I can summarise my just-concluded holiday trip as this: falling down from 15,000ft up at 200km/h, and climbing back up again to 2000m. And that was simply, simply awesome.
Taupo Tandem Skydiving
The skydiving experience was just unforgettable. Steadily climbing up from the ground to 15,000 ft (about 4.6km) in the small skydiving plane from Taupo airport, I didn’t think about what I was about to do. The view was nice to take in, and at that high an altitude I can see the whole of Lake Taupo, a lake with a size bigger than Singapore, and more. The tandem master tightens the harness that attaches me to him, while cracking some jokes along the way. It was not until the first person went out of the plane that the realisation of what I was about to do suddenly hit me, and it crunches me to the gut. It was the “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” kind of gut crunching, as I watched one by one of my friends went out of the plane’s door. When all my three friends have already jumped out, the tandem master pushes me to the edge of the plane’s door, and I can see now the landscape below, the water and land, 15000ft below my feet, with literally nothing in between.
The very first moment my body fell out of the plane and into the air, I felt like my heart dropped, and everything else that happens afterwards is better told by videos and pictures rather than words.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The next day, we all went to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, arguably the most famous day-hike in New Zealand. It’s a full-day hike over mountainous alpine terrain, passing between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, reaching the highest point at 1868m with optional summitting. The Mt. Tongariro summit stands at 1967m, while Mt. Ngauruhoe summit is 2287m high. The crossing is located in the Tongariro National Park, the location where Ithilien and Mordor, including the Gates of Mordor, were filmed for The Lord of The Rings trilogy.
The hike started well enough. The weather was good and the clouds were clearing. Before long, we were under the warm bright sun. So we took lots and lots of pictures while traversing the terrain. Mt. Ngauruhoe, which took the role of Mt. Doom in The Lord of the Rings quickly loomed on our right side. It was a magnificent mountain, with such steep sloping gigantic volcanic cone rising hundreds of meters high. It was simply magnificent.
When we get to the start of the steep slope in the crossing, the area dubbed Devil’s Steps, clouds started to move in and by then, my fingers are already stiff from the cold. Even with the sun shining brightly, temperature was around 13 degree at this point. Unprotected from the elements, my fingers started to feel numb. Luckily one of my friends in the group carried a pair of clean socks, so I took them and wrap my hands with them.
The Devil’s Step was aptly named – it took a lot of effort and slow going to climb the steep slope. And as soon as we get to the top of the Step, our luck began to rapidly deteriorate. Wind began to quickly pick up speed, and clouds began to move in. With the mountain now sheltered from the sun, temperature drops rapidly. By then, it was around 5 – 6 degree, and it stayed that way for more than halfway through the crossing. I returned the socks that I use to wrap my hands to my friend, cause now her fingers were starting to get really cold and stiff. We all put on our thick jackets and cover our heads. As we’re moving ahead, the wind has picked up full speed, so strong that it could literally push us had we not keep careful footing.
When we reached the area where we could take a detour from the main track to summit Mt. Tongariro, we decided to do it. The weather was rather good by then, and the wind had died down for the most part. The sky was mostly clear. As we pushed on towards the summit of Mt. Tongariro, the weather started to turn nasty again. The wind blows incredibly strongly, and clouds moved in very quickly. As we were nearing the summit, we were literally engulfed by the clouds. We were in the clouds. Visibility was reduced down to 20m – 30m. The temperature was 5 degrees, but the strong winds drew away our body heat much, much quickly, so it felt even colder than that. A combination of really strong winds, poor visibility, near-freezing temperature, and being on mountain ridges where you are most exposed to the strong winds with steep slopes on both sides was really the worst combination you can get on that crossing, just short of rain. But we were too close to the summit to stop there, so we pushed on, and we finally made it to the summit.
But we were nowhere near the end of the crossing. Remember that the summit was a side-track, and we had to make our way back to the intersection and continue along the main crossing. The weather got even worse, and one of my friend suffered a really bad muscle cramp that he couldn’t move his leg at all. We tried what we could to relieve his muscle cramp, and after a while he could walk again. So we started our journey back towards the intersection, with all the combinations I’ve described in the previous paragraph, made worse by even stronger wind and an injured group member. I felt a genuine fear at that time, fear that the hiking trip had become much more dangerous and extreme than I had expected, fear that it’s my life and the lives of my friends that are being put in danger. Had my friend’s muscle cramp continued to become worse, I would have definitely called for rescue.
In the end after much difficulty, we managed to get back to the intersection. It was already nearly 1pm at that time, and we’ve been hiking non-stop for more than 5 hours now, and we were all hungry. There’s still a lot more ground to cover, and a steep high hill to climb, so we had to replenish our energy. So we sat there at the intersection, engulfed in clouds with the wind blowing as strong as ever, eating our packed lunch. With no time to spare, we ate with our backs against the wind, literally hunched over forward while we munched the sandwiches we’ve brought along. Then we had to continue.
You should notice that we took a lot more pictures before the summit than after. That’s because by the time we started our way back from the summit, the weather had turned so bad and we were so cold that none of us would lightly take out our hands and expose our fingers to the elements just to take pictures. We were battling the wind every step of the way, careful not to lose our footing, careful not to lose sight of the track markers, and careful not to fall down the steep slopes. Trust me, when you’re in that condition, taking pictures took the least precedence. You just couldn’t be bothered.
This continued for the better part of the crossing, until we reached the other side of the crossing where we began to climb down again. We were already behind in terms of time allocated for the crossing, and we still had a lot of ground to cover. The going at the top of mountain had been very, very difficult and slow. So even after 6 hours of continuous hiking, stopping briefly only for lunch, we then had to race our way down to the Ketetahi carpark, where the shuttle bus will be waiting for us to take us back to our accommodation. By the time I reached the carpark, I was around 7 minutes late, and the shuttle bus driver was already calling somebody to report of our non-show from the mountain.
Though our experience on the mountain may have not been pleasant, it has been incredible and valuable, one that when looked back at it, we really did enjoy it. After all, people don’t climb mountains to find pleasure. And now that we’re safely home, we’re already itching for more adventures!
Now that’s been a long post. Time for trip pictures!