In the world of an arts PhD candidate, living on less than minimum wage, it is worth making the most out of the one extra source of candidature-related finance available: conference funding. Last year I managed to wring enough out of two funds to get to a Victorian Studies Conference and Steampunk festival in England, so the next conference was closer to home – across the ditch, in Auckland. The conference itself was excellent, and was followed by a weekend with my Kiwi friend from my gap year in the Lakes District. This friend had grown up in Turangi, in the shadow of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, and had spent a summer volunteering with the Department of Conservation (DOC) there too, so it was this one-day trek that we embarked on with his sister and her affianced.
This trek also happened to fall on Waitangi Day, a commemoration of the historical signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Since I fall somewhere on the far opposite side of the political spectrum from my Kiwi friend and his family, we were all reasonably polite when discussing our interpretation of the day, and found points of agreement: including that the treaty was, at the very least, far better than what the Australian Aborigines ever received.
We all also agreed that Waitangi Day was probably not the best time to tackle one of New Zealand’s most popular day walks, especially in perfect weather. At one point on the track an enormous line had formed after bottlenecking at a single chain assisting a scrambly ascent, so we just climbed around.
But by far and large the trek was fantastic. We awoke well before dawn for a cooked breakfast and a chilly start, watching sunrise colours touch the mountains as we skipped along the very well maintained track from Mangatepopo to Soda Springs.
The steep and aptly named Devil’s Staircase made us grateful for the early start, and at the top of this rise two of us decided to summit Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom, of The Lord of the Rings fame). We passed a sign warning us of falling rocks, and climbed up the old lava flow rather than the loose scree slope. At the ridge we stopped at both the summit and the view into the crater, although the cold conditions and daunting mass of tourists ascending behind us kept us moving. We skidded down the scree slope on bent knees, and directed those below us toward the far safer ascent of the old lava rather than scuttling between showers of cascading rocks.
Back on the main track, we pressed on until we caught the other two above the Emerald Lakes. Here we slowed down and took in the surreal volcanic landscape. My only experience in such an environment previously was hikking up Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, so I was particularly in awe of the juxtaposition of a violently Red Crater situated above mineral lakes.
The final section of the 19.4km walk is apparently always longer than you expect, and this was true for us too. Still, the winding walk was pleasant, and the Te Maari eruption of 2012 had left small impact craters on and near Ketetahi Hut – something you never see in Australian hiking!
At the end of the day we celebrated with a dunk in the local hot pools, and I was happy to agree with the tagline most often attached to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing: one of the world’s best day walks.