Rachel Grunwell

Rachel Grunwell is a fitness writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Mt Ruapehu: High in the hills

There's more to Ruapehu than winter sports. Rachel Grunwell visits in summer for a weekend of adventure

View of Mt Ruapehu from the north side of the railway bridge which crosses the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai. Photo / Sarah Ivey
View of Mt Ruapehu from the north side of the railway bridge which crosses the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai. Photo / Sarah Ivey

I'm off to Ruapehu in February, and sure enough, everyone asks if I realise it's not winter.

I, too, wonder how I'll find the region when it's snowless. But as I near the end of the four-hour journey from Auckland, my questioning melts away.

I reach the central plateau and it's captivating. Mt Tongariro is puffing smoke - what a sight. Mt Ngauruhoe is magnificent and looks different as we sneak up on it at night.

Ruapehu shows off surprising snow-capped peaks. These three summits take my breath away every time I see them. Never mind if it's winter, summer, in rain or sunshine, I behave like a Japanese tourist and go snap-happy.

My husband Damien, who's driving, gets all sentimental too. "I love this place. I could live here," he says. Big words from this bloke. It takes mountains to move him.

We overnight at Ranfurly Cottage in Raetihi. Hosts Ron and Alison Hope greet us enthusiastically and fuss sweetly over our baby, Finn. They then quietly disappear and leave us in a huge private wing.

It's cosy and we have several rooms all to ourselves.

We eat take-out pizza from Volcano Coffee and Pizzeria. It's as good as you can get in Auckland.

The next day, Damien samples Volcano's excellent coffee when he takes Finn to the Waimarino A&P Show. The show is lucky timing for Finn - Damien says the little guy's enthusiastic pointing at all the animals means it was pretty choice. It's moments like that you escape the city for.

Damien puts Finn in the backpack and goes off to explore the historic Te Maire Loop Track. It's in the most northern part of Whanganui National Park, and he does it quicker than the two hours the sign suggests it takes.

Meanwhile, I meet up with Visit Ruapehu Trust representatives Sandy Waters and Graeme Cosford, the fittest 75-year-old I've met. We take a spin on part of the Timber Trail mountain bike ride, one of 19 rides that make up the New Zealand Cycle Trail, the brainchild of Prime Minister John Key.

We cycle the 42km trail between Piropiro Flats and Ongarue, which goes into the depths of Pureora Forest and is graded intermediate level.

It follows historic tramways, old bulldozer roads and new tracks. There are tunnels covered by bush and the historic Ongarue Spiral, and I'll never forget those two whopping suspension bridges - the longest is 141m, and 55m off the ground. I'm thankful I didn't drink more than a glass of red the previous night when I see these; they're at dizzying heights.

At the end of the track we see a deer close by, a wonderful way to end the ride.

Taumarunui Canoe Hire fit us out with our rented bikes and helmets, transport us to the start point and arrange to pick us up at the end. I would recommend using this service; to merely start the track at one point, cycle for a bit and then have to backtrack would be a crime. I cycle it in four hours and 15 minutes, but that is gunning it almost all the way, with just quick stops for lunch and to read some signs. I'd recommend taking the whole day to savour the sights. We see only five people on our trip, including a Rotorua policeman out with his daughter. To quote him, the trail is "bloody brilliant".

After cycling, I meet Damien and Finn at Lauren's Lavender Farm. In summer, the rows of 9000 purple plants mean you can smell lavender thick in the air - surely the perfect way to relax after a big bike ride. We all sit at the cafe, watching bumble bees and butterflies float above the aisles.

If you're a bit of a food snob, like me, then seek out The Station Cafe in the National Park Village. It's a registered historic tram station and it's pretty low-key decor, but we found great service, great food and even a handy kids' menu.

The Chateau Tongariro was the destination for our second night. This grand lady has views of those magnificent mountains and you can't help but lap up a place where a pianist plays and chandeliers drip at every turn. Who doesn't love a bit of pomp?

The Chateau is conveniently on the doorstep of the Ruapehu Alpine Lifts. The next morning we all take a ride up to 2020m above sea level to sit in the country's highest and most stylish cafe. We take in the spectacular views across the Tongariro National Park.

It's a swell summer's day and we're gutted we haven't left enough time to do the guided crater lake hike or one of the volcanic walks up here.

Reluctantly we leave Ruapehu, along with all the other activities we haven't had a go at: jet boating, fishing, canoeing, rafting, scenic flights, golfing, horse riding ...

But I know we'll be back. Just quietly, I think the place has had an effect on the bloke. I caught him checking out baches on the internet.


• Rachel Grunwell and family visited courtesy of Visit Ruapehu. See www.visitruapehu.com

- Herald on Sunday

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