Under-lying the euphoria of the summit is the growing realisation that the uphill may have been the easy part. The downhill is no fun-park ride either.
Whilst beautiful, it is too exposed and cold to linger long at the summit and almost immediately we commence the hardest part of the walk, the scree downhill to the emerald lakes and our much anticipated lunch stop.
I had heard about the downhill scree section but this did not prepare me for it. In this time of exaggerated health and safety it is hard to believe that this route is acceptable. It is not long but it is steep and counter-intuitively; the more cautious you are, the more you over-think it, the harder it is. There are a variety of approaches: from the young guys almost running it, with solid boots and freestyling without poles and allowing themselves to slide, which is high risk but effective, to the medium speed, zig-zag method that I favoured, protecting my knees, using a pole and carefully picking out a path, and onto the very cautious and slow types to the terrified and almost paralysed by fear. It is hard to help anyone else, as you are not stable yourself, and there are the added obstacles of other stationery people on the way down. It reminded me of learning to ski with the snow plough on the beginners’ slopes ‘make a slice of pizza’ they advised! with skilled skiers swooping through high on adrenaline and preparing for a dramatic swoosh finale into the lift queue. It was dangerous and demoralising then, and it still is on the black scree run.
Our quintet eventually makes it down the initial slope without too much harm and find a picturesque but uncomfortable and windy spot lake-side for our lunch break.
At this point you can get quite close to the steam vents, and smell the sulphur steam. If you need any reminders that this is still a live volcano then you have it. The lakes are water filled craters and the colours are so bright they look toxic. The colour comes from the leeched minerals from surrounding rocks and they are highly acidic.
Here we separate from the multi day circuit hikers and continue on towards the large cool blue lake crater which is tapu (sacred and forbidden) to Maori and an old dormant crater, like Tongariro itself. We sit in the relative calm of this lakeshore amid mountain daisies and tussock before heading off for the much more benign but long descent to the Ketetahi hut and the trail end.
Near Ketetahi the heated water from deep inside the volcano finds the surface and acidic boiling water and steam geysers are visible. This part of the national park is restricted access and so we continue down the board-walks and paths through the tussock and eventually down to the tree line. Before the eruptions this area would have been forest and lower down some beech trees have survived. Totara trees seedlings are also re-appearing. As we descend the landscape returns to rolling countryside, it is possible to see the trail looping around into the distance. Surely we are not walking all that way – it seems unbelievably circuitous.
On an ordinary day hike, this would be a pleasant downhill stroll, but our feet and toes are now screaming from the forward pressure in our boots of the downhill and the pace is slow. We pass one young girl that has badly sprained her ankle, her boyfriend is trying to help her but the reality is that she is going to have to ‘bear it’ and walk out.
Finally we get to the last stop before the end, the Ketetahi hut, a fairly basic emergency shelter, but if you needed it, no doubt it would appear as 5 star luxury. We stretch and drink some water before setting off for the final kilometres, through tall flax, into forest and then finally following a stream that became a dangerous lahar during the last eruption and has huge boulders strewn along the banks. Eventually when we can barely take another step, we arrive without warning at the Ketetahi carpark and the bus. The last of our group makes it in 9 hours exactly from the start and the driver is pleased. A 6 pm departure is a good outcome for him. Considerably quieter than the morning, our quintet tired and drowsy as we lower our tired bodies into the old metal seats.
Thank you Tongariro for your hospitality. We are honoured.