Getting ready always takes weeks of preparation. Especially when you have knee anxiety, that’s right, a special form of anxiety that situates just around the patella. This type of anxiety manifests in weeks of Google-led research into miracle herbs, exercise routines and positive aspirations to help one through an overly ambitious hike. For this hike Google suggested the Cho-Pat knee brace. I have given it a go on a couple of other walks to find it effective, but not perfect. It’s those blasted downhills! Great on two or four wheels, less enticing when walking like Blackbeard.
We left in a timely manner, which means without a high level of stress and only half an hour late. We left on the morning of the 27th of December, saying goodbye to friends who had stayed with us for Christmas. Everything packed and with 3L of water to spare, I felt invigorated, excited and nervous. There was a battle in my mind as to whether I would make it through the first day without my knee giving out, or giving me a warning twang of what’s to come.
The journey from Whakatane to Whakapapa village is not short, maybe three or so hours. We took the back roads through Kms on Kms of forestry land – not scenic. Oh, but when we reached Taupo my breath caught when seeing the great lake. It is so grand, framed by the celebrity volcanoes of the North Island.
As we drove up to Whakapapa village and was greeted by the eerily gorgeous Chateau, I suddenly remembered I had been there around 7-8 years ago, in winter. I love that feeling of Deja-vu. My friend tells me it is a sign that you are in the right place at that moment – I like that, it’s comforting to know I’m not messing up my life… Anyway, Whakapapa is a special place to visit, and a gateway to many inspiring walks. We found out where to start the Tongaririo Northern Circuit (down the street behind the chateau, Ngauruhoe Terrace), and parked our car down the street with a note on the dashboard from DOC (ask at the information centre and they will give you a card, don’t worry it’s free!). The circuit is a perfect loop, taking away the anxiety of missing your shuttle time.
We stretched and filmed way too much as you do when you first start a travelling adventure. The start of the walk I had wonderings… “will it be boring? Will Mu and I feel like we wasted money? Why didn’t I do the Tongariro Crossing instead? Why do I like hiking?” Ahh the restless mind. The start of the walk was all about the burnt brown grasses and tussocks, alpine flowers that looked like bunches of coral, and metallic elongated flies that made no sound at all. The track was kindly undulating, with a patch of beech forest, where we saw the biggest dragonfly ever! The weather forecast was for occasional rain over the next four days, but the sun shone onto the left side of our faces all the way to the hut, bliss. We dipped over hills until the mountains loomed in the distance, and Ruapehu guarded our rear.
Naguruhoe is Mount Doom, but I would more describe her as a perfect nipple, a prefect cone, the best exemplar of volcano. She transfixed me from when I saw her, till when I waved goodbye at the end. Tongariro pales in comparison. he is a “wavy pancake” as the DOC ranger called him. We edged closer and closer for about 3 hours until I glimpsed the hut sitting safely away from the shadows of the mountains. I threw my trekking poles on a tent site and grumbled to Mu about getting dinner made ASAP. My stomach was grumbling, the snickers bar we shared did not satisfy. I made a note to tell mu I was not ‘going halves’ anymore.
The hut was the most cozy little building, barely a tiny home really, with a fire and plunger-like taps to bring the water in. The water was maintained by the DOC ranger so we didn’t have to treat it with our tablets that make it taste like a pool, yay! We had couscous with a tuna sachet, it tasted Michelin star quality I thought as I shoveled spoonful after spoonful.
We were invited by our blonde and bubbly DOC ranger to come for a quick briefing at 7.30pm. We sat down with all of our fellow hikers and threw ourselves into an icebreaker game. I usually avoid people-coming-together activities like the plague, but hey, I think it was my effervescent state of mind that had me giggling and sharing like we were 6 sessions down in group therapy. I really love being around other hikers like that, it is rare as we are so independent and spread out during the day, but that connection was warm and genuine and brilliantly facilitated by the ranger.
The DOC ranger warned us of how dangerous the mountain is, and shared some Māori legends about the volcanoes. I won’t repeat the stories as I don’t think I would do them justice, but suffice to say they conjured images of Gandalf, and humbly reminded me that the path I tread had been tread for a long time before me. I love that hiking transports you into feeling like you are walking as they walked, seeing what they saw, and feeling what they felt. You just don’t get that by being in a bus driving through a place.
We were told that the weather could drop to about 0 that night. I gazed at my flimsy, ultralight tent with apprehension. I coddled myself in all of my warmies and got to bed early to try and generate some heat. The cloud had come down so quickly and the mountains were no where to be seen. This was my first introduction to alpine environments, they were not to be underestimated, mountains are sneaky, changing in the blink of an eye. Bon Nuit.