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Tongariro National Park Tongariro Alpine Crossing

15th February 2012

A Couple of Decent Hikes Through Alpine Terrain Followed up with a Good Soaking

One of the Many Waterfalls on the Hike
    Despite the previous evening's early bedtime, I got very little sleep due to the incessant dripping from the trees over my waggon. These little things are sent to try us.
    Again, I rose early and went off to get the weather forecast from the transport coordinator again. He was in a rush, but managed to shout out to me, "It starts with this murk we have now, and gets progressively worse through the day." "Great!" I cursed, the complete opposite of yesterday's prediction.
    The Tongariro Alpine Crossing would be pointless today, it would be a wet slog and I wouldn't see anything. I made a decision to stay for one more night, and dependant on the weather in the morning, make a decision as to whether to move on or not.
Mountain Beech Trees
    To fill in today, I decided to do a circular hike to Taranaki Falls. It was a short enough hike to warrant not carrying a backpack with me, and if the weather turned exceedingly foul, I would be at most one hour away from base.
    I set off briskly in the cool air, the mists throwing a grey cloak over the high ground and rendering the volcanoes invisible. The walk encompassed a wide range of landscapes: lush beech forest, tussock-shrublands, ancient lava flows, cascading streams, waterfalls and invisible mountain views.
Some of the Flowers Encountered on the Hike
    The volcanic and alpine environment of Tongariro National Park is harsh. The mountain beech I walked through had strategies to survive freezing temperatures, high winds and snowstorms.
    Mountain beech can be found growing up to 1530m in the national park, giving the park the highest treeline in New Zealand. Reasonably large trees at lower levels, mountain beech become compact twisted dwarf shrubs at higher altitudes where they constantly brace themselves against the alpine winds. Like many good alpine survivors they grow in clusters, protecting themselves from wind and retaining daytime heat to survive the freezing night.
    Mountain beech trees are often cloaked with a heavy layer of snow in winter. Their branches need to be flexible enough to droop under the weight of the snow but strong enough not to break. This elasticity also enables the trees to survive high winds.
    Beech trees survive many natural catastrophes. The light-loving seedlings quickly take advantage of gaps in the canopy created by landslides, windthrow and avalanches. Unfortunately they do not have an efficient method of dispersing seed long distances. It can take decades, even centuries, for mountain beech forest to re-establish after fire.
    As I climbed out of the beech into tussock land, I spotted the top of the Taranaki falls from a distance. It took me just a few minutes to reach the falls, the Wairere Stream plummeting 20m into a boulder-ringed pool. The falls were in full spate after the overnight downpours. A roar emanated from the base of the falls, with spray hissing out from the boiling cauldron below. In sympathy, as I stopped to take a photograph, a light rain started to fall, sending a couple standing nearby into a panic as they haphazardly searched their backpacks for waterproofs.
    The track climbed and curled around above the falls, and being a mad Englishman, I deviated across the rocks to peer over the edge. This provided a good photo opportunity for people who had just arrived at the base of the falls. They could now compose their pictures with a human in the frame to give an idea of scale. I gave them a wave, they waved back, but the roar of the water made verbal communication impossible.
Tussock-Shrublands Leading to Taranaki Falls in the Distance
    The track took me through wet tussock, laced with spider webs covered in beads of water; nature's necklaces. The rain had caused me to increase the tempo of my march, and soon I caught up with a couple and their daughter, who were visiting from Kansas. "Where ya from?" asked the guy in his mid-west drawl. "The UK, a place called Ipswich," I replied, expecting to have to explain where that was. "My son was over thur. He spent two years with the air force at USAF Mildenhall base," replied the chap.
    The family were doing a lightening 12 day tour of New Zealand, travelling mostly by rail, and staying in hotels. "My daughter doesn't do camping," the chap said as an aside. Their strategy was simple, two days in each place they visited. The next ports of call on their agenda were Wellington, Milford Sound and Queenstown, before heading back home. For their activity at Queenstown, I recommended the Skippers Canyon trip and the ride on a jetboat up the Shotover River. "I read about that, and it seemed fun. Right, I'll take the gals on that," he enthused, thankful that he now had a plan worked out for one of his stopovers.
    "I work as an electrical contractor, mostly in the power generation business," he volunteered, "though I spend most of my time on the phone nowadays. Unlike you guys in Europe, Americans normally get just two weeks holiday per year, though I cheat a little." I wondered how he cheated, but thought it wise not to ask. That explained his flying visit. He was staggered by my four month stints of travel, and he listened intently when I described my Rockies trip. It seemed like a whole new lifestyle to him. "How are ya staying, in a campervan or tent?" he asked. "No, I live in a car," I told him, and explained the set up. "So you can pull in anywhere?" he enquired. "No, not now, Freedom Camping is forbidden now," I replied. I had to explain the concept of Freedom Camping to him, pointing out the similarities with Dispersed Camping in the US. He had never heard of the latter neither. Perhaps it is not just the daughter who is not into camping.
Looking Down to Taranaki Falls - in the Rain Of Course
