Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

There had been a bit of an “end to the trip” feel on the way to Wellington and when leaving it the following day. It’s the same feeling I had in the last few days of a long trip in 2016 and it really can be a total downer. But arriving in Ohakune with the view of Mount Ruapehu ahead, that feeling disappeared entirely.

Ohakune is a little town which looks to cater mainly for tourists. A lot of that is in the ski season, and in summer it’s likely going to be mainly for people stopping by for the Tongariro Crossing (more on that a bit later). But despite it being geared so much towards tourists, it had a better feel to it than equivalent type of places in the South Island – Queenstown, Fox Glacier, Franz Josef. In the case of Fox and Franz in particular, so much of the town feels centred around trying to sell helicopter flights. Ohakune is simply a few places to stay, places to eat and drink, and a tourist information centre. All with a great view of an active volcano.

We stayed a few miles outside of town in a village with a stunning view of Mount Ruapehu. It was a stopover on the way to Auckland and we had three nights here. Like most visitors, that was predominantly for the Tongariro Crossing.

On a cloudy, foggy morning, we traipsed through the first hour or so of the Tongariro Crossing in a queue of people. I was left completely underwhelmed, and quite frustrated at having dozens of people ahead, on what is at times a fairly narrow path, whom I couldn’t overtake. Going through my mind at the time were the hikes I’ve done where I didn’t see another soul for hours, and how different it is to something as busy as this.

We continued along the track, alongside what was some interesting landscape, albeit with poor visibility, and ended up at the foot of “Devil’s Staircase”. This is a walk that will challenge most people – stairs and slopes leading up the side of the crater for quite a distance. In hindsight it was helpful to have cloud cover for this, and to not be able to see what was far ahead. We plough on further, on to the flat area towards the Red Crater, and then…

…blue sky. The clouds quickly started to disappear and revealed a wonderful landscape around us and a great view of Mount Ngauruhoe. It also showed the next climb ahead of us and a long line of people undertaking it. But the difference in mood from the foggy, cloudy trek of the past 90 minutes to this was unreal.

We continued up the loose-rock track to the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing to truly epic views. On one side is Mount Ngauruhoe and the crater, to the other side is the Emerald Lakes, the Blue Lake, and an almost alien-like landscape. I’ve seen plenty of Instagram stories and photos from people on the crossing who undertook this in poor weather and it’s a real shame if people luck out with the clouds and rain, or simply can’t give themselves a bit more contingency time for a clearer day. The views are incredible.

The common stopping point up the side of the crater and before the summit with views of the lakes is one of my favourite parts of the entire New Zealand trip. The view back over the crater and Mount Ngauruhoe is awesome and it was a lot of fun to photograph. For much of the New Zealand trip I had been trying my and at slightly more ambitious panorama photos, getting around the crop factor limitations which create the 24mm FF equivalent focal length on the camera for something which shows the landscape in a far better way. It was also fun to capture a time-lapse of the clouds around the crater.

Something I quite enjoy when I’m at a place like this, or any place where there are lots of other tourists, is to watch the photography habits of other people. I’ve had plenty of bad photography habits myself, although none which I think would be too obvious to anyone watching. But something that is commonplace these days is the “contemplative pose” photo. Remember when someone would be taking a photo and everyone would look at the camera? The chase for Instagram likes suggests those days are long gone. At one point a girl next to me asked her friend/boyfriend/husband to take a photo, he said yes, and she immediately turned her back on him. It was a bit odd looking, but it was the immediate move into that peering-into-the-distance pose which has infiltrated social media en masse. It’s slightly better than the finger-on-top-of-a-mountain pose, or holding-up-the-leaning-tower pose. Each to their own, I guess.

The common approach for the crossing is to drive to and park at the end point, and be bussed by one of the shuttle companies to the starting point, thus walking back to your car. We took a slightly different approach and parked at the starting point with the intention of turning back from the summit, around the half-way point. This was for a couple of reasons: firstly, the idea of catching the bus and starting the walk at the same time as dozens of others didn’t really appeal (there’s me being miserable at the prospect of being in a group, again), and secondly because the views on the descent past the Blue Lake aren’t as good as those from the first part of the route, or certainly not the best on the trail, so we didn’t feel like we were going to miss too much by not completing that part of the walk.

This is, however, a big risk. The car park at the start has a four-hour maximum and it doesn’t appear to be uncommon to receive a fine or even be towed. We got lucky, though, and turned up around 45 minutes after the limit was exceeded to no issues whatsoever.

It also meant we had a more interesting walk for the second half of the trek. By this point the clouds had disappeared completely, the crowds had passed, and the descent down Devil’s Staircase showed the awesome landscape in front of us. Fields of aa (a great Scrabble word to keep handy) stretched into the distance, there were hardly any people around, and we had a fantastic, tranquil walk back to the starting point. It turns out Mount Ngauruhoe is also visible for most of the first stage of the walk, although we would never have known given the conditions.

After a decent walk like this, the only thing I really want is a shower. Unfortunately, there was a problem at our accommodation – the village had run out of water. This meant the fire brigade needed to fill up the water tanks and pumps had to be reset to get everything flowing again. For us, it meant sitting around for three hours feeling sweaty and quite disgusting, with no flowing water in the kitchen or bathroom. Lovely.

There are other walking tracks in the area. In particular, a couple that summit Mount Ruapehu which look quite interesting. Although they may suffer slightly from the fact that if you’re climbing the mountain, you don’t get to see it. And the surrounding scenery isn’t anywhere near as good as other parts of New Zealand so the view from the top may be good but not great.

The rest of our time in Ohakune was spent indulging in a few drinks and some delicious food. The utter cheese overload at the Cyprus Tree was outstanding and warranted a second visit.

Ohakune is a place which looks like people visit for very specific reasons: skiing, or the Tongariro Crossing. That may be a somewhat ignorant view of the area, having stopped over for a few nights for precisely the latter reason and exploring only a little of Mount Ruapehu aside from that. But even if only for a short stopover, it’s definitely a ‘must see’ in New Zealand.

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