Mount Ruapehu is the north island’s top ski destination in winter but in the warmer months, it’s a deserted moonscape with a creepy chalet at its base – the perfect road trip destination for two Australian brothers and a volcano-obsessed four-year-old.
When my family moved to New Zealand a few years ago, we had grand plans of exploring both islands top to bottom. Aotearoa is the perfect place for short, awe-inspiring adventures – we’d jump from helicopters and camp on glaciers, we’d surf pristine beaches and explore caves illuminated by glowworms.
It’s turned out to be a lot less exciting. There are plenty of reasons for our relative inertness, but they’re all excuses. We haven’t really explored anywhere besides a bunch of different cafes and the local beach. So when my brother, Pij, messaged me a couple of months ago, ‘I just impulse bought flights to Wellington!’ I replied without thinking, ‘Exciting! Maybe we can go on a road trip!’
I hashed out the itinerary over a beer with my kiwi friends Karen and Nick. My guidelines were: we could only go away for two nights, and I wanted to avoid tourist traps. ‘Oh, and Fred likes volcanoes at the moment,’ I added.
They both suggested Tokaanu thermal pools. ‘They’re a bit like the ones at Rotorua,’ explained Nick, ‘but they’re free.’ Now I’m quite fond of Rotorua and its eggy smell, but I took his point – it’s a tourist trap. I wanted something a bit easier to manage and New Zealand’s largest active volcano, Mount Ruapehu was nearby – I was sold.
“It was like being on the set of The Dark Crystal– I kept expecting a weird puppet to jump out from behind a tree.”
My brother arrived in Wellington late on Monday night, and we left bright and early the next morning. Fred was so excited that he went to bed the night before wearing socks and shoes so he was ready to leap straight into the car. The road was the perfect place for us. I didn’t have to feel awkward that my brother had flown to a different country only to sit around playing Lego with Fred – even though he insisted that would’ve been fine. And we could take in the amazing scenery and compose fart jokes for Fred, while we were getting used to each other’s company again. Fred was struggling with the concept of a road trip, though – he fell into the back seat mantra: ‘Are we nearly at the volcano? Are we nearly at the volcano? Are we nearly at the volcano?’ Eventually, he fell asleep.
We stayed at an Air BnB in Turangi the first night. After morning coffee at the impossibly charming Creel Tackle House Cafe,we drove five minutes to the Tokaanu thermal pools. Nick was right about the lack of fanfare surrounding the place – it’s basically a little wooden track hovering above a series of steaming, bubbling geothermal pools. It was like being on the set of The Dark Crystal– I kept expecting a weird puppet to jump out from behind a tree. We walked over to the nearby swimming pool, where we paid $8 to soak in a private natural thermal pool, its concrete roof half open to the clear blue sky. On our way out, we watched plump trout swimming happily in the steaming creek, while jets of steam shot up from a nearby well-tended lawn, right next to the clothesline.
“We were on a road trip, had just scaled a volcano, and deserved some $22 wedges.”
Half an hour later, we were at the base of Mount Ruapehu. ‘Is this the volcano?’ Fred said in awe. ‘Is it erupting?’ We charged up the winding mountain road until it stopped abruptly at a big carpark. It overlooked a construction site for what appeared to be a huge new gondola chairlift, but could’ve easily been an evil lair for a super-rich villain. We climbed onto a snow mobile, then climbed up a rocky hill. Fred was determined to make it to the summit to see the crater, but settled for zooming around the carpark on his balance bike. I followed him on my skateboard, while Pij laughed and watched.
We stopped at the chalet on our way down. It’s a beautiful building, with bored staff and horrendously overpriced food. But, like many weird things, it felt fine. We were on a road trip, had just scaled a volcano, and deserved some $22 wedges.
“There’s a dutiful aspect to holiday photography, as if you’re compiling a dossier of evidence – see, we were there. We did that.”
THE REST OF IT
We drove on to Castlecliff near Whanganui and camped at a caravan park next to the beach. We ate fish and chips at the skatepark and toasted marshmallows on our borrowed gas stove. Fred just ate his raw from his stick. The next morning, we drove back to Wellington, and that was that.
There’s a dutiful aspect to holiday photography, as if you’re compiling a dossier of evidence – see, we were there. We did that. I was laughing as I took most of these photos, but I was also charged with the significance of the moment. Looking at them now, I recall the excitement of everything coming together – my brother had appeared out of thin air from Australia, we had actually made it away on a road trip, we could see the volcano, and then finally, we were on the volcano. See, we were there. We did it.