Aotearoa: Mountains, Mountains, and - whoa! - More Mountains!
So after the W(h)anganui River Road, we headed into Raetihi, a small town that, in spite of being small, has a radio station. Not that we were listening to the radio; The Lawyer Formerly Known As Sarah had brought some tapes, which, given she has fabulous taste in music, were much preferable to the minimal radio offerings we managed to find. How did we know there was a radio station? Well, because we parked in front of what turned out to be the local radio station. And because I left our lights on. And our battery died, and when we tried to start the car, the DJ came out and said he'd seen the lights on and had announced it on air, but evidently we hadn't heard it.
Lucky for us - as we are possibly the only two people in this country without cell phones - he also let us use the station's phone to call the Automobile Association. As I am not, by nature, patient, and as it was a beautiful day, after about 20 minutes of waiting I decided to take a bit of a walk through town, toward the auto mechanic (in NZ: "Garage," with emphasis on the "Gar") at the other end of town. As Raetihi is not particularly large, this took only about 15 minutes, in which time the mechanic had already jump-started the car and come back to the garage.
After that rather involuntary break in the action, we set off toward Lake Taupo, where we spent the night. The next morning, the folks at the Visitors' Center told us that if we wanted spectacular views, we should backtrack to Whakapapa, in Tongariro National Park. We'd passed the park the previous evening but avoided it because it's a ski area and it's ski season, which tends to mean higher prices on lodgings and more annoying people in the hostels.
Now, a word about the town's name. In Maori - most dialects anyway - "wh" is pronounced like a soft "f." The "a" is a long a, like in "cha-cha" or "talk." So, say it with me now - Whakapapa. Yeah. When people asked us where we spent the day I had some difficulty saying that without cracking a smile or feeling like I was about to get bleeped. Yeah, ok, so that's really childish of me, but, well, years of conditioning are hard to shake. Also, it's not as if people here don't notice; when the place name Whakarewarewa is abbreviated to Whaka, the "Wh" is pronounced as "W" - for obvious reasons.
Childishness aside, though, the area is gorgeous. The area was tapu (roughly: sacred) for the local Maoris. Knowing that the Pakeha (Europeans) would continue encroaching, the chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino, decided to give the whole area as a gift to the British crown. As he had intended, the area was declared a national park - the first in New Zealand and the fourth in the world - thus preserving the area for future generations.
Aside from skiing, which neither TLFKAS nor I are particularly interested in, the park offers some breathtaking hikes and walks. The most stunning is the several-day Tongariro Crossing, which may well be worth attempting in summer, but heading into mountains to camp out in the middle of winter just does not seem like my idea of a good time. Luckily, though, there are several shorter walks, ranging from 15 minutes to nearly a full day, and so we did a couple of the shorter walks.
We soon realized that the big advantage of being non-skiers in a skiing town is that while the slopes are crowded, hardly anyone is out doing anything else. We saw few people on our walks, and had most places pretty much to ourselves. And as we were staying in Taupo, where the big attraction is trout fishing, we weren't paying ski rates for a hostel, either. (The area was still really cold, though, especially at night, and we were quite pleased to have our little fan-heater with us in the hostel room!)
The mountains, in particular, didn't turn out too well on the photos. I mean, they don't look bad here, but you really can't get a sense of how enormous they looked; we were a lot closer than it seems, and they were truly breathtaking. I think I've packed so many mountain pictures on this page in the hopes that you might get some sense of that, even though no single picture really captures it well enough.
The three mountains of Tongariro National Park are not only mountains, but also more or less active volcanoes. New Zealand is an area of much tectonic activity; two plates meet here (I can't recall which ones, but I'm sure you can google it), and much of the country is earthquake-prone. One of the fault lines runs right through Wellington and along the highway out of town, which must be a nightmare for anyone planning for the big one. In fact, much of Wellington's waterfront only emerged due to an earthquake in the past century, and it's a relatively unstable area even now.
The Central Plateau, where Tongariro is located, is the most active volcanic region, and in one part of the region there's also plenty of geothermal activity in the form of geysers, mud pools and fumaroles - the subject of an upcoming Aotearoa New Zealand post! Mt. Ruapehu has been active on and off for years, and occasionally throws fits of ash and boulders. More troubling is its Crater Lake, an unstable, ashy lake that will - not might, but will - break out of its crater boundary sometime in the next 10-15 years. Many of the country's main power lines run through the area likely to be affected by such a blowout, so any activity would probably affect not just the region, but the entire North Island.
However, troublesome future events aside, the area is spectacular, and whatever else you can say about it, volcanic activity makes for breathtaking scenery. It's an area I'd love to spend more time in, perhaps on a return trip to follow up some of my Wellington-based research. For now, though, we had to move on, and so headed for Rotorua, the "Thermal Wonderland" in the Bay of Plenty...
26. July 2003
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