Mount Ruapehu at Tongariro National Park. © ThomasWong

Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro: live the high life this winter

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Donating the area that is now National Park to the people of New Zealand before the government could nick it was a masterstroke on the part of the paramount chief of Tūwharetoa, Te Heuheu Tukino IV, in 1887.

The act guaranteed access for all New Zealanders for all time to one of the North Island’s most interesting bits of landscape, and in kicking off the national parks system it also began the process of trying to preserve the land from the ravages of development and exploitation.

Fittingly, of the several peaks of Mount Ruapehu, the one that bears Te Heuheu’s name is second only to the tipuna, 2,797m Ruapehu himself.

The drive around Ruapehu and his little brothers, Tongariro and Ngāuruhoe, is spectacular enough at any time of year. But those who content themselves with the view from the window are missing out because there’s so much to be done beyond the reach of motor cars.

In the winter, there’s skiing and snowboarding, of course. Whakapapa, Turoa and Tukino fields offer a superb variety of terrain, with a comparatively reliable season extending from the end of June to October, sometimes even longer.

Even in the summer, the ski fields are worth a visit. The main chairlift at Whakapapa is generally open for sightseeing and there’s a café at the top. Those who wish can proceed higher up the mountain can enjoy a relatively short scramble from the top of the Knoll Ridge to the mountain’s summit plateau.

Guided walks are conducted to the crater lake – the sullen-looking, milky waters steaming away to remind visitors that this is an active volcano not to be trifled with.

Ruapehu has blown its top in major fashion twice in recent times, with a violent ash eruption in 1945 and another burst of activity in 1995 and 1996. Its most deadly display, on Christmas Eve of 1953, was one of its least spectacular. A rise in the lake level saw the crater wall breached and a lahar –  a landslide of volcanic mud and debris – swept away a rail bridge just in time for an Auckland–Wellington service to happen along and plunge into the river, at a cost of 151 dead. Automatic floodgates now intersect the round-the-mountain road.

There’s plenty of other tramping in the area, including the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Ruapehu’s classic round-the-mountain track and lots of day walks, too. Or there’s the high life at the Chateau Tongariro – even a round of golf at New Zealand’s most elevated nine-hole course. 

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