Category Archives: Travels

Conquering the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

On April 19, my friend and I finished the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is considered one of the best day hikes in the world. It consists of a 19.4km rugged track that goes through steep volcanic terrain, desert land, tussock grasslands and a native forest. It is also a world heritage site, located at the Tongariro National Park in New Zealand’s North Island.

The map here shows the full track that passes through three active volcanoes: Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. Of the three, Mount Ngauruhoe is the most famous, standing in for Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It takes an additional 2-3 hours of climbing an unmarked, steep scree slope to reach the summit of Ngauruhoe, where the view is absolutely breath-taking. We gave this a miss because the trail itself was daunting enough to make us doubt how we’ll emerge from the other end.

The hike was simultaneously the best and the worst thing I have done in my life to date. It made me push limits that I didn’t know was possible. It was strenuous, painful, frustrating, scary and overwhelmingly beautiful — all at once — and I’ll probably do it again in a heartbeat.

This is how the day turned out for us:

Mangatepopo carpark to Soda Springs

We were picked up from our accommodation at 7 a.m. by a lovely lady named Tracy; she and her husband run a shuttle service, National Park Shuttles, that takes people to the Mangatepopo carpark. The trek can be attempted either from there or from the Ketetahi carpark, but because the former is at a higher altitude most people prefer to start from there.
The carpark also had those portable toilets, which were important because their availability throughout the track was scarce.

We set off through the grasslands on a broad, marked pathway and the path progressively rose higher. About 20 minutes into the hike, we came across a side-track that led to the Mangatepopo Hut, where people who do the three-day Tongariro Northern Circuit tend to stay during nightfall. Further ahead, the track became steeper as we walked up the valley along the edges, following the Mangatepopo stream.

Wanting to pace myself for the rest of the trek, I walked a lot slower than I should have on this leg; on hindsight, this was a terrible idea because the track only gets more, and more, difficult, where you do need to slow down to catch your breath. It’s best to brisk walk this leg and attempt to reach Soda Springs under 45 minutes.

At the end of the leg, we paused for a break — many hikers choose this spot to hydrate and replenish their energy before continuing to the next leg. There’s a side-track that leads to a waterfall which we opted to miss. While resting, I saw an enthusiastic climber whiz past us, with the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack blaring loudly from her phone. That was a beautiful moment because you can always count on Tolkien fans to go all out when in Middle Earth.

The next leg of the track was the beginning of a hellish nightmare. They even had a sign urging everyone to strongly reconsider if they wanted to carry on because of the increasing levels of difficulty.

Soda Springs to South Crater

From Soda Springs, we climbed a very steep track known as the Devil’s Staircase that took us from 1400 to 1600 meters above sea level.

The track narrowed into a pathway made from hardened ancient, and modern, lava that snaked around the mountain, elevating us toward the South Crater. In between the pathways were stairs, anywhere between 6 to 15 steep steps at a time. This went on for more than an hour and felt like a never-ending route, made more stressful by the fact that it was about 9:30 a.m. and more people had begun to arrive on the track. The fitter ones (read: Germans) rushed past us, which meant every 10-minutes or so you had to step aside, while managing not to fall off the edges, to let them pass through.

This is where I truly began to understand how much I had overestimated my level of fitness, despite the prep work I did at the gym for months.

The view was worth the exertion from the climb; you could see across the countryside, around and beyond the mountains, and it’s well worth taking several moments to pause and appreciate. This is also where you get a clear glimpse of Mount Ngauruhoe. That morning, the sky was clear and Mount Doom looked beautiful.

After struggling for more than an hour, I finally made it up to the South Crater — a glorious stretch of FLAT LAND that resembled the surface of the moon: it was bland, desolate and empty. But also, beautiful. Walking along the South Crater was a joy because by then my feet and my leg muscles were threatening to rebel. I took a longish break, around 20 minutes, to hydrate and eat and just take in the surrounding. But plans were cut short when a freezing wind rolled in, making it impossible to stay still.

On this leg, I also made plenty of friends on the track. People had a knack for randomly start conversations with each other, in a gesture of sweet camaraderie, and that was very comforting. I spent several minutes talking to a mother-daughter duo from France, managing to practice my French a little. While climbing the South Crater, I also compared notes with another photographer about how tough it is to lug around heavy DSLRs on the track. The struggle is totally real.

If the Devil’s Staircase was bad, the journey up to the Red Crater was a scenario straight out of Nightmare on Elm Street.

