Day 11: BIRTHDAY IMPROVISATIONS
When we woke up, it was already raining. So I knew Tongariro Crossing was out of the question today. Thus, we packed up our belongings and headed down the Desert Road – the only “desert” part of New Zealand – which ran along the east of the cloud-covered peaks of Tongariro National Park.
The weather actually was fine out here as it appeared to be in the rain shadow of the towering volcanoes to the west. And true to its name, the terrain out here did seem pretty flat and desolate with the odd brown shrubs and tussock grasslands flanking the otherwise straight shot road with nothing around for miles save for the views of the cloud-covered volcanoes to the west of us.
The drive persisted for another 75 minutes or so before we swung around the southern slopes of Mt Ruapehu and then arrived at the town of Ohakune. Since Julie and I had already made our decision to book with the Chateau Tongariro at the very last minute last night, we wanted to see the accommodation we had booked prior to this trip knowing that we would have to swallow the cost of it.
And when we pulled by the motel, we saw that it was yet another sleep-easy type of place that was not much better than the Tongariro River Motel in Turangi. So I guess we made a pretty good call on spending Julie’s birthday living it up a bit at the chateau.
In any case we eventually made through Ohakune and drove up the Ohakune Mountain Road. There, we zoomed past the car park for Waitonga Falls and headed for Mangawhero Falls.
It was only a five-minute walk to the fenced overlook of the falls. It had quite a satisfying vertical drop as it went into a reddish amphitheater. I believe this was where the Henneth Annun was supposed to be in the “Lord of the Rings: Two Towers movie.” Anyways, it was satisfying and we took our photos before we went back down the hill to Waitonga Falls.
We were one of the first to be at the car park for the falls. In addition to signs saying we had to walk around 90 minutes return to get to the falls, there were plenty of warning signs saying we were in a lahar zone.
Lahars were basically giant flash floods caused by melting ice, snow, and volcanic debris racing through a drainage after a volcano erupts. Since Mt Ruapehu was an active volcano, it was always something to keep in mind.
The walk was very well defined and mostly flat with a few hilly sections. Especially memorable was a scenic bog where a boardwalk went through it. It was the kind of scene that totally reminded me of the Dead Marshes scene in the Lord of the Rings movie even though the actual location of that spot was in some remote marshes on the South Island.
Nonetheless, the standing pools of water juxtaposed with pale and brown tussock grasslands really made me feel like we were indeed in Mordor. It further whetted my desire to do the Tongariro Crossing. If only the weather would cooperate…
As we continued down the track, we started to see Waitonga Falls through some of the obstructing foliage. It beckoned us to walk faster down the long switchbacks. Finally we were at the watercourse and we could see the 39m falls upstream.
The view from here was not too satisfying and there were other trampers who scrambled their way upstream. So with my hiking stick, I followed them closer. Julie stayed behind.
I didn’t get all the way to the base of the falls as the more adventurous dudes up ahead were able to get underneath and behind the main falls. I did, however, manage to catch some satisfying photos of Tongariro National Park’s tallest waterfall along with some unnamed cascade before it. Quite cool…
When we had our fill of this place, Julie and I hiked back to the car and went into Ohakune to get some takeaways. We then proceeded to the SH47 on the western side of Tongariro National Park’s boundaries as we were seeking to hunt down some waterfalls on the way to finally checking into Chateau Tongariro. We certainly hoped our last-minute booking to this place was worth swallowing the extra cost of not checking into the Ohakune Motel.
Before going up the Whakapapa Village Road, we noticed a cascade next to the road where our LP guide said the Mahuia Rapids was supposed to be. We were hoping to find another waterfall here (I think it was Toakakura Falls, but we didn’t think of doing it.
Eventually, we then went up the Whakapapa Village Road where we got more views of Mt Ngauruhoe. On the way up the mountain, we made a stop at Tawhai Falls, where we engaged in a short 10-minute walk that allowed us to see the falls from its top as well as a short scramble to get a cleaner look at it from its base.
After this brief walk, we then continued going further up the mountain road before settling in at the Chateau Tongariro in Whakapapa Village. At last, we got to see if this place was worth the hype.
Indeed, the Chateau Tongariro looked like a posh hotel sitting beneath Mt Ruapehu. From what I understood, the cast of the Lord of the Rings stayed here when they had to film some of the Mordor sequences. But other than that, construction was going on so part of its facade didn’t look so great. I wasn’t as impressed with the rooms inside either – at least for what we paid.
Still with that said, this was the first time since Rotorua that we got to spend consecutive nights in a place. So we got unpacked and comfortable. I think Julie was too comfortable as she was content to just nap the rest of the afternoon away. It didn’t help that it started raining again. I was still restless so I went solo on a Taranaki Falls hike.
With my poncho on and a willingness to brave the weather, I went out there and did the two-hour hike. If not for the pouring rain, the trail was actually quite scenic (at least from what I saw below the clouds). I was sure it would’ve been more scenic if the clouds weren’t so low as I would’ve been able to see Mt Ngauruhoe throughout a good portion of the walk.
Anyhow, I finally got to see the interesting falls as it spilled through an old lava flow and into a boulder-ringed pool. There were other hikers who also braved the elements to see the falls. I thought to myself that Julie missed out again so I took photos with the mindset of trying to show her what I had seen.
It was 5pm and now it was time to return to the Chateau. Prior to the wedding and honeymoon planning, I had pre-booked a dinner at the Chateau Tongariro for Julie’s birthday. So I had to get back in time to clean up and get her to the restaurant.
I ended up back at our room and cleaned up with plenty of time to spare. We ended up having a pleasant fine dining experience along with a surprise banana cake for dessert. When I looked out the window, I could’ve sworn I saw slivers of late afternoon light striking parts of the mountain. Could the weather be good enough for the hike tomorrow? I sure hoped so…