Tongariro National Park turns on a bright blue day for a ramble to its even bluer lakes, writes Josie Dale.

She sits serenely on the volcanic slopes of Mt Ruapehu. In her 80s now, the grand old dame seems almost incongruous in this uniquely New Zealand setting. Reputedly modelled on Canada's Chateau Lake Louise, the Chateau Tongariro Hotel is a registered category one historic building.

Be sure to take a peek inside. It's worth visiting just to experience the elegant "old-worldly" Ruapehu Lounge with its magnificent chandeliers and spectacular view of Mt Ngauruhoe.

But we're here on more mundane matters. A friend recommended the Tama Lakes walk.

"Make the effort to climb to the Upper Lake," she said.

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Firstly, we check the latest weather report at Whakapapa Visitor Centre. It's buzzing with tourists, most of them enquiring about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Despite the beautiful day, we carry thermals and rain gear. Last year we completed the Crossing and the weather rapidly deteriorated from sunshine to howling wind and freezing sleet. Luckily, we'd been prepared, though many others were not.

Today's track begins about 100m from the visitor centre. It's an easy walk through a small beech forest, red tussock and manuka to the top of Taranaki Falls and Tama Lakes junction.

Even in inclement weather the Tongariro Crossing can be crowded, but the track to the lakes is almost deserted. We relish the isolation.

It's exciting to hear the "kek, kek, kek" call of the endangered kareare (New Zealand falcon). An adult perches on a rocky outcrop keeping an eye on two youngsters practising their aerial skills. These feisty little avian "spitfires" are capable of flying faster than 200km an hour but these two have a way to go yet.

We watch them for 10 minutes. They fearlessly ignore us though they're within three metres of the track. It's a rare privilege to experience these birds up close in their natural habitat.


Snow cloud surrounds Mt Ruapehu with the Chateau hotel in the foreground. Photo / Nicola Topping

Interesting alpine plants, including hebe, gentian and mountain daisies, grow among the red tussock. The higher we climb the more stunted and tundra-like the vegetation becomes.

Lower Tama Lake, actually an in-filled crater, appears in less than two hours. It's been a relatively gentle climb on a well formed track. The water is a beautiful cobalt colour merging to sky-blue.

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There are poles, but no track, marking the route to the Upper Lake. It's a steep climb on slippery scree.

"Hope I can get down without falling on my backside," I mutter.

I thought I was fit but I'm puffing at the top of the ridge. Ngauruhoe's perfect cone provides a spectacular snow-capped backdrop to the intense blues of the lake. Mt Ruapehu dominates the landscape behind us.

A young tourist is enthralled.

"People who don't walk miss out on these hidden gems," he says, smiling.

The descent is precarious but I avoid the indignity of slipping over.


Tourists look towards Blue Lake, the halfway point on the Tongariro Crossing. Photo / Greg Bowker

We meet a couple of tourists climbing the ridge in tramping gear. She's carrying an open umbrella. Only their eyes are visible above the wool scarves covering the lower part of their faces.

"They're prepared for Ruapehu's predicted tantrum," comments Alistair.

It's an easy walk back to Taranaki Falls where a school teacher accompanying three teenage girls asks, "How long will it take us to walk to the lakes?"

The girls look decidedly unenthusiastic.

"Probably a couple of hours," replies Alistair.

Female faces fall.

"It's getting late for a long tramp. Why don't you walk back to Whakapapa via the lower Taranaki Falls track? There's some nice bush and it only takes an hour," I suggest.

They're quick to opt for the shorter route.

"I suspect teacher welcomed the alternative, too," says Alistair.

We arrive back at Whakapapa after four and a half hours and 17km. It's been an enjoyable alternative to the famous Tongariro Crossing.

"Let's call at the Chateau for one of their famous high teas," says Alistair, tongue in cheek. He knows it's not my thing.

We settle for an icecream at Fergusson's Cafe.

Next day, a friend texts: "Hope ur not on mtn 2day."

It's not Ruapehu. Tongariro has erupted again, emphasising the unpredictability of these mountains.

Maybe the couple with their umbrella and face scarves weren't so odd after all.