Friday, 28 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 11 - The Tongariro Disappointment

Tongariro National Park.
Photo borrowed from DailyMail.co.uk
Tuesday, 4th December
Tongariro! The Lord of the Rings! Mount Doom! Frodo and the ring! I'm finally going to see the famous mountains used to film Mordor, and one of New Zealand's most stunning places. Or so I thought.
Tongariro National Park takes its name from Mount Tongariro (1978m), but there are two more - Mount Ngauruhoe (2291m) and Mount Ruapehu (2797m). The latter two have been used in the Lord of The Rings movies, Ngauruhoe being Mount Doom. All three are active volcanoes, which makes them a popular tourist destination. The park offers several walks, the most popular being the one-day Alpine Crossing. It wouldn't be me if the volcanoes, quiet for over a hundred years except for a big burp in 1996, hadn't decided to erupt just as I finally included them in my travelling plans...

But that's not the only reason why my visit to Tongariro National Park was so brief, so disappointing, and why I decided to come back another time. Due to the volcanic activity, the walks I was interested in were closed. In addition, there was still too much snow on Ruapehu, and if that wasn't enough, a whole lot of bad weather was coming from the north.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 08 - The Forgotten World Highway

Saturday, 1st December
After one exciting and one totally lazy day in Stratford, I finally took off again. Stratford's at the western end of the 153km long Forgotten World Highway (HW43), a link between the Taranaki region and the central part of the island. It's considered a heritage trail due to early 1900s settlements that were later abandoned. There are several villages with old brickworks, a flour mill, schools, etc. and according to the brochure, every single one of those things is a marvel. Of course...

In the real world, it's just a hilly ride through remote country, with nice views of Mt Taranaki, Tongariro, and a few man made landmarks worth noticing. The road's strongest point is traffic; the lack of it, to be exact. The quietness makes it ideal for cyclists, if they don't mind going up and down on a roller coaster.

HW43 is a tough route with no less than six big climbs (although the brochure mentions only four) and lots of rolling hills. As for human heritage, the only things worth mentioning are a triangle-shaped tunnel called the Hobbit Hole, a bridge called the Bridge to Somewhere (although it's in fact in the middle of nowhere) and the small village of Whagamomona. The bridge is just a slab of concrete in the middle of the bush, an absolute waste of time unless you like rough mountain biking, in which case the 20km track linking Whagamomona with the bridge is a real treat. It took me almost two hours each way and it involved plenty of mud, two tunnels, deep muddy tracks and several landslides, including one where the road just slid into a gorge a dozen metres below and the gap could only be crossed on a 50cm narrow ledge. The bridge was highly disappointing, but the ride was totally worth it.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 06 - Mt Taranaki

Thursday 29th November
What started as utter hell turned out to be a great day. I climbed up Mt Taranaki, enjoyed amazing views and an exhilarating ride back to town.

Taranaki National Park, the "heel-shaped" peninsula in the North Island's west, is one of the places I was really looking forward to visiting. It consists of a single mountain, the 2517m Mt Taranaki, often referred to as New Zealand's Mt Fuji. Its white cone is right at the centre of a circular forest, which is surrounded by farming country all the way to the semi-circular coastline. This tribute to symmetry is really cool to look at on a map, and it's one of the country's most scenic views. It's visible from hundreds of kilometres on clear days, a friend of mine apparently saw it from as far as the South Island (a local man told him he hadn't been that lucky in twenty years).

The first thing I did yesterday afternoon, after jumping off the bus in Stratford, was to visit the i-Site office and ask about the track's conditions. Big mistake. As usual, they were full of crap, pardon my French. A thick-waisted woman who's probably never been up the mountain herself told me matter of factly that anything above 1800 metres is socked-in and only accessible with icepick and crampons. She almost succeeded in dissuading me from the hike I was so eager to do, and almost convinced me to go for a dull low-altitude bushwalk instead.

Had she looked outside the window, she'd have seen that Faltham's Peak (1966m), the lower peak on the mountain's western side, was almost completely free of snow. To confirm this, the owner of the hostel I stayed at claimed that one of his guests had hiked up there a week before without any problems. To further prove his point, a local mountain guide had just strolled in for a chat, reporting perfect walking conditions. The 2517m summit was a different matter, though. The crater is still covered in snow and going up there without crampons, he said, would be only my choice. Good. He refrained from lecturing me and stuck to practical advice, leaving it up to me whether I'd risk my life or not.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 05 - Die, evil wind, die!

Back after a short break from blogging. It's been a week since my cycling journey through the North Island started, and I'm now fully into it. Ironically, I'm sitting on a bus while writing these words...

Monday 26th November
After an extremely windy night on the coast, spent in attempts to hold the tent together rather than sleeping, I carried on to Martinborough. The day started greatly - first I met a young farmer herding a huge flock of sheep, a scene that reminded me the Kiwi b-horror Black Sheep, then I had a refreshing bath in a stream and finally, refreshed, clean and full of energy from my bacon and eggs breakfast, I started tackling the long ride back to civilisation. Of the 70km from the coast to Martinborough, the first thirty were on gravel, through beautiful and utterly remote farming/native bush country, while the remaining forty were on sealed roads, through beautiful farming/native bush country. The first part was easy, with much milder gradients leaving the coast than the official road to Cape Palliser I took to get there. The real hard work started when the terrain threw a bunch of long steady climbs my way, but it wasn't until the biggest hill's summit that I realized trouble was coming. A warning sign saying "wind gusts" and a large, crazily spinning wind farm were the harbingers of what followed - lots and lots of bad wind. Indeed, as soon as I reached the ridge, a strong northerly almost blew me off the road. And yes, I was heading north. Oh happy days.