The National Park is also home to the Tongariro Crossing, regarded by the guidebooks as the 'finest one-day walk in New Zealand, if not the world'. Reading the small print on my travel insurance, there were a number of exemptions - Nuclear war was one. Another, I expect, is being blown up by volcanic activity. Signs around the village had been erected by the Department of Conservation, helpfully pointing out that 'Anyone intending to tramp or climb on the upper slopes of the volcanoes, do so at their own risk!'. The Department of Conservation, or DoC as they are known, run every national park in the country, installing paths for hikers, preserving the flora and fauna from Northland to Stewart Island. Adding it all up and DoC are responsible for more than five million hectares of prime New Zealand territory, which amounts to over a third of the entire country. It's unlikely, but if the kindly conservationists, geologists and ornithologists that comprise DoC's staff ever decided to overthrow the government and take over the country, they'd already have a pretty decent head start.
We leave before dawn so as to avoid the crowds, a minibus from the lodge dropping our group of walkers into the Park, and to the beginning of the walk. It's still dark and I realise that I have forgotten to bring a torch. Disembarking from the minibus, we're pointed in the right direction and follow the shadowy sillouette of the volcanoes.
The first hour's walk is by starlight and whilst I tread carefully I still find myself stumbling through the pitch darkness. Following the Mangatepopo Valley our scattered group made quick progress through the dark glacially carved landscape, the sillouette of Mt Ngauruhoe gradually brightening in the dawn light. Walking, or rather clambering up the Devils Staircase, to reach the saddle between Mt Nguaruhoe and Tongariro, the climb was deceptively difficult. Each time I seemed to have reached the peak, the landscape opened up to reveal another steep stretch of path ahead, a false summit and further wooden posts leading upwards. It was most frustrating and after half-an-hour steep climb I felt fairly knackered. Stopping to catch my breath, I turned around and the dawn had produced a crystal blue cloudless sky, in the far distance to the west stood the perfectly conical Mt Taranaki.
Reaching the top of the Devil's Staircase, I looked below me and watched my fellow walkers hiking ambitiously up the dangerously rocky slopes in their flip-flops, or jangals as the Kiwis called them. As the little figures slowly made their way up the summit, a voice next to me said. "Feels good to be up here looking down, doesn't it? Would you mind taking my photo, to show my friends that I made it up here in one piece?"
Rebecca was an Australian, working in Auckland and marketing South Australia as a tourist destination to New Zealanders. Falling into step together, we chatted about the friendly rivalry between Australian and New Zealand. "The English haven't always have the best of relations with our neighbours. And that might be understating things slightly" The Irish Troubles and the Hundred Years War sprung to mind. Rebecca explained that here it was a little different. "Australia and New Zealand have never been enemies, never fought against one another in a war. We fought together as the ANZACs. It's a friendly rivalry really but that doesn't stop us bloody hating losing against the All Blacks!" Its hard to imagine how seriously the Aussies and Kiwis take their rugby. Its practically a religion, the players revered like pop idols or football players, their posters on teenagers walls. Its something the Australasians have in common, but I had met remarkably few Australians in New Zealand so far.
"So how come there isn't anyone telling the Australians to visit New Zealand? You're probably the first Aussie I've met since I've been here." But then I remembered that I hadn't visited Scotland until a few months ago and I've never been to Ireland. We often travel overseas, and overlook the places closest to home. Rebecca agreed, "Most Australian want to go somewhere completely different, full of people, big cities, history, explore our roots, make some money, which is why so many go to London. New Zealand just seems even more distant and remote than Australia." Still, we agreed it was their loss.
Stepping into a vast plateau, a lunar landscape presented itself, flat except for a few strewn volcanic rocks. I wouldn't have been surprised to have come across Neil Armstrong parking his moon buggy, and teeing up a golf shot. Following the high ridge along towards the Red Crater and Emerald Lakes, there were deep scars in the ground, torn apart by a history of eruptions. There was no vegetation to be seen, aside from the occasional tufty heath and mountain daisies. We paused for a morning snack to appreciate the view and I savoured my ham sandwiches, dipping them into a tub of Humous with Capsicum. The summit of the Red Crater, sloped steeply downwards to a number of bright green sulphuric lakes - a view that was both magnificent and surreal. Slipping and scrambling down the slope, the ground gave way underfoot. It was rather like ski-ing, but without the ski's. The Emerald Lakes glowed a phosphorous green, yet stunk with the scent of rotting eggs. Steam vents pouring from the ground were warm to the touch. The water looked beautiful, but was deceptively poisonous - toxic due to the high mineral content. If the crater before had looked like the moon, then the lakes reminded me of Jupiter, a mass of swirling but toxic colours.
Athletes in singlets ran past us like a herd of crazed mountain goats, competing in the Tongariro Classic, part of a multi-event challenge that included running up a volcano. Their sprint would be followed by cycling over a mountain and a swim across a lake or two. I'd always had the impression that Kiwi's have a reputation for adventure and adrenalin fuelled activities, and it seems to ring true. It seems that there is always a New Zealander prepared to run across, jump out from a plane over, and bungee off any dramatic scenery they come across. It's almost as if the surrounding beauty of all these impressive mountains, bush furred forests and gorgeously coloured lakes was just not quite exciting enough. Descended from the genes of pioneers, keen to make their way in the world, perhaps it was not surprising that it was a New Zealander that had invented the jet-boat, popularised the bungee, and produced Edmund Hillary, the first man to scale the heights of Everest (not forgetting Sherpa Tenzing, of course) as well as devising a decatholon over a still burbling and active volcano.
Continuing the walk, we left the scorched earth of Mordor and Mt Doom behind, as the path descended at right angles so that despite walking half-an-hour it appeared we hadn't walked any distance at all. Stepping aside to allow the lunatic sprinters to pass, calling out "Good luck", or "Break a leg!", the vast crater of Lake Taupo appeared from behind the volcano on our right. Knees in shock my legs were wobbling from the final descent. Our surroundings transformed yet again, as the route finally led through a luscious forest, filled with the birdsong of little black and white finches, swallows darting between the branches. With a palpable sense of satisfaction and relief to have completed the seventeen kilometres, the path finished in the middle of a car park, as dark clouds gathered over the summit.