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November 2015 Issue
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Polar experience

Trampers walking across the vast Summit Plateau with Cathedral Rocks rising high above the glacier. Photo: Zhi Yuen Yap
Tongariro National Park
3-4hr from the Knoll Ridge Cafe
Whakapapa Ski Area

Summit Plateau, Tongariro National Park / Moderate

If you want an alpine experience, but hate the sense of height or exposure of standing on a knife-edge ridge, then Mt Ruapehu’s Summit Plateau is a place for you.

The plateau is a flat area consisting of multiple old volcanic craters, now covered by a glacier up to 130m thick in places. It feels more like a vast polar ice field than the top of New Zealand’s highest volcano. The peaks of Cathedral Rocks, Te Heuheu, Tukino Peak, and Dome – the remnants of the old crater rim – rise above the glacier and create a stunning backdrop to the otherwise featureless icy landscape.

There’s no track up here, feel free to create your own route. It’s a great place to get some mileage on crampons or snowshoes.

A trip to this stunning place is not complete without a visit to Crater Lake. With its deceptively serene blue water, it’s one of the most active volcanic vents in New Zealand. It’s like standing near a sleeping dragon: exhilarating, yet terrifying if it’s awakened.

This area is amazing enough during the day, but after dark, it is otherworldly. The thin high altitude air allows a clear view into the centre of the Milky Way and its interstellar stardust. Meteors are common; and right on schedule, the International Space Station streaks across the sky. Once your eyes are adjusted to the dark, a night wander on the Summit Plateau is a truly unforgettable experience.

– Zhi Yuen Yap