As if to apologise for hiding the mountains from me yet again, the following day awoke to glorious sunshine, a huge bonus seeing as that's when I was planning to set off on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a three-day tramp through the volcano-ridden northern half of the park. I can safely say that I have never experienced anything like the might of Mts Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu (pronounced 'Tong-a-reer-oh', 'Nara-hoe-wee' and 'Roo-a-pay-hoo') and I doubt I ever will1. Unless you've been to a volcanic area, only the photographs can really show what the place is like, but I'll have a go at describing it. Yet again a place in New Zealand goes beyond mere vocabulary...
The volcanoes of Tongariro are totally different to Taranaki. Taranaki is bush-clad until the tree line, and after that it's tussock and, finally, rock and snow; it's a classic dormant volcano, having last erupted about 200 years ago. In Tongariro the eruptions are much more regular – Ruapehu last erupted in and smoke still pours out every now and then – and the whole area is pretty desolate; if you want to know what it's like on the moon, come to Tongariro. I walked through areas where the ground was steaming with sulphuric clouds; places where the ground wasn't visible through the huge clouds of steam rising from subterranean pools of boiling acid; spots where clear, cold water erupted out of the ground to form oases in the desert; craters so big you could hold rock concerts in them; and lakes whose fluorescence put the glacial waters of the Southern Alps to shame. It was another stunning walk, and totally different from the mountain walks, bush bashes and river valley tracks that I've been on so far.
The walk took me clockwise round the circuit, staying for two nights in huts. I went round Tongariro and Ngauruhoe – Ngauruhoe being a younger, parasitic cone on the side of Tongariro, but looking more impressive due to its size – and along the flanks of Ruapehu. Throughout the walk the weather was cloudless, which made a massive difference. I started off at Whakapapa, home to the famous Tongariro Chateau, an imposing hotel that was apparently used to house mental patients in the war (which only adds to the slightly eerie air of the The Shining that the hotel has). From there I headed northeast through tussock and occasional clumps of forest; the first two hours of track were eroded, slippery and, to be honest, a bit of a pain, but once I reached the Mangatepopo Hut things started to hot up, quite literally. After a quick side trip to the Soda Springs, one of the few waterfalls in the area, it was time to start climbing.
The trek up towards the towering mass of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe was extremely hot and bothersome, especially as my legs hadn't quite recovered from the ascent of Taranaki, but it was worth every drop of sweat. I gave the side trip to the top of Ngauruhoe a miss – an hour's clambering up scree was something I didn't fancy after the previous tramp – but round the corner from the volcanic cone was something even more amazing: the South Crater. Imagine a huge crater, surrounded by mountains, that's big enough to fit a football stadium in, with a path cutting right across the middle, and that's the South Crater: it's a massive, flat-bottomed bowl on the top on the world that's guaranteed to make you feel small and insignificant. Climbing up the side of the crater gave great views of the surrounding moonscape, and at the top was yet another surprise: the Red Crater.
The Red Crater is to Mars what the South Crater is to the moon; it's red, steaming and gaping, and where the South Crater is flat and round, the Red Crater is more like a chasm in the earth, full of hellish shapes and colours. As you climb round the edge of the crater, the ground starts to steam with foul sulphurous fumes that smell just like rotten eggs, and just as you think it can't get any more bizarre, the Emerald Lakes come into view down in the next valley. The Emerald Lakes are pure turquoise with bright yellow edges, and although you wouldn't want to go swimming in them, they're awesome to look at, especially in contrast to the barren lunar landscape around the volcanoes.
It was on this steaming peak that I met my first tramping companion, Delia from Sydney (though she was originally from Sweden, which she left when just four years old). We nattered and walked on together, heading for the Blue Lake across the flat expanse of the Central Crater, before continuing on to the Ketetahi Hut, our stop for the night. On the way we made a useful trade; Delia gave me a polarising filter for my camera that she no longer needed, and she got my dubbin (not much use to me without my leather boots) and some of my leaflets from the South Island that I no longer needed. I'd been meaning to get a polarising filter since I saw Scott of the Pilbara use one to bring out the blues in the sky, and it proved excellent timing; Tongariro through a polarising filter is truly something to behold.
Ketetahi Hut is just up the hill from the Ketetahi Springs, a pit of boiling water that throws steam high up into the sky. Delia and I went to visit the springs, which are technically on private land but nobody seemed to be watching, and that was where I got my first up-close taste of thermal activity; New Zealand is on the junction of two tectonic plates, and in the centre of the North Island there are lots boiling pools, thermal resorts and so on. Ketetahi Springs, though, was free of tourists, which made it somewhat unique.