There is a cleanness to the air found in mountains; a fresh taste. This freshness can bring both the snows that cover the peaks and the rains that obscure them. Rains turn to fogs and clouds, so that the vistas to been seen from the peeks can only be momentarily glimpsed. Their elevation has drawn many men to seek the highest vantage points.
I have always loved mountains. Either looking up to their framing of the valleys below or being able to stand on their summits and view the distant vistas they offer. New Zealand has offered some of the most amazing mountains I have seen outside the ski fields of Europe and I share with you now some of those discoveries here.
North Island – Mount Tongariro
Mount Tongariro is actually an entire volcanic complex and World Heritage site. It is located 10 miles southwest of Taupo, and comprised of three active volcanoes dominating the landscape of the central North Island. We first saw the complex from the van on our arrival at lake Taupo. Its snow caped peeks were visible in the far distance over the lake above the shoreline. The park itself is roughly split into two parts. The main mountain town of Whakapapa is half way into the mountains and the base of the ski fields that sit atop its leading road. It has all levels of accommodation and comfort but we made tracks straight for the DOC campsite that sits between the road and a river. The average DOC site is a simple affair, but this one was much more. It had hot water – one of the few! – powered sites, a laundrette and a shop. All unlikely findings in a DOC camp. It also had one of the greatest views in the world.
Or at least it should have…
The fog was in the day we arrived and not a mote let alone a mountain could be seen.
“There is actually a mountain around here?” Cesca asked the DOC shopping assistant as he took our camp fee’s.
He laughed, “Yes, usually, its the big one just behind this building. You’ll see it tomorrow!”
We did see it the next day… through the incessantly strong rain.
The DOC have a large information centre in the middle of Whakapapa that dispenses advice about the famous Tongariro Crossing. This crossing is actually part of a much harder 5 day walk around the base of the entire mountain range. It is famous for two reasons, firstly it is possible – and recommended – to do the crossing in one day, making the walk the most tramped in the country. The other reason is that because of the numbers of walkers (sometimes 2000 a day) many people drastically underestimate the difficulty. High alpine walking is always dangerous as the weather is very very changeable. The DOC info-centre has a sign board keeping the scores; 5 rescues, 2 broken limbs and 1 death already this year. Given the numbers that undertake the crossing this was not a high percentage, but it was perhaps the reason for the moodiness of the DOC official at the info desk. I asked her the weather and she almost sighed,
“Have you got mountain gear, ice axes and crampons?” she asked.
“Then its not possible today”
“How about guided?” I asked.
“There will be no guides who can take you, the weather is too bad”
She gave me a stern look, but I merely shrugged.
“Never mind then, we will do another walk, perhaps the waterfall.”
I moved off to the side and the very next man in the line – who had overheard all of this – said,
“What is the weather like today?”
The lady sighed again… She probably answered this question many many times a day.
So instead of the crossing, we walked the fantastic waterfall route through the base of the mountains. This was a 3 hours walk around a loop of very varied landscapes and well worth the effort. Across the remains of prior volcanic flows we walked, over fast running rivers, past amazing plants and wildlife. As for the falls themselves; they were lovely. High in the distance the mountain played hide and seek with us and our cameras.
The crossing remained impossible the next day and so gave up on it and moved on to the other side of the mountain and Ohakune; another small village at the base of a road leading up to a ski field. There we undertook the 3 hour Waitonga Falls walk. This was another notable walk that passed many different types of view and terrain. After a climb it opened over a sunken lava flow, which had a long snaking walkboard placed up on it. It was a very clear day and we had great view of the mountains to our left as we crossed.
At the end of that section we again entered a forest and walked down for about 30 minutes before the path came to a end at a fast running river. This river was fed by the large and beautiful Waitonga Falls. But from our vantage point we couldn’t really see it as it was obscured by trees. Cesca then had a brainwave and finding some timber (presumably put there to be built into a continuing path) threw it across the waters. I looked at it balancing on two rocks. Han Solo’s words came back to me;
“I have a bad feeling about this!”
Falling in would not mean drowning (probably) but would certainly screw my camera and mean a one and half hour walk back while wet. I placed a foot on the board, drew a breath and ran across. The board twisted with my weight and then slipped!
