The following is a guest post by our globe-trotting buddy, Nathan Anderson of The Open Road Before Me. Read on for Nathan's account of trail and ale adventures in New Zealand, and be sure to check out his site for more adventurous travel stories!
When I moved to the North Island of New Zealand, I wanted to be somewhere central. Somewhere I could use as an adventure hub, sallying forth to explore what the North had to offer. When I got a job as a receptionist in Taupo, I got just what I was looking for. Taupo is about as central as you can get, and is snug on the northern shore of the largest lake (by surface area) in New Zealand. Volcano cones and pillars of steam dot the horizon, and adventure activities abound.
In a country renowned for epic hikes, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing may well be one of the most iconic. It takes trekkers along the flanks of three of the region’s active volcanoes: Mount Ruapehu, Mount Tongariro, and Mount Ngauruhoe. The last of these was famously used as Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Clocking in at just over 12 miles from start to finish, the Crossing is no mere walk in the park and requires an early start -- especially in the winter season. That means a pre-dawn departure from Taupo, so yours truly was a bleary-eyed shambleman for the opening leg of the hike. My companion, a sporty little German by the name of Melissa, was only slightly more composed.
Luckily for us, the trail started slow from the Mangatepopo car park -- a path over rolling waves of earth which draws ever closer to the peaks ahead. A rest area near Soda Springs serves as the point of no return for those averse to elevation gain, and the Devil’s Staircase makes the brave who continue rue the decision. Forty five minutes of steep climbing takes trekkers up the Staircase and into the South Crater.
An empty bowl scooped out of the top of the mountain, the South Crater isn’t actually a crater at all. It’s a basin -- scooped out of the mountainside by an ancient glacier. Even so, it’s a desolate place, and we had to walk over the cracked and slick clay formed from sediments washed down the slopes.
As we neared the opposite ridge, the sheer narrowness of the path became clear. A mere spine of rock seemed to support the trail, which led straight up to the top of the ridge. At certain points, chains were bolted to the rocks to provide some measure of safety -- a measure we were all too happy to take advantage of. The way up the spine required concentration, and we plowed forward with bowed heads and cautious feet. When at last we reached the ridgetop, our calves burned from the effort.
But it was all worth it. Looking back revealed the best views of Ngauruhoe we’d experienced thus far. Oxidized iron has stained the flanks of the volcano red, and it cuts an imposing figure against the skyline. In the foreground, the aptly named Red Crater yawns like a steaming maw, a sulfurous stink belching forth with each blast of wind. We sat and marvelled, soaking in the alien majesty before us. It was time for a quick lunch, but we had a lot of ground still to cover, and the last bus would be leaving all too soon.
The ascent had been difficult, but not overly so. The descent immediately after the crest of the trek proved to be the scariest part. A sheer scree slope, narrow as hell and patchworked with ice. We went slowly, not wanting to tempt fate and plunge into the depths of Red Crater.
Aside from its star features -- the trio of volcanoes -- the Tongariro Alpine Crossing boasts several sulfurous lakes. They’re colored brilliant hues of blue and green and absolutely reek of sulfur. Pretty enough, they make for a pleasant enough stop, as long as you refrain from eating. Unless you fancy an aftertaste of rotting eggs, that is.
After passing the Emerald and Blue Lakes, the trail makes one last climb around the shoulders of North Crater before dropping down towards the Ketetahi Shelter. Once a hut multi-day trampers could sleep in, it was badly damaged by the 2012 eruption and is only used as a shelter.
The end of the track seemed to never end as we switch-backed down the tussock-dotted slope, climbed into and back out of ravines, and generally seemed to make no headway whatsoever. Minutes ticked by, and I became convinced we were going to miss our bus.
When we eventually reached the treeline and found a trail marker displaying the remaining distance, I knew it for a certainty. Leaving Melissa behind, I sprinted the remaining distance. Nothing reminds you how out of shape you are like running for an extended period of time. I was gasping, sweating, and beginning to resemble a corpse by the time I reached the bus and informed the driver my hiking partner would be a while in arriving. Luckily, all those aboard were gracious and waited an extra 20 minutes for her to complete the trek.
We were both exhausted, and desperately craving an after-hike reward.
The Crafty Trout is a Taupo institution, an Austrian-style bierhaus with 14 regular beers and ciders, as well as some specialty varieties throughout the year. Drawing inspiration from Austrian, German, Slovenian, and Italian influences, the beer and cuisine is varied, but tasty as!
Generally speaking, most of the Kiwi beers I’ve enjoyed have been hoppy, usually some variation of a pale ale. While I like a crisp pale as much as the next guy, I will forever be a fan of the porter. Malts and hops, chocolate and coffee… all things that are good. Sadly, my time in New Zealand had been surprisingly devoid of any exceptional porters...
...until the Crafty Trout, that is. The Sinker Porter nails it -- smooth with just the right amount of sharpness. Smoky espresso notes and a taste of chocolate rounded out Nathan’s must-have checklist for a porter, and I let my tastebuds revel. At just under 7% ABV, it packed enough of a punch to help me forget my throbbing muscles and unwind. All in all, an excellent brew.
The Vienna Amber was less exceptional, and was decent at best. It’s a lager, and really didn’t have any remarkable features. I had a courtesy sip and let it pass. The porter would do me just fine.
The menu was a bit eclectic, but the noms were delicious. I got a Beer Garden pizza with a wonderful medley of spinach, roast pumpkin, pesto, feta, and BBQ sauce. It was a messy pie, but I love wearing my food and inhaled it as quickly as I could manage.
Overall, I loved the Crafty Trout. My brew was fantastic, the food was satisfying, and the decor was extremely cozy. It’s the kind of spot you go to have a chill one while you reminisce with your mates about the epic events of the day. At least, that’s what we did!