By NZ standards, the Tama Lakes walk, around the Whakapapa side of Mt Ruapehu, isn’t difficult. Until the first, or lower, lake the track is mostly wide and hard-packed gravel, some rocky parts and a couple of wet areas where water has adopted the path as its own (a common occurrence anywhere water runs down a slope and there’s a path – don’t we all like to find the easiest route?) But there are no long staircases, no scrambling over huge rocks, no crossing rivers with an undertow that sucks at your feet and tries to carry you away.
The most challenging aspect, aside from the length – it’s seventeen km – is the final scramble to the second lake, the upper lake to give it the correct title. Until then anyone with average fitness and a pair of trainers can give it a go, although bear in mind you are still in fairly hostile territory where the weather can change in a few minutes. Personally I wouldn’t do any of it without wearing hiking boots, and I can’t recommend the last km without a couple of walking poles, possibly carrying a heavy anchor in even a moderate wind.
Neil and I have walked this track a few times and in various shades of a New Zealand summer. The first is probably the most memorable, on our first non-skiing trip to the area. We’d had a week of what we now know is fairly standard weather up here: periods of heavy rain that soaks you, interspersed with a hot sun and a wind that dries you within minutes. (Like I said, best to be prepared – I would never walk this mountain without a raincoat in my pack.) So we weren’t worried when we parked the car and the rain teemed down, figuring we’d soon get a break in the cloud. We didn’t. Unusually there was no wind so at least the rain came straight down, persistent and heavy, and it wasn’t cold, so we wore just t-shirts and shorts under our rain jackets. Boy, were they tested that day! We marched the track faster than we’ve ever managed since, back at the car in two and a half hours, stripping down to our underwear huddled in the shelter of the hatchback door, then scuttling into the car to eat the lunch we hadn’t been able to stop for. But the muted light was perfect for photographs, and, whilst we didn’t get the view, we got some stunning moody shots of the lakes, the colours glowing in the muted light.
This is my kind of landscape, open and wild, above the treeline after the first couple of km, views for miles and in the shadow of two mountains, Ruapehu to the south, Ngauruhoe to the north. To walk with both in full magnificent view is to walk in paradise. Albeit a paradise between two active volcanoes, one of which is currently suffering a little indigestion and might well burp at any moment. Thankfully we’re well away from any valleys down which lava might flow, although we might be in trouble if he starts hurtling rocks and hot ash at us. (In all seriousness, the current level two grading is the same that Whakaari was at in 2019 when so many lost their lives or were horrifically injured by hot ash.)
Today is a beautiful day, the wind a little fresh, meaning we need an extra layer against its chill, but the sun is out and both mountains outlined against a cerulean sky. There are a few changes since we were last here a couple of years ago: a wire fence blocks access to the top of Taranaki Falls, although I suspect the committed Instagrammers wouldn’t be deterred, and a couple of toilets have appeared, cleverly covered in fern decals to blend into rather than blot the landscape. They are also securely anchored by cables – winds in this area can be fierce. We turn away from the crowds towards Ngauruhoe, the track rising and dipping gently.
The land here is sculpted by nature and the volcano, wind and rain-scoured slopes, eroded and supporting only the hardiest of vegetation, scattered with scoria and surreal shaped rocks, solidified magma spat from the earth’s core. Clumps of white resemble snow, although, high above us, Ruapehu’s flanks are alarmingly bare for this time of year – mid-January, they would normally sport a fair amount of last winter’s snow. This year only meagre streaks grace his slopes. The rocky stream that we paddled through on our first visit trickles between the rocks in its wide bed, testament to the effects of snowmelt and rain in this area, where a gentle stream can become a raging torrent within minutes, liable to sweep away the unwary (and has done). Boardwalks cross boggy areas, protecting the fragile ecosystem from heavy feet, although it seems local wildlife are reluctant to obey rules and I spot hooved tracks alongside one. Except one bat, there are no native mammals in NZ and it will be a feral invader, either goat or deer.
We reach the lower lake and pause, looking down into the crater that holds it. A new information sign explains the creation of the lakes, that the water is clean and pest-free, the reason for the sapphire-blue that shines vivid against the volcanic surrounds. A family sit nearby, a picnic spread amongst them. The land drops steeply away towards the water and there is no access down, the pristine colour maintained with no danger of despoil by man’s hand.
The path swings left, away from the cliff edge, becoming a deep rut etched into soft peat-like soil in a fold of land that provides some shelter from the wind and allows low-growing plants to thrive – tussock grass that lashes my legs like a hundred tiny whips; a small-leaved hebe that looks, and scratches, like heather. Vegetation dies away as the land rises, a vague track visible up a steep and slippery scoria covered slope. I take a deep breath and start up – every time we do this walk I say I won’t do the final climb the next time; every next time I scrabble my way up and down it with my heart thumping, always relieved when I’m back amongst the leg-attacking hebe and tussock. Each footfall is a gamble, the surface so loose that you risk a slip that will send you spilling painfully back down. Spots of colour glow amongst the grey: a carpet of mustard-green moss coats a leeward slope and red-brown lichen clings to rocks in whose cracks a mountain daisy shelters, its broad leaves a low flat star.
The wind gusts haphazardly, making the ridge tricky to negotiate. Even with my poles I fear a sudden blast that will unbalance me, the result a nasty fall over some rough terrain with little to arrest me before a couple of steep drops. After another scramble upwards we crest the final saddle to the huge rock that marks the end of the track. Below us, the second lake snuggles against the side of Ngauruhoe. The view seems endless and it feels as though we are on top of the world, but the ceaseless wind buffets me from all sides and bracing against it is challenging. Neil is busy with his camera and, knowing he will soon catch me up, I leave him to it and begin my slow and cautious descent back to the easy track and a picnic lunch in the shelter of a low bush.
Taranaki: Tar-ah-na-ki (easy one this!)