Part 4: Finally, the summit of Ruapehu — and other adventures
Since my last update, I have been blessed with good climbing — and have explored many other places as well. As it turned out, the next day (the third day I was waiting for the weather to clear) from when I was writing the last update on Mount Ruapehu was again very bleak weather. I drove up to the ski area where one begins the climb of Ruapehu, and confirmed that the summit was completely shrouded in clouds. I thought about attempting the summit again, especially since it looked sunny and inviting down in the valley, but knew that the weather was dramatically different up higher. While trying to figure out my plans for the next several days, I hiked around the interesting rock formations near the ski area base, where some filming for the Lord of the Rings was done. I finally decided to travel elsewhere and do other activities for a few days, rather than continue to be stuck in the rut of waiting for the weather.
So, I drove a little north to the town of Taumarunui, where I hoped I could find information on canoeing down the Whanganui River in the Whanganui National Park. The Whanganui River is the longest continuously navigable river in New Zealand and I had read that the best way to see this national park was to take a three-to-five day canoe trip through the heart of the park on the river. Taumarunui, like every other major town in New Zealand, has a visitor information center, called an i-site. Whenever I travel to a new region of the country, I always first study my traveler's road atlas and then stop at the i-site to gather free brochures and start to learn what attractions and notable places there are in the region. Without these i-sites, getting ideas about where to go next would be much harder. There were several companies that rented canoes and provided transportation for Whanganui paddlers, and I called around and made a reservation for a 3 day rental starting the next day. The rental, plus the mandatory riverside DOC hut pass, cost a total of $165 NZD (about $110 USD). After waiting so long at Ruapehu, I was excited to do something different. Even though this is not a trail or walk, the paddling trip is classified as one of New Zealand's nine “Great Walks,” which the Department of Conservation has identified as being representative of New Zealand's diverse environment.
All three days on the river turned out to be nice weather, which was a good thing since the river was already near flood stage levels from all the rain we had been getting. I ended up paddling a double kayak — since I didn't have a canoeing partner — and I put my dry-barrels up front to even out the weight. Twelve other people launched the same day with me and we stayed at the same huts/campsites each night, so it was nice to see and sometimes paddle alongside other people. The total distance of 88 km was manageable and not too tiring since the river was running so high and fast. While I only spent a very leisurely six-to-seven hours on the river each day, sometimes just floating, I hear it takes much more work when the river levels are lower. The Whanganui River was very beautiful. For most of its course through the national park, it is a winding, shallow gorge with lush green and steep sides, and innumerable small waterfalls tumbling into the river from the banks. It has a few Class II rapids, but mostly it is flatwater. My favorite parts of the river were these beautiful waterfalls tumbling into the Whanganui. I also would paddle up side canyons, beach my kayak, and continue to explore up the side slot canyons by foot. Because I always kept stopping to explore these amazing side slot canyons, I was usually the last one to arrive at the hut each night. But I didn't mind, as the signs indicating a downriver hut were hard to spot and I probably would have floated right by the hut if it weren't for all the other canoes pulled up along the bank. The second day on the river was Christmas; it was a quiet, but nice day. Since it is summer down here, it just didn't seem like Christmas, but a few canoeists wore Santa hats all day, reminding me it was indeed Christmas. Some of us took an hour side hike up to the famous Bridge to Nowhere. Today, this bridge spans a river, but has no road at either end of it. It is really in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the wilderness. It was built in the 1930s to link an upstart farming community of returning soldiers with the rest of the world, but by time the bridge was finished, the valley had been mostly been deserted because of its poor farming. Today, little evidence of this farming community exists, except the Bridge to Nowhere.
I did enjoy the company of fellow paddlers during the trip — both some similar-aged girls that are traveling around New Zealand and doing much the same as me as well as quite a few slightly older couples. It seems that most travelers I meet here are European (with the vast majority being German, Japanese, or Australian, rather than American). I have also noticed a whole new generation of couples in their late 20s or 30s is traveling like me. They have quit their jobs back home, and are just traveling around the world or just New Zealand for a year or more; they stay in backpackers/hostels or rent a Volkswagen van with a bed in back. But I didn't see this as much three or four years ago during my travels. Perhaps more people are recognizing that life is too short to let to slip by unmeaningfully. Whatever the reason, it is nice to know that I won't be the only person my age traveling around and exploring, in years to come as I get older!
