East Coast and the Volcanic Zone Feature
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Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park is the oldest national park in New Zealand and the largest on the North Island. Gifted to the nation by the Ngati Tuwharetoa people in 1887, this stunning mountainous region provided much of the dramatic scenery for the Lord of the Rings films.
The park has a spectacular combination of dense forest, wild open countryside, crater lakes, barren lava fields, and rock-strewn mountain slopes. Its rugged beauty and convenient location, almost in the center of the North Island, make it the most popular and accessible of New Zealand's parks. Three volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu, tower above its Central Plateau overlooking miles of untamed country that stretches to the West Coast on one side and the aptly named Desert Road on the other. The volcanoes are no sleeping giants; Tongariro is the least active, but Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu have both erupted in recent years. In 1995, 1996, and again in 2007, Ruapehu spewed ash, created showers of rock, and released lahars (landslides of volcanic debris) that burst through the walls of the crater lake.
Best Time to Go
The best chance for decent weather is November to the end of March. Keep in mind, however, that even during the summer the weather can feel like four seasons in one day, ranging from hot and sunny to cool and rainy, and even snowy at higher elevations. In the winter months cold alpine conditions are not uncommon. The busiest time is between Christmas and New Year. Suitable clothing should always be carried and sensible footwear worn.
Hiking and Tramping
The Tongariro Alpine Track has been described as the best one-day walk in the world. Approach it with the expectation that sudden changes of weather, even during summer, are always possible. There are numerous other tracks covering the area and various types of accommodations, from cheap backpacker campgrounds to lodges to at least one first-class hotel. Most of these will organize transport to get the keen walkers to places where hikes can vary from an hour to several days. The longer tracks will have huts to provide basic overnight stopovers.
Horses were brought to New Zealand by white settlers in 1814, and within a few years mobs of feral horses were common. A herd known as the Kaimanawa Wild Horses established itself on the Central Plateau, virtually under the eastern shadow of Mount Ruapehu. For a number of years they have been confined to a protected area, and travelers often catch a glimpse of these horses from Desert Road, State Highway 1.
In the winter months, June to September (give or take a week or two), the slopes of Mount Ruapehu come to life with hundreds of skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts. On occasion the runs have to be cleared when the mountains' crater lake threatens to overflow, but this hasn't decreased the area's popularity. The combined fields of Turoa and Whakapapa form the largest ski slope in New Zealand and have brought a measure of prosperity to the one-time sleepy villages of National Park and Ohakune.
Massive and downright awesome, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu dominate from whichever direction one approaches, and the views from the Desert Road are a photographer's dream. Travel from the south on State Highway 1 on a clear day, and the first glimpse of Ruapehu as the road crests will take your breath away. Farther north on the same road, the enormous, almost perfectly truncated, cone-shaped bulk of Ngauruhoe looms alongside a series of hairpin bends.
Cruises on Lake Taupo visit local bays and modern Māori rock carvings. The Barbary is a 1920s wooden yacht believed to have once been the property of Errol Flynn. Departures are at 10:30 and 2, and summer evenings at 5 (NZ$40). Huka Falls River Cruise runs trips to the falls on the Maid of the Falls leaving from Aratiatia Dam (north of Taupo) at 10:30, 12:30, and 2:30. In the summer also at 4:30 (NZ$35).
Within Taupo, the Hot Bus is a hop-on-hop-off service that takes in all the local sights. It leaves the visitor center daily on the hour 10-3. Each attraction stop costs NZ$15, or you can get an unlimited pass for NZ$30-$35. Paradise Tours also visits the local attractions in Taupo and travels as far afield as Napier and Hawke's Bay. Tours start at NZ$99.
Tongariro Expeditions runs trips to Tongariro National Park from the Taupo visitor information center and serves the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Best Ways to Explore
Apart from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing there are numerous walking tracks that can take from an hour to a week to traverse. The Round the Mountain track and the Tongariro Northern Circuit both take several days. There is also the Ketetahi Hut track, a 13 km (8 mi) walk. It joins up with part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk (hutted) and is also part of the Tongariro Crossing track. The Mount Ruapehu Crater Climb is unmarked and should be attempted only by skilled mountaineers. All these tracks give the walker a sense of freedom and a feel for the outdoors rarely experienced in any other form of travel. Trek to, and occasionally through, the actual craters of the volcanoes and experience the thrill of mind-blowing views across vast areas of countryside, lakes, and mountains.
There are no navigable rivers within the park itself, but excellent canoeing can be found on the boundaries of the Whanganui River, the longest navigable river in New Zealand, and also some on the Whakapapa. White-water rafting, canoeing, and excellent trout fishing are available at Turangi.
On the Lookout
Like any wilderness area, Tongariro has its share of predators: stoats, weasels, ferrets, rats, mice, and wild cats exist along with hares, rabbits, and some deer. Bird watchers will enjoy the Lake Rotopounamu Walking Track on the northern side. On the western side there's the Managawhero Forest Walk and the Rimu Track to the Mangawhero Falls. On these walks you just may spot the blue duck, North Island robin, whitehead, kereru, fantail, silvereye, and chaffinch in the bush or forest-clad areas or on the waterways. On either walk it would require a night excursion (and a bit of luck) to sight the North Island Kiwi. Remember that most of the birds are found in the bush, and there is no bush on the higher reaches of the park. Above what is called the bush-line it is just bare mountainside.
The best one-day itinerary is indisputably the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The 19.4-km (12.5-mi) walk starts and finishes in different places, so make arrangements for drop-off and pickup points. Several firms and most of the lodgings will organize this at a reasonable charge. Good footwear is essential and you should carry warm clothing, even in summer. Bring food and drink because there's none to be found on the track.
The track makes its way up the Mangatepopo Valley, a reasonable incline running by a stream and old lava flows. It's a harsh environment for vegetation, but you'll spot moss and lichens and occasional wetland plants. It's a steep climb to the Mangetepopo Saddle, which lies between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, but the views on a clear day can seem endless. For the adventurous, an unmarked track leads to the top of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom if you're a Lord of the Rings fan). It's very steep and estimated to be a three-hour trip; adding this excursion requires a high level of fitness. The main track proceeds to the south crater of Tongariro to a ridge leading up Red Crater. Here you can often smell sulfur. The summit of Red Crater is the highest point of the Tongariro Track at 1,886 meters (6,120 feet). From here the track has a lot of loose stones and gravel and is extremely rough underfoot as it descends down to three smaller water-filled craters known as the Emerald Lakes (so named for their brilliant greenish color). The track then continues across Central Crater to the Blue Lake to lead across the North Crater and downhill all the way to the Ketetahi Hut, where you'll be glad to sit and take a breather. Then, hike on to the springs of the same name. The springs are on private land, which the track artfully skirts, but their steam cloud is impossible to miss. From here it's pretty much all downhill through tussock slopes to the start of the bush line and a long descent through forest to your pickup at the end. As you fall asleep in the transport (and no doubt you will!), you'll delight in the knowledge that you have accomplished something to boast about for years to come.
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