overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

Best foot forward...

Written by Alex Towns. Uploaded 25 April 2007.

New Zealand, Country 28, Diary entry, 30th March - 3rd April 2007, Total distance in New Zealand: 1450km

Having enjoyed our subterranean experience so much the previous day, we'd eagerly booked up for another excursion this time with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. We decided to really go for it with the 5 hour Black Abyss Tour... a 37m abseil into the cave, black water tubing, glow worm action, flying fox, waterfalls and lots of cold water :)

Marokopa Waterfall

To start the day off more sedately however we took a drive to Marokopa Waterfall which is a beautiful sight and only a short drive from Waitomo. After negotiating numerous drops upstream, the river makes its final plug of 36m, onto jagged rocks below. In a reckless, broken fashion it pours down, boiling and seething around boulders at the bottom, lifting large amounts of fine spray into the air. With rain still in the air and all the spray, it was a good excuse to christen our new rainproofs! On the drive back we stopped off to have a quick look at yet another natural bridge, an eroded feature of this limestone landscape which is run through with caves and tunnels.

Natural Bridge The way in...

Once back in Waitomo, we lined up to receive more soggy wetsuits, fetching white lace up gum boots and a lid for you nut... once again Maz's pin head was too small so she ended up with a child's size helmet! We then got strapped in to our harnesses, received a quick brief and we were ready to clamber into the minibus for more underground fun. At the cave entrance we received some training on the use of the abseiling rack, but by now we considered ourselves somewhat of a professional! Above the shaft which was to be our entrance to the cave, we waited in turn as one by one we were strapped onto the rope and took a leap of faith down the shaft.

Maz Abseils in Posing in the depths

Looking down you could see the shaft quickly narrow to a mere crack in the ground, so you didn't actually get a feeling of height. However as you neared the gap in the earth, you soon realised that it was going to be quite a squeeze as you positioned yourself to slip through the slot with the rock right against your face for about 5m before you then dropped out into the total blackness of the cavern. Pretty exhilarating stuff! You slowly descend without a clue how far you're going as all the others below have turned off their lights. Suddenly one of the guides talks right beside you, which makes you jump completely out of your skin as you had no idea that they were there. All good fun!

Just floating along

We were then led through the tunnels before our next adrenaline fix... the flying fox. Again you do it one by one and once you are hooked on, all lights are turned off as you launch yourself into the darkness, but this time it's like zooming through the Milkyway as you marvel at the many glow worms sparkling around you... quite something. After a quick hot drink and a huge slab of flapjack snack as we sat with our legs dangling over the edge of the bank to the water, it was time for the worst bit... and this time I was volunteered to go first! With a tube firmly stuck to your behind, it was a huge leap of faith as you plummet a good 3m, then splash down, landing smack on your behind in the refreshingly cold water! We had half wondered whilst we nibbled on our snack how we were going to get to the water!

The way out...

Now it was time to link up and float along the water and admire the natural show going on above and all around. They are really beautiful with their small eerie green glow twinkling in the complete blackness. With the float over it was now time to traipse along the water filled passages being careful not to disappear in deep water filled holes which you only found when you stepped in and submerged! Of course what goes underground must come out, so now we followed the water upstream to a tight tunnel to squeeze under before emerging in a small cave at the base of a waterfall which cascaded down over us. The only way out was to climb the waterfall, so up we clambered, before negotiating one last bit of tunnel and a final smaller waterfall and we were out... a fantastic trip..!

Lake Taupo

Although cold after our troglodyte experience, the small hike back to the minibus in full wetsuit soon had us all puffing and panting and by the time we were back at the shop we were glad to be able to open the door and get some fresh air into our lungs! A much needed shower and some hot soup with bagels had us feeling human again, but with time ticking on, we decided to just have an easy evening and return to our previous night's car park camp spot to relax and savour some more of the great NZ wines :)

Huka Falls

After a great time at Waitomo, it was time to head onwards. We'd already decided not to spread ourselves too thinly, preferring to enjoy a few areas of NZ in the time we had rather than say a 12 day whistle stop tour of both North and South Island which some backpacker embark on with the Magic Bus! Once everything was packed away in the camper, we made tracks toward Lake Taupo.

Getting ready for the jet boat

The lake lies in a caldera created following a huge volcanic eruption approximately 26,500 years ago. According to geological records, the volcano has erupted 28 times in the last 27,000 years. The largest eruption, known as the Oruanui eruption, ejected an estimated 1170 cubic kilometres of material and caused several hundred square kilometres of surrounding land to collapse and form the caldera! Lake Taupo subsequently has a perimeter of approximately 193 kilometres, the deepest point of 186 metres and a surface area of 616 square kilometres. The largest lake by surface area in the country, it is fed by a number of main tributaries, however only the Waikato River drains away from the lake.

