I was fortunate last week to get access to the Tukino Ski Field on the eastern side of an active volcano in Tongariro National Park. It was a place that I had had my eye on for a while but had never been able to get above the locked access gate 9 kilometres from the Desert Road. The 4-wheel drive track twists and turns through a lunar landscape of tussock and stunted mountain pine, climbing to 1680 metres into a landscape dominated  by scree slopes, bluffs, cliffs and waterfalls. Ankle twisting volcanic boulders of orange, red and blue, litter the valley floors. Fourteen kilometres to the north stands Mt Ngauruhoe, an iconic, still active volcano.

In the mountains expect weather, lots of weather. That day was no exception. They always say that you can expect four seasons in one day here and they weren’t joking. The lovely clear blue sky quickly deteriorated to moody grey, soon to be followed by rapid squalls of horizontal rain. As the afternoon passed into evening low cloud moved in to obscure everything down to a hundred metres. As I hunkered down in my bivvy bag I expected the worst – the wind rose to dominate all other senses, making sleep impossible. At 2.00am I woke to a stillness that was as loud as the wind that I had fallen asleep to. As I opened my eyes the sky was filled with a cacophony of stars, the like of which I have only experienced in Death Valley and in the depths of the Havasupai tribal valleys in the Grand Canyon.

Dawn heralded subtle hues, the stars fled before the approaching warmth. Ice crystals from the night’s frost slowly turned to dew. To the east the peaks of the Kaimanawa Range gradually became silhouetted against an ever lightening sky. Dawn came in all its magnificence, illuminating vast rocky buttresses in purples, reds and oranges. Mist cascaded off cliffs, swirled past headlands and oozed through folds in the lunar landscape. Ngauruhoe’s peak floated in a sea of cloud lit by the first warm rays of this new day, the cloud flowing on a conveyor through the gap between mountains. The all too fleeting dawn brightened to day, the ethereal mist evaporated, the cloud dispersed and the land flattened out.

All along I had two goals – to capture the dawn against the glory of the mountains, and also to explore a valley to the north where a waterfall fell. A hurried breakfast of muesli and dried milk washed down by a cup of strong sweet tea, and I was off, conscious of taking advantage of the cooler temperature to get some Ks under my belt. Thirty minutes to the valley floor taking extreme care to test every foot fall under the crumbly scree surface where one wrong step could end in a twisted ankle or worse, and then a couple of Ks around a massive headland and up a side valley.

The waterfall fell abruptly off an upland plateau, the roar reverberating off the canyon walls, the only sound in an otherwise soundless landscape. I stayed for two hours.

As the sun rose higher in the sky the land flattened out its sculptural textures. The magic hours had passed and it was time to head homewards.

I’ll be back !!

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