Tongariro Crossing

We arrived in Auckland, New Zealand at the end of March, but did not stick around long. We knew we would be returning the van and catching our flight here after our roadtrip, and that we had to ‘beat’ the incoming winter by shooting straight to the south of the South Island. Just enough time to get used to this new country, culture and environment, collect our van, stock up on food, and we left the big city, South-bound. More on our time in Auckland in the last NZ post!

The North Island is huge just in itself, there was no way we could drive straight to Wellington to catch the ferry. So we decided to stop halfway to do what we do best, hiking. We chose the Tongariro Crossing, said to be NZ’s best day hike, which is saying something! We didn’t see much on the road as it was raining all the way, even as we got to gigantic Lake Taupo, which in itself is a destination to be explored: hot water springs, water sports, hiking, kayaking, rock paintings.

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The bad weather, which would follow us for a good part of our trip, kept us van-bound in the closest free camp we could find. We took advantage of the down-time to get over our jet lag and catch up on the blog. We found the camp on the free offline Camper Mate app, which we had been told about in South America, and which, with its review of legal camps, tourist attractions and hikes, and tips for obtaining electricity, showers and wifi, turned out to be alot more useful to us than our Lonely Planet! This free camp was pretty good as far as they go. Thanks to its cooking shelter, we met more people here, over meals being prepared and eaten out of the pouring rain, than in any other camp to follow. Our new aquaintances were mostly German, as well as a Chilean, Diego, who we reminisced about our travels in Chile with, and who had been picked up by a French girl, Marleen, while hitch-hiking, which was his plan for travelling in NZ. We played cards and drank beer with the Germans, who shared their travel plans with us (see map below). Apart from not starting in Christshurch (which, in hindsight, we should have done to save on time an fuel), we would adopt the same itinirary for our South Island trip.

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With Diego and Marleen, we went to the public swimming pool in town for a hot swim and shower, before spending the afternoon at Turangi Library working on the blog (again!). We especially liked the message on this van parked outside the swimming pool: ‘Home is where you park it!’. Fitting to our new mode of travel, way of life even, as van-campers. Or camper-vanners?! This van’s deco looked a lot nicer than ours, which has a huge red 6-penis-shapped-fingered hand on the bonnet!

2 days later, the weather cleared. We had made car-sharing plans so we could all do the 17km Crossing together, and only 1-way. It was still dark and misty when we started the steep ascent: it would be a long day with over 1000m altitude difference to climb up (and then back down again). The mist soon cleared giving way to the first of a series of stunning views in store for us today, and rewarding our tired legs. We walked passed the foot of the towering Ngauruhoe Volcano, also known as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies, before crossing a flat, moon-like desert of volcanic ash, the setting of evil-mongering Mordor.

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The mist returned just in time for our ascent of Mt Tongariro, from the top of which we saw nothing more than cloud and dust. The sun reappeared on our way down, reveiling spectacular colours: rusty-red iron sand, black volcanic rock and white sulfur speckled across the lanscape between patches of parched yellow grass and grey lakes as flat as glass.

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A few sights to remember: this cavernous steam-spewing crevace which we decided to name the ‘Devil’s Vagina!’, and these iconic emerald green lakes which reminded us of the Altiplano Lakes in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. We explored their hot steamy banks at lunch, admiring the change in colours as the clouds passed.

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The descent was just as spectacular, but very different. Bright sunshine, grassland and semi-tropical forests, and deep blue lakes in the distance. A beautiful hike with great company, we couldn’t stop talking the whole way, we almost forgot to take pictures!

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We found the hike easier than expected too, as the path is in great condition, often built up as steps and wooden or metallic walkways when the terrain gets rough, very different to any hikes we’d been on in South America! There were also a lot of people, surprising for such a strenuous hike, and so late in the tourist season, but we would soon learn that in New Zealand, places of great beauty are always shared with many people!

After being dropped off at the van and saying goodbyes to our new friends, we drove by night to the closest free camp before Wellington, to catch up on lost time. Tomorrow, we would catch the ferry to the South Island.

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