Our chariot awaits Hold on tight!

This is where we made a beeline for, as it is along the Waikato River that you can ride the fantastic Huka Falls Jet. Once all decked out in our waterproof smocks, we clambered aboard the jet boat and settled in for a thrilling ride. At speeds approaching 80 kph the boat rockets along the river, sliding past cliffs and overhanging trees before doing complete 360 degree spins, covering us all in water and fixing a permanent smile on everyone's face! As we zoomed up and down the river, the jet boat allows you to approach the impressive Hukka Falls, literally the plug to Lake Taupo. Being the only exit for all that water, it tears down the narrow cliff walls before cascading down the falls in a swirling frothy turbulent eruption in which the jet boat skims through. They say that there is so much air in this run-off that there's not enough buoyancy to support the jet boat if it were to stop. You could hear the jet suffering as it sucked in air rather than water and the boat dramatically stalled, but remarkably pulled through unscathed!

Huka Falls up close

With our adrenaline slowly subsiding we headed into town to find out what other action packed attractions we could sign up for! One thing that we definitely wanted to attempt was the Tongariro crossing, widely regarded as the best one day trek in New Zealand. Although the sun was shining this end of the lake, the tourist centre advised that the weather wasn't so favourable at the Tongariro National Park just the other end of the lake and furthermore the forecast wasn't so promising for the next day either. Weather is the one thing they strongly advise must be appropriate for completing the crossing and paint a rather grim picture of what might go wrong for the unprepared hikers caught on the mountain when the weather quickly changes. Seeing as though all our 'trekking' kit was safely stowed away in Tinfish back in Sydney, we thought we might just be the sort of unprepared rambler they were referring too! We decided another plan was needed for tomorrow, the crossing could wait another day.

Tongariro National Park

Being quite close to Rotorua the infamous geothermal centre of New Zealand, we decided to head north a bit and spend the following morning exploring Wai-O-Tapu which translates as 'Sacred Waters'. We found a suitable camp spot by the mud pools... In 1925 New Zealand's largest mud volcano was eroded by heavy rain, the mud pool now occupying the site provides one of the best opportunities to experience the unique character and sounds of erupting mud. It is an ever active and changing landscape and with the heavy rain we'd been experiencing of recent it had transformed the pools into a more fluid bubbling, splattering mud pit. It definitely gave a different sound to listen to as you drifted off to sleep between the splops!

The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu

One of the features not to be missed is Lady Knox Geyser (not Geezer!) According to the leaflet it erupts at 10am sharp daily. Now I'd heard of geysers being regular like clockwork, so I got a bit confused when I suddenly realised the clocks had only just gone back an hour... how did the geyser know? Just to be sure I checked in early at the reception to confirm and the show did indeed start at 10am. As the time approached the coaches of tourists arrived and we were all herded into the arena. On stage was a white mound and as it neared 10am one of the staff members came on and stood by the geyser. He then started to explain how the geyser was discovered and it suddenly became clear how the geyser was so punctual... they drop a bar of biodegradable soap down the spout! Within minutes there are soapy bubbles seeping from the spout and then all of a sudden... there she blows!! The water shot up a good 15-20m and continued to spout and blow for a long while.

There she blows!

It was discovered in 1901 when the first open prison in New Zealand was established at Wai-O-Tapu, its objective was to accommodate some of the better behaved prisoners from around the jails of the Rotorua Lakes District. As an experiment, under the guidance of forestry experts, these prisoners were required to clear the light bush and scrub from the area and plant trees. It was a gang of those prisoners who first discovered the clearing in which the geyser is situated and that the bubbling hot water spring could be made to erupt by adding soap. A fact discovered when they first used the hot water to clean their clothes in, which must have come as quite a shock as there clothes were dispersed about the clearing by the eruption! Rocks were subsequently placed around the base of the spring to enhance the eruption and over the years silica from the eruptions has built up to give a white cone shaped appearance.

The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu

We then went for a stroll around the Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland which takes you on a walk around the spectacular champagne pool, geysers, bubbling mud, steaming ground, expansive vistas, huge volcanic craters and sinter terrace formations all in the warm eggy smelling air. With many different geothermal features of various colours, smells and all disgorging gases from deep below the earth's crust, the champagne pool is the most colourful and spectacular. It covers an area of about 3000 square meters and occupies a 700 year old explosion crater. The name comes from the fact that the water is Champagne coloured and bubbles as carbon dioxide is discharged into the pool. The surface water temperature of 74C generates a hot steam that adds atmosphere to the walk around the pool's side. Among the many minerals being deposited in the rock that surrounds the pool are antiimony, mercury, thallium, gold and silver.

