The morning of the walk dawns and whilst there is low cloud it is going to clear and be a great day – we are reliably informed by our local hosts. We emerge from our rooms for breakfast and then to the kitchen to pack up our lunches. Less garrulous than the night before, there is a sense of urgency and practicality underpinned by a feeling of trepidation. Can we do it? Will the mountain that has not been accepting visitors for the last few days allow us on today?
One of our group is fussing about the transport that it going to take us to the start point of the trial. It is called a bus; is it a coach? A van? Or something in between? Do they change it depending on how many people they pick up? How do they know how many people they have? These questions are just the mind’s way of verbalising trepidation.
The pick-up is not early – to allow time for the cloud to clear today. The delay gives time to go back and collect last minute items, but also for the brain to go into worry overload.
Anxiety is catching, other people have been staying at the lodge for a few days, but this is our last chance day; flights and commitments mean that if we cannot walk today then we are re-planning this adventure for another time – maybe another year. The mountain decides.
A cool young guy wanders in – he’s the bus driver. ‘You lot ready?’ he says, and turns to go out. We follow like obedient ducklings. Mystery solved; it is a school bus, an elderly bus-bus, and not only that, but it is so old that it might have been the exact school bus that the Redhead Refugee took to school as a 5 year old. Predictably we head to the back rows and settle in, we study the graffiti etched into the plywood seat backs, looking for the initials that we recognise. A budding early romance or crush, AMM 4 JP, or RW ©PH.
Oh the innocence of those days – with life still stretching far ahead with opportunity without responsibility.
We set off and as I gaze out the bus window, I catch my first glimpse of the mountain this morning. It is Ngauruhoe, still partly shrouded in mist, and partially hidden by flowering native flax and toi toi, that line the road on this high plain, like a sneaky date – he wants to check you out before you see him. It is the first of the triumvirate to show itself, three male mountains in Maori tradition, Ruapehu is the highest, the alpha. The other two are Tongariro and his son Ngauruhoe. Today we are heading to the Tongariro Alpine crossing, one of the most ‘walked walks’ in New Zealand, but certainly not a packaged tourist ramble.
Self responsibility is still practised in New Zealand; even our most famous tourist destinations are not over-managed. There is no entry fees or registration, no gates, no shops or vendors, no track staff, guides or sherpas, and if you get injured or cannot go on there is no emergency pick-up (other than helicopter rescues for major emergencies.) It is a 6-9 hour walk with gruelling sections, challenging high winds near the summit and large temperature variations. There are signs, a few board-walks and some compostable toilets on the way. There is one emergency shelter hut on the downhill side. If you catch the bus to the start point, it (and everyone on board) will wait for you at the end. You won’t be popular if you are hours late. This is the kiwi way: if you can’t do it, then don’t do it, and if you can, then get on with it. This is the same attitude that got Edmond Hillary to the top against the odds.
The bus turns off the main road and onto the narrow access road to the Maungatepopo carpark. It is narrow one-way and the flax and toi toi close in preventing all views. Our trepidation builds. The one-way road is symbolic; there is no way back now – other than a humiliating surrender and ride back on the empty school bus.
Our laconic bus driver suddenly stops and announces ‘here you go’. Here we go indeed; we are at the end of the road and there is a toilet, a sign and a boardwalk. We get out and take a deep breath of the fresh cool air to brace ourselves. We look at each other grimacing. The still cool sun is just over the peaks putting them into silhouette. Fingers of cloud still linger. The bus turns and leaves. There’s no turning back for us now…we are on our way.