As child I looked forward to birthdays. What’s not to like? Lots of food of the type normally forbidden, lots of people not normally seen. If the birthday was mine, lots of new books to read. Lots of attention, and lots of mess. I didn’t have to clean up the mess. Somewhere along the way the appeal of celebrations of this nature started to fade. As an adult you get to eat whatever you like whenever you like, you see friends and family when it suits and you discover libraries. You get to clean up your own mess and realise it can be a difficult, stressful, protracted business. While I’d participate in other people’s milestone marking, marking my own milestones just didn’t seem important. Yeah I’m a year older, no big upside, no big deal.
Fast forward a few years and I’m staring down the barrel of a milestone birthday and under pressure to mark it. My instinctive reaction is do nothing. It’s only a milestone if you make it one, age shouldn’t matter, other things are more important. In terms of the more important, I’m still working on the definitive list but it would definitely include world peace, global wealth redistribution, abolishing climate change, making the most of every day and beating Australia at cricket. Add to that Sarah and my trail running project. It’s about time we ticked another Great Walk off The List.
Fast forward a bit more. It’s a crisp, clear morning in late summer as Sarah, Marta and I start the Tongariro Northern Circuit. I’m tapering for the Motatapu Adventure Race the following weekend. This is my worst taper ever. Tim, my Motatapu team mate will not be impressed. On the other hand this could be my best run ever. The scenery is impressing the hell out of me. I’m not easily impressed. Every time I visit Tongariro National Park my appreciation grows. Dew sparkles on the tussocks as we run between Ngaurahoe and Tongariro through fields of mauve flowering heather under a big blue sky. As we have not yet joined the Tongariro Alpine Circuit we have the place virtually to ourselves. The peace and tranquility is heavenly.
After 8.5km in heaven we join the Tongariro Crossing. I feel like I’m part of a herd of migrating gazelle as we thread our way methodically past hiker after hiker following Mangatepopo stream up valley. This section of the circuit has been colonised by manmade structures designed to protect the fragile environment from the worst impacts associated with herds of gazelle stampeding across one narrow piece of trail. There is an art to overtaking hikers on narrow board walks, mostly it pays to wait till they stop to drink or feed.
The steps, handrails, bridges and signage detract from the views which are being captured by cellphones, go pros, and cameras. Some of the gazelle are even looking around them using their bare eyes albeit tightly enclosed in sunglasses. A herd would normally require a bit of getting used to but I’ve been on this route enough to not expect a wilderness experience. Sarah and Marta come to it fresh so have no expectations at all.
Pausing for breath at Mangatepopo Saddle we decide to head up Ngaurahoe. The Northern Circuit is all about Ngaurahoe. The volcano will be a constant presence all day, our centre of orientation, the hub in our wheel. The views from the top will be a highlight. This is Marta’s first visit to the Park and neither she nor Sarah have been to the top. Sarah is a bit nervous but we persuade her to take a chance. We follow the ground trail up the scree slopes slipping and scrambling our way to the crater rim.
It’s totally worth it. From the top of Ngaurahoe we are Queens of a gorgeous volcanic wonderland. We are in a state of lava lust as we wander around the lip of Ngaurahoe’s crater taking in the views. The gazelles are tiny dots far below. We can see all the way across to Mt Taranaki in the west and the snow fingery flanks of Ruapehu right beside us, plus Blue and Emerald lakes, the South and Red craters, Tongariro and Lake Taupo in the north, the Kaimanawa Range and the Rangipo Desert in the east. This lanscape changes dramatically with the seasons, the day, the hour, you never get the same view twice. I smile recalling the snowy landscape you experience in winter.
For Marta and I the scree descent is exhilerating and over too soon. We sit around emptying scoria out of our shoes and admiring shirtless gazelle while we wait for Sarah to catch up. I’m tempted to sneak back up just to come down again but she is not that far behind us. After a quick snack we head across South crater and climb up to Red crater. From Red crater there is the option of doing a side trip to Tongariro but we have not covered many kilometres yet so we stick with the main route. Wading through fine scoria sand to the Emerald lakes we hang a right for a sharp descent into the Otuere valley. The second we leave the crossing we are on our own, three wilderbeasts enjoying a wilderness experience. The contrast is as dramatic as the volcanic landscapes we are moving through.
We are starting to feel the heat now, it is hard to drink enough water and apply sufficient sunscreen, the former is converted to sweat almost instantly, the latter melts off like ice cream. It’s tempting to linger in the shade of Otuere Hut with other hikers but we push on up and down stream valleys and gravel fields towards Waihohonu hut. There is little shade and I’m starting to tire as Marta and Sarah vanish in the distance. It’s too hot to eat properly. Little breezes are a blessing. Near the hut we pass through a beech valley, the shade feels amazing. We climb again then descend into the next valley where the hut lies.
From Waihohonu hut it is just 14.8km back to Whakapapa Village running between Ngaurahoe on our right and Ruapehu on our left. The last time Sarah and I did this section we were finishing the Round Ruapehu circuit, today by comparison we are feeling pretty fresh.The track follows the Waihohonu stream gradually climbing to Tama Saddle before wending its way up again and through forest back to the village. Marta and Sarah push ahead thinking they will do the side trip to Tama Lakes but I find them lounging on the side of the track at the turn off enjoying the moment.
It hasn’t been a fast day amongst the volcanoes, we’ve taken our time and made the most of all the daylight to explore at our leisure. Back in the village we shower off the days grime before enjoying a cold beer. I call my brother to share an excited blow by blow account of the dying stages of the Black Caps epic win over Australia in our World Cup Pool match. I’m delighted, the win is a choice bonus birthday present on top of running the Northern Circuit.
Over pizza at the local pub watching the sunset over Ngaurahoe it dawns on me that I’ve found a way to make this birthday ritual thing meaningful. Each year on or around the first day in Autumn I’ll attempt to run my age. It will be a celebration of the beauty of our natural areas, the company of good friends, my health and wellbeing and my capacity to adapt and find meaning in life. Acceptance of the things I can’t control too I suppose, like the cricket. Pizza and beer afterwards.
So this year I’ll be running the Hillary. http://thehillary.co.nz/wordpress/ I’m not quite 80 yet but I’ll probably feel like it when I finish, but that’s another story.