MARK: Written in a motel room where all I can smell is bad eggs! Welcome to Rotorua, New Zealand’s Geothermal Wonderland – where the wafting smell of sulphur is never far away.
I once drew a picture of a volcano when I was six and a half. It was “pointy” in shape, grey at the bottom and towards the top had red boulders and lava spewing out of the top. On the left hand side as you looked at it there was a stick insect boy climbing up – it was me trying to see if I could put the fire out!
Mrs Todd, my teacher at Masham Church of England Primary School was very impressed and put it on the wall for all to admire. I was chuffed, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would ever get the chance to do it for real. But dreams do come true!
Art wasn’t my best subject at school. That honour went to Geography, like my father before me and now our son Joe. Handy for both Joe and I as tour operators and now for me when travelling the World.
I was rubbish at maths too. Fractions I could just about cope with. And how I scraped a Grade C Maths ‘O’ Level, only God and Mary Moss (teacher) will ever know. That said, when it comes to looking after money I am red hot. Indeed I can tell you at any one time how much money we have/haven’t got in our accounts/pension funds. Sarah’s the same. We both know exactly what the state of play is money wise and have the same values and beliefs where pounds shillings and pence are concerned. This is a real blessing on a trip like this.
I get really excited – Sarah sometimes, when we go “under budget”. I get a massive “kick” from banking money on our MASTERS spreadsheet. Every penny/cent spent is recorded and appears either as an expense for accommodation, car hire, fuel, flights, food or entertainment. Each country we visit has a specific budget. For New Zealand, after all other costs have been taken in to consideration, £73 is the amount budgeted per day to spend on entertainment/activities. That might not seem very much, but when you consider that a lot of the time we travel by car and there are so many free things to do, it is proving to be more than enough. Plus, when we go walking, or should I say training, ka-ching another £73 quid is saved.
So this week has been brilliant. Not only have we undertaken four amazing walks and got much fitter, but we have banked over £200 and achieved my childhood ambition of climbing up an active volcano, seeing a splurging mud pool and marveled at a geyser that likes washing powder. Even you would have been impressed, Neil Barton!
But please, before you run away with the idea that it has been easy time, let me assure you right away, this has been far from a “walk in the park”.
Indeed, the week got off to a really bad start. Monday was a right off weather wise and the first time on this entire trip we were unable to do what we had planned. The cloud base was low, it rained for most of the day and the temperature at the top of the mountain (according to the online weather reports) was down to 4C with wind-chill – cold for what was essentially an “August Day”. You could not see a thing even at the bottom.
Tuesday was a different proposition completely. Game on for our attempt @ The Tongariro Alpine Crossing (central North Island), held to be one of the Top Ten Day hikes in a National Park anywhere in the World.
TAC has the distinction of being a dual World Heritage site for both its natural and cultural significance. The trek crosses over the multi-cratered active volcano Mount Tongariro for 19.4 KMs (12.1 miles). Twelve miles in itself, no big deal, but the rise and fall was the real challenge for us. The route started at 1120m (3,670ft) climbed to 1886m (6,188ft) and then descended down to 760m (2490ft).
Good training for the Inca Trail…. except that little baby is 25-30kms a day for three consecutive days, the rise and fall per day is 2/3 times that of Tongariro and all this at altitudes of between 10,000-14,000ft. But we weren’t looking that far ahead. Indeed all I wanted to do was to see steaming vents, hot springs, lava flows and beautiful water filled craters. Plus of course check out the amazing views weather permitting. If we could do this within the average 7-8 hours then happy days.
The first hour was a doddle. 5kms and we nailed it. This of course not a race (according to Sarah). But it was a chance to compare our fitness levels against some serious walkers of all ages. It gave me real satisfaction to “burn off” lots of younger people in their early 20s as they meandered along looking half cut from the night before. The terrain in fairness not that challenging.
But then we turned the corner and read a sign that said if you were not fit, did not have the right equipment, could not hack it, blah blah bla, now was the time to turn round. We walked straight past it and then OMG!! Steps (over 750) and steep inclines, suddenly this was challenging.
The weather began to close in. The grey day turned damp, mizzle ruining my hair, with shafts of light only appearing every ten minutes. We walked on. I was starting to blow, but this my way of taking in oxygen to climb quickly to keep the momentum going. Meanwhile Sarah was having no problems. Over the 90 minutes since we had set off, just five people had overtaken us – we’d past a couple of hundred.
