Crowned by sacred mountains and active volcanoes, studded with primeval rainforest and its signature red tussock grass, cut by rushing rivers as clear as cellophane, Tongariro National Park reaches out and sucks you in, like a world unto itself. It’s no wonder that Tongariro was the first national park to be declared in New Zealand and the sixth in the world.
I recently enjoyed a spring fling with the Ruapehu District, suitably subjected to all four seasons over the course of a few days, while grazing from its abundant buffet of outdoorsy offerings. At National Park, I hooked up with one of the region’s most seasoned pros in alpine guiding, Stewart Barclay from Adrift Tongariro Guiding. 20 years ago, while climbing the Andes to 20,000 feet, he had an epiphany, deciding to turn his career to adventure guiding – and he hasn’t looked back.
The headline hike is unquestionably the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, deserving of its reputation as New Zealand’s greatest one-day trek. Pre-Covid, Stewart’s core client base were international visitors, with most Kiwis opting to do the walk, unguided. (And yes, some do foolishly strike out in jandals and shorts.) But whether you want to do it DIY-style, or as a guided experience, it’s destined to be a hummer this summer, with Kiwis savouring the novelty of having the crossing to ourselves.
Spanning 19.4kms, with an altitude change of nearly 900 metres, the crossing is like a cross-hatch of New Zealand alpine and sub-alpine scenery, including a glacial valley, mountain springs, old lava flows, active craters, hissing steam vents, emerald coloured lakes and horizon-wide seraphic views at every turn. I love how beautifully raw and textured the landscape is, while the colour spectrum is equally bewitching, from Red Crater to Blue Lake.
Many viewpoints look other-worldly, whether it be lunar or Martian. No alpine experience is required, you don’t have to be a mountain goat, but a reasonable level of fitness is required. And leave the jandals for the beach. If you plump for a guided summer hike, Adrift Tongariro Guiding can kit you out with suitable clothing and footwear, an energy-loaded lunch and snacks, return transfers from Whakapapa and National Park villages, plus the commanding expertise, story-telling and insights of a professional guide.
Plus, the summer trips are tailored at getting you away from the crowds, which can sometimes resemble a Sherpa line, rather than a blissed-out wilderness hike. Adrift Outdoors offer a wealth of other guided trips, from the full-day Ruapehu Crater Lake Walk to the 3 Day Northern Circuit Trek. You’ll be in the best hands, every step of the way. www.adriftnz.co.nz
Stewart opened my eyes to a stack of short and sweet walks within Tongariro National Park that should top your check-list. A local favourite is the stroll around Lake Rotopounamu, a 5km circular track, wrapped by native forest and adored by twitchers and tree-huggers. So named for its greenstone hue, the lake fills a crater nestled into the western side of Mount Pihanga. Formed by a landslide 10,000 years ago, what makes the forest so arresting is its trove of primeval podocarps. This stand of forest is true survivor, because it wasn’t in the pyroclastic flow zone of Taupo’s last eruption, 1800 years ago. The lake itself is a moody little temptress. Wreathed in wispy mist rising above the water, the morning theatrics from the weather gods add to the drama on my hike.
There’s two stirring encounters with 19th century Māori history, embodied in our national story. Make tracks to Te Pōrere Redoubt, where the last major battle of the New Zealand Wars played out, in the shadow of Tongariro, 151 years ago. This was a defensive position ineptly adapted by the prophet and warrior Te Kooti, on a European redoubt. Te Kooti was defeated by a combined force of Armed Constabulary and Māori fighters ‘from all points of the compass’. Although 37 of his followers were killed and he lost the middle fingers of his left hand, Te Kooti did manage to avoid capture by escaping into the nearby bush. The earthworks of the Māori fortification are well worth visiting.
Just a few minutes away on the Volcanic Loop Highway, call into the historic Opotaka Pa site edges Lake Rotoaira. Soak up the superb view of a small round-top island that appears to float on the lake’s soft blue, mirror-like surface. It was at this settlement that Ngati Toa chief, Te Rauparaha, sought refuge on his long trek from Waikato to his raiding base on Kapiti Island. It was here that he performed the iconic Ka Mate haka for the first time, after hiding in a kumara pit, while the local chief’s wife sat on top of it, nonchalantly weaving flax, safeguarding him from a hostile war party trying to intercept him. History unplugged!
Close to Chateau Tongariro, the Tawhai Falls walk is a cracker, leading you through mountain toatoa and beech forest to a pristine waterfall of tumbling over the edge of an ancient lava flow. It’s one of two waterfalls used in Lord of the Rings that depicted Gollum fishing, hence its nickname is Gollum’s Pool. (Mangawhero Falls, close to Ohakune, is the other cascade used as a location for Gollum fishing.)
