I’m up and packing at 3 am. Friends, there are stars out. Glory Hallelujah. Fingers crossed we make the crossing before the storms come. Dark gives way to gray splashed with orange, a long road walk then it begins.
We’re silent on the road, all wishing the same thing. Nearly 10 km before an empty car park and I decide to go on and start alone. They’ll all catch me and I promise to wait at Ketetahi shelter, a former hut damaged by an eruption in 2000.
The trail is beautiful – ‘manicured’ with plastic anti-slip, exits for run-off and wide, there are even stairs. What a contrast to the TA and the awful mud pit of yesterday. I push up moss-covered forest, winding through mist to finally break out onto tussocky hillside, calderas spewing out sinister smelling steam.
I already feel deep joy and gratitude for my birthday eve gift of stars, warmish air, that we’re all marching to the crossing and that right now, in this moment, I am making the crossing, something I was afraid I wouldn’t do.
I eat some meat and cheese, then begin the uphill zigzags towards the emerald lakes. As I ascend, I am completely enveloped in mist. I accept that this view may be all I have as I go higher and higher but suddenly, the trail levels out on a ridge and just then – as if on cue – the sun makes an appearance, revealing the massive Blue lake next to a crater in a moonscape of ancient lava flow, snow fingers tracing their wrinkles.
We make our way down to a plateau before reaching four lakes in absurd chalky green with vents spewing stinky rotten egg steam. It’s here I first see people, and a lot of them high up above. Still nervous about being caught up high and exposed from the weather, we are all a bit confused and realize this huge mountain in front of us is the trail and no one up there is particularly concerned with the forecast. Also seeing them pouring down towards me, I realize it’s no wonder the suggested circuit is the exact opposite direction of the Te Araroa, which gives us a tougher climb up crumbling pumice in short switchbacks.
As I ascend I see another backpacker in bright blue. It’s Dutch Tom! He hitchhiked a portion of the TA to get here early so as not miss any possible good weather. He’s all smiles and full of life.
Once we reach the top and take a few photos, the rest decide to head out to the next village, but I catch Tom’s enthusiasm and go back down the mountain with him to the lakes to explore and take more photos.
What a gift to not only have such fine weather but to meet a kindred soul who can’t get enough of this stark unearthly beauty. It’s the best pre-birthday gift ever to return and see it all again – even if very hard work climbing that mountain a second time. As I was so afraid of the weather and all the other things on my mind – coupled with the fact that yesterday’s hike was really hard and we awoke at 3am – I nearly just blew through the crossing without savoring it.
And here I was given a great gift in the weather holding off for me to enjoy the Tongariro’s abundance. Tom was a little reminder to always check in with myself and remember where I am, what I’m doing and what it is I hope to accomplish. It only took a few moments, but being quiet allows me to decide to have a do-over and not miss out. Later, I had to laugh at myself as I pass a line of Japanese tourists all dressed alike marching up over the crossing. Not one appeared worried about the rain nor in any particular hurry.
Tom also has a great spirit. We met on facebook before coming and connected over organizing gear and what we hoped to experience hiking. He keeps me grounded in my reasons for walking and on staying true to myself. I feel lucky to have met him today.
Once we had our fill of views, we walk down along tussocky open space and long trails of pumice ejected in recent eruptions. A river, ochre with minerals, tinkles past before we arrive at a hut. Camping is possible, but as long as we’re out of sight, it’s free. We grab water and Tom finds a mossy spot next to a dry riverbed.
Loads of rocks hold down our tent stakes in the soft ground and we create a little haven as the clouds build blacker and more threatening, and thunder rumbles. Only a few drops actually hit the alicoop before I curl in, wasted tired from such an extraordinary day.
Happy Birthday to me indeed.