Tongariro National Park – walking on a volcano

Tongariro National Park is a mecca for geologists, tourists, hikers, skiers and Lord of the Rings movie enthusiasts. A picturesque cluster of three large volcanoes and a scattering of smaller cones, geothermal vents, bright green lakes, stunted mountain beech forest and miles of golden and red tussock on a plateau of volcanic debris. About halfway between Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand’s North Island, near the tourist hot-spot of Lake Taupo.

The largest of the volcanoes, Ruapehu, is home to two ski-fields and many wonderful walking tracks. We stayed in Whakapapa Village and did three two-hour walks: Silica Rapids, Taranaki Falls and Skyline. The first two of these are easy walks through a mix of mountain beech forest and open landscapes, including alpine bogs (with board-walks) and fields of volcanic debris and lava intrusions.

The first walk loops past Silica Rapids, a white slick formed by mineral deposits brought up from underground fissures by super-heated water.

The second loops past a waterfall and features an artistic loo-with-a-view.

The Skyline walk takes you near the top of the mountain, with stunning views north to Lake Taupo and west as far as Mt Taranaki, on a good day. The good news is that you can ride up the mountain in a gondola, the Sky Waka (www.mtruapehu.com). The bad news is that it’s still an uphill slog through ash and rock to get to the ridge, about two hours return. Wear boots, take water, and be prepared for changeable alpine conditions.

Try not to dwell on the fact that it is also an active volcano, erupting every twenty years or so (the latest in 2007), with minor volcanic activity between-times. Currently sitting at Level 1 (minor unrest) according to NZ’s natural hazard website www.geonet.org.nz, which also shows the many earthquake events that add spice to our lives here on the Pacific Plate boundary. {Update: a couple of days later, the volcanic activity alert was upgraded to Level 2, due to a rising temperature in the crater lake and tremors!}

For experienced hikers, the Tongariro Crossing is one of the best day-walks in New Zealand, traversing Mt Tongariro and passing close to the perfect cone of ash that is Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movie). One of my favourite multi-day hikes is the circuit around the mountains. The details are on the NZ Department of Conservation website www.doc.govt.nz.

Tongariro was the first national park established in New Zealand, thanks to the foresight and generosity of the local iwi, who wished to protect their sacred mountains. It is also one of only a few places in the world with Dual World Heritage status for its combination of natural and cultural values.

Definitely one for the bucket list!

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