The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 1 (April 1, 1936.)
On the Road to Anywhere — In the — Snow-man — Country
Of course, when you first hear about it, you say gloomily, “That's exactly the sort of thing that couldn't happen to me.” And, putting your newspaper aside, you continue to play bowls, or whathave-you, and to arrange a nice quiet winter vacation. But, once these snowland pictures have struck you in the eye, they develop a haunting quality. Unlacing your boots at night, you sit on the edge of the bed, and thinking, obscurely, “Ski … she … she … ski … if not, why not?” As the days wear on, and winter, in the cities, remains just the usual little procession, the snowland idea increases in size and substance, like one of its own snowballs. You think, “Jolly, that would be! … strapping a pair of skis to my feet and flying off a precipice like an albatross.” “Get along with you,” says Reason, “Break your neck, that's what you want to do.” “But they have instructors, and there's no reason for you to assume that I'm going to turn out a rabbit at everything,” courageously insists your Suppressed Self. Next night, you like the mustard-bath programme less than ever, and the news in the evening cables is all to the bad, and the wind shrieks like a child at the dentist's. “Come along,” says your Suppressed Self, “Let's hop it.” And before you know where you are, you are centred in a Railway Booking Office, hearing your own voice ask intimate questions about the cost of a reserved sleeping-berth.
They can offer you a very nice little excursion from Auckland—or Wellington … and lots of room aboard for you, you South Islanders, who think you know all there is to know about snowballs.
But to North Islanders and South Islanders alike, let me say, don't do the Chateau Tongariro and its surrounding mountains as an ordinary, well-planned-out holiday, if you can avoid it. Save it for an adventurous moment, when you are tired of yourself and everyone else, and would like to attempt what hasn't, so far as you are concerned, been even thought of before. There are, for example, thousands and thousands of us who look more or less respectfully at those Alpine films in which one sees mountaineers climbing escalator-like bits of rock with the aid of long black ropes and tough-looking little alpenstocks. But, in our own minds, we give such mountains and such mountaineers best. We can't see ourselves going forth and doing likewise. We have an inferiority complex over all heights above the snowline. We read about Everest expeditions with a feeling that this is not for us. Well, the Chateau Tongariro is one place where the stranger learns differently. Mountains are the playground for everyone and anyone. You can climb them. Yes, you, with ease and dexterity. I know, for I climbed one myself, and with all due modesty may say that if I can climb a mountain, anyone could… .
Not, mind you, that they're tame, uninteresting mountains. You'll be winded, and if you have dared wear anything resembling high-heeled shoes (supposing you to be Eve, not Adam), the progress of your party will have been one steady and uninterrupted stream of adjectives. And your face will glow scarlet with your mighty efforts, and unless you have put unsightly black grease on your nose, it will be snow-burned, and a hundred times, you will have thought, “I'm not a mountain goat, I can't be expected to shin up there.” But, that's where the camaraderie which I found one of the most agreeable features of life at the Chateau comes in. There always seem to be one or more husky males who, at crucial moments, give you a sympathetic leg-up, shouting, “With a Yo-Heave-Ho!” And before you know what is happening, the ground before you becomes dotted with odd little salty flecks of yellowish-white; and then, over Frying Pan Flat, the yellowish-white grows foamy cream, deep, cool and soft. Then you cry “Ouch!” which means that somebody has taken an unfair advantage and launched a snowball at the back of your neck. Snowballs, properly constructed, can be most effective missiles. You must try them… . One should begin, I daresay, at the magic moment of arrival, which, if you do it the after-dusk way I have recommended, suddenly presents you with a curly trail among tufted hills looking as though they might harbour both pheasants and brigands, and then with a miraculous number of bright golden little lighted windows. The outline of the Chateau is vaguely white behind them, but for the moment, the golden windows look like something off a Christmas tree … or like one of the old-time castles in the rousing days when knights drank almost unlimited mead before setting off on their quests…. the whole effect is unquestionably one of jollity, which is advanced when the vehicle of your choice executes a graceful curve around the Chateau drive, and turns you over to the care of the enormous glowing fires in the lounge.page 33
In the morning the whole scene changes. Last night's diaphanous dancers come running into the breakfast room arrayed in snow-suits, for the most part woollies: natty breeches and jerseys, or breeches, shirts and cardigans, of amazing colours. Young men, whistling, poke heads adorned with sky-blue and purple berets into the kaleidoscope. You feel that the world has suddenly gone just a little crazy, and you like it ….
Did I mention that from every bedroom in the Chateau, there is an individual view of one or more snowmountains? The three old giants, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu, have thoughtfully grouped themselves around in an immense irregular circle. So you can choose between Ruapehu's black and white rugged sugar-loaf, the snowy cone of Ngauruhoe, waving its tall blue feather of steam, and darker, wilder Tongariro, the most irregular of the mountains in shape and disposition, and much the hardest, I believe, to climb.
From the breakfast - room, which is a long, light and magnificent affair of pillars and a deep cream-coloured background you look out on an apparently limitless horizon, plain fading into mountain, harebell blue of the sky broken by peaks, dark patches of New Zealand forest. The great room has been arranged so that this forward sweep of an untamed world is the end of its own solid walls: the effect is probably more majestic than anything else in New Zealand….
