If I could…


On the trail to Oturere Hut

…what would I say to any one venturing into Tongariro National Park for a day walk or an overnighter..? I had been thinking about writing something like this after my Brutal post yesterday but this comment on my Carry a Big Stick post from my last excursion up Mt Ngauruhoe pretty much made the decision for me (thanks, Rob!)…

I would start with the weather. I would say to only check the Metservice forecast for Tongariro National Park. There may be other sites and apps that may tell you want to want to hear but only Metservice has trained meteorologists in the analytical loop. The Metservice forecast for the park is only for five days: three in detail for Whakapapa Village at 1135m and Red Crater at 1868m; the last two days in outline.


Snow in December

Updates are issued each day around 7-30AM and around midday: each update may be quite different from the forecast it replaces. Do not expect the actual weather to always conform to the letter of the forecast. In the end it is your decision to carry on: if you think the conditions are taking you outside your comfort zone (perhaps too hot, too cold, too windy, too wet, too slippery i.e. icy, too cloudy, etc) stop and think about what you are doing and review your options…

The weather here is very changeable so sometimes even the five day forecast is subject the swings of extreme: unlike the South Island which has long mountain ranges that keep the weather pattern relatively stable, our weather can not only switch just like that but can also manifest itself as radically different micro-climates in close proximity to each other..a couple of years back, two inches of hail were dumped at Mangatepopo without even darkening the blue skies over Whakapapa Village…

Regardless of the forecast, be prepared for four season in one day: a good thermal layer and a good wind- and rain-proof layer, gloves and beanie but also sun hat, sunglasses and sunblock; good walking shoes or boots – not jandals or heels; enough water, at least 1.5 litres, for the day and enough food for the day: good snacky energy food…

So what if something happens…?

In New Zealand, cell phone coverage generally follows the highways : Tongariro National Park is sandwiched between four highways and enjoys reasonable but NOT PERFECT coverage – a lot may depend on the specific model of phone and your service provider – if you need assistance, for example, you are lost, injured or assisting someone else, dial 111 and ask for Police – in New Zealand, the Police are responsible for all off-road rescues. Even if it is an injury: if you are off the road, ask for the Police!!

Three safety questions

Regardless of whether you are going out for a day or overnight, there are three questions you need to ask yourself:

Does someone I trust know what my detailed plans are? Contrary to some myths, this does not have to be someone in New Zealand. It is better that it is someone you trust at home than some bloke you met the night before in the backpackers.

Does this person know when they should expect to hear from me next? Ideally this would be no later than the night you finish the walk. If your trusted person is overseas, be very clear about whose time zone it is that you will contact them.

Does this person know what to do if I do not contact them when they expect and they cannot contact me? If they are in New Zealand, they should dial 111, ask for police and say that they have  a friend or family member in Tongariro National Park on the XXXX walk, that you did not contact them when expected and that they are unable to contact them. Information that it is good for your trusted person to have ready to pass onto the Police:

Your DOC booking number if you are booked into one of the huts or campsites. If you are just on a day walk, where are you staying that night?

Your car registration number. This allows Police to check cars parked around the Park and also to check to see if you may have left the Park and then been involved in an accident somewhere else.

Your cell number – written out not just as a number in an address book: for when the Police ask for the number.

Your Personal Locator Beacon ID number, if you have one. If you do not, especially if travelling on your own, a PLB can be rented for about $10 from various locations around the Park.

Any medical issue you or anyone in your group may have that may have affected your ability to complete the walk and/or that may be useful for a search party to know.

It is quite important that your trusted person does not fall into the trap of ‘Oh, I’ll just give it another couple of hours’ or ‘I’m sure they’re OK, I’ll call in the morning‘. If they do not hear from you when they expect to and cannot contact you they should make the call.

If your trusted person does not speak good English, it is a good idea for you or them to write down what they want to say in English so they can just read it out (www.translate.com is your friend)

If you are the trusted person for someone, don’t waste time playing amateur detective trying to find someone. Under New Zealand law, companies and agencies cannot release information on who may be booked with them or not. All you are doing is wasting time – call the Police and let them do this.

