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On Walkabout On: New Zealand’s Volcanic Highway

The final thing my wife and I did during our visit of the Taupo region of New Zealand was to drive around the entire Tongariro National Park on the Volcanic Highway. I have depicted the highway on the below satellite image of this spectacular national park:

This extremely scenic drive begins on the southern shore of Lake Taupo in the small town of Turangi and follows Highway 1 south along what is known as Desert Road. Desert Road doesn’t seem like much of a desert at first because of all the trees that surround the highway, but eventually the trees begin to thin out and we were rewarded with spectacular views of Mt. Ngauruhoe:

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What I found interesting about this road was that it is the main north-south highway link between New Zealand’s major population center Auckland and it’s national capitol Wellington and it is a narrow single lane road filled with dangerous curves. The highway is made more dangerous because of the amount of the many semi-trucks that traverse this narrow road. Little did we know is that this road is actually quite good compared to what we found later on during our tour of the south island where the roads were even more dangerous.

Eventually the road straightened out and lived up to its desert name as little vegetation was evident on both sides of the road:

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Looking towards the east, as far as I could see was barren land covered with sage grass:

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Finding a desert in the middle of New Zealand was something I did not expect before traveling here so it was really quite stunning to see. This desert is formed because of prior eruptions of the active volcanic peaks of Tongariro National Park that loom over the highway. The left over lava rock is only conducive for this sage grass to grow in thus creating this desert like environment:

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Towards the end of the Desert Road the highway actually passes through a major New Zealand military training range where some scenes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy were filmed. This training land is dwarfed by the gigantic 2,797 meter active volcano of Mt. Ruapehu:

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Mt. Ruapehu has erupted as early as last year and has claimed many lives over the years, but no volcanic activity was evident the day we drove through. Desert Road ends in the small town of Waiouru which is a good place to eat lunch and if you have time tour the New Zealand military museum there.

From Waiouru the Volcanic Highway proceeds east from highway 1 and on to highway 49. What is really interesting is how quickly the terrain turns from the desert environment into emerald green grazing land filled with sheep:

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Looking at the views of Mt. Ruapehu from the south makes the mountain look like a scene that would fit right into the Pacific Northwest back in America:

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Like the volcanoes in America’s northwest this volcano can be skied as well. The mountain has two ski resorts and is thought to be the world’s only active volcano with ski resorts on it.

After a short drive along the southern boundary of the national park the Volcanic Highway than turns on to Highway 4 heading north which featured thickly forested terrain, rivers, and many bridges like this railway bridge pictured below:

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From the forested lands the terrain eventually shifts into farming land overshadowed by the park’s stunning volcanoes such as the 2,287 meter Mt. Ngauruhoe:

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I thought this kiwi sign provided an excellent iconic picture of New Zealand:

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Here are pictures of my wife and I each taking a picture with this iconic sign:

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From Highway 4 the Volcanic Highway then turns onto Highway 47 heading northeast back to Turangi and eventually the highway exits the forested terrain and returns to the desert region on the national park’s western side providing stunning views of Mt. Ruapehu:

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If you look closely in the above picture you can actually see the old Chateau Tongariro that served as the hotel for the cast and crew of the Lord of the Rings crew while filming Mordor scenes here at Tongariro National Park.

Mt. Ngauruhoe served as the stand in for Tokien’s Mt. Doom and this picture shows you why:

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Add some CGI effects and I would have thought I was staring right into Mordor, but fortunately I wasn’t in Mordor, but beautiful New Zealand.

Further down the road we were able to get views of 1,967 meter Mt. Tongariro as well:

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Mt. Tongariro is extremely sacred to New Zealand’s native Maori people due to a legend that links the volcano to the ancient Maori gods:

Legend links Ngatoroirangi with the creation of volcanoes and the naming of Tongariro. According to one version, the priest traveled inland to explore the island and claim land for his people. As he climbed to the summit of Tongariro, a strong south wind brought extremely cold weather. Nearly chilled to death and exhausted by the climb, Ngatoroirangi called out for help from his sisters in the far-away Maori homeland, Hawaiki.

They came to him in the form of fire under the earth, leaving a trail of geysers and volcanoes in their path and emerging at Tongariro to warm the priest. Thus, the volcanic landscape represents a genealogic link with the historic homeland of Hawaiki, and the mountains are revered as tribal ancestors. The name Tongariro—“tonga” (south wind) and “riro” (seized)—commemorates the cold wind that almost killed Ngatoroirangi.

In order to protect the holy status of these lands the Maori people donated Tongariro to the New Zealand government in 1894 to be protected as a national park which is what it remains today and has even gone on to be designated in 1993 as a United Nations World Heritage Area.

Shortly past the views of the legendary Mt. Tongariro the highway then entered into thickly wooded forest again. Along the way my wife and I stopped at the remains of an old Maori village along the shores of Lake Rotoaira. It was interesting to see the old ruins of the old Maori homes and structures scattered around the area:

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From the village the Maori people who used to live here had an excellent view of their holy mountain, Mt. Tongariro:

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From the Maori village we continued to drive down the highway and back to Turangi but not before stopping at one final lookout and taking this picture of beautiful Lake Taupo:

If you do not have the fitness level or time to walk the Tongariro Crossing a trip around the Volcanic Highway is a worthy substitute. The bottom line is you have to see this wonderful park some how and driving around it is the easiest way to do it.

Next Posting: Touring Rotorua

Prior Posting: The Final Descent of the Tongariro Crossing

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