And let me tell you a secret for gourmets. There is wild honey for breakfast. Dark golden-brown in colour, and hived by the wild bees in the mahoes and the ragged little wild fuchsia trees…. I have known some who swore by toheroa as the flavour characteristically New Zealand; others who could not be weaned from muttonbird, more again who made oblation to the memory of Stewart Island rock oysters or of Picton bloater. But my vote is ever with the golden-brown wild honey….
Now you must decide whether you're going to climb purely as a lark, or in grim earnest. If in earnest, there are many things you can do about it. And, admittedly, there is fun to be had in donning one of those berry-bright snowsuits for the first time. The good climber's little pack always includes marching chocolate and … strange as it seems … honey, which is held by alpinists to have more bottled energy than most things else. You cover your face and neck with grease, that you may not be snow-burnt. And blue glasses are almost de rigueur in the best climbing circles. Farther up Ruapehu (which is morally bound to be your first mountain ascent), you are certain to come upon little rows of grease-painted and blue-goggled young people, climbing in Indian file: and you will know at once that they are University students, who, on, the surface, always do things au grand serieux.
It's a frightful temptation to linger in the preliminary beech-forests, taking snaps with your vest-pocket camera. You can hear the wild bees sing, and the tussocks are golden, and the beech-leaves have a green and gold patina, as of old weather-beaten bronze. But, let's hope, there's someone to goad you on: for much can be accomplished in a morning, and one doesn't want to waste one's first snowmountain. The tracks become small and precipitous, and you find yourself clutching thankfully at large crooked branches and tufty little bushes …. not, mind you, that there's anything really breakneck about it yet. You put your mind to the game, making the acquaintance of boulders and pebbles and slippy bits. Then, suddenly, somebody announces, “Scoria Flats!” and, depending on the time of the year, there you are, either on the lower brink of snowland or right in the middle of it. You find, too, that you can use that marching chocolate.
Tobogganing, though … you don't have to start laden up with your own toboggans and skis and alpenstocks. You can hire everything, guide-instructor included, from the Chateau for what they civilly refer to as “a modest fee.” (It really isn't an expensive holiday: and worth every penny of it). Snow, whether rubbed into the back of the neck by ruthless relatives, or merely used as a soft spot to fall into when your toboggan tips over sideways (as it will) possesses peculiarly invigorating qualities. At the end of a morning on Ruapehu, full of marching chocolate and cocksure optimism, you look over at Ngauruhoe's curly feather of steam, and say, “You next, brother!”
There's so much to explore … about 150,000 acres in the Park alone, if you want to be mathematical. Alpine flowers, with their queer fragile cups, white and burning blue … and quail bobbing their funny little agitated persons across roads that take you by mountain torrents and up to springs which have the natural-born contrariness to steam, and sizzle fiercely, all among the snows … And somebody invites you to hop into a car and go fishing, the trout-streams are no distance … and somebody else seduces you into dancing on the parquetry floor of the Chateau, the mirror-like smoothness of which gives everyone a fantastic elegance, as though they were illustrations from The New Yorker suddenly popped into life … And, parked for a moment in lounge or cardrooms, you hear the voices of Babel Tower … tourists, wanderers from dear knows where, Americans, English people trying hard to look reserved, according to their national specifications, assorted Continentals, Australians secretly infatuated with Tongariro but trying gamely to uphold the banners of their own old Kosiuscko … and our own young folk, religiously bright as to sweater and breeks, dashing in and out announcing new snow-races fixed for five minutes ahead.
Excursion parties come dashing in, and are greeted with war-whoops by the oldest inhabitants … Whether you come from Wellington or Auckland, you're met by the Chateau cars and glide from the railway station the remaining ten miles in comfort.
But for me, I like Tongariro best either a little after or a little before its winter-sport thrills. Those old snow-mountains are never going to lack for fun and companionship. (Anyone, I mean to say, can and does snowball anyone). But when the place is just a little lonelier than at its peak season, perhaps one can pay more attention to the white snow-mountain painted on one's bedroom window, clear-cut as the dusk-blue deepens … to the spaciousness of that world of shining golden-brown tussocks and dark bush, inviting you so cordially to forsake the sunlit balconies, and come a-strolling after breakfast.
Did you ever watch a man choosing a pipe? The choosing is a guide to character. Your plain practical man generally prefers a stout serviceable pipe with a capacious bowl, so does the very heavy smoker. But the chap who indulges only very moderately usually selects a pipe with a fine polish on it, a longish stem and a small bowl. Tastes differ again when it comes to the weed. Some men will smoke anything so long as it's tobacco. But others there are (and these form the majority in New Zealand), who are “tobacco conscious”—and must have “the best.” To this category belong the innumerable admirers of “toasted” who find it answers all their requirements, being of delicious flavour and unequalled bouquet. Soothing, comforting, and worry-dispelling, also harmless because toasted, which ingenious process eliminates the poisonous nicotine and leaves the tobacco pure, sweet, cool and mellow. The original toasted—Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold, owe their popularity to their outstanding merit.