The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu

With the scenery changing as you explore the park, it is a good way to see a little of the way the earth used to be like all those millions of years ago. With a bit of a pace to keep, we wanted to get back to Taupo in time to find and buy a little rucksack as we needed something to carry all our kit in over the Tongariro crossing. Of course it was now a Sunday, but we were hoping that with Taupo being a holiday town, places would still be open for at least part of the day. On arriving at town it appeared the weather was indeed looking better for the following day and fortunately a camping shop was open. We tried a small backpack, but Maz wasn't too keen on it as it rubbed into her neck.

Mud glorious mud Mud glorious mud

We decided we'd have a quick look around town to see if there was anything else, so asked the shop assistant when they were closing... "I'm not sure", so we tried the boss... "I don't know four or half past I guess". They obviously didn't wish to commit so we set off for a look around town. Another backpack we found didn't quite meet our approval, so we hot footed it back to the first shop, bumping into a couple of guys we met whilst tubing in Wiatomo.

The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu

Not wanting to seem rude we suggested if they weren't busy we'd meet them for a coffee in a few minutes and quickly explained our backpack issue. 300m down the street we bumped into yet another chap who we'd met in Waitomo! Quickly we said hi & bye without being too rude and eventually got to the shop just gone half three to find it closed! Fortunately they were still inside so we tapped on the glass. This time we tried the pack loaded up and Maz yet again gave it the thumbs down... she preferred the one in the other shop! Thanking them for opening again for us we went back across town and just as we were about to make a decision I found another day pack tucked away... it fit both of us and seemed perfect - result! We got back to the coffee shop long after the guys had finished their first coffee!

The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu The multi colours of Wai-O-Tapu

We chatted until the coffee shop threw us out then gave the guys a lift back to their campsite. We hadn't eaten yet, so decided on a bite to eat before trying out the public showers, shopping for the next few days and then driving down to the National Park. With laptop power issues, we stayed in the restaurant until the battery was fully charged then popped across the road to find the showers shut 10mins ago! Not being in our little Tinfish, the camper didn't have all the bells and whistles such as a hot shower, and we'd not had the pleasure since our last tubing exploit! We definitely weren't looking pretty! I grumbled all around the supermarket and then we set off for Tongariro National Park, a good few hours drive from Taupo.

Maz ready for the off Mt Ngauruhoe aka Mt Doom!

On the way round the lake I screeched to a halt as we passed a campsite and spotted the toilet block accessible without having to pass through reception. We parked the camper up subtly and armed with a bag of shower kit and clothes snuck towards the showers only to find the doors looked - curses! In the last big town we drove through I caught sight of signs for a truck stop, so drove in tentatively for a recce. Bingo - showers, or at least one shower in the gents toilets. Human again and I stood guard for Maz whilst she freshened up.

South Crater South Crater

Our camp for the night was the car park at Whakapapa where the shuttle bus to the trek starting point departed from. With 3 buses leaving in the morning starting on the hour from 7am, we thought we'd get the 8am bus, so being camped right at the bus stop would allow for those precious few extra minutes of sleep. Up at 1150m we immediately noticed the distinct drop in temperature and Maz once again began to fret that she didn't have the right outfit for trekking being specifically concerned that she didn't have a pair of the recommended waterproof trousers! Okay so we've not done masses of trekking in our time, but we have stretched our legs occasionally and we managed to survive without head to toe oilskins... regardless Maz spent the time stuffing as many layers (mainly my T-shirts) into the new backpack. After all only one of her tops wasn't sleeveless, so she might have had a point and she actually embraced my joking suggestion to take socks as gloves... one thing was for sure we'd look a right couple of idiots!

The view into the valley Mt Ngauruhoe appears briefly form the clouds

Of course there was a more serious concern, basically Maz's hiking boot had parted company with its sole only two days ago, so faced with the choice of finding a new pair and wearing them in on the crossing, we opted instead for the tube of glue! Having tested them around the car park, we were optimist they'd hold, after all it's only 17km! The Tongariro National Park is rich in cultural identity, it has dramatic scenery and unique land forms which combines to make the Tongariro Crossing a world-renowned trek. Tongariro still smokes, the ancestral fires still burn and the land lives on. Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu have all erupted in recent times, their highly explosive nature and the high density of volcanic vents makes the landscape unique.

