TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Archive for New Zealand

Super Volcanoes: Hiking New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park

We have just begun our all-day hike over some of the volcanoes of New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park when a trailside sign conveniently itemizes the life-threatening hazards awaiting us.

For starters, an eruption could eject large rocks into the air to rain onto us from the sky or release lava flows. Pyroclastic flows, which are clouds of ash, rock, and gas that can cook flesh, could come upon us at 60 mph. Just such a flow in 1975, in fact, formed the black rocks we’re standing on. Even short of a volcanic eruption, deadly volcanic gases can pool in the bottom of craters on calm, sunny days like today. And the rock on these peaks is so unstable that falling rock looms as a constant hazard.

Should we notice any signs of an eruption—an earthquake, for instance, or an ash cloud, or that other telltale indicator, rocks flying incongruously through the air—we should “move as quickly as possible down off the mountain.”

Yea, sound advice. In theory, anyway.

I find the sign rather comforting, actually: Before exploring a new place, I like knowing what could kill me there.

The warnings are not hyperbolic. Tongariro National Park looks like a place recently devastated by a very big bomb—which is, in a sense, what happened. The first volcano we will climb, Mt. Ngauruhoe, erupted 45 times in the 20th century. Red Crater, also on our itinerary today, last erupted about 130 years ago—an eye blink in geologic time. Mt. Ruapehu, dominating the horizon just a few miles to the south of Ngauruhoe, ranks among the world’s most active volcanoes. Blowing its top with a major eruption roughly every 50 years for at least the past 250 millennia—including in 1895, 1945, and 1995-1996—Ruapehu has also experienced at least 60 “minor” eruptions since 1945, some of which produced ash falls and lahars, which are deadly flows of mud and rock.

Sounds like very serious stuff.

I’m spending the day hiking a 12.1-mile loop over three of the main volcanoes and craters of Tongariro, in the center of New Zealand’s North Island. Established in 1887—just five years after Yellowstone became the world’s first national park—Tongariro was New Zealand’s first national park and the world’s fourth. It is also a dual World Heritage area, recognized both for its importance to the culture of the Maori, the original people of these islands, and for its natural values. Besides prolific volcanism and associated natural features, the national park is known for its strikingly stark, colorful landscape.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Tongariro_Volcanoes.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

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A Secret New Zealand Paradise: Trekking the Rees-Dart Track

We’ve hiked just thirty minutes from the trailhead when we hit the kind of view that frequently makes you stop and take a deep breath when trekking in New Zealand.

The Rees River Valley sprawls out before us, golden grasslands dissected by a braided, meandering, emerald-green river. In the middle distance, a fat and foaming Lennox Falls plunges over a cliff. Farther off and thousands of feet above us, glaciers pour off a row of sharp peaks in the Forbes Range angling into the sky.

My hiking partner, Gary Kuehn, an American who has lived here on New Zealand’s South Island working as a mountain guide for several years—long enough, apparently, to pick up that semi-intelligible Kiwi accent—looks around, grins, and mutters, “Pritty noice.”

Gary has seen a fair bit of these Southern Alps, where vistas like this are so common that they inspire an odd sort of déjà vu that you have stumbled into paradise for something like the fourth time today. And yet, he jumped at the invitation to join me here on the Rees-Dart Track because he’s actually never done this trek.

That fact affirms my impression of the Rees-Dart, most of which falls within Mt. Aspiring National Park: Although just spitting distance from the world-famous and enormously popular Routeburn Track, with scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern Alps template, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked by the armies of international trekkers that invade New Zealand every austral summer. Other than the expected busy atmosphere at the huts, we will spend most of every day out here seeing no one else.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Rees-Dart__New_Zealand.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Into the Mystic: Sea kayaking New Zealand’s Doubtful Sound

A light mist falls as our small adventure armada of nine sea kayaks cruises along the shore of Deep Cove, the farthest inland extremity of Doubtful Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. Around us, cliffs rise straight up out of the sea to 4,000-foot summits—sheer, Yosemite-like granite walls improbably sprouting a vertical jungle of the podocarp trees and other indigenous vegetation that make these forests look like something from another planet.

The sun makes feeble attempts to break through the soupy overcast. But the clouds, mist, and intermittent rain will persist throughout our trip, as they do most days of the year here. When you head out into a place that receives upwards of 23 feet of rain annually—which is about ten feet more precipitation than falls on Washington’s famously saturated Olympic rainforest—you don’t bother looking at the weather forecast. You just bring good rain gear and think sunny thoughts.

Our guide, Simeon Grig, who goes by “Sim,” leads us to the lee side of tiny Rolla Island, to take a break out of the wind. In a pronounced Kiwi accent that could make him the star of an action movie or a really funny beer commercial, Sim tells us that Rolla, covered with a thick fur of impenetrable rainforest, is a breeding ground for native crested penguins.

I’m sharing a two-person kayak with a young Portuguese named Leonardo, whom I just met this morning. He and I paddle ahead of the others as our group circles the island. On Rolla’s opposite side, we surprise two penguins waddling along the short skirt of rock at the shore. Seeing us, the penguin pair scrabbles quickly up the wet rock and disappears into the jungle.

It’s the first morning of our guided sea kayaking trip run by Fiordland Wilderness Experiences. For two days, we will paddle around the upper reaches of Doubtful Sound, a remote, roughly 30-mile-long fjord in the vast wilderness of Fiordland, which sprawls over nearly three million acres of the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island, an area as large as Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined. Fiordland is also part of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area, which spans four contiguous national parks (including Mt. Aspiring and the Rees-Dart Track), and covers 6.4 million acres—almost three times the size of Yellowstone, representing roughly 10 percent of New Zealand’s land area.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Fiordland__New_Zealand.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

From New Zealand to 10 national parks, 2010 was a good year

We scrabbled up the last hundred feet to the volcano’s rim, the mountainside of loose stones sliding out beneath each footstep. Steam hissed from dark cracks between rocks, holes reaching unfathomably deep into the planet’s crust. Then Kiwi trekking guide Stewart Barclay and I reached the rim of serially active Mt. Ngauruhoe in New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park—which erupted 45 times in the 20th century—and gazed down into a crater filled with the debris from violent upheavals: crumbling walls in a kaleidoscope of colors, heaps of rubble piled up below.

A hiker in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

That was 10 months ago, the second of 15 trips I took in a busy year of adventuring outdoors for work that took me away from home for a total of just over three months. Looking back over 2010 now, I remember less how hectic it was than specific scenic and emotional highlights—the kind of moments that slowly harden into durable memories. Those are the end product of travel and the motivator that keeps us aching for the next one.

Read the full story and see other stories and photos of outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.