TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK, New Zealand — We were above the clouds, gazing across open space at the steep black slopes of an enormous volcano. Behind it, the snowcapped summit of an even larger volcano emerged majestically from the clouds. It was like a scene from a dream.
Far below, tiny figures made their way across a wide, flat crater, crossing the same dusty expanse that we had traversed just an hour before. In that hour my hiking partner and I had done quite a bit of climbing. But now, as we sat at the very top of Mt. Tongariro, we were rewarded with one of the most spectacular views New Zealand had to offer. If I never hiked again, the memory of this vista could see me happily through the rest of my days.
Most outdoors-oriented visitors to New Zealand spend their time on the country's sparsely populated South Island, lured by its pristine rivers and unspoiled mountain trails, and by the city of Queenstown's reputation for continually reinventing sports for adrenaline addicts. North Island is usually dismissed by such adventurers as civilized, settled, just a place to change planes. Too bad, because, as I discovered on a visit last year, it not only has a full complement of sports; it also offers the rare challenge of trekking through a volcano field.
The volcanic terrain of Tongariro National Park provides a close-up look at a very alien environment, complete with twisted lava formations, steam vents and crater lakes. One way to see all of this is to take the 12-mile Tongariro Crossing, often called the best day hike in New Zealand because of the magnificent scenery and varied terrain. It's moderately difficult but not dangerous; a number of elderly hikers were on the trail.
The park owes its existence to a forward-thinking Maori chief who ceded the land to the people of New Zealand in 1887 as a way to protect it from farmers and loggers. Now comprising 196,687 acres--about the size of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia--the park is situated around a trio of active volcanoes: Ruapehu, elevation 9,175 feet; Ngauruhoe, 7,515 feet; and Tongariro, 6,516 feet. Ruapehu, the highest point on North Island, has erupted more than 60 times since 1945, spectacularly in 1995 and '96. This, however, has not diminished its popularity. Situated about halfway between the cities of Auckland and Wellington, Tongariro Park counts about 1 million visitors a year, with summer hikers outnumbering winter skiers.
Almost everything I've ever read about New Zealand has referred to its unspoiled natural beauty. A business trip to Australia gave me the opportunity to stop over in the Kiwis' land and see for myself. A little Internet research introduced me to Tongariro's park, and in April 1998--the end of the southern hemisphere summer--I was headed there on a train from Auckland.
I had set up a reservation via e-mail at Howards Lodge, one of the many ski lodges in the village of National Park. The room was spartan--a bed and dresser, bath down the hall, bring your own towels--but I'd be there for only two nights, and the price was right, about $30 total.
Howards is geared to the active outdoors enthusiast. It has no restaurant, no pub, only a communal kitchen where guests can prepare light meals or stow food for hikes, and a big lounge with TV, billiards, books and board games.
Fine with me; I had planned on filling the afternoon of my arrival with outdoor activity of some sort, but rain had followed me on the train from Auckland and showed no sign of letting up. I became really concerned when some people in the lounge said they had been waiting days for the rain to end so they could hike the Tongariro Crossing. The forecast, they added, was not good.
Despite this upsetting news, I was determined to hike the trail--rain or shine. A few minutes later, however, I got more bad news: Hikers who come here without cars have to depend on the local shuttle operators for access to park trails, and on rainy days shuttle service is halted.
I was crushed.
The next day brought no change in the weather. Frustrated, I found a ride to the park's visitor center and directions to a trail suitable for a short hike in the rain.
As I slogged along, a group of New Zealanders invited me to join them. They, too, were killing time before making the Tongariro Crossing.
We were on the Tama Lakes Trail, which wound through rain forest, past a waterfall, uphill on volcanic rock and along a marshy stretch, but we never did see the Tama Lakes in the thickening fog.
Later we relaxed over a few games of pool and some New Zealand beer in the aptly named Grand Chateau, a 1920s hotel extravagance near the visitor center. Outside, the rain continued to fall. It was still falling when I got a ride back to Howards Lodge; still falling when I joined a fellow guest, a North Carolinian named Steve, for dinner. Even as I drifted off to sleep around midnight, the rain continued to come down.