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By Joleen Lunjew
With such a vast outdoor of varying terrain, it is no wonder that the Great Lake Taupo region is considered to be one of the best regions in the North Island for hiking and walking. Many will attest to that as they travel far and wide to conquer the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, reputedly the best one-day walk in New Zealand and one of the best in the world.
So what next after traversing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and other walks in the Tongariro National Park?
The Kaimanawa Ranges, south-east of Lake Taupo extending from Tongariro National Park in the west to the Kaweka Ranges in the east, is home to the Kaimanawa Forest Park which in turn holds amazing hiking and walking trails just waiting to be explored.
One of the many hiking trails you might like to do if you have a day would be the tussock covered peak of Mt Urchin (1392m). The track lies at one end of a popular 2-day loop trail which also takes in Umukarikari (1591m), the Waipakihi Hut, and the Waipakihi River valley.
As part of Destination Great Lake Taupo’s Autumn Campaign, a festival of walks and talks were held to encourage people to get out and about to enjoy more outdoor activities. Tongariro River Rafting and Walking Places organised four free guided walks to Mt Tihia, Ohinepango, Rangipo Desert and Mt Urchin.
I chose to do Mt Urchin because at 5-6 hours return, it was supposedly the toughest trail of the four and I wanted a challenge. I was joined by Taupo lady Nenden and Kent, owner of Turangi Bridge Motel.
Terry, our guide from Walking Places, made sure everyone was kitted up properly before we headed off. He had a choice of hiking boots, thick socks, walking sticks and water proof clothing. Was very impressed that he had sizes for Nenden’s small feet.
Getting there was half the fun as Terry stopped at several places along the way including the Waikato Falls, where we admired the old lava flow from Mt Tongariro. After driving up a long steep hill, we finally reached the start of the track where we met a group of hunters going in as well.
The track starts at an incline almost immediately. Although it had been raining the past few days, the ground wasn’t very muddy which we were very thankful for.
Terry is great with imparting his knowledge of the forest and giving us heaps of information on the formation and history of the land. We learnt that the Ents, the tree creatures in Lord of The Rings, were based on the red beech tree, found in abundance at the forest. We also learnt about the various medicinal and functional properties of the surrounding plants.
The track is short, a mere 3km from the car park to the summit, but it was slow going and quite challenging because of the steep incline. All of us managed well, including Nenden, who hasn’t hiked in 15 years.
We were rewarded with magnificent views at the top, albeit the mist. Seeing that it was quite chilly up there, Terry pulled out wooly gloves and hats from his backpack. It was little touches like these that make him such a great guide.
Since the weather was fine, Terry suggested we walk another 1.5km to view the valley. I was surprised to find alpine vegetation up at the top. Didn’t realise we climbed that high.
Very soon it was time for lunch and Terry found us a sheltered space with the most amazing view. Terry is a gem. He pulled out from his bottomless magic backpack, a water proof sheet for us to sit on and offered us coffee, tea or green tea. On the way down, he offered me another walking stick and a knee brace for my problematic knee!
About 5 challenging but very satisfying hours later, we reached the start of the track again. Surprisingly, none of us were not very sore the next day, so it is a track that is doable for anyone of moderate fitness.
Like most Kiwis, I do not normally use a guide but after this trip, I understand the enormous value a guide gives to the entire experience. The mountain becomes more than just earth and trees take on a whole new meaning. You just appreciate things more when you know the history behind it.
You have the luxury of not having to look out for the next turn in the trail, giving you more time to ‘stop and smell the roses’. And the tiny details like providing gloves, hats, waterproof sheets and even a knee brace blew me away. I was genuinely touched and amazed at the level of professionalism provided. I am very confident to vouch for Terry’s guiding service.
Walking Places can be contacted at 0800 4 A WALK (0800 429 255) or check out their website www.walkingplaces.co.nz.
Getting there :
15km south of Turangi on Highway 1
Left on to Kaimanawa road, which leads to Rangipo underground power station.
Drive 3.6km on tarseal, across the bridge over Waikato Falls / Tongariro River.
At top of the hill, turn right on to the gravel road, sign posted Pillars of Hercules etc.
After 2.6km, take a left turn and go up a further 1.4km of very steep gravel road to the start of the track.
Dress warmly and bring your binoculars.
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