Florence Falls

We had worked up an appetite with our morning explorations of Litchfield Park and found a secluded spot for a picnic lunch alongside Florence Creek.

The spring fed watercourse bubbles along, tumbling over a series of cascades until it reaches the escarpment at Florence Falls.

A stunning panorama from the viewing platform takes in the lush monsoon forest surrounding the falls.

The multi-tiered falls drop around 40 metres in total while the main cascade is around 20 metres.

There are 160 steps to the swimming hole at the base of the falls. Tempting though it was to cool off in the pristine water, the return climb would have been a step too far.

Mead’s Wall

Having returned to the base of Mount Ruapehu on Sky Waka, we followed the signs to explore Mead’s Wall, named for William Perrett Mead, the first to reconnoitre the Whakapapa valley and subsequently form the Ruapehu Ski Club in 1913. The wall didn’t look particularly impressive from a distance but the 25 metre high west face has eight rock climbing routes for those who wish to indulge.

We walked the easy trail to the side of the wall, wondering how (or why) anyone would climb it.

Looking back across the ski field, chalets dotted the barren landscape that becomes the beginners run, Happy Valley, when covered in snow.

The east face of the wall presents a sheer drop of 45 metres, a little more challenging for those thrill-seekers with ropes, helmets and jelly legs

We were more excited to be standing in the vicinity of memorable Mordor scenes from The Lord of the Rings. These volcanic rocks, cliffs and ash were the location of Emyn Muil, the mountainous area where Frodo and Sam become lost on their way to the Black Gates of Mordor and first meet Gollum.

Beyond Mead’s Wall, the river valley wends its way through the Whakapapa Gorge, toward the conical shape of Mount Doom, I mean Mount Ngauruhoe.

Back to reality, as we were leaving a solo rock climbing lesson was just beginning, I couldn’t bear to watch.

Termite Mounds

Not only does Litchfield Park have spectacular waterfalls, it is also home to hundreds of magnetic termite mounds. Unique to northern parts of Australia, the two metre high structures are built with their thin edges pointing north-south and broad sides facing east-west.

Amitermes meridionalis, commonly known as the Magnetic Termite, have cleverly grasped the concept of thermo-regulation and this orientation creates high humidity and stable temperatures within the mound.

A large mound may house up to a million termites comprising the queen, king, reproductives, soldiers and workers. Although the exterior is hard and durable, the material inside separating the chambers and galleries is a papery texture.

Another fascinating inhabitant of this area is Nasutitermes triodiae, the Cathedral Termite. Their mounds are much bigger, reaching four to eight metres in height and the hollow columns inside create a central air-conditioning system to enable the colony to remain cool.

There is a very impressive example of a cathedral termite mound, estimated to be over 50 years old, surrounded by a boardwalk to allow for closer inspection.

These feisty little insects have a long, horn-like snout with which they can cut grass to add to saliva, sand and faeces to make the mound. They can defend the colony by shooting chemical secretions from their snout to irritate and repel invaders.

Some Aborigines believe that anyone who knocks over a mound will get diarrhoea. Coincidentally, termite mounds contain high proportions of kaolin, a compound used for the treatment of indigestion and diarrhoea.

forest walk

With Michael recently sidelined sporting a badly sprained ankle, I stepped in for Poppy-walking duty. Saturday is always the long walk down the steep hill into our forest. It had been quite a while since my last venture this way and I was amazed how much had changed. The tree ferns are enormous and every shade of green.

If Michael hadn’t pre-warned me about the crayfish burrows on the path, I probably would have stepped on them. Freshwater burrowing crayfish live in tunnel systems in muddy banks, only venturing out at night or in damp, overcast conditions. The Tasmanian genera has claws that open vertically to the body rather than horizontally to allow for larger claws in narrow tunnels. Characteristic ‘chimneys’, some as high as 40cm, announce the entrance to the burrow.

Remnants of an overnight rain shower sparkled on foliage

while contorted trees danced amongst their lofty companions.

I dutifully followed Poppy along the boundary of adjoining farmland

where we attracted the interest of neighbouring cattle who didn’t hesitate to take a closer look.

Our circuit returned us to the forest, the winter season has delivered more firewood from nature,

the manferns are thriving

and the stream is bubbling its way to the Blythe River.

I wisely chose bright red socks for my pilgrimage, all the better to see the leeches that abound in the damp conditions.

Whakapapa

Tongariro National Park was a scenic forty minute drive from our haven at Motuoapa Bay. New Zealand’s first national park, Tongariro was gifted to the people by Te Heuheu Tukino IV, the Paramount Chief of local Māori tribe Ngati Tuwharetoa, in September 1887. The 80,000 hectare park is centred around three sacred volcanic peaks. A lookout on the way to our destination, Whakapapa Village, rewarded us with views of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, the latter (on the right) may be recognised by The Lord of the Rings fans as Mount Doom.

From this height, the sweeping panorama across the Central Plateau was spectacular.

We parked the car at the village and considered our options, deciding on the Sky Waka gondola ride and buffet lunch combo. Mount Ruapehu is the centrepiece of the national park, the North Island’s highest peak is home to the largest ski field in New Zealand. The terrain in March is quite different to that during ski season, it is hard to imagine the Rock Garden Chairlift conveying skiers on the advanced beginners run.

The $25 million Sky Waka gondola opened in July 2019 to transport 2,400 people an hour, a distance of 1.8km, up the northern slopes of Mount Ruapehu. It really didn’t feel as though we were travelling at 6 metres per second.

Back to The Lord of the Rings, scenes of Mordor were filmed on the rugged landscape of Whakapapa ski field and the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, including the scene where Isildur cuts off Sauron’s finger.

Our ride culminated at Knoll Ridge Chalet, a multi-storey eatery built in 2009 to replace the original café that was destroyed by fire earlier in the year.

The magnificent Pinnacles Ridge was shrouded in cloud when we arrived and it was a bit cool for alfresco dining.

The Pinnacles Restaurant was warm and welcoming, the extensive use of timber created the feeling of a traditional mountain chalet.

Lunch at the highest restaurant in New Zealand, at 2,020 metres above sea level, was delicious.

Mount Ruapehu is the largest active volcano in New Zealand and has three major peaks. There is a beautiful carving representing Paretetaitonga, the peak that wards off the southern winds.

By the time we finished lunch, the clouds had lifted from Pinnacles Ridge

and Sky Waka was the only way down

with more stupendous scenery to absorb.