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.

Aonach Mor

After a wander along the main street of Fort William, we drove to Aonach Mor to experience the Nevis Range. The 2.3km gondola ride up the north face of the mountain was exhilarating.

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650 metres up, the ski lifts were still slumbering

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but the light snow gave a hint of things to come.

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The heavy cloud promised more snowfalls and the shafts of sunlight painted beautiful hues through the Great Glen.

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We enjoyed a hot chocolate to warm up at the café and, fortunately, it was after 12 o’clock so we added a Drambuie chaser to fortify us for the trip down the mountain.

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The cloud had lifted a little and the scenery was spectacular. The Great Glen follows a 100km geological fault from Inverness to Fort William, bisecting the Scottish Highlands into the Grampian Mountains to the southeast and the Northwest Highlands.

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We returned to terra firma and continued on our northward journey.

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