I awake bright and early at the Oturere Hut, intending to catch the sunrise, but the entire valley is shrouded in so much fog that I can barely see 3 meters in front of me. The fog gives the quirky alpine landscape a distinctly mystic quality however, so I am far from disappointed. I wonder if this will delay my getting on the road, as I can’t see the track markers very well, but by the time I’m breakfasted with my gear sorted the mist has thinned a little.
The next section of the walk will take me along the Oturere Valley and then up a steep climb to the Emerald Lakes where the track follows the Tongariro Crossing for the rest of the day. My feet are already complaining about having to get back in my boots again after the previous day’s work, but once I set off, the strange landscape peeking out of the fog quickly puts a smile on my face.
Lets get one thing straight. Oturere Valley is strange. Stark, beautiful, mesmerizing, and downright bizarre. I’m walking through gray sand high in the mountains, among strange rock formations and odd little pockets of moss and scrub that look like they belong on another planet. With every step I wonder what kind strange sci-fi film I’ve wandered into. I kind of wish I’d brought some music because a bit David Bowie would really set the mood here. Can you hear me Major Tom?
As the fog clears I get another perspective as I can see all along the wide open volcanic craters. A sense of emptiness is magnified by the lack of other hikers. I see a couple of other people but they swiftly dwindle into the distance. There are more famous attractions up ahead on the Tongariro Crossing, but this otherworldly section of the track is the best part in my opinion. Well worth doing the whole circuit for, as its pretty hard to get here on a day walk.
My fear of heights kicks in on the climb up from the valley. The track follows a narrow ridge that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for error and the whole thing is covered with loose rock. Every step is a balancing act, especially with a large pack on. I’m glad I’m going uphill at least so I’m not constantly looking down at the cliffs I could fall over if I took a bad tumble. I wouldn’t want to attempt coming down this section if the wind was strong. Its a stunning view across the valley when I do stop to turn around, and the rocks begin to take on a red hue that looks like something to be found on Mars, but there’s not a whole lot of places that I’m comfortable spending much time in, so my moments for reflection are relatively short.
As I near the top I can hear a cacophony of voices that marks of start of where the track meets the Tongariro Crossing. Sure enough, as I finally crest the summit I find myself beside one of the three Emerald Lakes. After a day and a bit of being mostly on my own, the number of hikers I can see shuffling across cliff sides is a bit of a culture shock. They look like hundreds of little ants snaking their way up to the summit of the Red Crater. Most of them seem more interested in looking at the lakes from higher up however, so I decide this bottom lake will make a nice, relatively quiet spot for a lunch break. I take off my pack and boots for a brief rest and wander bare foot around the bottom lake. The fog has completely cleared by this time and the clear blue skies and lack of wind showcase the stunning little lake perfectly. It shifts between bright blue and a wonderful deep green, with a rich red algae around the edges that contrasts beautifully with the colors in the water. I consider climbing up to one of the higher view spots, but no, this little lakeside spot suits me just fine.
I perch on a rock with my apple and after a few minutes a friendly local man in his 60s strikes up a conversation with me. He’s showing the crossing to some urban friends who are visiting and jokes with me about city folk and their amusing expectations. When he learns that I’m doing the circuit on my own he decides that I’m the bees-knees and whenever another of his friends comes near he tells them all about my solo expedition like its just the coolest thing. I smirk at the level of his enthusiasm, but the respect is mutual. I love chatting to oldies who are still so keen and active, makes the future look a lot less bleak. I hope I’m as energetic when I’m his age. He invites me join the group for lunch at the Blue Lake but I reluctantly decline. As much as I’ve enjoyed their company, by the looks of the contours on my map I still have a long day ahead of me and my feet are already starting ache, so I press on for the Red Crater instead.
The climb up to the Red Crater is an absolute killer. The whole track is covered thickly in loose scree, which makes it safer than coming up from Oturere Valley as there’s so much of the stuff that you tend to sink rather than slide. The effect is a lot like walking up a steep sand dune however. The weight of my pack makes me slide back half a step for every step forward, and its so steep that my thighs aren’t too happy about the number of steps to begin with. The sun is burning hot by now which doesn’t make things any easier. There are some beautiful views across the lakes and craters though and the plus side of there being so many people is there’s plenty of others sharing my pain. I finally crest the summit with a sigh of relief until I realize that its a just a ledge that looks like the top from lower down but is actually only halfway. Curses! I consider stopping for a rest but decide I’d rather just get this damn thing over with and press on. A few grumbles later and my wobbly legs finally get to rest at the top. There are A LOT of people here, and the Red Crater itself I’m not particularly excited by, but the view down to Oturere Valley is awesome just to see how high I’ve climbed (REALLY high in case you’re wondering). There’s also a wonderful view of Mount Ngauruhoe with South Crater stretching out in front from up here. Instead of gazing at it from the valleys below, I’m so high up that I can look Ngauruhoe in the eye, which is a bit like visiting an old friend as I’ve been circling it for so long now that I feel like we’re on first name terms.
The descent into South Crater is a slightly less dodgy version of coming up from Oturere Valley. There’s a lot of loose rock and its quite steep, but the track is a lot wider, and at least if you did fall, 50 people would see it happen and call search and rescue. The downhill stretch is very trying for my tired feet however so when I make it down to South Crater and have the option of climbing to the summit of Ngauruhoe, I say “NO THANK YOU”! The views along South Crater will be quite enough of an encounter with the volcano for me. I’m sure its very its very nice up there but by this stage my feet are so sore that I’ve begun to think of them as separate beings who I keep apologizing to and promising ridiculous things if they’ll just get me to the next hut. An extra 3 hours up more scree is definitely not on the cards. The views along South Crater itself are wonderful however and my feet seem to agree that the pain is worth it (as long as it doesn’t go on for too much longer).
I limp along at a very slow pace into the next valley and along to the Mangatepopo Hut but still arrive in the late afternoon while the sun is up and about. The hut is a delightful place to rest my feet and I spend the rest of the day reading my book in the sunshine with this view out in front of me:
It seems strange that I woke up on a foggy sci-fi set and now I’m spending my afternoon in the sun surrounded by mountain views and wildflowers, but I certainly consider that a day well spent.
Continue the adventure with day three.
Listening to: Not The Doctor – Alanis Morrissette