A JOURNEY TO TAMA LAKESBy: Jamie Gallant • @bureauofexplorers
July was a cold month for us. Ohakune, a low-lying mountain town smack-dab in the center of the North Island, on the southern side of Mount Ruapehu, received nearly a foot of snow in 24 hours, the most accumulation there in 16 years. Whitewinters aren’t usually the first thing that springs to mind when people think of New Zealand’s North Island. More generally, it’s images of tropical beaches, lush,fern-filled wilderness and rolling hills. You know, like “The Shire”. But for a native New Englander, the thought of reacquainting myself with that gritty, wet, cold stuff that used to dictate whether I had to go to school was too tempting to ignore.
Sam is a graphic designer who works with me in Auckland. He’s from a town in the tropical far-north of New Zealand (a town I used to live in as well), and, weirdly, plays ice hockey. He’d recently split up from his girlfriend, and mentioned feeling a need to bro-out in the wilderness as a result. He hadn’t done much hiking, didn’t own hiking boots, and had never actually seen snow. Now typically, my loner tendencies would dictate that I camp out on my own, eating freeze-dried meals for two and calling it a night around 8pm, ready to rock for whatever the day held by dawn. So, maybe a little company would do us both some good.
While Sam went shopping for some outdoor winter basics I put together a plan for our weekend together. For months, I had wanted to explore the 17km Tama Lakes Trail in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest national park and home to the largest peaks on the North Island. Traversing parts of an active volcanic field, the trail would give us pristine views of the three major volcanos of Tongariro, Ruapehu and take us to the base of Ngauruhoe, AKA Mount Doom. All that snow would only add to the dramatic, barren landscape. There was just one small hitch: all roads and highways into the park were closed until further notice. And the New Zealand Transport Agency was warning drivers to avoid the region for all non-essential travel until the following week.
Undeterred and hoping for the best, we pointed Sam’s 1993 Mitsubishi Pajero out of Auckland. With a short wheelbase and chunky mud tires it wasn’t a luxurious ride, but it was significantly more off-road worthy than my wife’s front wheel drive Toyota Avensis wagon. And, more importantly, it looked adventurous and manly. “By the way, the heater in this thing doesn’t work”, Sam said to me. And with that we began our 4.5 hour drive south.
We spent the cold, clear night camping in tents along the shores of Great Lake Taupo, just to the north of the national park. The next morning I woke early to find my tent coated in ice. Cocooned in my mummy bag I fumbled for my phone to check for updates on the road closures. The northern road had reopened, just far enough for us to access the trail!
Unlike in the US, all national parks in New Zealand are completely free for the public to access. The Tama Lakes Trail begins from Whakapapa Village in the heart of the park. There, visitors are exposed to 360º views of panoramic alpine eye candy and the grand Chateau Tongariro at its base, which would not be out of place in Kubric’s “The Shining”. We headed to the Ranger Office to log ourselves in, only to find a handwritten sign out front stating that it was closed. Sam asked how likely it really was that we could accidently wander off the trail. We would do so twice on our hike. Later the next day a backcountry skier would go missing for 10 hours on Ruapehu, until being found by Search and Rescue- hypothermic but alive- huddled at the edge of a tree line at 2:30am in waist deep snow.
For the entirety of our 9-hour hike we saw six other people on the trail. It’s a stark contrast to the Tongariro Crossing just a few kilometers to the north. Considered New Zealand’s most popular 1-day hike, the Crossing generally consists of long lines of colourfully-chic tourists, often under prepared in denims and running shoes, awkwardly holding an ice-axe in one hand and a selfie stick in the other. This felt like we’d discovered a hidden gem in the park. One person we did encounter was a fit, older teacher from Hamilton. He overtook us despite being more than twice our age, and was frothing more than a grom hitting fresh pow-pow.
Sam’s new boots had proved stiff as expected, but despite the blisters he bounced along the path at a pace I could barely keep up with. For him, there was always something new around the next bend. About 5 hours into our journey we were greeted with ridgeline views of Lower Tama Lake. Its water was glassy, reflecting like a mirror the striking slopes of Ruapehu, stationed just beyond. You could have confused the landscape for being Polar. It’s finely ground black earth contrasted by the seemingly endless white powder brought just a day before. Continuing up the rocky slopes towards Mount Ngauruhoe we came to Upper Tama Lake, its indigo blue, glacial coloring reminding me of what a special and fragile environment this is. Standing there, gazing out on the saddle between them, dwarfed by two active volcanoes, I feel profoundly grateful for this moment,for this snap winter experience I’d longed for and built up in my head as well as Sam’s. But does he feel the same way I wonder? Just as I turn to ask him, the silence is broken...
Sam: “Dude, it’s like I lost my snowginity.”
Me: “Yeah? They say you always remember your first time.”