This past weekend held the first program-led trip to Lake Taupo. Bright and early on Thursday morning, all 70 students and professors piled into two charter buses to make the trek. We quickly stopped in Taihapi to enjoy our sack lunches from the Weir House (aka carrot sandwiches.. Yeah, they were about as good as they sound). Our next stop was the ski lifts at Mount Ruapeho. Because of cloudy skies and high winds, we couldn’t actually go up to the top but we were still able to get our first glimpse at the amazing landscape we would be hiking on the next day. We finally arrived at the Lakeland Resort in Taupo just in time for an all-you-can-eat buffet, which was supreme after the aforementioned carrot fiasco. We spent the rest of the evening walking up and down the huge lake (I think they said it was 29 miles wide? could be wrong) and fulfilling the “loud and obnoxious Americans” with a super intense game of nerts. Most people hit the hay pretty early in preparation for the day coming up.. the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The 7:30 am departure arrived quickly Friday morning, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little nervous for the hike we would soon undertake. I just didn’t really know what to expect other than the countless warnings we had received regarding the possibility of drastic changes in weather in the alpine environment. It could go from 70 degrees and sunny in the car park to rainy, windy, and literally freezing up on the ridge line within the blink of an eye. Fortunately, our group got insanely lucky with weather and while clouds loomed at first, they had mostly lifted by the time we started climbing. Oh and did I mention that Ngauruhoe is an ACTIVE volcano? Yep. It is.
The hike started at Mangatepopo Valley, up to the saddle, up and over Tongariro to the Emerald Lakes, and finally down and around to the Ketetahi Hut. It was nuts. Despite the 19.4 km distance, the track wasn’t actually that difficult. There were two pretty intense climbs that seemed to last forever, but there was no better feeling than FINALLY reaching the end of the “Devil’s Staircase”, which by the way, was prefaced by this:
Just slightly intimidating. Nonetheless, we made it up the first big incline to the Mangatepopo Saddle. This saddle is where we stopped for lunch. Dr. Garton (Program Director) gave me a piece of his Russian fudge.. that I totally pretended to like.. But regardless it was cool to see him relax and be a normal human and not a man with the weight of 70 students’ lives on his back. Oh and this is what I looked at while eating lunch. Not too shabby.
After lunch, we faced a fork in the road: continue on to the Emerald Lakes or summit Mt. Ngauruhoe (or more famously known as Mount Doom from LOTR). A lot of us were really itching to summit.. I mean, we had come this far and the summit was just a 3 hour return side trip. However, the lack of time in conjunction with the overall danger of the trip made it impossible for our group. Its apparently hiking straight up ankle-deep scree and ash for 2,000 feet. But it was RIGHT THERE.
Anyways, we continued on and after another intense ascent, we were at the highest altitude we would reach on the hike. We could see the Red Crater, the Emerald Lakes, and miles and miles of landscape including Lake Taupo which was actually 30-40 km away from where we were.
And that’s where my camera died. Womp womp. Luckily I could still take some nice pictures on my phone but I haven’t put them on my computer yet.. So yeah. The next part of the hike was, like the majority of the group, my favorite part. We got to run/jump/slide down this huge, narrow hill of ash deposits; the ash was more than ankle deep so you essentially slide an extra foot or two each step you take. It was so much fun and definitely some comic relief after the intensity we had just endured. We continued on through the Emerald Lakes which were GORGEOUS. I can’t wait to add pictures of them, even though I’m sure they will not even come close to what it looked like in person.
Next came the figurative downhill slide to the Ketatahi Car Park where we would be picked up. Normally, the rest of the track would be about 6 km. However, due to the main track being closed for some reason, we had to follow a series of switchbacks to get to the bottom making it almost twice as long in reality. It wasn’t even that steep so it became a little frustrating, especially after almost 8 hours of hiking with very limited water sources. We couldn’t just walk down the hill either given the sensitive alpine environment and there was steam coming from the ground.. So we were forced to take the long way around. Fortunately, this long walk included some amazing views of the north side of the volcano. Once the sight of the carpark entered our views about 50 meters away, we were all so excited and relieved and filled with destination fever we took off for the car park. 7:10 pm. We had spent 8.5 hours on the hike. Wow. We waited for the whole group to finish and finally made it back to our resort around 9:30 where we all immensely enjoyed showers and lots of pizza.
Saturday morning, we had some more school work to do as this was technically an “educational” trip. We went to a geothermal power plant, Craters of the Moon (a much weaker version of the Waiotapu Geothermal Park), and Huka Falls, seen below.
We were finished with all of this and more by noon. Many students went bungee jumping, booze cruising, sky diving, fishing, or even hiking again. I, however, chose to do absolutely nothing. We grabbed some lunch on the boardwalk and relax on the beach for the entirety of the afternoon. After some time, we decided to try out the first Mexican food of the trip at a place called “Taco Taco.” It was surprisingly delicious and the waiter told me he was in love with me.. So I guess that’s a win-win. That night we just hung out and watched some movies as we had another early drive back to Wellington on Sunday morning.
This weekend was the first real bonding time we had as an entire program instead of being split up into travel groups. It was really fun getting to hang out with a wider range of people; its pretty crazy how quickly you get to know people. And we’ve only just finished week three! Next up: a field trip to the wildlife sanctuary, New Zealand Parliament, first bio midterm, and a four day weekend spent in Queenstown, Milford Sound, Mt. Cook and Christchurch! Such a whirlwind but I wouldn’t have it any other way.