I just made it. Looking at the boards new position – it had somehow not fallen in – I knew that it would be a big challenge to get back.
But the better view was definitely worth it with the sun in a perfect position to highlight the spray coming off the rocks. We stayed for lunch whilst we looked at the possibility of getting back over the river. In the end we just went for it and my left foot only got a little wet, which was very lucky!
South island is almost one giant mountain range. Or at least that’s how it felt to me driving around it. We drove up to Tekapo, which lives at the base of the mountain, through the wilderness of Burke Pass. This leads up to a large beautiful lake surrounded on all sides by mountains and forests. On one edge is the closest of these; Mount John. Atop this stands the Earth & Sky Observatory, which is New Zealand’s largest and most impressive. By this point in our journey we were joined by Francesca’s older sister Arabella and had picked up a small camper to squeeze ourselves into. Arabella has more get up and go than perhaps her small size belies. It was the work of a few moments for her to have found a bike hire shop and have hatched the plan of getting to the top of the mountain where there lay a nice cafe in the observatory. The bike hire guy gave us an appraising look,
“Bike much?” he asked.
“Not many mountains in the UK, but I do bike around Epping forest. I have a Marin and Cesca has a Specialized Rockhopper” I answered.
He nodded, “Cool, ok you can take these two for the ladies and you yourself can have my bike.”
He wheeled out a very nice bike and I eagerly jumped aboard. Then he gave us some advice about tackling the mountain,
“Head out along the rivers edge,” he said pointing to my map, “then it gets a little steep.” He looked at me. “Then it gets bloody steep and you’ll have to walk for a few hundred meters until you meet the main road heading up the mountain. From there its a ride to the top.”
We started the journey as proscribed by zooming down through town and passed the campsite at the mountains base. Thence we were into the track leading around the lake.
The colour of the water amazing. Still waters here all exhibit some levels of volcanic residue and this lends the most beautiful spectrum of colours and hues. I had often thought that – in this photo shopped world – New Zealand could not be the colours the adverts portray, but I was wrong. It is. The greens of trees and fields are brighter than in the UK, the blues of waters and lakes are either crystal clear or a wonderful mixture of blue and cyan. Mountains are many shades of white and silver.
We made our way up to the road. This was as windy as hell and made the ride up to the top quite dangerous and almost impossible as the many winding turns all played close to a serious drop off. However, once to the top we all found the challenge had been worth it. The top of the mount breaks into a collection of domes that house the telescopes. These were amongst a low set of buildings and, up a small wooden path, the cafe. This was a fantastic place to have lunch and we tucked into our scroggin’, which was much deserved after all that exercise. We eventually ran out of scroggin’ and so went inside to have a coffee. Our server turned out to be a university student who was one of the guides for the nightly star gazing tour. I love star gazing and the chance to gaze through telescopes of that magnitude was not to be missed. We signed up to the 10pm tour.
Coming down from Mount John was a contrast to riding up and took mere minutes on the tarmac road all the way down. At one point I got up to 55Kph on my odometer – breaking the speed limit! We then rode around the base via the road and back into town to hand the bikes back.
That night we met up with the bus in town that took us up to the observatory. Lights are banned at night due to the work of the telescopes, which are looking for new planets around distant stars. We were driven up the same dangerous road that we had biked that day in total darkness. We all exchanged worried looks but our Japanese driver had the measure of the feat. Atop we had a fantastic glance through the lens towards such delights as the Tarantula Nebula and Jupiter (I could count the brown rings!). For me – perhaps more than for the others – this was a magical visit. After – I swapped news of the possible discovery of Dark Matter (which I had read in New Scientist that morning) with the staff.
This tale of New Zealand mountains has saved the best till last. Mount Cook is the highest mountain in the country and a famous sight with its curved peak. Generations of Kiwis have visited the mountains base, which is all DOC controlled parks, and wondered how you could possibly climb such a large mountain? One such brave soul was Sir Edmund Hillary who used the Cook as a practice for the big push up Everest. It is set amongst other large mountains all carved by the many glaciers that have retreated up the valley.