South Crater to Red Crater

At the far edge of the South Crater, I caught up with my friend, who had managed to power through the route. Ahead of us, the track went through an exposed ridge, which often gets slippery when it rains on the mountains. It led up to the Red Crater. At first glance, the ridge looked easy enough, but then you realized you would be ascending about 200 meters, which meant there was more grunt work waiting out of view. Halfway up the track, we encountered a rock wall; there were chains attached to the boulders that were meant to help climbers move forward. Holding onto these chains, while freezing my hands, I managed to go past and end up back on the flat(ish) track.

Prior to the reaching the rock wall, I saw many people were turning back toward the South Crater. Going past the rock wall, I realized why.

We could tell we were nearing the Red Crater because of the mild sulphur smell accompanied by a heavy, freezing wind. The Red Crater is an active volcanic vent that last erupted in the 1920s. This was the hardest part of the climb because there weren’t any marked pathways; there were rocks and boulders everywhere, some of them loose and unstable, and you had to find your way up the steep slope. Being exhausted, cold and shivering, one miss-step would’ve sent us tumbling down the edge. While pausing for breath, I met a girl whose friend had gone to climb Ngauruhoe; she had apparently turned back halfway through her ascent on the scree slope. Together, we climbed toward the Red Crater, with several more pauses for breaths and short breaks. By the time we reached to the top, I had an extremely runny nose.

The Red Crater, standing at 1,886 meters, was the highest point of the entire track. The views from the top are well worth it but we missed the chance to sit and relax here because a large cloud rolled in at that exact moment, fogging up the view and making it extremely cold. My friend was waiting for me at the top and we paused for about five minutes to snap some quick pictures and to briefly appreciate the view, before moving forward. We walked on a narrow, but marked, pathway along the Red Crater for about 10-minutes through the cloud — while praying the ~65km/h wind did not knock us off course — before the path began to descend toward the Emerald Lakes.

Red Crater to Emerald Lakes

The way down to the lakes was one of the worst tracks I’ve ever been on. The path descended sharply and it was made of scree (loose stones), which meant every step was unstable. If you weren’t watching your movement, you’d either fall flat on your back or, if you’re really unlucky, you’d tumble forward, roll down and fall off the edges.

The intermittent fog that obscured the visibility on the path ahead didn’t inspire any confidence either. This was where having a hiking staff would’ve been very handy because they provided an added layer of stability. I lost my footing more than a dozen times during the descent, falling unceremoniously on my rear. At one point, I tried sliding down on my back but that didn’t work out and I managed to get plenty of stones inside my jacket, pants and shoes.

On this track, I met Magda, who was from Warsaw. She was a seasoned climber and was doing the Tongariro Northern Circuit; while taking pictures of the Emerald Lakes below, she saw me struggle on my way down and offered to help. We held hands and walked down the rest of the track, sort of becoming each other’s points of stability, and it took us only 10 minutes to complete the rest of the descent. After thanking her profusely for the help, I met up with my friend. We realized we were running well behind schedule because it was already 2 p.m. The shuttles left from the end of the track at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., and we still had another 11km to go.

After a brief rest by the lakes — to re-hydrate, eat and take out the stones from my boots — we walked towards the next leg of our journey. By now I was beginning to feel the exhaustion from the hike, and the constant assault from the freezing wind. Thankfully, the path here was relatively flat and most of it went on a downward slope so we managed to cover a fair bit of ground while walking toward the blue lake and eventually to Ketetahi Shelter.

Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut

The path from the lakes continued over Central Crater, which was on relatively flat, and stable, ground. As we descended, we saw the sacred blue lake in the distance, which is called Rangihiroa’s mirror in the native tongue. This is where I was beginning to worry that we might lose the daylight before reaching the carpark. In Autumn, the sun sets in New Zealand by 6 p.m., and it was already 3 p.m. The path moved around the flanks of the North Crater and descended in long zigzag pathways toward the Ketetahi hut.

This was an active volcanic zone and we made our way toward the hut as fast as we could. By this point, I was exhausted to the point where I didn’t trust myself to not fall off the edge of the narrow pathway. My friend says at one point, I looked like I was going to pass out. I don’t really remember this leg of the journey that well, possibly due to the exhaustion, despite several water and food breaks. As we neared the hut, it became darker and along with it came the fear of being stuck on the mountains alone, in the dark, freezing night. By this point, I knew I couldn’t go any further.

When we reached the Ketetahi hut, we saw that it was not an overnight shelter. It used to be at one point in time, but an eruption in 2012 damaged the roof and it was still being repaired. The hut was dark and empty — by then most people have gotten off the track — and we took refuge inside the dilapidated, neglected structure to escape the freezing weather outside. But it didn’t work because of the massive hole on the roof.

