The King Country; or, Explorations in New Zealand. A Narrative of 600 Miles of Travel through Maoriland.
Chapter XVI. — Ascent of Tongariro
Ascent of Tongariro.
Physical and geological features—Legend of Tongariro—A break in the clouds—The start for the ascent—Maories in the distance—The Waihohonu valley—The ascent—The brink of Hades—The great crater—The inner crater—The lower cones—Crater lakes—The descent—A valley of death—Tongariro by moonlight—A cold night—The start for Ruapehu.
After our ascent of Tongariro, and during our subsequent intercourse with the natives, we made it a practice to learn as much as we could of their many interesting legends. The legend of Tongariro was more than once repeated to us by the tribes both resident near and at a distance from the sacred mountain, and it is a remarkable fact, as showing the correctness of the oral traditions of the Maoris, that each one agreed in all particulars with the current stories.
1 Taniwha, native name for a fabulous reptile supposed to inhabit deep water.
1 The exact position of Tongariro is—
Lat. 39° 9′ 45″ S.
Long. 175° 38′ 20″ E.
1 Throughout the journey we found that the cold winds from the south invariably brought fine weather.
Although we did not imagine that the weather would clear so rapidly we determined to seize this, the first opportunity, and to start at once for the ascent.
We were about two miles away from the base, and we had previously determined to hide our packhorse away in the bush, and to ride to the foot of Tongariro with our blankets and tent, make the ascent, and camp at the foot of the mountain at night.
It took just half an hour to saddle up, and get everything prepared, and then, skirting the forest near to which we had been camped, we ascended a hill some 400 feet high, to gain the Waihohonu Valley beyond.
The sun now shone warm and brightly, our course seemed clear, and all was going as merrily as the proverbial marriage-bell, when Turner hastily directed my attention to four mounted Maoris coming across the plains to our rear; but just at the moment we caught sight of them they disappeared behind a low hill. They were some distance off, but they were quite near enough to easily discern us, especially as Turner, with the white tent on his dark pony, formed a conspicuous object. Fortunately we saw no more of the natives, although we watched carefully for some time, but they nevertheless haunted us for days afterwards—during page 186our ascent both of Tongariro and Ruapehu—as we felt fully convinced that they must have seen us, and we were likewise equally sure that they could, if they so wished, follow up our tracks, when, by the marks of the shod horses, they would have at once discovered that we were Europeans. If we had been going in any other direction the circumstances would have been as nothing, but riding as we were straight for Tongariro, we knew that that fact alone was sufficient to excite their suspicion. When we had ridden across the top of the hill we were at once out of sight, and we rode as fast as our weak horses would allow over the scoria ridges which surrounded the base of the cone. We passed on our right an enormous bluff of volcanic rocks, and then descended a steep, precipitous incline strewn with enormous boulders which at some remote age had evidently been hurled from the fiery crater. It was impossible for our horses to walk down this treacherous place with their heavy burdens on their backs, even whilst we led them, so taking them off and putting them on our own shoulders we made the animals follow us, when they picked their way over and around the big stones like cats.
At the foot of the incline we gained the Waihohonu Valley, a wild, desolate-looking ravine with a winding stream running down its centre. To the left, on the opposite side of this watercourse, was a dense forest growth, while on the ground around the tussock grass and dwarfed alpine plants peculiar to this region struggled for life amidst the huge stones and small low scoria hillocks which were dispersed about in a confused but picturesque way. At the end of the page 187cluster of forest towards the mountain a steep wall of lava-like rock rose abruptly up, and ended in high scoria ridges which, closed in the valley to the south-west Looking in a north-easterly direction, the rugged promontories and jagged edges of the broken extinct craters of the lower mountains rose high in the air, piled about in a confused mass, and coloured dark red and black by the effects of the volcanic fires which appeared to have rent and torn them asunder until they had assumed the appearance of embattled walls and crumbling ruins. The whole conformation of this valley, which was nearly two miles in length, assumed a somewhat semicircular appearance, as if, at some period or another, it had formed part of an enormous crater, out of which the gigantic cone that towered thousands of feet above us had ultimately reared its lofty summit. Although the sun shone with a dazzling splendour over us, and a light-green vegetation clothed many of the hills around, and even crept up the steep scoria sides of the great mountain itself, the Waihohonu Valley had a wild, dreary, and parched up look, as if some fiery breath had but recently swept over it, and it was only just getting cool from the effects of the volcanic fires, which had left stupendous monuments of their work in the enormous lava ridges, which seemed to have cooled suddenly in their molten course down the steep precipices; while the gigantic boulders of black, shining, volcanic rock, which lay scattered about in every direction, looked like tremendous thunderbolts just newly hurled to earth by the hand of Titan. Not a few of these enormous stones appeared to have been rounded by the action of fire, page 188and in some cases to have been partially melted before being sent high into the air from the fiery mouth of the crater, to fall with terrific force into their present positions.
