Work had been hectic for a couple of weeks and it was beginning to cause some internal conflict – who wants to sit at home in front of the computer when there are spectacular places to visit? Worse than that – spectacular places offering opportunities for great photos, and fast losing snow in the warming weather of spring!
I’d long eyed a spot on the northern slopes of Ruapehu as likely to provide great views north to Ngauruhoe, a young volcanic cone in the centre of the Tongariro National Park. I’d spied this spot first when exploring around the Tama Lakes, which lie in old explosion craters on the southern flanks of Ngauruhoe. Looking back to the south from above the Upper Tama Lake, I could see a point where the long, gently sloping ridges coming off Ruapehu converged before rising steeply up the mountain. Tucked in at the foot of these ridges were a series of bluffs and waterfalls that just might offer a good vantage point for some photos. I was keen to get there before the winter snow had completely gone, but with an El Nino spring running rampant, several weekends had been ruined by gale-force westerlies and rain. We wanted it fine and clear!
Finally, we got the forecast that we wanted, and on a free weekend. Hastily we organised gear into the car – tent, sleeping bags, warm clothes, food, and a daunting-sized bag of camera gear, topped off with my tripod – and headed off, staying the night in National Park village to enable an early start. The following day dawned cold and clear, and we were soon underway, leaving the Chateau on the Tama Lakes track.
Once past the Taranaki Falls we looked for an easy way to head south, eventually choosing a broad flat ridge that climbed gradually towards the middle slopes of Ruapehu. Fortunately the travel was easy, with very little vegetation to impede our travel, and by midday we were ready to find a place to set up for some photos. Eventually we chose a high ledge above a set of bluffs where a moderate-sized stream descended over the edge of an old lava flow. The panoramic views across to Ngauruhoe were every bit as spectacular as we had anticipated, and with a flat site for the tent and a good water supply readily at hand we couldn’t ask for more.
After a bit of a rest up in the shade, we scouted around for the best sites for that evening and the following morning. With several hours before sunset, we then headed off to explore the surrounds, including Saddle Cone, a small explosion crater at the foot of Ruapehu. We avoided the nearby black-backed gull colony – the combination of time of year and then number of birds coming and going suggested that breeding was likely to be in full swing, and we were sure that any close approach would trigger a vigorous response. After wandering the broad scoria flats of the large basin that drains north into the Lower Tama Lake, we climbed back up to our little campsite, cooked and ate dinner, and relaxed on our high perch as the sun gradually sank towards the horizon.
The sunset was as dramatic as we had hoped, fading just a little as the sun got close to the horizon, but then lighting up the sky again before finally fading. The night was equally spectacular, with the moon-rise not set to occur until 3.30 the next morning, and almost no light pollution. Unfortunately the Milky Way was rotated around into the western sky, so that the night sky above Ngauruhoe was relatively muted – I did shoot one star stack before the day’s exertions caught up with me, but then the prospect of a warm sleeping bag become too hard to resist.
The alarm went off at 5.30 the next morning and not a minute too soon, with a spectacular glow in the eastern sky and a high, thin moon perfectly placed for a photo. Early morning is not my greatest time of day, but this quickly got me awake – climbing the ridge behind the tent I took a series of images as the sun gradually came up over the Kaimanawas, throwing into stark relief the dissected lava ridges of the basin below. After an hour or so I was more than satisfied, and headed down for a relaxed breakfast, before breaking camp and beginning the slow and leisurely walk out to our car – an almost perfect photographer’s dream with some of my most satisfying images – these can be found here…