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Published: January 24th 2016
On the final day of our epic adventure in Tongariro National Park we got up in time to be shivering in the crisp morning air waiting for the sun to rise over the mountains. We were rewarded for the early start with an amazing light show as the sky changed colour and then the mountains were successively highlighted.
We packed and ate as quickly as we could, keen to start our fifteen kilometre hike as early as possible. We had planned to go to some local hot pools to relax after our walk so we had this driving us to finish speedily.
A few minutes after we got on the trail we turned off to visit New Zealand's oldest backcountry hut - a tiny fascinating museum of tramper history. This fire-engine red, two-roomed shack, surrounded by pine trees has stood the test of time and stands testimony to a completely different era. This was a time when women skied in skirts and men and women had separate bunks and only the men's was heated!
We soon rejoined the path and admired the evolving scenery around us. The sky was an intense shade of blue and cloudless except for
dynamic clumps acting as a retinue around the mountains. To our left was the glacier-clad Mount Ruapehu and to our right was the ominous dark cone of Mount Ngauruhoe. Our path threaded directly between these two titans, giving us spectacular views around the North Face of Ruapehu and the South West Face of Ngauruhoe. The path climbed almost imperceptibly over about eight kilometres until we ended up on a windswept ridge overlooking the Lower Tama Crater.
Our route was good; the path well paved and surrounded by interesting vegetation. Walking felt difficult due to the moderate headwind but overall we made good progress. As we crossed the Tama Saddle in front of the crater I had a hunch that there was more to see so I left the path and walked towards the edge. I was glad I did as I was rewarded with the most stunning view of the dark azure Lower Tama Lake below me. Half of this was a circular basin of water with a strong demarcation between a shallow and a deep section. The other half was a basin of what appeared to be sand. Surrounding the valley floor were the steep walls of the
crater which looked unscalable. Lindsey joined me at the edge of the crater and then we cut back across to rejoin the path.
A little further on we met a German lady, Verina, who we had spoken to over dinner the previous night and she joined us for the rest of the hike. The path dropped sharply down a valley and we forded the stream at the bottom before climbing up again.
We continued along another ridge until we came to a junction for the path to the Tama Lakes. Here we dropped our bags and continued, carrying just our lunch. Ten minutes later we came to the opposite side of the Lower Tama Lake to where we had peeped over earlier. This was pretty but didn't have quite the same "wow" factor as our earlier view. From the tussocks we perched on to eat we did have amazing views of the rugged red crags of the North West of Mount Ruapehu as they towered into the bright white clouds. If an eruption had happened then we would have had front-row seats. After a quick lunch we left the wind-swept plateau. We had thought of going to the
Upper Tama Lake but the steep scree slope and strong winds made us think again. Instead we just went back to the junction, picked up our bags and continued on.
The path stayed level for some time and ridges rose to either side blocking our view of the two mountains. For the first time the day's walk became a bit dull as there was little to see. This didn't last long though. Soon we were looking out over the South Western slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe and I could see the Devil's Staircase and mountains from our first day of walking. We had come almost all of the way around the mountain.
The path now started a strong descent and we headed back directly towards Whakapapa village. Soon the silly chateau in the village was visible and this made us feel that the end was near. The track still had a bit further to go though. After a bit more undulation we came to the top of a steep staircase. At the bottom were the high-pressure cascades of the Taranaki Falls. These were impressive from all angles. We climbed down and followed he Taranaki Stream as it dropped through
the woods. It felt like it went on forever but it was probably only one kilometre. Now the sun was beating down on us and we were ready for the end of our epic walk. Eventually the forest ended and we had to drag our aching bodies up a steep set of staircases and then a climb over open moorland before we reached the sign signalling the end of our Great Walk. We posed for photos, elated to have completed our trek.
We said goodbye to Verina and then headed out of the park. Just two kilometres from the entrance is a Department of Conservation run thermal pools. For $10 each you can get a private pool of geothermally heated spring water for twenty-five minutes and access to the swimming pool too. This was exactly the luxury our aching bodies needed after four days on the trail.
Being in the pool for a few minutes gave me time to reflect on how wonderful and life-enriching the Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk had been for me. I had always wanted to visit an active volcano and now I had done that. I'd challenged myself to go beyond what I'd
ever done before and succeeded in meeting that challenge. I had struggles and was forced to face and overcome my fears. I walked for four days carrying a heavy pack and camped for three nights. I scaled and descended an 1800m track over all kinds of surfaces. I saw a wide range of almost indescribable scenery and vast desolate landscapes. I witnessed the raw power and magnificence of one of the world's most destructive forces. I have a renewed wonder at how stunning creation is. It was with a great sense of accomplishment that I finished the forty three kilometre walk around the incredible Mount Ngauruhoe but also sadness that it was over. Most of all, I am proud of Lindsey and myself for what we have achieved, given how unfit we were when we arrived in New Zealand.
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