Snow season is no season for indoors
Mount Ruapehu is set to erupt.
Not with major ash storms and larva flow – that last happened in 2007, though there have been several alerts since on New Zealand’s most active volcano.
The expected eruption is the opening of the ski season, probably at the end of this month (June). That’s when thousands from NZ and around the world start arriving to try out the country’s two major ski zones covering 64 separate fields.
When The Sunday Post visited in mid June the car parks were empty. Ski-lift staff were greasing wheels and checking cables. Meanwhile their colleagues were studying weather maps, ready to fire up snow-making machines should the right stuff not come in quantity to soften the summit.
Like most outdoor sports skiing depends on the weather. This year the winter, following a dry fall, has been unusually mild and late. The situation is better in the South Island where enough snow has already settled on the higher Southern Alps for some ski fields to open.
But they are not Ruapehu, the South Pacific island’s most active volcano with three major peaks – the highest 2,797 meters. They were used in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy as the fictional Mount Doom.
By Indonesian standards Ruapehu is just a bump compared to Puncak Jaya in West Papua at 4884 meters, a mountain with snow and glaciers, though these are reported to be retreating so fast they’ll be gone by 2015.
The highest point in Java is Mount Semeru near Malang. It towers 879 meters above Ruapehu, its snow free peak often chugging smoke like an old steam train.
By contrast Ruapehu still looks like a cake topped with icing, even in summer when the best views are from the Desert Road on the mountain’s eastern flank.
In 2008 hundreds of skiers and staff were trapped overnight on the mountain when a sudden violent turn in the weather closed the road.
An eruption a year earlier closed roads and emptied ski lodges, but all was well as the lahar flowed as forecast. That wasn’t the case in 1953 when a crater lake emptied and lahar swept away a railway bridge as an express train approached. The death toll was 151.
It’s clear (or not so clear) why the mountain can be so unpredictable. At one moment it was easy to see for kilometers, even down to the magnificent Chateau Tongariro hotel on the lowlands (left) Blink and it disappeared.
Chateau was built in 1929 before the Great Depression struck and reflects the hopeful opulence of the period between the two world wars. A Malaysian company owns the 115- room hotel.
There are disputes over the meaning of the mountain’s name which may refer to a pair of explosions, or a beautiful, though faithless woman in Maori legends – perhaps an attempt to explain Ruapehu’s fickle behavior
Standing in the center of NZ’s North Island the ski fields depend on their popularity for the same factor that drives real estate sales – location. It takes less than five hours to reach Ohakune, the town nearest the summit, from Auckland, the nation’s biggest city. Wellington, the capital is even closer. Both link by rail.
Some bus trips are available but best use a hire car to enjoy stunning scenery and see more sheep than people.
Ohakune was originally best known for its horticulture, particularly carrots that thrive in the cool climate and well-drained soils. A kitsch memorial to the vegetable greets visitors, but other symbols are more sober and in keeping with the majestic landscape.
More recently Ohakune has become the service center for skiers and visitors. Pros don’t dominate - there’s plenty to excite those whose only interest is lobbing snowballs – an activity that always seems to excite Indonesians.
However if you’re serious about snow don’t forget to pack a plump wallet to cushion the shocks. Lessons start at NZ $60 (Rp 460,000) while an all-day pass on the ski lifts rises to NZ $97 (Rp 750,000).
Ohakune sits on the southern side of the world-heritage listed Tongariro National Park that includes Ruapehu. Although it’s almost 20 kilometers from the nearest ski lift at Turoa and a further 30 to the bigger skifield at Whakapapa, the town is often described as a base camp.
That term suggests unshaven campers shivering under goatskins. Wrong. The only things trembling are the over-stretched credit card terminals.
The town stores sell everything fashion conscious snow bunnies might need, from luminous outer gear to accessories like reflective goggles and global positioning systems.
Should you vanish under an avalanche you can transmit a precise location and still look chic when rescued.
Accommodation goes from bunks in dormitories full of sweaty backpackers to centrally heated boutique hotels where the tariff can match the altitude.
There are even cafes at the ski lifts to accommodate the competent and the curious; you don’t need frostbite to get service. For those who shun softness in the search for real character challenges, there’s the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 25-kilometer trek that’s becoming the must-do adventure for foreign visitors.
Hotels trying to keep trading when the ski season ends in October now offer packages where walkers are bussed to the start of the crossing – then picked up later at the far end.
The crossing was closed last year when a small eruption showered the track with ash and rocks, fortunately not hitting trampers.
For those more interested in history and the natural sciences than making a fool of themselves on the slopes there are riches for free.
The Department of Conservation runs a splendid mini-museum and information center at Whakapapa covering everything from rock types thrown out of an angry volcano through to changing fashions in the snow.
(First published in The Sunday Post, 4 August 2013)