    The bloke's wife, who had remained silent all this time, suddenly piped up with, "There aren't many dogs in this country." I must confess the size of the canine population in this country had never registered in my mind. I took her word for it. I was aware though that dogs are not allowed in the National Parks, they are very susceptible to the poison that is used to kill the possums. The trio slowed down to exchange the role of backpack carrier, and perhaps because I was pushing the pace. They wished me good luck with my travels, and I reciprocated the sentiments, and left them far behind.
Golden Rapids
    Soon I got back to camp where I set myself up in the communal kitchen to catch up on my blog. The only other person there was the cleaning lady, who was about to eat her lunch. "There aren't many residential places around here," I said, "Where do all the people who work in the businesses here live?" "Some of those who work in the two hotels have accommodation provided there. Most, like me, travel in from outside. I live in the National Park Village," she replied.
Alpine Bog
    "There aren't many social outlets in this part of the world. What do folk do?" I pestered her again. "Not a lot," she replied laughing. "I haven't got a TV since reception in the area is almost non-existent, and I can't afford to pay for Sky TV. I'm just a mad avid reader. I read anything. My friend and I go over to Taupo once a month to a good book fair and stock up, and that's my life really." I made no comment, but I am sure that must be a common trait in some of the sparsely populated remote areas in this country.
    "What's this place like in winter?" I asked. "That's the busy season - full of skiers. The campsite is packed solid from July to October. There won't be any tents around, but it will be full of campervans who just plug into the power outlets, so they keep warm enough. Some people keep caravans here throughout the season, and use them as a base for the weekends when they come skiing from the cities. Sometimes the road gets cut off, so we have to be self-sufficient," she replied.
    With boredom and a bout of the shivers setting in, I opted to take on another hike, namely the Silica Rapids Walk. Rivers and streams in Tongariro National Park often carry minerals and chemicals that influence the acidity and colouring of the water and river beds. This is due to the chemical makeup of volcanic rock.
Silica Rapids
    This was noticeable near the start of my hike, at a section called the Golden Rapids on the Waikare Stream, which were coated with a deposit of aluminium rich clay that is leached from andesite rock and coloured by iron oxides.
    The turbulence of the water affects the amount of deposit. In high flows less minerals are deposited than in low flows, resulting in a river bed that changes in colour. Turbulence also played another role. As the water becomes more turbulent it loses carbon dioxide. This creates ideal conditions for alumino-silicate to be deposited.
    At a higher altitude I encountered alpine bogs. Bogs and wetlands are extremely fragile. In this environment it can take plants many years to establish. Poor drainage, and low oxygen levels contribute to the soil's acidic and peaty nature as an underlying thick blanket of ash creates a barrier, holding water close to the ground surface.
    Small tarns were visible, typical of the wet western slopes of Mount Ruapehu.
    Alpine bogs contain unique flora. Insect eating sundews, lichens, sedges and tussocks colonise these wet areas.
    As on the Taranaki Falls hike I undertook in the morning, in the area I was now walking, the environment of poor drainage, cold temperatures and poor soil fertility, mountain beech predominated.
    Native mistletoe uses mountain beech as a host, taking from it water in order to survive. Often I came across metal bands around host trees to protect the endangered species from possum browsing.
    As I walked to a higher tussock based level, it became apparent that the ash soils, loosely bonded to underlying lava rock, cannot withstand the forces of water, wind and ice. While the soils are more stable when cloaked by vegetation, the smallest disturbance or damage to this cover can accelerate the erosive process and strip the surface to expose the bare rock.
Lava Outcrop
    While the heat and violence of volcanic eruptions have formed this landscape, it is the extreme climate which breaks it down. Erosion, volcanism and glaciation make up the natural cycle that has shaped Tongariro National Park.
    The track crossed a lava flow, which originated from the now extinct Iwikau Crater on the summit of Mount Ruapehu. Dating back less than 15,000 years ago, outcrops of lava could be clearly seen.
    Red tussock was a predominant species in this area and is one of the first native plants to establish bare areas such as lava flows and ash deposits. Red tussock and mountain inaka shrublands are the most common communities in the sub-alpine zones of the national park.
    As I made my way across the tops to Bruce Road, which would be my route back to camp, the heavens opened. Within minutes I was saturated from the waist down. Even my boots were filling up with the water running down my legs. When I reached the road, I hadn't the heart to try and hitch down to the campsite; I would turn the Good Samaritan's car into a puddle. Almost 1.5 hours later, wading through raging rain, I reached the camp. I grabbed some dry clothes, put them into a bag, and sought refuge in the showers. I must had stood under the hot jet of water for about 40 minutes; bliss.
    Once back to my waggon, I switched the engine on and set the heater to fully on, and set about trying to dry my boots out, and also some of my wet clothes; if I left them soaking with the rest of my laundry, they would soon start to smell.
    I mustn't grumble, at least I got in two decent hikes today.

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Tongariro National Park Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Uploaded from All Seasons Campsite, Taupo on 17th February at 14:00

Last updated 17.2.2012