Securing our horses in the scrub, we scrambled for about a mile over huge boulders, and up rough, narrow watercourses, when, ascending a steep spur of the mountain, we reached the base of the great cone near to its south-eastern side, at a point which marked 4000 feet above the level of the sea. Gazing upwards, the steep, clean-cut sides of the tall mountain looked almost precipitous, and it was clear, at a glance, that the task to reach the summit and make the descent by nightfall would be no easy matter. Just at this part of the cone some volcanic disturbance, which had occurred probably ages ago, had poured down a stream of liquid lava, which, cooling, as it were, by some sudden blast, had congealed into a rugged and almost perpendicular ridge of dark, lustrous, adamantine-like rock in its overflow from the summit of the mountain. It was up this precipitous ridge that we had determined to fight our way. When we first began the ascent, the steep climbing told severely on our backs and legs, while the enormous protruding masses of porous lava which fringed the outside portion of the ridge, and over which we had to climb as much by our hands as by our feet, were as sharp as if they had cooled and crystallized but yesterday. Besides the cautious and often dangerous way we had to pick our footing, it was necessary to be careful, in order to avoid the many holes in the lava formation, which were just large enough to receive a man's body, and which, when we page 189threw stones into them, appeared to be of enormous depth. As we climbed higher and higher, the shelving, colossal sides of the mountain seemed to become steeper and steeper, while the summit appeared to get further away at every step we took.
1 For flora of Tongariro, vide Appendix.
We crawled up a frozen, steep incline on to the hot, quaking edge of the great crater, where a grand and curious sight burst upon the view. We gained the rugged summit of the cone at its highest side, but just as we did so the great cloud of steam rolling up from the enormous basin beneath us swept over us in a dense white cloud, and what with the loud bubbling of the boiling springs, the hissing, screeching sound of the great columns of steam as they burst with terrific force from the rocky vents, the unearthly gur-page 192glings of the jets of boiling mud as they shot into the air, and the strong sulphurous fumes that pervaded the atmosphere in every direction, we seemed for once in our lives to be standing on the brink of Hades. Mounting a little to the right along the hot soil that smoked beneath our feet, we gained the very topmost point of the mountain, formed by a broken, rugged peak that fell on the inner side with a precipitous descent into the boiling crater below. We were now on the windward side of the steam-cloud, and at an altitude of 7376 feet above the level of the sea.
From, this elevated position we had a clear and well-defined view of the whole summit of the mountain, which appeared to be permeated in every direction, by a vast thermal action. The steep, broken sides of the enormous crater wound before us in the form of an almost complete circle of nearly a mile in circumference; and it could be plainly seen that, towards its north-western and western sides, it was considerably lower than on the side upon which we stood. Within the great circle, at its northern side, there was a smaller or inner crater of an almost complete rounded form, the sides of which inclined gradually towards its centre in the form of a complete funnel. This minor crater was separated, from the larger one only by a narrow ridge or lip. Looking down into the main crater, which appeared to be about 400 feet in depth, its sides, rugged and broken, as it were, by the force of volcanic fires, were built up principally of enormous masses of trachytic rock, lava ridges, and beds of conglomerate, formed mostly of rounded stones and boulders fused together into a compact mass by what page 193must, at some period or another, have been a very powerful igneous action. In fact, it could be plainly seen that the whole volcano when at the height of its eruptive force must have been the seat of a powerful volcanic activity, until gradually its exhausted fires subsided into their present state. In some places the sides of the crater were perpendicular and fell with a sheer descent, while in others they were more disturbed and broken. At the bottom of the crater there were scattered about huge rocky ridges, from the large crevices and fissures of which enormous jets of steam burst forth with a roaring, screeching noise, which echoed from the depths below like the wailings of the condemned. Hot springs sent up streams of boiling water, which ran over the rocks and then lost themselves in the hot, quaking soil, which sent them high into the air again in the form of coiling jets of vapour. Miniature cones of dark, smoking mud rose up in every direction, while around all was a seething, fused mass of almost molten matter, which appeared to require just one or two degrees more of heat to transform it into a lake of liquid lava. In every direction were large deposits of pure yellow sulphur, some of which assumed a rock-like formation; at other places it formed a crust over the steaming earth, and where the thermal action was less intense, the glittering yellow crystals covered the ground like a thick frost. No fire was visible in the crater, nor was there any indication of a very recent volcanic eruption. The whole crater of the mountain was in the state of a very extensive solfatara, which was evidently more active at some periods than at others. The inner or second page 194crater, which likewise sent forth a vast volume of steam from its boiling depths, was in much the same condition of activity as the larger one, only that the deposits of sulphur literally lined its sloping sides with a bright-yellow coating, which came up to the very summit of its rim and looked like a circle of gold beneath the bright rays of the sun, which lit up the feathery steam-clouds in the most brilliant prismatic hues.
