The Pillars of Hercules

The Pillars of Hercules on the Tongariro River The Tongariro National Park and it’s surroundings, I am starting to realise, are a little bit like Venice. Full of canals and gondolas. No wait. Well, actually there are some canals, but that’s not my point. My point is that the main parts of it, and in particular the Alpine Crossing, are incredibly full of people, whereas if you step away from the main avenues and down the side streets, as in Venice, then you will hardly spy another soul.

Which, as you have probably guessed, is how we have been filling our spare time – exploring the less visited and almost as spectacular parts of the surrounding area, the parts which offer all sorts of things with less people. Not quite St. Marks Square, but close.

View up the Tongariro River of Mt RuahepuRecently, for example, we took a trip to the impressively named “Pillars of Hercules”. With a name like that on the map, it was inevitable that we would visit.

What this turned out to be was a narrow gorge that the Tongariro River is forced to pass through on its way to wherever it’s going. The “pillars” are the walls of the gorge, which offer a very narrow gap of only a few metres, into which the water is forced to travel at high speed.

There is, no doubt, some excellent geological reason for the river narrowing at this point – a narrowing which doesn’t last very long, as the river widens out again to it’s natural size after about fifty metres or so, but I couldn’t fathom it. I put it down to the nearby volcanoes, and left it at that.

Geological reasons aside though, this sure was an impressive sight, even if the water levels weren’t really high enough to make it quite as gushing as one would hope for.

The river sweeps down into view, with, obviously, the giant three peaks of the Tongariro National Park dominating the skyline. Mount Ngauruhoe from the other side. Looks about the same.These are snow capped and immense, whilst all around at our level was alpine forest, yellow flowers signifying Spring and the sound of rushing water. I could have been in the Rockies. Although there are less bears in New Zealand. The river sweeps around a bend and hits a giant wall, and is forced into the narrow gap between the Pillars of Hercules, before appearing at the other end. For our viewing pleasure there is a narrow and bouncy suspension bridge high above the gorge itself, which afforded some lovely views. We spent some time exploring the area, including finding a giant tree that was somewhat reminiscent of the Avatar tree (well, ok, it was a bit smaller), and a cliff face that gave us excellent views, before we headed for home.

Exploring improbably named gorges is not all we have been doing. We also took a walk around a nearby lake, called Lake Rotopounamu.

This was a rather lovely 6km jaunt under the foot of Mount Pihunga (there is no track to the summit of this 1360m high peak but I’m assured an ascent is Reeds in Lake Rotopounamupossible), through thick, almost tropical forest, beset with vines, moss, and all manner of bird life that would have no doubt excited any keen ornithologist. As it was, I concluded the birds were pretty but I had no idea what any of them were.

The walk took us along a number of yellow sanded beaches on the lake shore, past pools of reeds with glorious reflections, before returning us to our starting point. Excellent stuff.

And finally, in our exploratory adventures of late, we took a hike up to the Ketetahi hut from the Ketetahi carpark, which is usually covered as the last 6.5km of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is basically just 6.5km of upwards climb, and we did it because we felt like seeing what the last third of the walk looked like coming from the other way. As it turned out, it was steep, but worthwhile, as we ascended up the side of the Tongariro mountain with the Ketetahi hot springs pouring steam out into the sky above us. Absolutely worth the walk, even if everyone else going the other way looked at us if we were crazy (well, it is usually a one way walk).

So that is how we have been keeping ourselves entertained. Next up, I’m going to be telling you all about one of the world’s most impressive engineering feats, which is just a few kilometres away from where we are living. And after that.. we’re off on a road trip around the Coromandel Peninsula and the rest of the nearby volcanic plateau. Because a month of doing three to four hours of work a day really takes it out of a guy… see you then!

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