I sat by the wall on the dirty floor and told my friend I couldn’t go any further, that I had no more energy left. We decided to give Tracey a call. (More on Tracey in another post, because people like her are far and few and they deserve to be celebrated) After explaining our situation to her, she said she was going to arrange for a search and rescue with the local LandSAR group; the downside was that it’d take the rescuers almost 3 hours to reach us at the Ketetahi Hut.

By then we were freezing and it was pitch black outside. Because LandSAR’s operations fell under the jurisdiction of the local Turangi police, we were also on the phone with an officer. He suggested if we could, we should start making our way down the mountain and meet up with the search and rescue team halfway through the track. After a short rest, some food and a good cry (because I genuinely thought I was going to freeze to death on the mountain), we decided to make our way down.

Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi carpark

When we stepped out of the hut, we couldn’t see anything, not even each other. But the sky was the most incredible thing I’ve seen in my life, dotted with hundreds of thousands of stars and the spiral arm of the Milky Way was so clear, it could be seen with naked eyes.

We decided to use my Samsung S7’s built-in torch to light the path in front of us, while saving my friend’s phone for emergency phone calls. I didn’t feel confident enough to travel on my own, so my friend very kindly held my hand as we walked down. The path was slippery after it started to rain on the mountain, and there were hundreds of stairs going down. We began to talk about random things, most of which I don’t recall, and it helped in keeping me calm and not thinking about dying.

The walk in absolute darkness was an experience unto itself; at one point, we had to cross a stream using that single source of light from my phone. Most of the pathway went through tussock grasslands and the fact that there wasn’t anyone else on the mountain with us was both thrilling and scary.

It took us about 2 hours to reach the final leg of the journey – a 3km track through a native forest. This is where we saw the search and rescue team and I almost wanted to hug them. I did when we finished the track because I wasn’t sure how long either of us could’ve continued on our own.

Their presence was an immense boost to my confidence level because I knew then my friend and I wouldn’t die on the track. There were three of them and they guided us through the forest, pausing here and there to point out the native animals and insects on our path, including a couple of wetas and a possum. Apparently Kiwis really hate possums.

Tracey was waiting for us at the Ketetahi carpark, which we reached after nearly two hours of walking through the forest. I’ve never hugged someone as tightly as I had her because I wasn’t sure if we’d have gotten off the mountain without her help. And then I hugged my friend because without her, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten off the mountain.

It was emotionally draining and it was close to 11 p.m. when we boarded Tracey’s van to head back to our accommodation.

The trip was an eye-opener because it taught me so many things about me and the people around me. It taught me that if I tried hard enough, I could push myself to limits I didn’t know possible. I learned that my friend, M, is one of the people I can count on in matters of life and death. Lastly, I understood the value of a stranger’s kindness. I guess it took me nearly two months to write this because at some level, I was still processing what had happened, how it had happened and the fact that I am here, alive and able to tell the tale.

There are so many things I wish I could’ve done better; a bit of self-criticism is definitely warranted, but on the positive side, I’m happy I didn’t give up and quit halfway through. That would’ve been the easy way out. More on that in another post.

Things to do in New Zealand’s north island

New Zealand, one of the most isolated countries in the world, is every landscape photographer’s dream — amateurs and pros likewise. Where else can you find sprawling green meadows, harsh volcanic wilderness and tussock grasslands, thermal hotspots, picturesque beaches, snow-capped mountains, starry night skies and a well-documented native culture?

Highlights of things I did:

  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing: a 19.4 km hike through a volcanic terrain
  • Strolling around the Hobbiton movie set / sheep farm
  • Te Puia night experience
  • Wine tasting and soaking my feet on a beach in Waiheke island
  • Walks along Auckland’s famous viaduct harbor and Queen street
  • Our accommodation in Auckland, National Park and Rotorua

(More soon!)

The most important lesson I learned during our short, 10-day vacation in the North Island was the need to know how to drive. Navigating New Zealand using only public transportation is do-able, but it greatly limits your freedom to plan the itinerary on-the-go. The three main bus companies that operate in the North are InterCity, Mana Bus and Naked Bus; each service, if you are to read customer reviews on the Internet as I did, has its ups and downs — including horror stories about the buses leaving well before the departure time or buses not showing up at all! But in our experience, if you show up about 15-20 minutes before the departure time stated on your bus ticket, you should be fine.

