Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned”

Saturday, September 12, 2015

We bid adieu to Wellington around our usual time of 8 AM. The driving on this day was—at least for the first part—unlike most of our driving experience so far in all of New Zealand. You can tell immediately that the North Island is definitely the more populated and urbanized of the two islands. The roads were definitely easier to drive, but that meant going through a lot of towns, meaning going 100 kilometers per hour all the time was not possible; although 4 hours’ worth of driving time on the North Island got us further than 4 hours’ worth on the South Island, and before we knew it, we got close to Tongariro National Park.

The Desert Road

Our route for the day was State Highway 1, which is known as the Desert Road along the eastern edge of Tongariro National Park. Well north of the greater Wellington area, we stopped in Waiouru for lunch at a Subway before continuing further. (Interesting side note: what we call green peppers in America are known as capiscum. The things you learn at a Kiwi Subway!)

Then we were off along the Desert Road. The landscape changed quite dramatically from rolling green farmland and urban areas into a desert scrubland with an ash-based soil. The three volcanic peaks of Tongariro National Park—Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe, and Mt. Tongariro—were a bit socked in by clouds, but we could still see their bases. It seemed as if each garnered its own weather system. Mt. Ngauruhoe is cone-shaped and therefore is the most prototypical volcano—what people imagine when you say the word “volcano.” It is the youngest of the three volcanoes, and hasn’t broken down over time as much as Tongariro and Ruapehu, making it the iconic center of the park. It was impossible to miss as it loomed in the distance as we drove along the Desert Road. We crossed our fingers that the clouds would clear at least one of the two days that we would be spending in the area, so we could see the volcanoes in all their majesty.

We continued till Turangi, a small town at the northeast corner of the park, and the site of our holiday park. The holiday park we stayed was quite run-down, but apparently it was an old hydro workers’ camp that is in the (slow) process of the being converted into a campervan park. We weren’t super impressed, but we really weren’t too picky, since all we needed was a place to plug in later that night. The receptionist told us about some short hikes in Tongariro that we could do before the day was over. She mentioned that the Tawhai Falls was used in a Lord of the Rings film for the Gollum fish-eating scene.

Whakapapa Village and Tawhai Falls

We decided to head for the Lake Rotopounamu walk, but we accidentally passed it. Instead, we turned into a sacred Māori site on the edge of Lake Rotaira called Opataka. There we decided to head into Tongariro National Park on State Highway 48 toward Whakapapa Village because the clouds were clearing, and we thought it would be a good idea to try to catch a clear view of the three volcanic peaks, than risk not seeing them tomorrow during our full-day hike in the park.

And it proved to be a good thing we did, too!

The drive was not too long to Whakapapa—only 30 to 40 minutes more, and the peaks were visible and snow-capped! We took lots of pictures—many of them silly—by Whakapapa Village. It was chilly, but we were so excited to be by “Mt. Doom”—or at least Peter Jackson’s inspiration for it.

We did the short Tawhai Falls walk. The waterfall is short but strong, and we could definitely imagine Gollum chowing down on some fish here. We said we definitely would watch the scene again in The Two Towers.

Lake Rotopounamu

Finally we head back up the road we came toward Rotopounamu, as we had initially intended. At least we would know where to go the next day for our planned Taranaki Falls hike, which started a few hundred feet from the Whakapapa Village visitor’s center. The Lake Rotopounamu hike was nice, but we only did the hike to the lake and back, not the entire loop around the lake; it was uphill toward the lake. The lake had nice views of Mt. Pihanga, a sacred Maori mountain. We saw but mostly heard at least three New Zealand pigeons (known as kererūs) and heard other varieties. The hike was OK, but perhaps not as thrilling as our other ones, but perhaps we had a bit of “thrill fatigue” since so many places in New Zealand are unbelievably beautiful.

We picked up a few more groceries for lunches—bread, and juice—at a store called New World before heading back to our campsite for dinner, we decided to cook in our campervan—for the first time actually. We were not keen on cooking in the Turangi holiday park kitchen. It was a bit further from our spot, first of all, and the building was somewhat unkempt and dated, not to mention it creeped us out, on top of being creeped out by a flickering light at the common room building (which we didn’t enter at all). Dinner was tuna, Uncle Ben’s Chinese rice, ramen, cream corn, and toast. Though it was a bit more difficult to cook and clean up in the campervan, we made it work.

Time was passing so differently for us in New Zealand, and it was hard for us to believe that we only had 4 days left at this point. Finally being on the North Island (again actually, since we had arrived in Auckland) was quickly putting it all into perspective. In one regard, it seemed like we had been in New Zealand for a small eternity, but it had all been too short at the same time. We had no work, no regular schedule, less technology time and connectedness, and only campervan-related chores. But we still had plenty to see and do on our agenda before heading home, so we’d have to keep soaking it in. Our trip wasn’t over yet!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

We woke up in our Turangi campground ready for a fully day of hiking in and around Tongariro National Park. We headed back to the same place as yesterday: Whakapapa Village. (Fun fact: “Wh” is pronounced like an “F” in Māori, so to our English speaking ears, Whakapapa sounds funny.)

Clouds were streaming in from the south, so initially we did not see much of Mt. Tongariro or Mt. Ngauruhoe, but they were clearing around Mt. Ruapehu, which was a good sign, but we were glad we got to see the peaks the day before just in case the clouds never cleared.

From Whakapapa Village we started on the Taranaki Falls hike, not too far off the main road. We must have started it in the less typical direction because we saw very few people, if any, hiking the same direction. Most others were going the other way. But since it was all new to us anyway, it didn’t make much of a difference, and we ended up stopping a lot for pictures and turning back to see the view behind us.

The trail leads through a lot of desert scrubland, but a bit surprisingly, a forest, too, which grows along a river and stream that flows from the falls. The Taranaki Falls themselves are not particularly large (larger than what we’re use to seeing at home, of course), but still quite an impressive amount of water, fueled by all the snowmelt from Mt. Ngauruhoe. They stand out like an oasis against the red brown soil and scrub of Tongariro.

By the time we left the falls, the clouds over Mt. Ngauruhoe had disappeared, so we once again had spectacular clear views of the volcanic cone. We turned around many times to snap photos and gaze in wonder at the mountain. Photographing it was actually quite tricky because the white snow on the peaks was so bright and reflective almost all our photos were getting washed out. Altogether, the hike took us 3 hours there and back.

Upon returning to Whakapapa Village, we spent more time in the visitor center and bought some souvenirs, like postcards and a Buller’s Birds of New Zealand book for the family but that we thought Mom would especially like. The park ranger who helped check us out pronounced all the names of the peaks for us. Needless to say, we’d been saying Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu wrong all along (as we had earlier learned that we initially said Wanaka and Tekapo wrong). It’s hard to transcribe the real pronunciations, but in general, the “g’s” in Tongariro and Ngauruhoe are silent, and the “e” in Ngauruhoe is said a bit like “eh.” [[Ton-ah-ree-ro and Na-rah-ho-eh]] And while we down in Whakapapa Village we had heard loud booms, which is mildly disconcerting since we were literally on top of an area of three volcanoes, but apparently they’re controlled avalanches—another thing the park ranger taught us that day. They have to set of bombs on the ski fields to release the snow so real avalanches don’t happen while skiers are on the slopes. Plus, while the volcanoes are still very much active, the latest eruption was on Mt. Tongariro and was relatively minor, in 2012.

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