Crater Crossing - Walk New Zealand
Sometimes you only appreciate your luck with hindsight. Viewed from the rim of the North Crater, Lake Taupo stretched away until its cobalt blue became hazy with distance. It was, you imagined, like looking at earth from space.
But it was not until several days later, when our hosts at dinner regaled us with their account of hunkering down in a howling gale, to avoid being blown off the mountain, that we realised how fortunate we had been to enjoy it. Maybe only one in three of their guests had been able to make the Tongariro Crossing, they said, let alone in such perfect conditions.
They may have exaggerated, of course, but there is no doubt that completing the Crossing is, as our travel guide notes warned, “weather dependent”, and that most people with limited holiday time in New Zealand do not have enough flexibility to hang around waiting for clear skies.
That does not mean you should not take the chance, for if you do strike lucky, it will be a day you will never forget. From the Bay of Islands in the north to Milford Sound in the south, New Zealand is a country of great spectacles, but they do not come any more spectacular than this.
It was not as though we had been starved of visual treats since arriving in Auckland. West of that city we had strolled barefoot in black sand by the Tasman Sea, watching grey breakers thunder in on Karekare beach, just as in Jane Campion's film, The Piano, some of whose opening scenes were shot there.
On the Coromandel Peninsula we had walked for five unbroken kilometres by the Pacific, along an equally stunning beach of paler colour, paddling back to our parked car through a flooding tide, up an estuary where the blue wings of kingfishers flashed.
Near Rotorua, with its geysers, geothermal springs and whiffs of sulphur, we put up at a“homestay” - essentially b&bs though they usually offer the option of pre-booked dinner - it was immaculately luxurious. From its windows you could see Mount Tarawera, which last erupted 120 years ago, sending a plume of ash at least seven miles into the sky. We walked through volcanic Waimangu Valley, where Japanese tourists exclaimed in amazement at the sudden sight of the steaming, turquoise Inferno Lake. And an hour or so away among the giant native trees of Whirinaki Rainforest a Maori guide showed us a beautiful river canyon of sheer sided rock, where a young woman devastated by a love triangle is said to have killed herself, returning as a heron.
There was plenty to intrigue the eye after Tongariro, too. Our guide on Whanganui River told us how, at night, he playeds tapes of kiwi calls, prompting answers from those rare, threatened, symbolic birds. But you are unlikely to see one. On the way he pointed out the site of a former Maori pa, a fortified settlement hidden in the bush, where warriors hauled their canoes high up the cliffs, beyond the reach of saboteurs - and iron rings in the rock, through which river steamer crews ran ropes to help them across the rapids.
We should have walked to the nearby Bridge to Nowhere, built too late to rescue a doomed project to help soldiers who had fought in the Great War establish farms. Appropriately, given that the instability of the land was the main reason the project failed, we were prevented from getting there by a landslip.
Our itinerary was designed to provide an overview of the country, while enabling us to sample some of its celebrated long distance hiking routes. Thus we spent a day on each of two tracks at the north end of South Island: the Queen Charlotte and the gentler Abel Tasman, climbing on both for glorious views of inlets and green promontories and descending to stunning beaches.
On the road we tried not to eat too many of the splendid pies, which are sometimes with unusual fillings such as smoked fish rather than meat and are available cheaply in bakeries everywhere. We made no such effort when it came to the equally ubiquitous seafood, including scallops and the unappetisingly named but delicious green lipped mussels, which invariably tasted as fresh as could be. Nor were we able to resist New Zealand's wines, from fine sauvignon and pinot noir to a fine Gewurztraminer, drunk as an an aperitif before yet another fish dinner.
The west coast, we were advised, was at its characteristic best when a strong westerly blustered. The wind refused to cooperate but the driftwood strewn sands and wave pounded cliffs – most notably those eroded to form the limestone layered Pancake Rocks at Punekaiki – nevertheless generated a wild excitement.
Our finale was at at Milford Sound, where palm trees and Alpine snow can be photographed in the same frame, on a section of the country's most famous hike – the Milford Track. Here we walked on the sunny banks of a benign Clinton River, imagining how it would be in heavy rain when it can rise above your boots in no time, and considering how much history had happened in the life of an 800 year old beech tree, which must have reached maturity before New Zealand was settled by humans.
But nothing topped the Tongariro Crossing. Linger often to absorb that other wordly landscape and it could take 7 – 8 hours. You will not be alone. From spring to autumn – even on weekdays - there can be over 200 other hikers strung out across it. It is hardly surprising, for I doubt here is a much better day hike anywhere.
After a pleasant preamble by a stream a strenuous uphill section over rough lava flows brings you to the South Crater. A huge glacial basin rather than an actual crater, its black and tan, rubble scattered floor could double as the landing spot for a spaceship. From there a second, shorter climb leads to a windy ridge on the edge of the Red Crater, this time the genuine article, which gets its astonishing colour from oxidised iron in the rock.
We skidded on our heels down a steep slope of debris called scoria to picnic by the gem like Emerald Lakes and continued to the Blue Lake, where eating and drinking would trample Maori sensitivities, for they regard it as tapu (sacred). On such a cloudless afternoon Lake Taupo, itself formed after a massive eruption, was in view for much of the long, tiring descent to the Ketetahi car park. Flopping in the sunshine, waiting for a shuttle bus, I regretted that an exhausted camera battery had prevented me taking more than a single shot.
It was generous of an English hiker, encountered en route, to take the trouble of e-mailing some of his. But if he hadn't bothered, we would not have been too distraught. Computer memories can be wiped, after all. Ours are indelible.
This itinerary was organised by Discover the World