Wellington to Turangi: 340 km

Turangi to Waitomo: 204 km

Waitomo to Auckland: 198 km
We caught the ferry (another three-hour boat ride, this time through calm waters) back to the North Island. A day later one of the competing ferry company’s boats almost capsized along the same route.

We seemed to be just skirting disaster on this trip. We read in the paper about a Dutch couple, sleeping in their camper van, taken hostage and assaulted at gunpoint: they were staying at a holiday park we’d almost gone to.

It was with this looming dread in mind that we headed for the Tongariro Crossing, our last planned Great Walk, a one-day, eight-hour tramp over the desiccated, treeless Mount Tongariro, an active volcano used as Mount Doom in Return of the King.

Tongariro is New Zealand’s oldest national park and a World Heritage Area. We’d tried to do the hike on our way south in early October but were thwarted by ice and snow. Problem is, bad weather can confound hikers any time of year on this particular tramp.

One look at the terrain tells you why. There are no trees. There are no buffers for the wind. Think Ecuadorean altiplano. Think Death Valley in spring. Storms whip up without warning: sunny days give way in moments to leaden skies that quickly turn to torrent.

It is beautiful, if harsh, country. The line of mountains crawls down the valley in waves of scrub, declining into broad brush-strokes of sandstone, walls of it along the road appearing to melt into protruded lips — looking like ramparts of milk chocolate that someone walked along with a blowtorch. These formations shrink and fade and the road twists in a descent to the Kaimanawa and Rotoaira forests, where huge dark podocarp trees bend to the brunt of the mountain winds.

I think we knew instinctively that the weather would not cooperate, but we went through the motions of making shuttle reservations for dropoff and pickup. At the appointed time, our shuttle didn’t show: we called and were told that 80-km winds near the top, at Red Crater, precluded any hiking for the day. The forecast was grim for the next day as well, and we were on a tight schedule.

We quickly rearranged our plans. You gotta be flexible on a trip like this.

We had time for one more Quintessential New Zealand Experience before prudence dictated we return to Auckland to begin the process – probably laborious – of certifying Melba as road-worthy. And selling her and quickly leaving the country.

We headed for the Waitomo Caves, home of Blackwater Rafting.