Our trip started with a late arrival in Auckland, around 10:30 p.m., and spending the night at the Ibis Airport budget hotel. It was a 15-minute walk from the international airport. We opted to fly Air New Zealand over Singapore Airlines because it was about a $1,000 cheaper and they’re both members of Star Alliance, so yay for airline miles. We did consider the budget option, Air Asia, but that entailed a more than 24-hour journey with multiple stopovers in Malaysia and Australia.

The autumn weather was pleasant at night — about 15 degrees Celsius (no complaints here from a tropic resident) — but don’t be fooled by it; the climate in New Zealand turns at a whim and can hit near-freezing levels before you blink. More on that later.

After a few, fleeting hours of rest, we picked up supplies the next morning from a supermarket opposite our hotel and headed back to the airport for a short, 40-minute bus ride to Manukau city. From there, we took an InterCity-operated bus that brought us to the Tongariro National Park in about 4-5 hours. Here’s the thing with staying at the national park: it’s a small village, where the nearest restaurant is about a 20-minute walk away and the small mart at the petrol station is another 20-minutes away by foot. It felt homely and the long stretches of mostly traffic-free roads, lush green and the peaks of Mount Tongariro and Ngauruhoe hidden behind clouds were pleasant to look at. It was definitely a lot colder than we had anticipated when we checked into a quaint, little place called the National Park Tavern. More on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the experience, what to pack and likes, in a later post. But in brief, it was the best and the worst thing I’ve done in my life; it was also physically brutal.

The stay at the National Park was short — on hindsight, spending a couple more days in the serenity and splendor of being literally in the middle of nowhere would’ve been good. The alpine crossing took a lot out of me, physically and mentally, and the day we left feels very disconnected in my memory. I remember hopping onto a mini bus from the petrol station, after our lovely host Teesh from the tavern drove us there so that we wouldn’t need to lug our heavy bags around while we were sore and exhausted. On a side note, the constant kindness and selflessness of the people I met on this trip was an extremely humbling experience.

The mini bus dropped us at Turangi, where after a short break we boarded another bus toward Rotorua, which people say is the heart of geothermal activities and Maori culture in the north island. We stayed at a good hostel in the middle of the city center and everything — restaurants, pharmacies, shops and tourist information centers — were all within a walking distance. The atmosphere was different; as a relatively bigger town, Rotorua was busier and bustling with locals and tourists at every street corner. We walked through a night market that night in the middle of one of the roads, where small pop up stores sold different cuisines.

After a day recuperating from the Tongariro trek, I went off for the mandatory pilgrimage to Hobbiton, while my friend went to explore the geothermal wonders of the town. A bus picked up all Tolkien enthusiasts and movie lovers outside the Hobbiton Movie Set shop on Fenton street in Rotorua and we made the hour-long journey through the sprawling countryside toward Matamata. I expected a tourist trap at the movie set, and many people warned me ahead about it, but as a lover of Tolkien lore and a big fan of Peter Jackson’s re-imagining of the Lord of the Rings (The Hobbit need not apply), I enjoyed every bit of my time in Hobbiton.

In the evening, after returning to Rotorua, I went to Te Puia, which is home to New Zealand’s Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, and also the famed Pohutu geyser that can reportedly spurt boiling water up to a height of 30 meters. The full name of Te Puia is Te Whakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahtao. How’s that for a spelling bee contest? Our tour guide — whose name also comprised about 37 letters, but he preferred being called Rob instead of whatever mangled pronunciation of his full name us tourists could come up with — took us inside where we were made to partake in the traditional Maori greeting ceremony. That entailed our group, full of tourists and strangers, nominating a chief to represent our “tribe” in front of the Maori chief. The greeting between the two chiefs involved bumping noses three times and then we were invited to view a beautiful performance, full of songs and dances. We learned about the history of the people who settled in Rotorua as early as the 1700s; the women were taught the Poi dance and the men learned the ceremonial war dance, Haka.

We also witnessed the traditional Maori method of cooking — Hāngi, where meat and vegetables are placed in a pit a cooked on naturally heated stones. The food we saw turned out to be our dinner — a sumptuous buffet of cold salads, seafood, meat, potatoes, and deserts. After dinner, some of the group went down to the thermal valley, in the hopes of seeing the geyser burst, but that was a bit of a disappointment. On a cynical level, I know the experience is a bit of a tourist trap, but the evening was certainly worth it.

