A February 2003 trip
to Tongariro National Park by wanderluster
Quote: Tongariro National Park is a remote volcanic wilderness smack in the middle of New Zealand's North Island. The eerie windswept moonscape scattered with smouldering mountains, colorful craters, alpine plants, and mesmerizing mineral lakes was absolutely fascinating to explore.
We stayed two nights at Skotel Lodge in Whakapapa Village, which proved to be a great base while exploring the region. The tiny village has just two choices for accommodation, a few restaurants, and an informative Visitor Center where you can learn everything you wanted to know about volcanoes, Maori culture, and hiking trails in New Zealand's first national park. Two audio-visual shows, and a model of the Park that illuminates different mountains and trails when you push a button were my favorite parts of the Center. Also interesting was checking out the current volcanic risk level as nearby Mt. Ruapehu erupts every five to eight years. It was a little unnerving to discover that it had been eight years since she last erupted.
Load up on food prior to arriving in Whakapapa Village. A tiny store sells muffins, candy, and rice but little else. You'll want a substantial lunch on the seven to eight hour hike. If not on the trail, eat at Ferguson's Coffee Shop for quick service, great food, and half the cost of hotel lunches. I had a scrumptious BLT for .
Take advantage of the scenic day hikes in the region. Some are located directly across from the Visitor Center, including a thirty minute nature walk that identifies regional plants along the way.
We left Rotorua at 1:20pm and arrived in Whakapapa 4:20pm. The entire cost was (). The only snag was that we forgot to load our luggage onto the van on the third leg of the trip. When we arrived at Skotel and noticed our ineptness, the driver offered to retrieve our backpacks for free. That's a Kiwi. Of course we wouldn't let him, and paid him another full fare for his generosity traveling a couple hours for our benefit.
We took the train to Auckland to catch our flight home. Trains depart daily at 2pm from nearby National Park ( shuttle) and arrive in Auckland or Wellington at 7:30pm. During the five hour trip we were free to roam to the snack car or stretch out in the cushy seats while chugging along the scenic countryside. Now that's the way to travel! Fare cost around .
Its selection of accommodation is almost as varied as the surrounding landscape. You can stay in the hostel wing, sharing a dorm or a private double room; the main lodge in a standard or deluxe motel room; or away from everyone in a shared cabin or chalet.
Prices range from NZ$20 per person in a dorm room to NZ$205 for a 4-person chalet in the winter (high season). A standard double room in the lodge, where we stayed, cost NZ$110 (US$58). Oddly, it was the same cost as staying in a private double room in the smelly hostel wing with its creaky floors and paper-thin walls.
The front desk is centrally located between the hostel and the motel units in the lodge. The staff was friendly, helpful, and efficient in checking us in and making reservations for our meals and transportation to the Tongariro Crossing (NZ$15) and National Park's train station (NZ$15). Both shuttles picked us up at the front door. They also took reservations for the hot tub. Internet access is available in the lobby for NZ$2 per ten minutes.
To the left of the lobby is the lodge's dining room/bar. Spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and tall grasses appear beyond the windowed walls. Upstairs a game room looks over the dining area. It's a comfortable space, and one that's used frequently judging from the worn couches, pool tables, and chairs. To reach the other recreational area, the popular outdoor hot tub, you need to walk through the hostel, out the kitchen, and across the rocks to the glassed-in gazebo.
Lodge rooms are down the hallway from the dining room. We were pleased with our standard room. It had everything we needed and more. We slept soundly both nights (maybe it was the exhaustion from tramping), as the bed was comfortable and the air refreshingly clean (we'd been in Rotorua the night before--and kept awake by worsening sulphur smells permeating through sound walls). And the color television even had great reception up in the mountains. The room was spotlessly clean and quiet.
Breakfast was a continental buffet of granola, yogurt, coffee, and juice, but you could order a hot meal after 7am--although they won't take your order till 7:10am--even when you're standing and waiting (im)patiently by the register. Shuttles leave at 7:30am for the Tongariro Crossing, so you'll stress a bit if wanting to wolf down some protein before the big trek. But, it can be done.