Getting to the park is good looking enough as you have to drive along lake Pukaki. This lake is stupendously large and leads into one of my favourite parts of New Zealand. Its amazing colour being a natural part of its glacial beginnings.
As any self respecting fan of the Lord of the Rings movie will tell you; the film’s climatic battle between the forces of Humanity and the Orcs of Mordor happens outside the gates of the city of Gondor. Here the wizard Gandalf leads the Gondorians to defend their white city against 50 thousand Orcs and worse that are hammering at the gates. It is here that the people of Rohan ride their 8000 horses down the mountain side to lift the cities’ siege. It is a great moment in the film and it was filmed in this valley:
The Pelennor Fields themselves!
Once up to the small town of Mount Cook Village we ran into a serious rain storm and so spent the day investigating the Sir Edmund Hillary museum, which is based in the local hotel. It had a short movie playing tribute to the Everest climb as well as the actual snow vehicles he used to race across the south pole. Surrounding all this were many books written about the great man and smaller exhibits of his equipment. Also on site was a small 3D cinema, which showed an interesting film about the stars (that the girls fell asleep in!) and a really cool movie about climbing the mountains (which used 3D glasses). All in all, the museum was worth the visit – especially on a wet day – and got us all fired up about the possibilities of visiting the mountain.
The DOC information site here was especially large and took bookings for the many backcountry huts one can visit in this area. It surprises me that DOC are so happy for people to just go wandering off into serious mountain wilds, but I guess this is the Kiwi way of things. If you get lost and die, well, you were at least warned and given all the information you could have needed. Arabella loves information sites like this and we spent 30 minutes or so checking that the walk we had planned was the best possible use of our time.
Braving the rain again we hunkered down at the local DOC camp site – at the start of the walk – and awaited the morning with the hope of a clear view. When I awoke I tore back the curtains to see that our wait had not been in vain:
The walk up to the best view of the mountain is 4 hours easy. known as the hooker Valley walk it meanders up the side of a river, crossing it once, and passed all sorts of special geological features. We packed up lots of water, food and scroggin’ and got going. Amazingly we received a phone reception on the walk and so I was able to call my brother back in London and describe the view. As if my words would be enough. I have felt small against the backdrop of nature before, but the extreme wilderness of this walk was intimidating as much as it was heaven.
It was about an hour into the walk before the river turned to face Cook itself, lending us a photo opportunity not to be missed.
The mountain holds sway over all others in this range as if it is lord over them. Its great height is almost all in the face and so it imposes just as much as Everest would do. As we regarded it, its peak was constantly being hidden and revealed by fast moving clouds. Surely at the top it must be intensely windy!
Our final destination was the iceberg rich lake at the base of the retreating glacier. This opened up the view and gave us breathtaking vistas of the clouds playing across Cook. It was almost impossible to take a bad photo and even the iPhone’s 2 megapixel camera managed this shot:
We sat there and ate our lunch while gazing at the mountain. To our right some kids played a game of trying to hit the small floating icebergs with the shore stones. Eventually we went up to the glacial edge by wading through a scrabble of stones and pebbles, the pile up of which is the slope wall of the lake. I found there some fantastic flat pebbles and took the opportunity to demonstrate my life-long passion for skimming stones.
This was not my first time at seeing a glacier, after all I have skied on top of three or four in Europe – but it was my first time of seeing the end wall of one. They are extremely dirty at the ends – the mud and rock being crushed by its slithering splays across its face like chocolate cake on the face of a small child – but you could still sense the strength that bends nature to its will and carves whole ranges in its passing. After seeing it I was looking forwards to visiting Fox glacier (a coming post).
Finally, having eaten our fill and taken our time – we started back along the path, back towards the starting point of our day. Many a rearwards glance to Cook and many stops to take reflection photos in the pools lining the river broke the journey.
However, I arrived back at the van both tired and happy.
The next day was great sunny weather and we headed back along the road we had driven up and thence off into the East of New Zealand. Leaving the mountain behind us we could see it for miles and miles such was the clarity of the weather.
I think Cook was my favourite mountain visit and one of my highlights of the entire journey to this wonderfully wild and very big country.