A two-hour return walk for even grander waterworks is the 6km hike to Taranaki Falls. Passing through a mix of tussock, alpine shrublands and beech forest, the track wraps around the lower slopes of Ruapehu, with sight-inducing views of Ngauruhoe’s symmetrical cone. A flock of native birds, including whiteheads and grey warblers, serenaded my stroll all the way to Taranaki Falls, tumbling 20 metres over the edge of a large andesite lava flow which erupted from Ruapehu 15,000 years ago.
Just across the road from Tawhai Falls, the fabulous Mounds Walk is a close encounter with debris avalanches during Ruapehu’s periods of volcanic activity. That’s what formed these mysterious looking mounds thousands of years ago, that fan out across the volcanic plain’s rich carpet of sub-alpine red tussock grass. The top of the track offers the full panorama of the national park’s volcanoes. Time your walk for twilight, because sunset across these mounds is absolutely striking.
Heading up to Whakapapa Village, the upper slopes of Ruapehu gleamed like Mr Whippy’s finest, after an overnight spring snow dump. The ski season has just finished, but Ruapehu’s summertime menu of pastimes has been spectacularly accentuated by the year-old Sky Waka gondola that whisks you up to the top of Whakapapa ski field and New Zealand’s highest restaurant, The Pinnacles. Summer sightseeing begins from December 12. Housed in the newly fashioned Knoll Ridge Chalet, you can also enjoy a light bite or drink at Pataka Café and The Back Bar.
Zipping you up to over 2000 metres at up to six metres per second, Sky Waka is swaddled in luxury comfort, with floor to ceiling windows. The leather seats were designed by renowned Italian designer Pininfarina, who is contracted to Ferrari. As I travelled up the mountain, I gawped down at ancient lava flows and a gushing waterfall, while Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro competed for attention. On a clear day, the banished one, Mt Taranaki can be seen looming on the western horizon.
Fuelled and fortified on food and drink, you’ve got two tantalising walks that start from the top of the Sky Waka. The Skyline Walk is a 3 hour return affair, taking you another 300 metres higher to Skyline Ridge, for jaw-dropping panoramas as far as Lake Taupō. If you’re feeling virtuous, instead of riding down Sky Waka, walk a similar route on the 90 minute Waterfall Descent track, for an intimate encounter with those ancient lava flows, lahars and the rocky volcanic terrain. Back down at Whakapapa’s base area, the Meads Wall track is a 30 minute return walk, where several scenes from Lord of the Rings were shot. www.skywaka.co.nz
The cherry on top of my time in Tongariro National Park was a night of pampered indulgence at the Chateau Tongariro. Greeting you with the warm and welcome embrace of an old-school friend, she’s been a trusty, abiding beacon of supreme alpine hospitality for nearly a century. What I’ve always loved about the Chateau is she’s gracious and elegant without being stuffy.
She knows how to party, she’s effervescent and celebratory, but always a class act. Gazing dreamily out the Ngauruhoe Window in the Ruapehu Lounge, could you wish for a more drool-worthy perch for one of New Zealand’s greatest high tea experiences? Dining in the Ruapehu Restaurant is an equally decorated affair, whether it’s their head-turning buffet breakfast service, complete with chocolate fountain, or savouring signature New Zealand cuisine at dinner.
For my main, I plumped for the snapper dish, which was beyond divine. If you’ve dreamed of luxuriating overnight in this grand dame, snap up some sizzling deals on offer for summer. The Chateau sports a variety of accommodation options, whether you want to stay in a standard room or heritage room or Tongariro spa suite, but their room rates for two people currently start from just $99 a night – an absolute steal.
Push the boat out and lock in a Celebration Package, which combines accommodation with free internet, chocolates and sparkling wine on arrival to your room, full breakfast and a 3 course set menu dinner in Ruapehu Restaurant. Exceptionally friendly and attentive staff ensure this legendary hotel keeps purring with distinction. www.chateau.co.nz
The drama and grandeur of the Ruapehu District has undeniably evolved into a year-round wonderland for outdoorsy adventure, with experiences that cater for all age ranges and abilities. Make your first stop the region’s official website. www.visitruapehu.com
I flew to Wellington with Jetstar to Auckland, when you can score even sweeter deals with a Club Jetstar membership. The programme offers travellers access to special ‘member only’ fares, 20% discount on baggage and seat selection products, and early access to the biggest sales. Bag a bargain fare deal and seat to suit at www.jetstar.co.nz
I picked up my Avis rental car from Wellington Airport to free-roam the central North Island. The Avis Safety Pledge allows customers to pick up and drop off vehicles with minimal contact. This has been complemented with the recent launch of the Digital Check In option, dramatically speeding-up time at the counter. For risk-free bookings, select the Pay at Counter option. You can change or cancel, without fees, any rental reservations in New Zealand due to start before 1 March 2021. Plus, get up to 10% off your rental for all prepay bookings made before 20 December and sign up to the Avis newsletter to score a free upgrade. www.avis.co.nz