The Skotel was a good place to stay and I'd stay here again. Great views and rooms. It was centrally located near the rest of the tiny village, which means that the Visitor Center and Ferguson's Coffee Shop are just three blocks away. And great little walks depart nearby leading to rivers, waterfalls, and beautiful forests.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 29, 2003
Skotel Alpine Resort
Tongariro Mountain, New Zealand
We ate most of our meals at Skotel out of convenience since we were staying there. The dining room was impressively decorated with big wooden beams, warm woods, and huge picture windows providing awesome views of the surrounding mountains. But the food was mediocre. And expensive.
Entrées cost NZ$26-28. Our first meal cost NZ$99. We each had a glass of house wine, a Caesar salad, chicken entrée, and dessert. Although we had specifically ordered side salads, our waitress brought (and charged) venison Caesar salads, adding another NZ$16 to our bill. The venison was actually quite tasty--much more tender than any lamb I had eaten in New Zealand--but since my husband doesn't eat red meat, his salad sat untouched. And our waitress did not offer to exchange it for another, when we did see her again.
One lunch was NZ$50 for sandwiches and cokes. I ordered a hamburger, the first one I'd seen on a menu in the three weeks we'd been traveling around the country. For some reason I was craving a juicy cheeseburger with all the trimmings, even though I rarely ate them at home. When it arrived, I was disappointed. There was lettuce heaped with the now-familiar grated carrots on my sandwich, a faint smear of sweet tomato sauce--no ketchup--and a zing zangy hot, hot mustard that shot through my nose and out my eyes. Accustomed to the blandness of food thus far, I was shocked at the spiciness that didn't add any positive flavor to my otherwise tasteless thick burger.
Another lunch was a disposable meal we'd ordered the night before to take on the Tongariro Crossing for NZ$15 each. We had ordered chicken croissant sandwiches, but instead opened our heavy lunch boxes to find heavily buttered Wonderbread filled with "salad" (lettuce and heaps of grated carrots), a tomato, and thin slices of salami. Oranges were too messy to eat on the trail, especially with no napkins, but I did eat the apple. The granola bar looked and tasted like a birdseed stick, leaving us thirsty for more than the tiny juicebox that disappeared in two swallows. Good thing we brought our own water and peanut M&M's to sustain our energy on the 7-hour hike!
Service was sloooow. Reservations are a must, so we were seated promptly. But, drinks did not come until after quite some time. Salads were brought to the table with the main entrée, and glasses were not automatically refilled. Even when we requested more water or Coke early in the meal, our waitress did not refill them for forty minutes to an hour--when we were ready to depart. None of our waitresses came back to check how our meals were during any of the five meals we ate there. We learned to order whatever we thought we might want (such as dessert) up front to see it materialize before midnight.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on March 29, 2003
Dining at Skotel Lodge
Skotel Alpine Resort
Tongariro Mountain, New Zealand
Attraction | "Fabulous Tongariro Crossing Trek I"
"The hardest hike I''ve ever done, but bloody well worth it," my husband said at the end of our 11-mile hike. We had climbed a quarter of a mile in altitude, but the landscape was otherworldly fantastic!
I. Mangatepopo Valley to Soda Springs (1.5 hr)
A bus picked us up at our hostel in Whakapapa Village at 7:30am, and drove us to the Mangatepopo trailhead. Unlike other hikes in NZ, this one was crowded. Herds of people headed across an open glacial valley at the edge of an old lava flow past tiny mosses, lichen, and red-stained volcanic rocks. Snowy Mt. Ruapehu loomed in the distance, quietly gurgling, secretly plotting its next explosion on the gray volcanic plain. After an hour, we crossed a stream and approached Soda Springs, where an optional short walk took us to a small waterfall.