Mt Tongariro Summit Back Route April 2016-005.JPG

New Zealand is a beautiful place and we all want everyone to come here to enjoy it but…

We don’t close things if they might be unsafe: we rely on visitors to make informed decisions against their own experience and equipment. If in doubt don’t…

Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook or hear in the backpackers about what is or is not doable…

Take responsibility for your safety and that of your friends and family…

Have a Plan B…and C and probably D…

There is no view worth a free helicopter ride…




My temporary office/shelter at Soda Springs, about 1200m ASL

A few weeks back, work was pretty slow, so i decided to go for a walk up to Red Crater to check the ground conditions: even though the rest of the country might have been enjoying Spring, Tongariro weather is always changeable  and even now, almost into December, the forecast promises gale force winds and snow to low levels…


The original forecast for my day in the Park looked quite nice but turned for the worse overnight…I almost gave it a miss but decided to go up to see how many people also decided to ventured into the mess…I’m always interested to learn where our visitors get their information from and what decision process they apply (or perhaps not) when deciding to venture out into the Park when the weather is less than its best.

The first leg up to Soda Springs was quite pleasant, drizzly but not really cold and just a light wind. I made good time as they were only a very few people on the trail – a stark change from the ant farm of a decent weather day…a few hundred metres short of the Springs, there was a distinct temperature gradient and the light drizzle changed into a quite brutal sleet shower: not pleasant at all. It was clearly snowing further up and I didn’t see much point pressing on…


A guided group preparing to head further up the trail – going with a guide in these conditions adds an extra layer of safety

A group of three that I had passed on my way up stopped for a chat. They had checked the forecast before departing but were unaware that the first morning update comes though about 7-30. The previous forecast had been for nicer weather and improving as the day progressed: the guy leading them had fixated on this improvement and was expecting this ti happen as they worked their way up the Crossing. One of the girls only had a light jacket and was only wearing tight-fitting track pants: it wasn’t hard to see the early signs of hypothermia…dragging feet, slurred speech, diminished motor control…. I suggested that perhaps they might to turn back and get her dried off and warmed up…

I walked back with them to make sure they made it back alright. The guy, Eric, was quite a good bloke and we chatted on that walk back: Chinese he had attended high School in Hamilton and had considered himself reasonably experienced in the New Zealand bush: many weekends he and his fellow boarders had been dispatched  on bush tramps and walks. He was quite annoyed that no one at the lodge they were staying at had warned them about the weather or told them to wait until the morning update before checking the weather.

As we descended towards Mangatepopo car park, and away from tat temperature gradient, the weather warmed up and Eric’s friend improved along the way. Misinformation about conditions and hazards in Tongariro National Park is common. Where information does exist it is more often of a tourism promotion ‘ happy happy joy joy’nature and less of the simple easy to understand bullet points that should be shaping visitor expectations from the time they first consider visiting New Zealand.

All’s well that ends well and Eric and his friends came in the next day to say thank you for the assist.That notwithstanding, there have been some gnarly rescues in this area of the Park, most of of which have been caused by the rescuees aspirations getting a head of their capabilities…

Come visit but be safe…

Volunteer | The Daily Post


My new happy place

Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt.

Source: Volunteer | The Daily Post

Never volunteer. That’s like one the the greatest military truisms – ever. And one of the wrongest. Nothing risked, nothing gained. My experience always was that something good generally came from volunteering – being volunteered, perhaps not so much…

I’m starting on a new volunteer adventure. The Fire Service was never something I really considered before…I travelled so much in my Army, then Air Force lives that I would have been unlikely to have been able to meet the training commitments but really, my head wasn’t really in that space. Most of my post-infantry career was in TTI roles (Top Two Inch) , thinking jobs, often working on my own, solo…not really the team environment from way back then.


Way back then…

My lifestyle changes over the past year have changed my ‘headspace’…an Outdoor First Aid course brought back all those Band 4 Medical memories and encouraged me onto the Pre Hospital Emergency Care course in September and that team working environment showed just how much I missed team work. On top of that, I needed some place to keep up those PHEC skills..

