In New Zealand the most striking near-desert experience you can have is on the road to Waiouru.
State Highway One winds through a bleak windswept tussock plain called the Rangipo Desert. This is a unique alpine semi-desert, with the forbidding appearance of a wild desolate wasteland. To the east it merges with the densely forested foothills of the Kaimanawa Ranges. To the west there is no horizon, as the landscape and sky are overwhelmed by the monumental outline of Mt. Ruapehu. Dark canyons and shadowy scree slopes tumble from the snow-capped peaks and merge with the indistinct landforms of the plain.
The majestic grandeur of Ruapehu is a powerfully moving sight especially on a clear day. It is well worth a photo stop to capture the changing moods of the mountain. Sometimes the peace and solitude is disturbed by armoured vehicles on manoeuvres near the ‘Desert Road’. Waiouru is home to the New Zealand Army’s largest military base. The training area parallels the highway for 35 km and extends from Ruapehu’s snowline to the Rangitikei River 30 km to the east.
Waiouru at 815 metres above sea level has ice-cold winters and stifling hot summers. The township consists of a small cluster of hotels, tearooms and service stations along the highway. There is one imposing concrete structure that catches the eye. At first sight this striking edifice, with rampant tanks guarding its entrance, lacks aesthetic appeal. Perhaps its fort-like appearance is appropriate for what really is an outstanding museum.
The Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum features excellent static displays of New Zealand’s military heritage. It tells the history of New Zealand Army campaigns in all theatres of war, up to our present day role in overseas peacekeeping missions. The realistic displays include ‘Tears of Greenstone’, a dramatic memorial wall, which is the largest greenstone structure in the Southern Hemisphere.
The wild, desolate places of the central Volcanic Plateau have a mystique and magic of their own. This shaky portion of the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ offers up some memorable landscapes.