In retrospect, it seems entirely unnecessary for the astronauts to go through such a rigorous selection and training process just to walk on the moon. We did it with only a little physical fitness training: The Tongariro Crossing.
We were in New Zealand to get started on a long-planned and arranged Colorado Mountain Club outing. It was a life-long dream to someday visit this exotic, far away land. Actually, we had heard so many nice things about it that we figured we had to go and confirm these reports. They are all true. It seemed like we were going half way around the world, but it was really only five time zones away from Colorado. The trip over was uneventful; however, the drive out of Auckland was a bit challenging as we adjusted to driving on the wrong side of the road. It was beautiful as we drove over lush, rolling green hills and into the small town of Turangi. We were to meet a shuttle the next morning to be dropped off and then later picked up at a different location in Tongariro National Park.
As mornings go, this one was one of the better ones. It was warm and sunny and promised to stay that way. We boarded a 24-passenger bus with several others from the town for our drive to the southern entrance to a 12-mile hike called Tongariro Crossing. It covers most of the volcanic activity in this part of the North Island of New Zealand. If time had been available, the trip leader could have arranged for a more extensive tour of this area with a three-day circuit of the park, but this was a great overview.
We should not have been surprised that the parking lot at the southern entrance was full of cars and buses. This national park is about midway between the two greatest centers of population in the nation. Still it was a 12-mile hike and we didn’t expect to be joined by 120 of our closest friends. But like so many places in Colorado, time, conditioning and terrain quickly spread us out so that we could only see 20 or 30 people at a time. In fact, in some of the more desolate areas of the crater crossings, I imagined that I was back in the desert alone and desperately looking for water. It was really only my imagination running wild.
For the first hour we climbed beside lava flows that had been laid down in 1953 during the last great eruption. Yes, this is still an active volcanic area. There was a stream with cascades and a waterfall and a soda spring before a steep trail led to the top of a plateau below the cone of Ngauruhoe. Although this is the most distinctive feature of the area, it is actually just a vent of the main volcano, Tongariro. Because of its distinctiveness, the trip leader offered us the chance to climb the cone. He said it was about a 900-foot vertical ascent and would take about two hours. Several of us took him up on the offer and started out on the climb.
Ngauruhoe is a classic volcanic ascent with loose soil and steep climbs. The earlier trail makers had opted for the direct route rather than an inclined path to the top. Needless to say, it was difficult going. As soon as possible, we moved onto a rocky ridge that offered better footing. The climb up the ridge and onto the rim of the cone took us into the clouds and the wonderful views we had hoped for were gone. That was all right, we had made the top and could see into the mouth of the dragon. Now, if we could just get down before it awoke.
As we came out of the clouds on the descent, we could see the rim of a much older crater near Tongariro. The trail led off into the distance and up to the rim before disappearing. It was very much what the moon must look like. Having made it to the top of this distant crater rim, we were treated to another spectacular sight, the red crater. As one of the several vents of Tongariro, this was a very colorful variation. We saw it through various perspectives as we walked along the rim to begin a descent into yet another crater. This one had three or four small lakes in the bottom from which steam was still rising. The turquoise color was a great contrast to the red crater. The interior decorator here had done a particularly good job of putting things together.
As we crossed this final crater, we could look down a valley all the way to Lake Taupo and the small village from which we had come. The trail down was as interesting as the up. It led past clumps of grass and down inclined slopes to a hut used by the three-day trekkers. After a quick drink, we pressed on down past a hot spring, into the rain forest and along several densely forested streams to the pickup point. It had been a memorable trail and I think that I am now qualified to go to the moon.
– Bill Houghton