A friend joined another local brigade and I followed her progress…mid-winter, the local brigade delivered a recruiting pitch to our Business Association meeting and, although I wasn’t ready then, that sowed a seed that took root post-PHEC. I went down one training night and, in half an hour,  I was helping a firefighter into a hazsubs ‘carrot suit’…

Training is officially two hours every Wednesday night but that’s the minimum…National Park 281 is only a small brigade but most members work odd hours and days so there are usually ad hoc training sessions throughout the week. For recruits like me, there is also a lot of study and training – just getting on top of the language is a mission – to be signed off before the week-long recruit firefighter course at the National Training Centre in Rotorua…with a little luck and a few more people falling off the wait-list I may get on the January course…

So volunteering…it’s a bit more than a couple of hours a week and a bit of study…lifestyles need to change: a pager can go off anytime so little things like ‘cap, shirt, Bata Bullets, need to be more prescribed and practiced; parking the truck pointing up the driveway saves a few seconds…many of us live in Raurimu, a time-consuming 5km north of the station: we don’t have the critical mass or number of calls to justify standing watches…

Small team, good team…hard training, good training…repetitive training, even better…


Mirror | The Daily Post

This week’s challenge is all about reflections. Show us a mirror. You can take this photo challenge literally, and find reflections in mirrors, or in the stillness of a natural body of water. Or, use this challenge to take a photo of yourself in the mirror. Self-documentation is important, especially for those of us who are usually behind the lens.

Source: Mirror | The Daily Post

Purakanui 037

Purakanui Inlet, on the coast (obviously), just north of Dunedin on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

dogs 028

Lulu loves the wind in her face…we finally got her to accept that it was a better idea to keep her feet inside the car. She’s an old dog now, but still loves going for a drive..she’s not quite up to getting up on the deck on her own now so we have a little loading ramp in the garden for her to board and debus…


The prototype Fisher XP-75 in the old experimental hangar at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio…a memento of a brief era when a highly-polished surface equalled a few more miles per hour in maximum speed…


I have no idea what this building is but it is opposite the Thon Hotel in Brussels. I always preferred to stay in town when working in Brussels: yes, it was a 30 minute bus ride to work each morning but the evenings, we explored all the eateries, bars and alleyways around the Borse…


severe 31 Jul 16

…with more to come…

…winter is here…

Woke up to snow at home this morning…mainly windblown but nice to see it making the effort…slushy snow on Raurimu Bridge and then increasingly realer snow into National Park Village and then down SH47/48 to Whakapapa…

All images (c) sjponeill.wordpress.com

All images (c) sjponeill.wordpress.com

Even though the plough and grit trucks are out, temperatuires are still below zero in most places…with the ski fields and ski field roads being closed, I’d really suggest people want to stay off the roads unless they really need to be somewhere…

Today’s post as been brought to you by the number 4 and the letters W and D…


All images (c) sjponeill.wordpress.com


All images (c) sjponeill.wordpress.com


All images (c) sjponeill.wordpress.com


All images (c) sjponeill.wordpress.com

Look Up | The Daily Post

This week is all about taking a moment to check out what’s going on above you. For this week’s challenge, take a moment to look up. Whether it’s the fan above your head at work, your bedroom ceiling, or the night sky, what do you see? Is it familiar? Or does it show you a new perspective on your surroundings?

Source: Look Up | The Daily Post


Looking up

This dead tree towers over State Highway 4 as it snakes under the Makatote Viaduct between Horopito and National Park Village. I’ve driven this road hundreds of times and only noticed it when i was driving back from my physio appointment yesterday. I’m not sure if it’s the result of a lightning strike but it surely is a candidate for one now…



Looking across

The viaduct has been undergoing some serious maintenance the last year or so and the plastic shrouds are to prevent sprays and dust contaminating the environment around the viaduct.


Looking down!!!

Someone’s clearly had a party!! And dumped the rubbish at the lookout by the viaduct. Most of this is recyclable: bottles, cans, and pizza and beer cartons. That just goes to show how lazy some people are: there is no charge for dumping recycles at the transfer station. Some of the good lads from Downers were there tidying this mess up. A highlight of their day – not!