After being picked up on the way back north to where I left my car, I got my first view of Ruapehu unobstructed with clouds. It is a massive mountain, the highest in the North Island at 2,797 meters and I was amazed at the amount of snow you could see still on the mountain. Since it was such nice weather that evening, I decided to drive back to Ruapehu to make another attempt the next day. The mountain was clear in the morning, so I got ready and hiked up the ski runs as fast as I could. However, by the time I got to the crater rim, it was again completely socked in with clouds, with zero long-distance visibility. However, the cloud layer wasn't thick, and it seemed the clouds were just rolling over the top of the mountain, so hope remained. That said, the forecast did call for 80 kmph winds that day. Thankfully, I had tracks to follow from hikers the past few nice days, and while I didn't know exactly where they led, I was hoping it was to the summit. Actually, they led me in a half-circle back to the emergency hut in the crater, so I decided to wait there for a couple of hours. Thankfully, just as I was starting to freeze (even with all my clothes on), an opening in the clouds blew over me. I could see the huge Crater Lake and the summit of Ruapehu across from it, quite far from where I was. Even though the terrain was soon enveloped in clouds again, I memorized where to go, and headed off, around the lake. Going was slow, as I occasionally had to wait and pray for a quick glimpse of the mountain here and there to confirm where I was going, but finally I made it up onto the summit ridge. The ridge sloped off very steeply on one side down into Crater Lake (I thought — I still couldn't see to the base of the bluffs I was on), and down the other into the clouds and toward the south slopes of Ruapehu. I had my ice axe, but not my crampons. I had asked the woman at the visitor center at Whakapapa if I needed them, but she assured me I didn't need them. In retrospect, I don't think she took me literally when I said I wanted to summit the mountain, and had assumed I only meant to climb to the crater rim. Finally, I got to a point on the rim where I could not climb over the rocks in front of me, and I felt uncomfortable traversing around them, since I didn't have crampons and the snow was fairly firm with an ice base below it. Just as I contemplated turning around, the clouds lifted completely, so that I discovered there was a nice flat plateau lying below the bluffs I was on, between me and Crater Lake. I could follow this platuea along the base of the crater rim I was on, and then make a steep climb up the headwall from the inside side of the crater to just below the summit. This route proved doable; the headwall climb was very steep, and I chopped footsteps into the ice and snow with my axe, making the climb very slow. However, I wasn't too worried, as this part of the headwall had an excellent runoff to the plateau below should I slip. Finally, I chopped my way over the headwall cornice, and then had to scale an equally steep pitch up the summit rocks. Here, I chose to stay on some rather icy rocks, rather than go out on the open snow slope, and to be honest was quite scared without a belay. Thankfully, I didn't slip, and made the summit. The weather had cleared by this time, and I was amazed at the sheer size of Ruapehu's summit craters and plains. Descending the summit rocks was again scary and I purposely made an adrenaline-pumping controlled slide down the headwall snow chute rather than climbing down. The rest of the descent was uneventful, and I could see how far off route I had been on my previous summit attempt. I made it back to my car after a 12-hour day. Ruapehu is a major mountaineering challenge, even in the summer, but I love this mountain.
The next day, I decided to drive west toward Mount Taranaki/Egmont National Park, to re-attempt this mountain. I was blessed with one of the few clear days on this mountain. I ascended via the most popular North Taranaki route, which by this time all the snow had melted off of. Tens of other climbers summited the same day, but I was one of the few with an ice axe, and I would like to think I one-upped them because I passed quite a few climbers as I slid past them on a parallel snow gully to the rocky/scree route. I made the return trip in only about six hours, which is quite fast since the elevation gain on this mountain is close to 2,000 meters. Mount Taranaki is a spectacular mountain, which stands alone and rises up from the Taranaki coastline to a height of 2,518 meters. While it is not a technical climb in the summer, many world class mountaineers — such as the famous Sir Edmund Hillary — have called this mountain home.
