When I am not travelling, I hike most Wednesdays with the Taupo Tramping Club (tramping being the New Zealand term for hiking). Located in the Central North Island, Taupo is a town on the edge of a lake of the same name. At the other end stand three volcanoes; Mts. Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Our programme covers a vast and diverse area, and it is not uncommon for us to drive two hours in the club’s van to reach our destination.
On a stunning morning this week, we met at 7.30am in the car park. With bags stowed and everyone aboard, we drove out of town and headed south along the lake towards the Desert Road. Our intended tramp took us in a loop, first, off track to the Bund (a man-made construction to divert the lava away from the river if an eruption occurs), then a climb to Rangipo Hut where we would eat lunch, and finally back to the van via the Round the Mountain track.
We turned off the Desert Road and on to the Tukino ski-field road. On our left, the unpromising sight of Army trucks lined up in the moonscape greeted us. Their ranges bordered our planned route. According to large signs, they were firing live ammunition that day. After a brief consultation, we agreed on Plan B. None of us wanted to be targets! We continued along the ‘4 Wheel drive only’ road in our 2 wheel drive van and arrived at the top and the junction with the ‘Round the Mountain’ track.
On my last visit several years ago, a friend and I were walking this track. We carried heavy backpacks laden with our supplies for a 5 day tramp (plus some extras!). A gale force wind blasted us, and it was raining. The contrast with today couldn’t have been more stark. Now I could stand and admire the expansive view of the mountains without the risk of being blown over. For the entire day, I recollected that tramp. It was memorable in more ways than one. The wind impeded our progress, and concerns about reaching the hut before dark dominated my thoughts. The swing bridge over the river swayed ominously as we quelled our fears and summoned the will to cross. With no shelter on the rugged and exposed mountainside, it was a long battle with the elements. Our relief was immense when we rounded a hill and spotted the hut. Once inside, we lit the fire, and I put my polypropylene gloves to dry on top of it. Sometime later, I wondered about the smell!
Today was the antithesis of that day all those years ago. A welcome breeze refreshed us occasionally, but still air prevailed. The sun beamed down. However, the terrain was just as difficult. Loose stones and rocks liberally strewed the landscape, making walking precarious. Following the marker poles, we picked our way, careful not to stray from the track. Mt Ruapehu towered on our right when we stopped for morning tea. Having never taken a thermos of coffee before when I tramped, club members initiated me into this tradition as soon as I joined. It is such a civilised custom! At about 10am, the leader of the day looks for a suitable place to stop and sit. Today’s view was magnificent.
After the break, we continued on. Those of us undaunted by heights crossed the river and path of the lahar using the swing bridge. The rest got wet feet wading in the water. (Something I avoid whenever possible!) Since I was last here, a new, more stable bridge had been built although it is still only suitable for one person at a time.
As always, much chatter accompanied the walk. It is a social occasion and as the order in the line of trampers changed, so did the conversations. Today we had plenty of time given the abbreviated route and didn’t rush. Whilst most of the group were in their fifties and sixties, two octogenarians had also joined us. They walked as far as they could and then turned back.
Sitting on the deck of the hut in the hot sun, we spent our lunch break admiring the extensive view over the Desert Road to the Kaimanawas and the Ruahines in the far distance.
A bird’s-eye view of the Army activity below provided additional entertainment. The sound of the booms followed several seconds after the flashes of explosions. In the dry terrain, the dust billowed up. I pondered the risk of fire (there being a total fire ban over most of the North Island!)
Before I left, I checked out the small hut, anchored by strong wires to the hillside, housing the long drop toilet. Clear recollections came to mind of a middle of the night visit and a freezing wind swirling beneath the walls as I perched. The breeze was still evident, but at least it was warm on a hot summer’s day!
We returned to the van via the same route. Usually the way back appears quicker, but our progress today was slow. Falling and breaking a bone was a risk none of us wanted to take. Our 80-year-olds were pleased with themselves for having hiked further than usual. Whilst it wasn’t a long tramp by the group’s standards, we were all tired after concentrating on our footwork all day.
Until today, I hadn’t realised how much of an impression my previous visit had made. The conducive conditions made my return far more enjoyable!