One of the problems we have up here is campers who can’t get their heads around the fact that when the bin’s full, the bin’s full and that doesn’t mean they can just stack the rest of their rubbish beside it. A rubbish bin does not denote a dumping site and this is why all the rubbish bins have been removed from places in the Park like Whakapapa Village: put one out and half an hour later it’ll be buried under a pyramid of rubbish bags.

DSCF0252 These apples were dumped at the side of the lookout car park. Sure, they will eventually break down but that still doesn’t making this blatant dumping OK…

As you drive around the Park, and you see dumping like this, take some pics and report it…even better, if you see someone doing this, take their pic and report them…

Tourist | The Daily Post

Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt Tourist.

Source: Tourist | The Daily Post

I’m not really into the tourist thing…most places I go I like to slip away, wander around, and mix with the people…pix of me doing the tourist thing are thus few and far between…

Me in Hawaii

Mandatory posed pic, tourist luau, Oahu, 1988

Mark and Ricki's Wedding - Fiji 58

Doing the tourist thing, Fiji, 2003

Clouds | The Daily Post

Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt: Clouds.

Source: Clouds | The Daily Post

Mt Ngauruhoe Summit climb April 2016 -015

As the sun climbs, dew on the slopes evaporates and cloud form beneath you. From the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe.


Early morning cloud rests in the low lands around Raurimu.

Tongariro Apr 04 - 1

Mount Ruapehu from the Desert Road


Mounts Ngauruhoe and Tongariro taken from the beginning of the Taranaki Falls track in Whakapapa Village.


Mount Ngauruhoe from the Chateau golf course.


Cloud forms off the slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe. This is taken from the summit of Mount Tongariro: 15-20 minutes later we were greyed out.

Earth | The Daily Post

Share your vision of our magnificent Earth through your lens.

Source: Earth | The Daily Post


Red Crater, Tongariro National Park

Yes, I need a camera with a wider angle lens…!


Tupapakurua Falls Lookout, Erua Forest


Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park


Native flax sunset, Tongariro National Park


A day in the Desert

DSCF0024-001Zone 1 of the Waiouru Military Training Area is one place that I never thought I would find myself again…

Zone 1 is one of about three dozen zones that the New Zealand Army’s main training area is divided into; it extends from State Highway 1 to the eastern slopes of Mt Ruapehu and provides an open country manoeuvre and live firing area for Army units. It has been used for live firing since the early 20th Century, in the days before unexploded munitions were tracked and recorded and thus remains an area closed to the public – unless escorted by Army staff.


Hazards…if you don’t know, don’t touch it…these are each the size of a can of baked beans…do you know what they are..?


…possibly safe…but what lies beneath…


…shiny…don’t touch…

One of its claims to fame is that it starred as Mordor in many scenes from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, mainly Return of the King, including the physical Black Gates at the entrance to Mordor and the final battles that concluded the saga. Mt Ngauruhoe lies physically in about the same relation to Zone 1 as Mt Doom did in relation to the Gates.

Today I was fortunate to have been invited to attend a seminar to discuss the volcanic dunes in the Rangipo Desert, with a series of research-based presentations followed by a field trip into Zone 1 to view the dune environment directly. Our group was admirably hosted by the Army – very good to renew my acquaintance with Major Pat Hibbs who I’ve known since my days as a very young soldier in 2/1 RNZIR –  firstly at the National Army Museum, and then our escort as we forayed into the desert.

The four presentations at the Museum set the scene for our diverse group and provided a valuable opportunity to either clarify or raise any questions before we set out:

Graeme La Cock – a synthesis of information on the volcanic dunes of the Rangipo Dunefield

Harry Keys – disturbance role of lahars and eruptions, Japanese research interest generally and revegetation issues, including the disturbed area near SH1 and the bund.

Mark Smale – The age, vegetation and formation of the volcanic dunes

Angelina Smith – The impact of vehicles on the Rangipo Desert, and suggestions to mitigate these impacts.