Lava formations Ancient lava flows

The crossing spans the length of Mt Tongariro (17 Kilometres) and takes about 7-9 hours. You start from the Mangatepopo Valley and walk over towards the Ketetahi road end as this minimises the climbing involved, but you need to be prepared for an intense 4 hour down hill stretch... absolute murder on the knees! Bleary eyed and wrapped in all our clothes we poked our heads out of the camper and shivered in the early morning light. Backpacks loaded with enough nibbles to survive a week and padded out with excess T-shirts we boarded the bus for the short ride to the car park. Rumours abound that they can't guarantee the safety of any cars from theft which are left at the start of the hike, which we think was just the word sent out by the bus company to tout for business!

Maz applies her socks!

The first section is quite easy as you leave the Mangatepopo Car Park at 1150m and head for Soda Springs. Although we didn't have more than a brochure as our map, we needn't have worried about getting lost as you simply follow the constant stream of ramblers... and there were hundreds of them, including 2 school trips who loved the sound of their own voices! The main track continues up the valley following the Mangatepopo stream and around the edge of old lava flows and with the sun poking out from behind the clouds it looked spectacular. As you looked up the valley the dominant perfectly coned shaped mass of Mount Ngauruhoe stood imposing, specifically since its recent role as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Emergency boot repairs The Red Crater

Now the pace picks up as you do the first and worst steep ascent from Soda Springs to South Crater known affectionately as the 'Devil's Staircase!'. You have to take care as you are walking over layers of ancient and modern lava flows and other volcanic debits so the track surface is not smooth. Of course it was here that the sole started to separate once more from maz's boot! Not the best terrain to have a flapping shoe! Normally we'd have access to all sorts of tape and stuff to affix a repair, but not this time! Racking my brain for a solution, I used the pull cord from the new backpack and lashed up her boot, a trick that I'd need to repeat about every ten minutes... but there was no turning back now! Mount Ngauruhoe looked ominous with a halo of cloud and if time and foot wear permit you can climb the very steep and very difficult scree up to the crater - another time perhaps!

The Red Crater The Red Crater

From South Crater to the Red Crater starts easily as you stroll across the actual crater surface, still steaming in the cooler air and adding plenty of atmosphere to the walk. At the far edge of the crater there's a slightly easier ascent which hop along managed quite successfully. On reaching the high ground the views are simply superb, but it is nothing for what waits in store. Edging closer you finally get to the lip of the Red Crater and what a mind blowing collection of shapes and colours with steam issuing from cracks. Although exposed on the ridge, you simply can't tear yourself away from the view.

The Emerald Lakes The Emerald Lakes

The main track then continues around Red Crater where you get to the highest point of the trek at 1886m. From here you have spectacular views over the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert, Kaimanawa Ranges and down to the mesmerising emerald lakes. Care is required with the descent from Red Crater, as this part of the track is steep and you are on loose scoria which moves under foot and you end up 'skating' down the slope. On your left you see an old lava flow from Red Crater spreading out across the floor of central crater whereas to the right are the Emerald Lakes which get their colour from the minerals which are leached out from the surrounding rock. All about you is the sulphurous smell leaked from the steam vents above the lake.

Looking back towards the Red Crater The Blue Lake

Carrying on to the Blue Lake, a cold acidic lake, you suddenly realise just how barren a landscape it is, specifically when your bladder kindly reminds you that it's not been emptied for awhile... there is nowhere to hide! After the Blue Lake it's pretty much all downhill from here. Holding up the rear guard, we got chatting to a couple that had also been kipping in the car park and taken the same bus as us. We laughed about Maz's shoe predicament, when Kate enquired what shoe size she was. Remarkably they had a spare pair of trainers in exactly her size! So with one hiking boot and one white trainer we set off on the killer zigzag downhill stretch all the way down to Ketetahi car park, pusing briefly now and again to admire the views of Mt Pihanga and Lake Rotoaira over to Lake Taupo.

Odd shoes! Yippe we made it

By the time we got down, we were exhausted, ached but immensely satisfied that we'd completed the crossing and still had 45mins left before the last bus took us all the way back to Whakapapa. Having been tipped off that it was easy to sneak into the local campsite for showers, more appealing however was the local bar and a rewarding beer.
A celebratory drink..!
Kate and Graham joined us and the conversation flowed as the beer filled the glasses as we sat listening to continual 80's pop blaring out on 80's mtv... Wham, Genesis, Tears for Fears, etc etc, there was no end of it. What did they listen to before the 80's..?? Soon all thoughts of showers were forgotten and attention turned to fud! As we had an indoors (they were living in a converted car) all were invited round to our pad and we rustled up a hotch potch feed whilst we quaffed chateau d'cardboard.

Tired and satisfied it was soon time for bed so we said goodnight to Graham and Kate then crashed into a deep slumber knowing that the next day would bare the pains of our endeavour with no doubt stiff and aching limbs.

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