A volcanic hike defaults to golden research

If wily old President Paul Kruger had indeed managed to spirit away some of the Transvaal’s gold in 1900, was there even a vague chance I would find clues to its whereabouts in New Zealand?

That was the last possibility in my mind when my wife Wendy and I set out to hike the legendary Tongariro Crossing Alpine Trail on New Zealand’s North Island.

At that point our only exposure to volcanic activity had been an earth tremor in Cape Town. That cocktail-mixer event barely ruffled the feathers of the brown-cloaked hadeda congregation that assiduously aerates the swathes of grass bordering Sea Point’s promenade.

The truth is that the Tongariro Crossing trail between three live volcanos is as far removed from that reality as is a hiking pole from a fearsome Maori war club.

Let me take you into my confidence: New Zealanders are friendly people with no compunction about straight talking. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to come across a signboard at the start of the trail that warned us ‘an eruption can happen with no warning. If you’re not comfortable with that then turn back…’ Ja well, no fine.

Truthfully? Our giggles at that forthright statement were just a little stilted.

Other well-placed signs informed us that the Tongariro National Park is a World Heritage site with dual natural and cultural significance.  

Shrugging dutifully into our day packs, we set off on the trail up the Mangatepopo Valley, criss-crossing a stream that meanders through clumps of heavily pockmarked lava rock. One tends to tread lightly in such an environment. Why awaken a snoozing giant who’d show his displeasure by spitting out copious amounts of steam and molten rock at unimaginable speeds in vast quantities.

Our sense of trepidation rose a few notches when we encountered a Germany couple of roughly our own age. They were resting on a bench before continuing the descent to their starting point. They’d reached the top of the first really steep climb up to the saddle below the Ngauruhoe volcano before deciding they were unlikely to make the trail end point before cut-off.

We applauded their good sense before continuing upwards. After all, Africans are bred tough, right?

A sweaty 90 minutes later we topped out onto the saddle that offers a breath-taking view of Ngauruhoe. At 2 287m this volcano is silently uncompromising in drawing attention to its cone-shaped, red-tipped rim. Set against a deep blue mantle of summer sky, the volcano (in real terms a vent of the Tongariro volcano) is truly majestic.  

Ngauruhoe last erupted in 1975 but Mt Tongariro let rip in August 2012. Ash was thrown 6km into the sky and a 25km x 15km ash cloud sped away a high velocity to reach areas 250km away in four hours. The smell of sulphur was reported from more than 100km away. 

GeoNet, an organisation founded in 2001 to monitor activity at New Zealand’s volcanoes, had transmitted no warning that any volcanos in the Taupo volcanic zone were unstable. All indicators of pending volcanic activity had remained strangely static. 

Even when indicators show mild activity with little apparent chance of an eruption, violent eruptions can occur in seconds. That was the tragic case on White Island in December 2019 when 22 people were killed and 25 injured in a sudden eruption that occurred with no ramp-up of the warning indicators. The uninhabited island is 48km off North Island’s Pacific coast and is a popular tourist destination.

But that horrific occurrence lay in the future. 

After taking the mandatory photographs, we continued our Tongariro hike. The trail took us past the red crater at 1886m, a vent of Mt Ngauruho, and beyond to the emerald lakes that are volcanic craters filled with water of a brilliant blue. 

We cascaded down a 200m scree slope, stopped briefly to remove loose stones from our boots, and continued to the hike’s halfway point on the edge of Blue Lake. We found a spot to sit down facing Mt Tongariro directly across the valley. During winter these peaks and valleys are covered in a deep layer of snow in true alpine fashion.

Our rest stop of 30 minutes gave me time to reflect on the decision to tackle the Tongariro trail. Candidly, it didn’t take much persuading. Peter Jackson had shot parts of three Lord of the Rings films in and around Tongariro. Those striking reminders added the final impetus to our commitment to experience the stunning environment for ourselves.

We’d booked in at the diminutive Tussock Grove Lodge in the quaint town of Ohakune, arriving one day before the start of the hike. Ever-friendly hotel proprietor Chris Griffin answered my questions about various artefacts displayed in the foyer.

‘My grandfather, Thomas Brown, was a member of New Zealand’s First Contingent of combatants sent to South Africa to fight in the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899 – 1902,’ he told us. ‘Among the items he brought back were a service cap, a bugle similar to the instrument he took to South Africa, a First Contingent departure brochure dated 21 October 1899 and a spear. I’ve no idea about the provenance of the spear.’

My interest in the Anglo-Boer War (now called the South African War) had been piqued by my close association with former South African Mike Dwight. He’d published a book called Walter Callaway, A Maori Warrior of the Boer War. The dashing Callaway was one of only a few Maori who had outwitted the New Zealand authorities to join Kiwi contingents fighting with the British against the outnumbered and out-gunned Boers. It was the first time New Zealand combatants had participated in a war on foreign soil.

‘Would you be interested in reading the diary my grandfather kept throughout his service in South Africa,’ Chris asked. ‘One of my family members spent hours deciphering his hand writing and typed it up. My grandfather also wrote a manuscript that included both his Boer War experiences and his service in the First World War.’

I spent a few minutes that night doing a quick read of the diary. What a treasure trove. Brown had a keen eye and an interesting way of recording his experiences. His exposure to illicit gold dealings in the war kickstarted a passion that endured throughout the remainder of his life.

I was brought back to the present when Wendy began packing the remains of our lunch away. Our mantra throughout our hiking experiences in South Africa and elsewhere was to leave only footprints.

We set off in the general direction of Mt Tongariro before the trail changed direction to skirt the dormant volcano. 

The remainder of the hike was an anti-climax. We turned our back on the volcanic landscape and headed steadily downhill, arriving at our mini-bus pickup point through a forest of stunted trees.

The chance finding of Brown’s diary and being gifted access to his unpublished manuscript was the start of a lengthy period of reading and research by Mike Dwight and me.  With a working title of Looted Gold, our book delves into the mystery surrounding the legend of the missing Kruger millions.

Starting with Brown’s diary and manuscript, Mike and I have read scores of published works, scrutinised research papers and theses, collected and examined artefacts from Boer War battlefields, and held countless discussions with interested parties.

The centre points are President Paul Kruger, his extended family, and the diminutive Thomas Brown. 

The colossus that was Paul Kruger is recognised by many as the father of the Afrikaner nation. He left an indelible mark on the history of South Africa. Kruger has been praised and vilified in almost equal measure by scores of politicians, historians, religious leaders, academics, authors and ordinary men and women.

Will our book provide all the answers? Not a chance. Does Looted Gold take the mystery of the reputedly missing Kruger millions beyond the known and speculated facts? Most definitely. 

The elbow in the ribs to launch into a project of that nature came by way of our decision, albeit with slight reservations, to hike the Tongariro Crossing. At the very least Looted Gold will carry forward the memory of one of New Zealander’s lesser-known sons, Thomas Brown. Mike and I are hoping for a bit more than that.

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