What did I learn…

Lots…first to remember a pen and paper next time to write it all down…I’ve deliberately left out all the scientific terms because my memory just wasn’t up to remembering it all but I may rewrite this if the morning’s presentations are shared and OK’d for release.

Many agencies cooperate and share research on the dune fields. These include the Department of Conservation, NZ Army, Landcare Research, The University of Waikato and Massey University. In addition, overseas researchers also conduct and share studies on the volcanic dune fields.

Volcanic dune fields are very rare, existing only in Iceland, Peru, the coast of California, Indonesia and New Zealand. Although there are other inland dune fields in New Zealand, the only volcanic dune field is at Rangipo.

The Rangipo Desert isn’t really a desert: it has too much rain…the annual rainfall in Waiouru is around 1200mm, and on Mt Ruapehu around 2400mm, actually quite wet by New Zealand standards and certainly well above that for any definition of desert to stand.


If not technically a desert – even though it may appear like one to the untrained eye i.e. lots of sand – it most definitely does qualify as a dune field, basically an area of shifting sands forming terrain features.

It is not considered that the military use of the area over the last 100 years has affected it one way or another. Although Zone 1 has been and still is used as an impact area for artillery, bombs and rockets, and is a manoeuvre area for armoured vehicles ranging from 17 tonnes (NZLAV) to 50 tons (Centurion) it does not appear any different visually from the adjacent section of the dune field that lies within Tongariro National Park. The theory is that the whole area i.e. the surface, is so unstable anyway that the impacts of shells and vehicles is actually negligible compared to the effects of wind and rain, snow and ice.

Because the dunes are constantly changing it is very difficult to measure their age. This is complicated in Zone 1 because the very real risk of buried unexploded munitions prevents digging and core-sampling. One of the recent studies found that the best way to tell the age of a dune is by measuring the age of the vegetation on it…


Some of the more mature trees in the dune field although only 3-4 metres high, and 3-400 years old

The event that has had the most impact on the Rangipo area was the Taupo eruption some time between 182 and 250AD. It is not really known what this area was like before this eruption but it was certainly scoured clear of vegetation as a result. Since that event, man-made fire has probably been the biggest impactor on the state of the dune field, with periodic large lahars, on average about every 500 years or so, having the next most impact.

The dunefield is slowly expanding north and no one is quite sure why …

The dune field is a rugged challenging one for plant life and there is a clear succession that starts with growths like this…


…around which the sand drifts and builds up. simple grasses like bristle tussock may then develop followed slowly, often over years or decades by more complex vegetation.


It is a harsh unforgiving process…as dunes the surface is constantly shifting: the risk to developing vegetation is that it may be simply buried under the shifting sands, or have the sand around it uncut, exposing its roots…


…either way not good for ongoing survival…

Even though there are substantial beech forests only a few kilometres away, the beech forest will probably not regenerate in the dune field because a fungus necessary to its growth is not in the soil there and is very difficult – read, close to impossible – to establish artificially.

The desired future for the Rangipo dune field is for it to regenerate naturally i.e. to its pre-settlement state. Replanting is not considered necessary, more a tool of last resort and it is considered of greater benefit to focus conservation efforts on the control of invasive weeds and pest animals like deer, rabbits, hares and possums.

The Army conducts its own pest control programmes across the Training Area, all 63,000 hectares of it, targeting pests like possums, rabbits and hares, and invasive weeds like the various forms of weed pines. Because the Area has an 85% usage rate – there were only three days this month in which we were able to get into Zone 1 for this study trip – and due to the number of hazards on and under the ground, much of this work is done by helicopter. As a part of this programme, the Army is also investigating source vectors for invasive weeds and sharing the results of this work.


Smoko and networking


The road home…

In another life, I trudged all over the dunes ‘by day and by night, regardless of season, weather or terrain’…environmentally then, my main concern was the fine grit that, when wet, would stick to everything…one particle being all it took to convert rifle into not much more than a blunt instrument…none of us back then had any notion of the rarity, vulnerability or real harshness of this unique environment…I’m glad of this one last wander in my old stamping grounds…