We obtained a complete view of all parts of the great mountain, as likewise of the smaller volcanic cones and ridges which lay below. Looking in the direction of the north-east, and down upon the rugged clusters of minor elevations, we could see several extinct craters of considerable size; some perfect in their formation, while others had been rent and distorted by the action of volcanic fires, which had left their marks upon them in the form of enormous lava ridges and extensive deposits of scoria.
In the midst of these extinct craters we could see two small blue lakes; one of a complete circular form, the other, which was only a short distance away from the first, being nearly oblong in shape. The lakes, like those on the southern side of the mountain, were evidently nothing more than extinct craters filled by subterranean springs. Beyond these lakes we could see the steam rising from the Ketetahi crater, while further along to the north was a white cloud marking the position of the boiling springs.1
1 It is supposed by many that Tongariro and Whakari (White Island) are the only two remaining centres of active volcanic action in what may be termed the Australasian division of the Pacific. This in [gap — reason: illegible] reality is not the case. The great volcanic belt which appears to extend through the Malay Archipelago may be said to stretch as far south as the New Hebrides. Thus on the island of Tanna there is an active volcano which attains to an altitude of 1500 feet above the sea. It is in a constant state of eruption, emitting vast volumes of smoke, with ashes and lava, from a crater 500 feet in depth. On the island of Ambrym, of the same group, there is likewise an active volcano, nearly equal in size to that of Tanna, while on the island of Vanikoro still further to the north, in the Santa Cruz group, there is a coneshaped mountain in a constant state of activity. During a journey of exploration in the New Hebrides and other islands of the Coral Sea, the volcano of Tanna was asccnded by the author, who read papers descriptive of the islands before the British Association, at its meeting held at the University of Glasgow in 1876.
We left the summit of the cone towards sundown, but in place of descending by the route we had ascended, we came down a very steep part of the mountain on its eastern side. This precipitous slope, covered thickly with loose scoria, and strewn in parts with enormous boulders and rounded stones, was walled in on either side by two stupendous lava ridges, which ran down the mountain-side and gradually opened out towards the base in the form of a triangle. The slope of the cone was here very steep, and the scoria being fine and very loose, gave way under our feet, and caused us to slide rapidly forward for many feet at every step. Taking hold of each other's arms to better maintain our equilibrium, we took gigantic strides, each one, as the scoria slid down with us, carrying us forward from ten to fifteen feet at a time. In this way many large and small stones were set loose, until we had a whole regiment of them bounding on in front of us, and as their momentum increased at a terrific rate with every foot they rolled down the steep incline, they soon attained the velocity of cannon- page 196balls, and went crashing with tremendous force into the rock-bound valley below. So rapid, in fact, was our progress in this way, that, although our ascent from the bottom to the top of the cone had occupied us nearly six hours in hard climbing, we made the descent in a little over an hour and a half.
When we lay down to rest in the dreary valley with its lava-walled sides, the full moon shone brilliantly, the great cone of Tongariro, with its feathery cloud of steam, looked grandly beautiful beneath, the clear silvery light, the stars hung like lamps from the cloudless heavens, and the magnificent constellation of the Southern Cross shone directly over our heads. Never in any part of the world had I seen the heavens appear so clear and radiant as when gazing upon them from the depths of this dark valley. Around us, however, on every side the whole place had a singularly wild, weird look, and a strange sense of loneliness seemed to hover around us. We were in a tapued region, which the superstitious minds of the natives had made the abode of taniwhas and other evil demons. The bones of the ill-fated Te Heuheu lay somewhere upon the great mountain, and Turner suggested that the ghost of the great Maori chief might slink down upon us in the night just to test the thickness of our skulls with his greenstone mere. It was, however, the living which concerned us most, as we still had a kind of secret conviction that the natives we had seen in the morning had laid some plan to entrap us.
Sleep, however, came at last, but the cold soon awoke us, and by midnight the whole valley was covered with a thick coating of white frost, which glistened like snow beneath the pale moonlight. I had placed my thermometer close handy, so that I page 198might observe it during the night, and I now found that it stood at 27°; at four o'clock it marked 22°; and at six o'clock, just before sunrise, it indicated exactly twelve degrees of frost. The plants around us were completely matted together with white incrustations; the icicles rose from the ground over an inch in length, and in a way that I had never seen before; the breath froze upon the moustache and beard; the manes of our horses stood erect, the bristles about their nostrils were transformed into needle-like icicles, and their backs were covered with a crisp, white coating of frost.
It did not take us long to saddle up, although we experienced some little difficulty with the buckles, owing to our fingers being numbed with the cold; but once on our horses, we rode rapidly away from Tongariro, and just as the first ray of sunlight swept over the hills we gained the plains beyond, to begin the ascent of Ruapehu.