Lessons from Mother Nature - Tongariro

Mother Nature is one of the best therapists you’ll ever encounter. She’ll make you face up to fears you never knew you had, and tell you what others won't.

Anyone who thinks children are the only ones who can teach you patience and humility hasn’t met Mother Nature.

Mother Nature is one of the best therapists you’ll ever encounter. She’ll make you face up to fears you never knew you had. She’ll help you understand your place in the world. She’s not afraid to tell you what others are reluctant to say – you’re not invincible, your confidence needs work, you’re capable of far more than you realised.

In New Zealand, there are no shortages of places to learn from her, but if you’re traveling through the North Island, Tongariro National Park takes some beating.

Tongariro National Park is located in the Central North Island and includes three mountains – Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro.

Tongariro National Park is famed for its spectacular walks, challenging mountain bike tracks and as one of the core backdrops for The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (Mt Ngauruhoe starred as Mt Doom).

By far the best known walking track within the park is The Tongariro Crossing. The Crossing is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and is considered, for good reason, the best one day hike in the country. The track takes hikers up and across, not surprisingly, Mt Tongariro, with the option to also climb Mt Ngauruhoe on the way.

I was young the first time I got the chance to walk the Tongariro Crossing. While I was keen, I wasn’t entirely convinced.

The prospect of walking almost 2000m straight up filled me with dread - would I be able to make it? How would my legs hold up? Would my super-fit walking companions be patient if I needed to take it slowly? With the support of my companions and after a little reading I decided I wouldn’t let my nerves get the better of me.

We headed up Tongariro in late October, and as I climbed the last few metres of scoria to reach the summit, the sense of pride and achievement I experienced was awesome. I’d done it! I’d climbed my very first mountain.

Unfortunately, these feelings were short lived - as is often the case in the mountains, the day had started beautifully, but by early afternoon was looking decidedly grim. After we reached the perimeter of Tongariro’s crater, the weather had taken a serious turn for the worst.

Remember - you’re not invincible.

With the wind becoming increasingly strong and visibility weakening, everyone on the track that day was faced with the very difficult task of assessing the risks and making the call - continue on, or abandon the way forward and retrace all those steps back?

The Hut we intended staying in overnight was a little over an hours walk further down the track. It’s never easy when you’ve come so far to make the call to turn back. The thought of climbing back down the hardest section (aptly named the Devils Staircase) wasn’t an attractive prospect for any of us.

But, after careful consideration, all but two people on the track that day decided the risk was too high and turned back.

Later that evening, after a long, slow walk back to the track entrance and a rather hair-raising car ride with a local personality to the Whakapapa Visitors Centre on Mt Ruapehu, we were shocked, but not surprised, to learn that a man and his son had gone missing on Tongariro - the same two people who’d forged ahead while the rest of us decided to abandon our plans for another day.

The weather closed in on the mountain so severely that the pair spent two freezing nights in the open until rescue teams were able to reach them. I’m sure this is one experience they’ll remember for very different reasons to me.

My second attempt at The Crossing was entirely different. Years later, and with a much higher degree of outdoor confidence and fitness, I was given the chance to climb her again.

Don’t expect the same thing twice.

After my first experience on Tongariro, I wondered if we might encounter similar changing conditions, but the contrast couldn’t have been more extreme.

My second ascent was completed in picture perfect conditions. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and we managed to walk the full track in just over 7 hours. The chance to experience the Craters of the Moon, the stunning Emerald Lakes and Ketetahi Hut in full sun was an experience I’ll never forget.

With weather this good, my companions found stories of my previous encounter with the mountain hard to believe.

When you venture into the outdoors, you quickly learn that you’re only there because Mother Nature has allowed you to be. Regardless what your plans are, she always has her own. You never know what she may choose to throw at you, but you can almost be guaranteed it’ll be different every time, so always be prepared.

Facts about Tongariro National Park for the visitor:

The central area of the North Island is an active volcanic area. Lake Taupo formed several thousand years ago by a gigantic volcanic explosion (bigger than Mt St Helens and Krakatoa combined). There are reports detailing how seriously the eruption affected the Earth’s atmosphere – the Romans described the Sun turning Blood Red and the Chinese documented the sky turning black as a result of the tons of ash that had been blasted in to space.

Tongariro National Park is located immediately south of Lake Taupo and covers an area of almost 80,000 hectares. The three mountains in the park – Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, are all active volcanoes. Ruapehu is the most active, with significant eruptions occurring as recently as 1995-1996.

The Park was gifted by the local Maori Chief to the Crown in the 1800’s as a way of protecting the spiritual and cultural significance of the place. This was the first time an indigenous race had gifted land to a Colonial power and resulted in the preservation of the region as a place for all to enjoy. It was an act of extreme foresight.

Tongariro National Park has been a World Heritage Site since 1991 and subsequently awarded Cultural World Heritage Status in 1994.

First time visitors are advised to visit the Department of Conservation (DoC) Visitors Centre at Whakapapa for information before venturing in to the park.

NZ Camp Site can provide you an Adventure Camping and Tramping package to make the most of your visit to Tongariro National Park. Rental options include lightweight camping equipment and hiking gear. Visit www.nzcampsite.co.nz for more information, email info@nzcampsite.co.nz or check out their latest deals on this website.