In the late afternoon after my climb, I drove around the mountain to Dawson Falls for another view of the mountain I climbed (once you summit a mountain, it is always nice to go to the touristy lookouts, and say to yourself, “I was up there earlier today!”) and took a refreshing (cold) swim in some pools along a mountain stream. Also in the Taranaki region, I walked along the beach beneath the White Cliffs, and spent a day exploring the seacaves and arches and rock pillars around the Three Sisters rock formations area, about an hour north of New Plymouth. Mount Taranaki was visible on the horizon, and the rock formations in the foreground provided excellent photographic opportunities. This is perhaps my favorite section of New Zealand coastline I have come across so far.
From here, I drove south and camped at some beautiful iron sand beaches, then decided to drive back across the North Island to the Napier/Hastings area to visit the Gannett colony at Cape Kidnappers, and to spend New Years. The walk out to Cape Kidnappers took about 2½ hours, and it was beautiful, though this area is extremely touristy. I was nearly run over by all the private four-wheelers and commercial tractors pulling wagons of tourists along the beach to the Gannet colony. However, seeing the thousands of birds so close (I was allowed to stand as little as one-to-two meters from the birds and chicks) was well worth my efforts. The actual Cape Kidnappers is also very scenic and is — like most beautiful places in NZ — rich in Maori history and legends.
That evening was New Year's Eve and I met up with some Kiwi blokes staying at the same hostel as I was and we hung out together in Napier for the evening. Fireworks at midnight are traditional in New Zealand, and Napier put on a nice show, closing off all the downtown streets for all the pedestrians to walk around in. On New Year's day, I drove south to the longest place-name in the world, which just so happens to be a hill. I saw this place on the map, and decided that since I am into climbing the highest mountains around the world, why not hike the longest named mountain in the world as well? Around two hours south of Napier, the hill is named Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu. This is Maori; its translation something like, “The hill on which Tamatea, the chief of great physical stature and renown, played a lament on his flute to the memory of his brother.” While I had no clue what I was saying, I timed myself and pronounced the entire name in 16 seconds. One can view the hill from the road, and there is a large sign which displays the name of this hill and its history. However, if you pay a $5 fee at the Waipukurau information centre for a permit, you can hike about 1½ hours over private farm land to the top of the hill, which is 252 meters above sea level. Of course I did this, and it was a very rewarding experience, though crossing through the fenced fields with all the cattle was a little disconcerting, especially when the whole herd starts running toward you, not away. (Cattle are naturally curious, apparently, and the information sheet on the hill I got from the visitor centre says to just give a smack on the cow's nose if it gets too close.) There are competing claims elsewhere in the world for the title of the longest place name, such as a town in Ireland; however, without any argument, this hill is the longest mountain name in the world!
The following day was rainy and gale-force winds, but I decided to hike for a day in the popular Tuatara Range north of Wellington, to get a feel for what this range offered. Since I didn't have a map of the range, I found a Mount Holdsworth, elevation 1,470 meters, listed on my road atlas and decided to go there. The moss-covered forest, shrouded in dark clouds, was surreal to hike through, and my favorite part of the day. The summit of Holdsworth involves about a half-hour's hike above treeline along a grassy ridge. The two parties ahead of me tried to summit, but turned around because of the high winds and zero visibility. However, I successfully made way to the top, dropping flat on the ground whenever an especially strong gust of wind came. The wind was a steady 70 kph with gusts higher.
Hiking the longest place name in the world and in the Tuataras had completed most everything I had wished to do in the North Island, and I had planned to leave for the South Island then. However, while in Napier I made a friend who lived in Wellington, so I decided to spend a few extra days in the area. It is always more fun to explore a city with someone else, and especially with someone who knows the area. Among the things we did together, we drove out to the Cape Palliser lighthouse and seal colony (the southernmost part of the North Island), hiked up to the Putangirua Pinnacles where some filming for the Lord of the Rings was done (it started raining when we were up one of the narrow passageways, and little rocks being eroded in the rain started falling on our heads (even a penny dropped from high enough can kill someone, but I decided to not mention that fact till later), took a ferry out to Somes Island in the Wellington Harbour for a day, walked along the Wellington harbour coastline to Pencarrow Head lighthouse, and visited the national museum, Te Papa. All this was very fun, but the time comes when one needs to move on, and so I caught an overnight car ferry to Picton on the South Island. Since then, I have done several epic backpacking trips, but that is for next update.
Jan. 30, 2006