Historic Chateau Tongariro – sleeping on a volcano

On our recent trip to Tongariro National Park, we treated ourselves to a night at an historic New Zealand hotel, as a celebration of a successful final year at school and making it through 2020.

The Chateau Tongariro is New Zealand’s only 4-star hotel located in a World Heritage area, tucked at the base of one active volcano and within ash-spitting distance of two others. The following history of the hotel is mainly based on a booklet available at the hotel: Legends & Stories of Bayview Chateau Tongariro (www.chateau.co.nz). All historic images were sourced from the endlessly-fascinating collections at our National Library (https://natlib.govt.nz).

Tongariro National Park is the fourth oldest national park in the world, established in 1894. The Chateau dates back to the 1920s, which shows in some of the décor elements, though the overall Georgian-style channels ‘European alpine resort’ more than art-deco. It must have been a challenge to build, sitting in the middle of the wilderness on a high plateau with winter snow and poor roads.

Credits: (1) New Zealand Railways. Publicity Branch. New Zealand Railways. Publicity Branch: Chateau Tongariro National Park; best reached by rail. Issued by the Publicity Branch, N.Z. Railways. N.Z. Railways Studios. [Printed by] C.S.W. Ltd, N.Z. [ca 1932]. Ref: Eph-E-TOURISM-ca-1932-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23083829. (2) Chateau Tongariro, and Mount Ruapehu erupting behind. Davis, Bruce Valentine, 1913-2003 :Photographs and negatives. Ref: 35mm-00702-a-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22757948

The first skiing on the mountain was recorded in 1913. Presumably most of the early guests travelled on the main trunk railway, which passes near the park. After two decades of hard grind and engineering feats, the ‘last spike’, of polished silver, was driven nearby by the Prime Minister in 1908. The rail journey can still be done today, in much greater comfort, and is well worth the time. We took the train to National Park in winter a few years ago; a relaxing way to get to the ski-field. www.greatjourneysofnz.co.nz

The war years were an interesting period in the Chateau’s history. With travel for pleasure no longer possible, the hotel was requisitioned for the patients of the psychiatric hospital at Porirua, which had been damaged in the 1942 earthquake. The fresh air and splendid surroundings must have done wonders for the mental health of the patients. Unfortunately, the 1945 eruption of Mt Ruapehu put an end to what must surely have been the most luxurious hospital in New Zealand.

The hotel is fixed in my own memory as a place of fairy-tale splendour, after staying there as a child. All my other childhood holidays involved sharing an ancient canvas tent with family at various beach and lakeside campgrounds, so the elegant décor, grand lounges, chandeliers and high ceilings of the Chateau really made an impression. I don’t think I’d ever eaten in a restaurant before, let alone stayed in an hotel.

Going back after so long risked disappointment, but it was just as magnificent as I remembered. The room even had a ‘pillow menu’, so one could select the optimum comfort for a good night’s rest after an active day.

With overseas tourists shut out of New Zealand, the rooms were reasonably priced and the number of visitors sparse enough that we scored the prime dining table by the ‘Ngauruhoe Window”, a huge 3m by 3m picture window framing the volcano of ‘Mt Doom’ (Lord of the Rings movie) fame. What a view it would be during one of Ngauruhoe’s occasional eruptions!

Credit: People in a lounge at Chateau Tongariro with Mount Ngauruhoe visible through the window – Photograph taken by Leslie Hinge. New Zealand Railways: Photographs. Ref: 1/1-003889-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23154729

All-in-all a special trip and a great way to end the year.

Whatever you are up to this holiday season, I wish you all the best for the New Year. My thoughts go out particularly to those who cannot be with loved ones or enjoy the delights of travel. Fingers crossed for a successful vaccine rollout. And finally, thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog in 2020.

Happy reading, Rose

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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