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February 2013 Issue
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Alpine crossing alternative

The view South to Lower Tama Lake and Mt Ruapehu, from the highest point on the track. Photo: Stephanie Cotteret
Ngauruhoe Place car park, 100m from Whakapapa Village Visitor Center
BH34, BJ34

Tama Lakes, Tongariro National Park

On a gorgeous bluebird day, we woke up to fresh snow draped on the central Plateau mountains.

With a horizon full of promise, it wasn’t long before a decision was made to spend the day out in the windswept wilds of Tongariro National Park. Although the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was briefly discussed, the idea was soon abandoned – crampons were needed to safely tackle the highest sections and we had none.

Tama Lakes presented itself as an engaging alternative: lower in altitude than the Crossing, the easy track to the lakes was free of snow and at around six hours for a return journey, it would occupy a decent chunk of the day. It also promised just as spectacular scenery.

Leaving our car at the Visitor Center car park in Whakapapa Village, we started out on the thin forest trail through a grove of beech trees. The track soon proved to be a sweet introduction to the rough, exposed terrain of the Tongariro: having undergone extensive work two years ago, it is mostly flat, in good condition and included sections of boardwalk. Provided the weather holds, it’s a great one for beginners and families.

The broken, barren volcanic landscape may seem strange at first, but it has its advantages: with not a single tree in sight, there are amazing panoramas of the mountains and surrounding countryside to be had no matter where you look. It soon becomes clear that the DOC time estimate didn’t so much reflect the actual time needed to walk the trail, but rather the time needed to make a stop every few steps to enjoy the views.

A wooden bridge took us over Wairere Stream, a roaring mountain torrent complete with a view towards Mt Ruapehu. Shortly afterwards, and about an hour into the walk, we reached the top of Taranaki Falls. A short, steep descent through a small patch of bush led us to the foot of the waterfall which gushed down the dark wall of a 15,000-year-old lava flow to splash into the crystal clear pool 20m below. Rainbows spread across the spray, and we stopped briefly to munch on a couple of chocolate biscuits and enjoy the magic of the falls before rejoining the main track.

In undulating tussock country we walked at a leisurely pace for another hour or so to Lower Tama Lake, reached shortly after a wander up a dry rocky creek and a fork in the trail – left to the lakes, right to Waihohonu Hut. With a few more days to spare, our trip to Tama Lakes could have been part of a longer tramp as both the Tongariro Northern Circuit and the Round the Mountain Track go through there.

Whether you have walked this way before or not, the first of the lakes will always come as a breathless surprise: although we knew it was an old crater that had filled up with water, it was such a vivid shade of blue in an otherwise drab expanse of grays and browns that we couldn’t help but think of it as a piece of sky dropped from the heavens above.

However, the best was yet to come: a short, steep climb up a ridge soon took us from one lake to the next, quickly gaining 200m altitude to the highest point of the track at 1440m. The views are second to none: to the South, Lower Tama Lake was backed by the snowy bulk of Mt Ruapehu while to the north, the perfect cone of Mt Ngauruhoe loomed.

There was nothing for it but to sit in the lee of a boulder, to be still and silent, and let the majesty of the mountains wash over us.

– Stephanie Cotteret