By Bret Johnson
Auckland NZ(Perfect Travel Today)3/30/16/–I found myself in Auckland, New Zealand looking for an adventure. I asked a good friend and he suggested on joining him for one of his bucket list items. Evan King owns The Lumsden Freehouse in Auckland and the Wood Street Freehouse in Mangawhai and has helped support, pour and pioneer the craft beer movement in NZ. He also just happens to be a travel nut. By joining him on a road trip and trek, we could fill the air with discussions about the world of beer and travel so I was sold right away. I grabbed my cousin, Justin Moreng, who just happened to be travelling throughout NZ before school started in Dunedin- the south of the South Island. One more to round out the expedition team was Andy Borberly who had just flown in from N’awlins so we had to test his BAC and altitude potential straight away.
A five-hour drive south of Auckland, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island of New Zealand is just south of Lake Taupo- an area that boasts skiing, geothermal hot springs, river boating, and a trout fishing mecca. If you like the outdoors, you need to put this place on your list. The weather can be variable and unpredictable so be prepared for all types- I call it schizophrenic weather since it can change so drastically in five to 30 minutes. As any adventurer would know, bring layers of clothing and some extra snacks and water to adjust to those climatic changes and any unforeseen delays.
You will need to arrange for a shuttle before starting since it is an A-to-B hike and there are several shuttle service providers. Starting at 7-8am is ideal if you want to hit some of the tangent tracks available and explore more than just the main track. By the way, a hiking trail of any kind in New Zealand is called a “track.” Since we drove down from Auckland at 5am, we started the trek at 10:30am and needed to hustle to make our 4:30pm shuttle cutoff time. With the website calling for 7-9 hours of hiking and others telling us it could be done in 5.5 hours, we didn’t waste too much time and kept a strong pace.
Starting from the proper trailhead side at Mangatepopo Valley, the walk is a constant and gradual uphill with several spikes of climbing all relatively comfortable until you hit a set of man-made stairs aptly named ‘the Devil’s Staircase’. There is even a sign warning that you should be in good physical shape to continue after a certain point. Once you have conquered the stairs and recovered from you minor cardiac arrest, the view in your rear-view mirror is amazing. The valley below and the elevation gained so quickly looks impressive and beautiful. The rock formations and lava flows of old can all be seen in forming the impressive landscape.
Having completed the stairs, you now stand at the front edge of the South Crater and you have two choices. One, take the road less travelled and go for the summit of Tongariro itself consisting of a steep, zig-zag hike covered in volcanic scree underfoot. This addition to the hike will add an extra hour or two on your journey (depending on if you wanted to walk the upper crater when you get there). Or option two, continue on and complete your task, get it done and find the elusive craft beer. If you have the time up your sleeve and are fit enough then definitely do the summit. We had to get to our shuttle.
A few steps off of that ridge and approaching the plateau and you could be on Mars or on the set of The Lord of the Rings where many scenes of that movie were actually filmed. An erie 20 minutes of flat walking over a crater of hard smooth dirt and then a short scramble to the top of the dirty depression to find the apex known as the Red Rim.
Reaching just shy of 2,000 meters (roughly 5,800 feet), fighting for oxygen at the top is not really an issue. What is an issue is the footing. More volcanic scree and ascending is both rocky and tricky. Once at the top though any of your difficulties go away with the fantastic panoramic views and the glimpse of the Emerald Lakes below. Getting to these pools requires a 400 meter steep decline down yet more scree. I had a blast going down, skipping along and pretending I was downhill snow skiing (from here on known as Scree Skiing although I am not sure the sport will take off). Going down with speed to also keep rocks from getting into my trail running shoes but I did see several people with some pretty good scrapes from slipping on the way up or down, so be warned.
We stopped to eat deli sandwiches we had packed at the Emerald Lakes where I put on all the clothes that I had in my pack. Crossing the saddle and by another pool we started the last 10K of the 19.4K hike. The path on the way down hugged the cliff sides and snaked into the valley looking north. Some vents released some volcanic steam and the trail literally had some traction on it. By redoing this walkway recently, they have added many many kilometers of a hard plastic, honey-comb shaped grates filled with miniature stones to help keep the integrity of the track maintained.
Most of the way down to Ketatahi Road, this track caused my feet to be very sore and was the only negative aspect of my day. Even those that had thick soles of hiking boots also complained about the balls of their feet being uncomfortable. Be prepared for this. We did by planning a visit the next day to a geothermal hot-water stream called Kerosene Creek (just an hour’s drive to Rotorua, a geothermic wonderland) to soak our sore bones and muscles.
The views are amazing and seeing Lake Taupo in the distance we knew that as we left the desert rock terrain and started to enter more brush and taller trees that we were approaching the bottom. The last few kilometers tunneled through a riverbed and forest that would remind you of Jurassic Park. We had to rush to make sure we could catch the last shuttle at 4:30pm so we could start the consuming of craft beer. Part of any adventure is knowing there is a prize at the end and we had equipped a cooler of Bach Brewing beers to reward our efforts as soon as we checked into the hotel.
This hiking adventure is very similar for those that have experienced the Pacific Northwest since the Tongariro National Park is on the similar parallel from the Equator as Oregon with almost identical terrain, foliage and volcanic activity. The area of Mt. Shasta to Mt. Hood and a dash of Mammoth Lakes resembles terrain on the Tongariro Crossing and I even saw many similarities to Mt. Kilimanjaro in the way that there were several sub climates on the trek.
So, that completed our triathlon as we called it – a five hour drive, a five and a half hour hike and five beers in the last five hours of the day.
February 26, 2016 finished March 26, 2016
See you on the trail. High-five!
Photography: Bret Johnson and Evan King
For more information on the trek:
The craft beer conversation along the route was refreshing; it kept our head light and thirst heavy. The NZ craft scene is second in the world to the USA and, more specifically, the brewers on this island are starting to give the brewer’s on the West Coast of the USA a run for their money.
Mixing NZ and American hops plus a wonderfully clean water source, the craft beer market in New Zealand may be 8-10 years behind in maturity but are quickly creating some excellent beers. For more info on craft beer and Mr. King’s Freehouses:
287 S.Robertson Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211