Taupo and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Distance Travelled: 60,215 km
Date: 16th December 2012

After a full year in Australia, I’ve made it across to New Zealand. It’s been a month since I flew over, so I thought I should write about this country before I get massively behind again.

Stopping briefly in Auckland, I jumped on a bus down to Taupo, where I joined friends from Coral Bay. As mentioned in the 2012 in Review update, I came down to Taupo largely to spend Christmas and New Year with friends, but I also intended to find work here, and save some money before moving on.

Before I set about looking for work though, I took a little time to get to know the town. Taupo is a small town on a huge lake. At 616 km² (238 square miles), Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand, bigger than Lake Geneva, and dwarfing anything in England (Windermere is a paltry 14.7 km²).

A Landsat image of Lake Taupo. The town is on the North-East corner. (Taken from Wikipedia)

Taken from atop the  nearby volcano, Mt Tauhara

Taken from atop the nearby volcano, Mt Tauhara

This lake covers a surprise though. The lake is in fact a crater lake, sitting in a volcanic caldera. A caldera thirty miles across. The whole area is essentially one giant volcano. When it erupted approx. 26,500 years ago, it created the largest known volcanic eruption of the past 70,000 years, throwing out 1170 km³ of lava and tephra, and depositing 18 cm of ash on the Chatham Islands, roughly 1000 km away.

Is is currently considered dormant, as opposed to fully extinct. There have been more recent eruptions, but none so colossal. The last major eruption was around 1800 years ago, and threw out 120 km³ of material. As context, Mt St Helens was a hundredth of the size, with only 1.2 cubic kilometres of material ejected.

What this means in practice is that Taupo has a huge lake, and plenty of geothermal activity around. On a clear day you can see the smoking Te Maari crater across the lake, and there are the almost scaldingly hot thermal springs that I spent Christmas Day luxuriating in. It’s a beautiful spot, although a little daunting when you stop and think about it.

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Flowing from the lake is New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato. It’s beautifully clear, fast flowing, and pure enough to drink from.


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A short walk from town, the river hits the Huka Falls, a pretty spectacular set of rapids.

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In the first couple of days after arriving in Taupo, my friend working at the hostel managed to get a couple of discounted tours for me (thanks Martin!). One of these was to go out on the Fearless, a 36′ sailing ketch, with her skipper, Fearless Dave.

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It was a beautiful sunny day when I went out on the lake. Dave passed out beers to those who wanted one, and we cruised out into the blue.

The other main sailing boat on Lake Taupo, the Barbary.

The other main sailing boat on Lake Taupo, the Barbary.

After an hour or so of sailing we reached our destination – The Maori Rock Carvings. Only accessible from the water, these were created in the late 1970s and stand an impressive 10 meters up from the water.

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They are carved in the likeness of Ngatoroirangi, a legendary navigator who guided the Maori to the Taupo area over a thousand years ago.

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On such a hot and sunny day, it seemed like the perfect time for a swim. The water was absolutely freezing, but you soon warmed up again.

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There’s a problem with the sun here; it catches you unawares. I find that I don’t tend to burn too much when it’s really hot out. In North Queensland, or Vietnam, it would be blisteringly hot out (and very humid, so it felt hotter), but I didn’t really burn, because I compensated with suncream and staying in the shade. But when it’s cool out, I don’t really think about it, so I burn. The two worst sunburns I’ve had since I left  have been when driving a bike in Vietnam, and on the Tongariro alpine crossing. Both were because there was a cool breeze so I didn’t feel too hot and didn’t think about the sun. I think I’ve learnt my lesson now; there won’t be a third.

(The sun is actually more powerful here than it was back home too. High altitude combined with a thin ozone layer is a dangerous combination.)

Aside from getting to spend Christmas with good friends, the Tongariro alpine crossing is undeniably the highlight of the time I’ve spent in New Zealand. It is a truly spectacular walk through a region of active volcanoes. There are three main peaks, Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu, although the latter is not part of the route taken by the crossing.

