Tongariro: Mountain adventure

By Andrew Gillick

Andrew Gillick tests his driving and cycling skills in the Tongariro National Park.
Photo / Zhi Yuen Yap.
Photo / Zhi Yuen Yap.

It wasn't the sort of weekend to undertake a five-hour journey to a place even colder and wetter than where I already was. But in the icy clutches of the mountain, stomping through rain and mist, it felt surprisingly normal, even natural.

"On a scale of one to 10, I'd give this a six", said Stewart, our guide on this winter expedition of Tongariro.

"So would you go out in much worse than this?" I probed.

"To a point, to about a three or four."

The old adage of there being no such thing as bad weather, just a bad choice of clothes was mentioned. Bit of a cliche, I thought, until the procession of sodden denim and cotton-clad souls started its descent from the mist above. The bloodshot eyes in their raw faces suggested we should turn back.

They looked miserable. I felt delighted - justified in wearing my ski gear. I thought I might have stood out like a scuba diver in a hot tub but I learned the conditions on this mountain are notoriously tempestuous. As our feet dug deeper and deeper into snow we were only another 40 minutes from the crater lakes when our guide deemed the 70km/h-plus winds too risky to progress.

Stewart, who runs the Adrift Adventure Co from the national park, has a Michael Palin air of adventure about him - albeit younger and fitter - optimistic by nature and seemingly indefatigable. His company prides itself on getting out nearly everyday regardless of the weather, getting people through that mental barrier that stops them having a good time when the weather is suboptimal.

The cracking whips of lightning the night before was an ominous sign for any road trip and might have put me off had I not been shielded by a Ford Everest.

A worthy chariot for wading into battle with the elements, it has a cockpit of intuitive technology wrapped in handsomely crafted metal. At the touch of a dial you can adjust the car's setup to the terrain - sand, mud, snow, rock or even off-camber and traction on the waterlogged roads didn't seem an issue.

I never thought I would enjoy driving down kilometres of unsealed back country roads, especially with a bike rack and two bikes hanging off the towbar, but with the 4X4 on I lost all sensibility and indulged my WRC fantasies. It was so smooth on the gravel that it was only several kilometres later that I realised I was missing a bike from the rack after it was hurtled into a hedgerow around a long corner.

Spinning through some of the country's oldest bush on the Tongariro National Park's only mountain-bike trail on a sleepy Sunday morning I was glad I had retrieved my steel steed. The Old Coach Road is a trail for all levels that you can take your time on and read the history along the way, but is equally fun for the more advanced who want a good warm-up for the rest of the day. Darren, from Mountain Bike Station, took the bikes up to the trail head while imparting his local knowledge and stopping by the eerie car-wrecking yard that was the setting for the 1980s Kiwi classic Smash Palace.

Tongariro National Park, Ruapehu. Photo / Conrad Smith
Tongariro National Park, Ruapehu. Photo / Conrad Smith

Mounting the Everest again (literally, you do need the step) and turning a few too many dials, I finally managed to set the satnav for Turangi, where we were to meet Tongariro River Rafting. The weather had turned decidedly hostile on the way. I didn't think it would go ahead.

But on our arrival, the operation was running at full steam. Along with what must have been more than 60 Aussie kids over on a Rotary trip, the staff managed the logistics of sorting everyone out with gear and transport with admirable patience.

The grade 3 Tongariro River is considered a technical course and although there aren't any big fast-flowing white rapids, its low volume poses its own challenges and requires quite a bit of paddling strength and manoeuvring. Our man at the helm, Tom, had us weaving through tight rock sections and bouncing off some generous-sized boulders. The secluded beauty on the open river, with its pumice cliffs, wild bush and black sand shores has an Into the Wild ambience about it and there's plenty of time to take it in.

To wrap up over two hours on the water we were taken for a welcome soak in the Tokaanu thermal pools and in case that hadn't sufficiently warmed us, were fed hearty soup and bread back at the Rafting Co - serious Brownie points there.

Ohakune, with the Turoa Ski Field at the rear.
Ohakune, with the Turoa Ski Field at the rear.

I had set up base at the Rocky Mountain Chalets in Ohakune for the weekend, a perfect location in walking distance from the giant carrot - and town. It's a quiet community of well-appointed detached two-bedroom units with all the mod cons and a communal hot tub and sauna facility. The kind of place where you wouldn't mind getting snowed in.

The Cyprus Tree restaurant was the location for prandial purposes most nights and, with its big old fire and wooden surrounds, it captures the alpine atmosphere of winter very well. The food was top and the quality of beers on tap would be hard to beat.

That I had finally mastered the car's satnav made it easier to find my way back to the big smoke but I when the time came, I switched it off and enjoyed the long way back.

- Spy.co.nz

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