II. Soda Springs to South Crater (1 hour)
The next hour was tough. We climbed straight up through a maze of massive boulders, stepping between and over rocks, our hearts pounding in our ears. We passed plenty of people perched on rocks panting for air, but small steps made it doable. Looking back, no trail appeared evident. Just jagged rocks jutting into the air with occasional heads bobbing up through the surface as people ascended. Relieved to be on level ground again, we agreed to skip the optional 3-hour trek to Mt. Ngurauhoe.
III. South Crater to Red Crater (1 hour)
The path became easy again–-flat and wide–-with mountains towering on both sides of the eerie, windswept valley. But after 15 minutes, we began another punishing climb up, up, up toward the ridge of the South Crater. A blustery wind blew, but clear skies allowed great views into the moon-like valley. People walked dangerously close to the edges, posing for photos.
A fine gravel scree made the subsequent climb slippery for some, but the sheer steepness winded me. At the top of the ridge, we stared into the contorted mouth of the Red Crater. WOW! Spectacular vivid red colors and dramatic black lines of a large vertical dike were crystal clear and remarkably close to the trail–-seemingly within a stone''s throw. Incredible, knowing yesterday''s hikers couldn''t even glimpse it through heavy clouds. Weather here can change instantly. Even now in full sun, the wind''s icy fingers shivered through my core. I hurriedly dug out gloves and fleece to pull over my tank top. Steamy sulphur drifted up from vents deep within the crater, enveloping us in its smelly cloud and leaving salty deposits on our skin.
Tongariro National Park
Tongariro Mountain, New Zealand
Attraction | "Fabulous Tongariro Crossing Trek II"
Descending, we ran down the ridge, digging our heels into soft ashy black scree, like going down a sand dune. Those who took timid steps slid and fell uncontrollably.
The Emerald Lakes were a popular place for lunch even though it was freezing, windy, and smelly. The strange mineral waters encrusted with a yellow layer along the outer edges of the neon-green lake were fascinating. But, at times, the sulphur was overpowering--not a place to linger.
V. Emerald Lake to Ketctahi Hut (1.5 hr)
After lunch, we passed through another glacial valley then climbed up to Blue Lake ridge. Smarter trampers were basking in the warmth of the sun eating their lunch in this protected sulphur-free space. As we sidled around the lake, views of Lake Rotoaira and gigantic Lake Taupo emerged in the distance. Amazing to think that Lake Taupo didn''t exist until 186, when the world''s largest volcano erupted, creating it.
For the next hour we wandered through thick red tussock grasses on a packed trail that zigzagged down the mountain. We passed a small waterfall with gray-colored mineral water, and reached a small hut and outhouse. (No minor detail on a 7-8 hour hike!)
VI. Ketatahi Hut to Carpark (2 hrs)
After a break, we continued down soft tussocked slopes watching a cloudy burst of steam erupt repeatedly in a mountain cleft. These were the Ketatahi Springs, sacred to Maori and off-limits to hikers. Years ago, when a Maori chief created Tongariro National Park, he kept some sites private on the otherwise public land where hundreds of trampers now romp on his mountains daily. Respecting Maori sites is the least we can do in exchange for the privilege of hiking along this fascinating terrain. Gladly, we didn''t see anyone veer off the trail to dip into the hot springs or explore where they weren''t welcome.
The last hour of the hike was through a podocarp hardwood forest. Ferns were everywhere. And gravel steps, which were surprisingly difficult on our knees. It felt odd to be surrounded by trees again after a traversing through barren volcanic desert. We finished tramping at 3pm and waited for our bus.
It had been a tremendous trek. Walking among bizarre rock formations, vivid gemstone lakes, and volcanic moonscape made this my husband''s favorite all-day hike. Ever.
Buses will transport you from Whakapapa Village or National Park roundtrip for NZ$15. If you miss your 4pm shuttle, fork over another $15 when you hail a bus that drifts through looking for stragglers. Bus drivers are accountable for their passengers as fatalities do occur--being blown off ridgetops or stuck in snowstorms are real risks. Be careful.