Mt Ruapehu in the early morning light

Mt Ruapehu in the early morning light

No mention of possible eruptions though

No mention of possible eruptions though

I wasn’t being hyperbolic when I said the volcanoes are active. As alluded to above, the Te Mari craters of Tongariro erupted in late 2012, damaging one of the huts located 1.5 km away. Part of the track was closed to keep people away from the most dangerous area when I did the walk, and will remain so until the activity is sufficiently reduced. This meant that I had to turn around about 9 km into the walk, and retrace my path back to the start.

To do the crossing you have to take a 5:30 bus to the starting point, and are picked up and taken home again in the afternoon. I slept through both journeys. The walk was definitely worth getting up so early though. It was… well, see for yourselves.

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This is the aptly named 'Devils Staircase'.

This is the aptly named ‘Devils Staircase’.

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This is the soda springs falls. They absolutely stink of sulphur

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That's Te Mari crater smoking away behind Blue Lake

That’s Te Mari crater smoking away behind Blue Lake

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Standing on the peak of Mt Tongariro, with Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu in the background. Also featuring the same shirt I wore to climb up Huashan in China. COINCIDENCE?? Yep.

Standing on the peak of Mt Tongariro, with Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu in the background. Also featuring the same shirt I wore to climb up Huashan in China. COINCIDENCE?? Yep.

Look familiar? Mt Ngauruhoe was used as Mt Doom in The Lord of The Rings

Look familiar? Mt Ngauruhoe was used as Mt Doom in The Lord of The Rings

By doing the crossing, I learnt a few important lessons.
1. Wear sunscreen when climbing mountains
2. Don’t fall asleep in the midday sun while waiting for a bus
3. When spending a full day walking, it might be a good idea to pack more than a banana and cereal bar for sustenance
4. New Zealand is incredibly beautiful, with a stunning landscape perfect for hiking through.

Back in Taupo, and after the madness of Christmas and New Year had passed, I decided it was about time to go get a job. I’d heard mixed things from friends – some not finding work after weeks, some picking it up very easily – so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was probably sheer luck, but the very day I decided to take a couple of CVs around and see what I could find, I was given a job. Starting that very evening.

So for the past three weeks, I’ve been working in a nice restaurant in the center of town. Mostly as a waiter, but with a little bar work and cleaning thrown in. Something I haven’t done since I was 17, and harder than I was expecting it to be. I’m getting the hang of it now though, and actually quite enjoy it. The restaurant only opens in the evenings, which means that my hours are unfortunately quite limited, so I should really start looking for a morning job.

I was offered a room in the flat above the restaurant too, so I’m now sharing that with an Irish couple. It’s a nice place, with a huge living room and a sun deck. Most importantly, it means I get my own space again. I don’t mind living in hostels; it’s a great way to meet some awesome people and they are often really nice places. But it’s not until you get away from people coming into your room drunk at 3am, getting up to leave at 5am, hogging the shower, crowding the kitchen, having that exact same conversation over and over again (Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going next?), that you realise just how bloody annoying that can get.

So far, I really like New Zealand. It’s very similar to Australia (although don’t say that too loudly over here). Things cost about the same (nominally. That is, something that costs $5 there probably costs about $5 here too), although the NZ dollar is weaker, and wages are lower. The culture is very similar too, with the same sorts of tv/bars/music.

People seem friendlier, on the whole, than over in Australia though. Recently, I’ve been given discounts on things because I vaguely knew people, been invited to dinner by strangers and been offered the use of someones car if I wanted it because I used it to drive them home after a night of drinking one time. Not that I didn’t meet some amazing people in Australia who open their homes and hearts to me, but Australia also seemed to have rougher edges.

The natural world in New Zealand is phenomenal too, as evidenced above. This temperate climate is the closest I’ve experienced to England since I left there, all those months ago. It’s actually kind of a relief to get out of the sweltering heat of the tropics and back to something that feels more normal.

So, all in all, New Zealand is awesome. And I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of the country; There’s so much more to explore!

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One Response to Taupo and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

  1. Laura says:

    I like that I now know about the places you are visiting! And yes, Kiwi’s are really friendly. Carly and I were invited by a couple we met in the Northlands to stay in their own little campsite (the caravanning club are like a secret society who have their own secret network of campsites- bit weird but handy). We turned up, got invited to dinner, sat down with wine to eat said dinner, at which point they asked us what our names were. And then they bbq’d us lots of meat and gave me free avocados. Best. People. Ever.

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