Harder and harder the route became, when suddenly I heard a north-west England accent. I thought the three ladies in their 50s were probably from Bolton, they weren’t quite, Bury was their home – they didn’t know Andy Hamer though. “Whose bloody idea was this….” said the rather stout lady at the back. We had to laugh, the throw away line was just what we needed to fire us up and get us over the top to the first plateau.
“There it is Mrs Todd” I said in my head, as 15 minutes later we had our first chance to see one of the volcanoes close up. On the right stood Mount Ngauruhoe at 2,291m. It was just as I had drawn it all those years before, the perfect schoolboy cone-shaped volcano, shrouded every few seconds by swirling cloud.
It was like walking on what I envisage the moon to be like. A flat barren landscape. Low cloud skidding across the surface created a mirage effect and every so often I was reminded of my old school chemi-lab’ as smelly sulphur jets rose into the sky adjacent to waterlogged explosion holes.
But we had no time to lose. The weather behind us was closing in rapidly. T Shirts were no good. The temperature dropped by 15C instantly, with the wind gusting to make it feel even colder.
Out came our sweat shirts and waterproof jackets. We were warm. Others less prepared shivered. One guy in sandals – seriously?
One more push, this time up the left-hand side ridge taking us to the top of our ascent. Vertigo started to kick in. Chains were tied to the side of the mountain so you could literally pull yourself up. I kept my nerve and 30 minutes later after walking the last bit on red cinders we were there. The weather was terrible one minute and then the next, wow. There was my red crater, blown out of the mountain side, as if it was an angry dragons mouth, oozing sulphur and steam deep amongst the crevices inside. Check out these shots as the sky cleared right on cue.
Time to go. We slid 500m down a 65 degree ash scree in the general direction of some beautifully coloured crater lakes.
Two kilometres across a further plateau, a short climb up the other side and we were there at the pass and all down-hill from there on in. What a beautiful downward walk in bright sunshine, heather reminding me of the Yorkshire Dales, further steam clouds rising as if produced from the cooling towers of the old Ferrybridge Power Station on the side of the A1M.
With a bound and a loo stop we were down. And down in record time – just five hours five minutes from start to finish. Result! Into the car we immediately climbed. Two and a half hours later, after driving 125 miles to our next port of call, we crawled out, stiff and unable to move. We’d done it!
Next day we needed to get rid of the stiffness and so settled on a short 6 mile walk along the banks of the beautiful Waihou River. It was like being in England again. Words wasted – the photos say it all.
And so to today (Friday). We have been in Rotorua, described earlier as NZ’s Geothermal Wonderland or as I put it “Pong City.” Heading 20 miles south, Wai-O-Tapu offered some amazing Mud Pools and the World famous Champagne Pool where my Currency Card gets its picture from (see above photo). Star of the show though was the Lady Knox Geyser which was “set off” in a choreographed performance at 1015 by tipping in to the main vent hole a pile of washing powder – TRUE. Check out the two videos by clicking on either the link or the arrow on the video screen image and see for yourself. Video 1 = Mud. Video 2 = Lady Knox in full flow.
But fav’ geothermal experience for me was another seven mile return walk later the same day through the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Bubbling brooks, hot water springs that gurgled and hissed everywhere you walked, with some of the most colourful rock and water features that only a child with a vivid imagination could draw.
It was like a scene from Jurassic Park, complete with wild boars that frightened us to death when they jumped out. Dinosaurs and volcanoes, what little kid can’t get excited about that! Then again what about 52 year olds? Mrs Todd, you’ll never know just what you started.
Oh! The Tongariro Crossing! Jan14 2008. We remember it very well and the toenail that I lost. The Devil’s Staircase at the beginning was a killer but we dutifully followed 498 people in front of us who were walking the same day. No need for any route maps. It took us 6 hours and 40 minutes so you two did very well. Obviously you have youth on your side. Machu Pichu should be a doddle now! Napier – fascinating. Rotaroa – smelly. All your photos and experiences bring back great memories of a beautiful country. We care off to Italy and France for a month next week. A bit tame after NZ but still most enjoyable as we will be with family.
Stay safe and enjoy your travels.
Your travels are so graphic only your words can describe them I am sure like others, that we feel party of your journey. A week wouldn’t be the same without your trilogy of your travels. Which are so fantastic. I cannot wait to buy your first copy. Bill Bryson watch out. Mark and Sarah are catching up.
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