast Asia! A very inspiring read again, thank you. I look forward very much to reading your summary entry, on what has really been an epic series of trips for you :)
5th January 2018

It was a whole different landscape for sure!
I'm now inspired to do more treks in Aotearoa, but maybe later when I have more $$ saved up. NZ is expensive!
11th December 2017

Stark but stunning...
Even though the weather was far from ideal hiking weather, I love your eerie misty photos. You've inspired me to look into trekking holidays in NZ. What an amazing multi-part trip you've experienced! I bet Jeff and the kitties are excited to have to back. I'd love to see some pics of the new kitties in your summary blog :)
5th January 2018

Request Noted
There are kitties in my summary blog! This experience trekking in Aotearoa was a very positive one - the treks are well marked and logistics (transportation, etc.) are easy. So, go for it!

Tot: 0.28s; Tpl: 0.03s; cc: 17; qc: 59; dbt: 0.021s; 1; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 1; ; mem: 1.5mb