Lydia Jenkin drops the shops and experiences a Ladies' Weekend with a difference - caving, climbing and trekking in Tongariro National Park.
* At 11.50pm on August 6, 2012, a volcanic eruption occurred at Mt Tongariro's Te Maari crater. Anyone planning on visiting the area should first check the latest travel advisories on the Department of Conservation's website.
When someone utters the phrase "Ladies' Weekend", I usually assume they mean shopping and wine, with relaxation and indulgence the priorities. But sometimes it's nice to come away from a girly catch-up with a sense of achievement and satisfaction that's not coupled with a maxed-out credit card and an armful of new clothes.
Down at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre, nestled in Tongariro National Park, they've come up with an alternative for those who wish for something a little more adventurous, and outdoorsy.
Their Ladies' Weekend packages will have you climbing mountains, taking part in high ropes courses, going kayaking, or even caving - testing your physical and mental strength; though you won't be forced to try anything you're not keen on, of course.
Having been lucky enough to attend a week-long camp at the centre as a teenager, I had some fond memories, and a fair idea of what we were in for - though the gear list also helped jog my memory. It's worth noting that the gear required is nothing fancy, and the centre can supply just about anything you don't have.
I convinced a trusting friend to come with me, and we drove down on a lovely clear Friday evening, arriving to find the lodge well warmed by the open fire and lasagne waiting on the table. The first evening was all about a bit of relaxation, a few glasses of wine, and getting to know the other participants - there were 14 of us, a sprinkling of women who'd come on their own, one work team, and a group of keen young mums from Tauranga who'd decided to swap a shopping weekend in Auckland for a couple of days in the outdoors.
There was a wide age range, from 20-something to 60-something, but our lovely instructors were happy to split us into smaller groups when necessary, and accommodate the wishes and abilities of everyone.
Given the promising weather forecast, everyone opted to try a mountain walk on the Saturday - a couple were keen to do the Tongariro Crossing, and the rest of us chose Ruapehu as our challenge.
We awoke to a fresh and frosty morning that had everyone whipping their cameras out to capture the beautiful scenery.
After a hot breakfast and a lunch-making session (hearty sandwiches, muesli biscuits and fruit were the go), it was off to the mountains, with Ruapehu and Tongariro looking spectacular under the clear blue sky, with just a small cap of snow on each.
With most in our group keen to aim for the summit, but a few others happy with a more leisurely climb, we split into two parties, and set off at a reasonable pace.
Our guide Janet ably guided us over the rocky terrain, leaving us plenty of time to grab some stunning photos of the views, and the delicate ice and snow formations, but making sure our pace was on track with our goal.
The sense of achievement on reaching the top (at 2797m) was quite something, and the view was worth every step of the climb.
Despite being a little stiff the following morning, we were all keen to try our hand at some caving. After getting geared up in cover-alls, helmets and headlamps, we drove deep into the park, and found ourselves next to the river trying to pick out the cave entrance.
Suffice to say there's a bit of a squeeze, and some agile body manoeuvring required to find your way in, but once inside you're treated to a wonderland of glow-worms, rock formations, and a real sense of exploration. Again there are options to suit everyone, but the adrenalin rush that comes with sliding down the "toaster", or wriggling through the "birth canal" is brilliant, and worth a try.
An afternoon on the high ropes course seemed like it might be ever so slightly tame in comparison, but once we started clambering up rock walls, climbing swaying poles and leaping off platforms (the "big swing" is great fun) it felt like the perfect challenge to end the weekend. Plus we were nice and dry for the drive home.
Where: OPC Tongariro is located between National Park Village and Turangi Township.
When: The next course is August 10 - 12
Cost: $352 per person, for two nights' accommodation and activities, all meals and snacks included (though you're welcome to BYO alcohol and food) and any extra gear required.
Further information: See opc.org.nz, or phone 07 386 5511.