The next morning, we attempted to head to the Redwoods forest about 5km away in the south east direction from the city center and adjoins the larger Whakarewarewa Forest. It was a long-ish but pleasant walk, since the weather was on our side. But when we arrived, we discovered that specific entrance to the Redwoods was closed and visitors were asked to take an alternative route which was another 7km away. This is where I felt having a car would’ve been useful because walking 12km to get there didn’t seem worth it — not to mention, the return journey was yet another 12km back to the city center. It was a bummer, since we had to previously cross off the Waitomo caves from the itinerary thanks to an exorbitant transportation cost — again, having a car would’ve been wonderful! — but we headed back to the hostel and Netflixed our way through the evening. (That’s where I developed my knack for Riverdale, but that’s a story for another day)

Heading to Auckland the next day felt bittersweet for several reasons: first, it meant we were on the final leg of our journey and what awaited us at the end of it was the gloominess of corporate life. Second, as New Zealand’s largest city, I expected the same cold, slightly uncaring vibe of city life from Auckland that I have seen in New York and Paris — where people hurried about their daily lives either engrossed on the pavement in front of them or on their smartphones and the concept of stopping by to enjoy the sun, which there was plenty of, was non-existent. Lastly, I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the wonderful, kind and caring locals I made friends with in Rotorua, particularly the hostel staff.

Auckland was exactly as I had expected it to be: busy, noisy, and beautiful. The viaduct and the harbor was obviously a main draw for me, given my small, almost fleeting interest in boats. There were plenty of boats and luxury yachts parked in the harbor and they were pleasant to look at. A colleague connected me to a friend of his who lives in Auckland and she showed me around the city center on on of the afternoons and pointed me to an excellent bar — Dr. Rudy’s — with a million dollar view of the harbor (see above).

The highlight in Auckland was the day-trip we took to Waiheke island, in the Hauraki gulf, which is about a 40-minute ferry ride away. The island’s main village is Oneroa where there are art galleries, shops, restaurants and cafes, and a short, downhill walk leads to a beautiful, quiet beach. The area was a suburb with plenty of beach houses, a sandy shoreline, littered with shells, where the waves crashed gently, the sun sparkled on the blue waters and black-billed gulls milled around. But the island’s  real claim to fame are the large, sprawling vineyards up the hills — we trekked up about an hour to get to Mudbrick Vineyard where we did the mandatory touristy thing: wine tasting! Too cheap to splurge on premium wines for tasting, we settled for the standard variety and added a cheese platter to it. Because, well, CHEESE. Since we were already indulging, we had dessert for lunch. It was worth it; particularly the view from the highest point on the island.

One thing that surprised me about Auckland was just how hilly the city is. The pressure on my knees, already sore and tender from Tongariro crossing, became borderline uncomfortable in the final days of the trip, which meant my much-anticipated photography excursion to Mount Eden, to do some long exposure shots of the sunset against the backdrop of the skyline, had to take a backseat.

New Zealand is one of those countries where you will never run out of things to do. We only covered a very small portion of the much bigger north island, and did not even touch the south, and not once did I feel bored or uninterested in exploring the country, its culture and its people. If I could, I’d just buy a one-way ticket right now and never look back!

Summer travel update: New Zealand

In about three weeks, my friend and I are heading to New Zealand for an impromptu holiday — to be fair, not as unrehearsed or aspirational as simply hopping on a plane one fine morning, thanks to my Indian passport that requires some degree of preparation in order to get a travel visa.

We chose to limit our movements on the North Island on the account that neither of us drive and are restricted to relying solely on public transportation to move around. On the map below is the rough itinerary, with a mandatory trip to Hobbiton for me to indulge my Lord of the Rings nerdiness.

This is what the rundown looks like tentatively.

  • Day 1 – Arrival in Auckland
  • Day 2 – Auckland – Tongariro National Park
  • Day 3 – Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing; probably the most daring thing I’ll be attempting in my life, hiking a 20km trail that passes through three active volcaones, including Mount Ngauruhoe which gained fame for being the stand-in for Mount Doom in the film trilogy. Going in April — Autumn in the southern hemisphere — also means harsh, cold weather, possible rain and thunderstorm and a rough volcanic terrain. How fun! But to be fair, from what I’ve seen so far, the photographs will always be worth it.
  • Day 4 – Tongariro National Park – Rotorua
  • Day 5 – Hobbiton! No explanation needed to be honest. Paying an inflated price for an hour-long walk through a beautiful sheep farm that happened to provide the setting for the Shire? Sign me up!
  • Day 6 – Rotorua
  • Day 7 – Rotorua – Auckland
  • Day 8 – Piha
  • Day 9 – Auckland
  • Day 10 – Return to Singapore

That looks do-able, but knowing my luck with trips like these, something unexpected is very likely to crop up and throw my carefully planned itinerary into the bin. For better or for worse remains to be seen, but there’ll be some fantastic opportunities for photography. I’m excited.