Accessed only by the aptly named Desert Road, we arrived at the foot of the climb a few hours before sunset. The area referred to by Māori as Te Onetapu (the enchanted sands), is a barren shrubland consisting of sand, rock and ash released by the three active volcanoes that surround it. With the light fading and temperature dropping, we added some extra layers and began our ascent.
The surface was rough – a combination of black volcanic hard-pack strewn with large potholes filled with water from the previous day's weather. The journey along the summit road began with a flat, snaking roll through the harsh and beautiful landscape. Large pockets of snow grew the further up we went. After watching videos of others riding the Rift in Iceland, we found ourselves in a strikingly similar location, despite it being just a four-hour drive from home.
The sun began to set as we pushed our way up the mountain road. After about an hour of climbing, we stopped towards the summit to watch the sun cast a soft pink hue over Mt Ngauruhoe, the neighbouring peak. As the temperature dropped to zero, we turned the lights on high, and began the fast cold descent back down.