Natures Birthday Party – Tongariro

Cabbage (ti) trees are my favourite trees – perhaps because of a residual affection for Dr. Seuss stories and illustrations. I am finally wake, late , amongst a grove of their bushy incongurious heads, 11km off State Highway 47 down a rutted forest access-way. The trees are haloed by the still pale blue morning sky and the only sounds are of cicada, the occasional tui – and is that a cookoo? – and the giggling of my daughter in her tent with her friend. The purpose of this cabbage tree visit is to celebrate my said daughter’s 12th birthday – a weekend away in the bush.

I sit by last night’s fire, which is still smouldering and heat my billy. It’s time for my morning coffee. I am feeling a tranquil loneliness, so I leave the girls to their giggling as I take a stroll in god’s pageantry with my hot blue plastic mug. I walk away from the Cabbage trees and find my way between the flax, manuaka, and beech on the edge of the gully on one side, and the hard and stubby little alpine grasses of the clearing on the other; in the bottom of the gully is one of the feeds for the Okupata Stream, a stream that will eventually join the Wanganui River and find it’s way south. I can’t hear or see the stream, but I know it’s there – we plan on going for a swim in it after we’ve been caving. Across on the far ridgeline, across the invisible stream, I enjoy watching the Kereru (Wood Pigeons) playing in the treetops, free from the shackles of civilization, free from human obstruction, mishap and sorrow – well, at least for now.

I breathe deep. Right now, I have a birthday party to attend. I turn around and make my way back to camp.

At the National Park Back Packers I sit with my back hard against the cold wall, my head too. I’m watching the girls climb the rock walls. I’m tired and it’s cold in here. The girls are doing well – it’s their first time belaying each other and they’re making all the safety checks religiously. I close my eyes and reflect on the caving.


My dad would kill me, going off caving, no map, whereabouts unknown, with a recently healed but still healing back, no cell phone, whilst caring for two pre-teenage girls. This thought did flash in bold neon across my mind after we had squirmed our way through a narrow passage in full exploration mode. The passage did eventually open out and I was happily playing tour guide when I realised we had started tracing over our very own footprints. We were in a circular arm of the cave, travelling in circles with that previously mentioned narrow entry passage back to the main cave in a location unmarked. Now, I’m not one to panic, but I did quick sums estimating torch life, the warmth of our clothing, worse case scenarios and a detailed probability report while my heart did acrobatics and pinball bounces off my ribcage. These caves are so small it’s impossible to get lost. How dumb could I be? Full throttle reverse, sounding casual, ‘oh missed the exit, back we go’, hiding the emerging whites of my eyes as my fully dilated pupils searched the silt and mud for footprints like an aborigine bush tracker.

We did find our way out, but not before a probability report update and a barely hidden panic attack. Squirming back into the main cave system I tallied up the caving points of interest: glow-worms, clambering and slithering, cave-wetas, underground waterfall, underground river. If this is what you wanted for your birthday sweetie, you’ve had it, now lets get the hell out of here for mummy has had enough.

Crossing South Crater, Tongariro Crossing, NZ

SUMMIT CLIMB – The hills are alive to the sound of music.

Leaving the Mangatepopo Hut, we, along with an international crowd ascended on Mount Tongariro. And, oblivious as they are, today’s trampers are going to be accompanied by Abba and the two dancing queens. Clambering up The Devils Staircase makes it a little hard to sing, perspire and get used to the altitude, but as we walk across the south crater; nature’s amphitheatre is reverberated to the sound of Mamma Mia and Honey Honey. A little later on as we clamber up the scree on the north side of the crater, we can clearly hear the subdued conversation of trampers a kilometre off in the basin of the south crater. The sheepish grins of the girls emerge as they realise their bellowing off-centre sing-star voices would have been amplified enough for god himself to hear.

A photo shoot, a good Samaritan effort, a giggle at the big red virgina in the sky (you’ll have to climb the mountain to know what I’m talking about there), and slipping sliding fun in the snow. What a glorious part of the world we life in, and what an amazing daughter I have, who would rather be out there doing it, than having a cake and candles at home.

Happy birthday sweetie. We made it – from the depths of Okupata to the top of Tongariro – you’re a legend. Love you heaps! X

Happy Girls in Okupata Caves


About Juliet Jones

Beauty is everywhere, if you but open your eyes
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