A Tramp through Tongariro
It is good to be able to laugh with strangers. Lucky we feel this way, because there are 20 of us crowded into one small wooden cabin, jostling for space by the fat-bellied stove in the center.
The cabin, or hut, is the first night's stop on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a four-day walk through the Tongariro National Park, in the heart of New Zealand's North Island.
And the reason we are crammed in here, like feet in boots two sizes too small, is because it is a mid-summer dayand it is snowing.
This could have been funny, except that we'd banked on the climate in December being warm, maybe, and a bit wet, maybe, but certainly not freezing.
There we'd stood the day before, signing the visitor's book at the Tongariro National Park headquarters, smiling soothingly at the bloke who warned us of a weather system that had crept up from the south.
"She's lookin' a bit rough," he said, as we wrote "Four-day tramp via Red Crater" in his book.
"She'll be right, mate," we replied in our best Kiwi accents.
It should have been a four-day tramp via Red Crater. We had read the guidebook: We knew it would be a scenic route with alpine passes, tussock grassland, bizarre desert, and the odd live volcano to perk things up. We knew that navigation would be pretty easy, that the craters had tall poles marking the route across, that the huts would be fairly quiet because it was mid-December and people were preparing for Christmas, not clambering about in the wilderness.
We should have listened to our man at HQ, though. Should have listened . . .
The tramp to Mangatepopo Hut was easy, a pleasant stroll over tussock grassland and through woodlands filled with tall evergreen trees called rimus. We passed through stands of beech and fern dripping with lichen and exotic mosses, and along the western flank of the great cone that is Mount Ngauruhoe. It's easy to understand why the Maori people hold it sacred, why legend tells of a slave thrown into the blazing crater to appease Ruamiko, the volcano god.
We admired its smooth slopes, marveled at the plumes of steam and gas spiraling from its summit, laughed at the antics of alpine birds cartwheeling across the ash and lava scree.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication