Skiing the volcano

Finally, a fortnight after we arrived, a high was forecast to sit directly over New Zealand. In anticipation, we packed up and left Napier in the rain to head back inland, drawn magnetically to the glistening white peak of Ruapehu and the promise of a superb day skiing the volcano.

By the time that we reached Lake Taupo, the rain had been swept away by a strong cold wind, and we were soon climbing up to the Tongariro Plateau, with its three volcanoes, the broad low crest of Tongariro (1690m), the perfect cone of Ngauruhoe (2291m) and, standing in splendid isolation from the other two, the massive silhouette of Ruapehu (2797m), which last erupted in 1996.

Lake Taupo landscape

Road to Tongariro

Tongariro, Ngaurahoe and Ruapehu rising majestically above the central plateau

We stayed at Piper's Ski Lodge, a rambling wooden lodge with a large open fire, warm atmosphere and pleasant staff and guests. We were up early next morning for a hearty lodge breakfast and rearing to go. The skyi was cloudless and the air was still - just as the weather forecast had promised - and soon we were on the pistes of Whakapapa ski field on the northern slopes of Ruapehu. It was a fantastic day; typical spring snow, icy in the morning, softening in the middle of the day and a bit slushy by late afternoon. Whakapapa was just the right size for a day's skiing, small enough that we could explore all the runs, from the broad expanses in the west to the eastern ridges and gulleys, nestled under the impressive razorback of the Pinnacles, with its wind-carved icy mantle, but big enough to spend a lot of time in the different areas.

Skifields of Whakapapa

At the highest point (2300m)

Whakapapa skifield and the cone of Ngauruhoe

Skiing at Whakapapa was very different and the views from the ski fields were dramatic. Being a large, isolated mountain, Ruapehu has a dramatic snow-line, which provided a stark relief to panoramas of the broad plateau below and the cone of Ngauruhoe to the north. 150 km to the east, the snow-capped cone of 2500m Taranaki (Mt Egmont), the North Island's other volcano, seemed to float above a low layer of cloud.

Looking across the Whakapapa slopes to the central plateau below Ruapehu

Descending the wall of the Pinnacles
- the dot is me

The Pinnacles of Ruapehu

The distant cone of Taranaki, 130 km to the east, floats
above the landscape
Relaxing in the hot tub at the ski lodge that night, we felt very content - that one perfect day was enough to satisfy the skiing drive that brought us here. I confess that I no longer get the same thrill out of zipping down the same slope over and over again - skiing has become more a means to explore beautiful and otherwise inaccessible places.

It was probably just as well - the next morning we woke to grey skies and a freezing gale-force wind. The Ruapehu weather had returned to form - time to head north!