Raw nerves on Mt Ruapehu

Around New Zealand Chris Daniels apprehensively doubles down on the North Island's highest mountain.
The rough, eastern slopes of Mt Ruapehu, near Whangaehu River. Photo / Supplied
The rough, eastern slopes of Mt Ruapehu, near Whangaehu River. Photo / Supplied

So here was my fear. I've been invited to try out new outdoor gear on an action day on Mt Ruapehu. But the weather's not looking good and the hoped-for photo shoot of Kathmandu's high-end XT equipment is looking doubtful.

As enthusiastic but inexperienced trampers, we're going to instead take a nature trail alternative.

This would be, of course, humiliating. Observed by seasoned tour guides and alpine experts, our group of soft Auckland journalists and public relations types would be seen doing the equivalent of driving around the local supermarket carpark in a customised offroad vehicle better-suited for a drive through the Amazon rainforest.

The colours of the jackets are a smart orange and a graphite grey - smart on an individual, but together as an identically attired group we looked like we were imitating a mountain search-and-rescue squad preparing to scramble for the chopper.

But be careful of what you wish for - later that afternoon our hiking group was nearly knocked over in 100km/h+ winds on the exposed eastern flank of Mt Ruapehu; struggling across the blasted volcanic scoria.

There's no tree, not even a bush and sometimes there'll be one tiny patch of tussock every 500sq m.

The constant high wind has pushed tonnes of fine sand into every nook and cranny of many of the gullies, creating a martian landscape of cinders and dust.

We had turned off the Desert Rd and headed up the eastern flanks of Mt Ruapehu on the Tukino Mountain Rd, which leads up to the Tukino club skifield. From here we headed south, taking in a section of the Round the Mountain track.

The track is a four- to six-day, 66.2km hike, classified by DoC as an advanced walk --that is, for people with moderate to high-level backcountry (remote areas) skills and experience, navigation and survival skills required. The route is mostly unformed and may be rough and steep. Markers, poles or rock cairns guide walkers, who can expect unbridged stream and river crossings.

Our only river crossing is, thankfully, by way of bridge - but some bridge it was. A single-person swaying swing bridge, blowing back and forth across the Whangaehu River. This river is only a low rushing creek, but it takes its place at the bottom of a rocky gully perhaps 500m across and 60-100m high.

Why so wide and impressive? A cheery DoC sign explains it all: "Warning! This river valley is a known lahar (volcanic mudflow) path. Lahars destroyed bridges at this site in 1975, 1995 and 1999. We advise that you move quickly through this area."

We're here precisely two days after the volcanic alert level was raised on the mountain - temperatures on the crater lake have risen quickly and there had been some tremors, too.

Another sign closer to the bridge advises not to cross if you hear a loud rushing sound - (because that'll be the thousands of tonnes of mud and rocks pouring down the mountainside from the ruptured crater lake).

Sure, we might not have bears, lions or snakes in the New Zealand bush, but DoC sure knows how to put a heightened fear of natural disaster on its track information signs.

The Whangaehu Valley we're crossing is the the same track taken by the fatal lahar on Christmas Eve 1953, which wiped out the railway bridge at Tangiwai, leading to the river plunge of the Wellington to Auckland express train: 151 died, prompting a move to better monitoring and lahar alert systems.

As recently as 2007, a medium-sized lahar came rushing down this valley -- rapidly draining an estimated 1.29 billion litres from the crater lake just a short way upstream from our narrow bridge crossing.

After successfully negotiating the bridge, we keep heading south for a lunch stop at the Rangipo Hut - a 20-bunk hut that's serviced in summer but a lot quieter in winter. It's bleak and exposed, but with striking views across the Rangipo Desert south towards Waiouru and the bush-clad Kaimanawa Ranges to the east.

And then it's back we go. A tough day's walk across unforgiving terrain; no shelter from the wind or cold, no trees or natural features to provide comfort.

Tired, but happy to have conquered a deep-seated fear - not of heights, lahars or being blown off the side of a mountain - but of looking like an overdressed wannabe in front of the outdoor pros.

Checklist: Mt Ruapehu

Getting there: Tukino access road - off the Desert Rd just north of Waiouru, five hours south of Auckland. Track begins just below the skifield, about 15 minutes from the highway. Road unsealed and best suited for a 4WD.
More info: www.adriftnz.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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