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Monday, 30 April 2007

Tongariro: A Volcanic Wonderland in New Zealand - Page 3

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We trudge across the arid crater, the cinnamon-brown land around us barren except for the occasional boulder. If it weren’t for the infrequent drone of a plane overhead and the steady line of hikers wending their way ahead of and behind us, it might be possible to imagine that we’re on Mars. We’re not quite that far away, but coming from the cold and snowy Northeastern United States, it’s a place that feels equally exotic to my husband and me. We are in the South Crater, part of the renowned Tongariro Crossing at Tongariro National Park in New Zealand.

Legend has it that an ancient Maori high priest, climbing to the top of one of the peaks at Tongariro, was dismayed to be caught in a snowstorm and prayed to Hawaiki, the traditional Polynesian homeland of the Maori, for warmth. The response was a volcanic burst of fire from under the ground. The volcanoes at Tongariro are part of what is now known as the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” which cuts a swath across the North Island of New Zealand and includes the popular tourist destination of Rotorua.

Mt. Ruapehu is the third volcano at Tongariro, and it’s tallest at 2797 meters. It has two ski fields, making it heavily visited in winter as well as summer. Scientists monitor Ruapehu carefully, given that it is the most recently active peak on the North Island. Two significant eruptions happened at Ruapehu in 1995 and 1996. And, a mere three weeks after our visit, the crater lake at the top of Ruapehu burst through the loosely packed volcanic rubble that formed its walls. The result was a massive quantity of mud and water, called a lahar, flowing like a river of wet concrete down its eastern slope. Fortunately, due to an early warning system, no one was harmed.volcano

If you plan a multi-day visit to Tongariro, the park offers many shorter day hikes to beautiful waterfalls and panoramic views. The Silica Rapids walk follows a cascading stream that has been colored by deposits of aluminum silicate leaching out of the mineral-rich volcanic soil. The streambed at the top of the rapids looks almost surreal, as if someone had dumped a huge vat of creamy yellow kitchen paint into the water. Lake Rotopounamu is another special place, nestled in the side of Mt. Pihanga and surrounded by a verdant ring of old native bush.

Lodging is available both within and outside of the park. We stayed at a backpacker hostel in National Park, a quiet little village to the west of the park’s border that seems to exist primarily to accommodate the hordes of people who come from all over the world to visit the volcanoes. Within the park, a cluster of accommodations at Whakapapa Village is used mainly in winter by people who come to ski the slopes of Mt. Ruapehu. Higher-class lodging is available at the Grand Chateau at the base of Ruapehu. Or, you can stay nearby in Ohakune or Raetihi, outside the southern tip of the park.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation’s web site: contains information about Tongariro National Park. Numerous other web sites advertise area lodging and Tongariro Crossing tours. Lord of the Rings fans would be interested to know that Nguaruhoe was featured as Mount Doom in the movie trilogy. Several tour operators offer Lord of the Rings tours which include Tongariro.

Text ©Ellen Vliet Cohen

Photos ©Russ Cohen and Ellen Vliet Cohen

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