Tongariro Alpine Crossing
It’s a bit shameful that it took me until last summer to complete one of the best day hikes in NZ if not the world. But with its stunning landscapes and enough challenge to make me feel like I’d conquered something, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was well worth the wait.
A bus collected us from our hotel in Whakapapa Village for the drive to mile zero. After a friendly safety lecture from the driver, who would be responsible for making sure we either got back on at the other end or were otherwise accounted for, we set off.
The Crossing is a route between Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro and was established to lessen the region’s reliance on winter tourism. It has paid off: about 70,000-100,000 people complete the 19km walk each year. Its popularity was clear for all to see on this day and as Kiwis we seemed to be in the minority. It’s a funny thing that tourists will often see more of a country’s iconic features than its citizens.
The first part of the walk took us through the Mangatepopo Valley and the deeper in we got, the more fascinating it got.
We walked over a lava flow from 1870 and in sight of others than had spewed out of Ngauruhoe. Nothing recent though; it’s been quiet for the last 40 years.
We reached Soda Springs and joined the majority of Crossingites for a brief rest. This would also be the last loo stop for a few hours! From here it was up up up. We passed a sign imploring people to check if they were really truly prepared for an alpine trek and if not, to turn back. Even in summer this gave me brief pause for thought. We carried on though, the uphill slog rewarded by stunning views back down the valley.
At the top another trail branched off to take keen people to the summit of Ngauruhoe. I like the idea of it, but I know I would struggle with the height especially on the descent. It would also tack another three hours onto the day.
Next to the seemingly perfect cone of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro doesn’t look like a mountain let alone a volcano, just a big lumpy mound. It is though and is known as a massif, having several vents. Interestingly, Ngauruhoe is actually a cone of Tongariro.
We walked across the South Crater, which is technically a basin (the panoramic photo below further provides a good perspective), following a very well trodden path.
Just about everyone had appropriate gear – those trekking in casual shoes were few and far between. I did wonder about the lady wearing a handbag and holding a jacket over her head for shade (not to mention frequently squabbling with her husband). But kudos to the Euro dad who carried his toddler virtually the whole way on his shoulders!
We clambered up the ridge. The wind was really strong and I was not at all relaxed when Mike went to the edge for a nosey.
However we had really lucked out on the weather – you don’t get conditions much more perfect than this. It was a big relief actually since the day before had been wet and grey.
From here you can walk up to the Tongariro summit and while the trail looked more doable than the other one, in the interests of time we flagged it as well.
Instead the main route took us around the rim of still-active and aptly-named Red Crater.
We passed the highest point on the Crossing (1886m) and then began THE most challenging part of the walk.
The descent to Emerald Lakes is on a steep loose scree slope and I struggled big time.
Of course there were those undaunted by such things including the guys who ran down, blitzing my nana technique. Mike waited for me to get one of the great photos of the day before again leaving me to it.
It’s a pretty dodgy section. The next day a lady broke her ankle somewhere around here and was airlifted out. I was relieved to make it down unscathed and rejoined Mike to find a spot for lunch. We looked out over one of the stunning lakes and my nemesis above it.
The colour combinations around here were incredible. We did a wee circuit around one of the other lakes, steam venting from the adjacent slopes.
Picking up the main trail again, we walked over Central Crater (another basin).
From the other end you can see a partial line up of the three mountains: Ruapehu behind with its traces of snow, Ngauruhoe in the middle and Tongariro.
Over Central Crater’s lip was another blue-hued lake. Called – gasp – Blue Lake, it sits in an old volcanic lava vent and is of special significance to Maori. You are not supposed to swim in it or eat around its shores though I did see people who’d stopped here for lunch.
We followed the ridge above Central Crater to begin the main phase of descent. A warning system is located here and if the lights are flashing the track is closed and even though you have completed about two-thirds of the walk, you have to turn back. Lights were quiet today and before long we entered a very different landscape.
The warning system was there because of the Te Maari Crater which erupted twice in 2012, causing part of the Crossing to be closed for several months. A reasonable distance from the trail, the active vent was still very easy to spot.
The Ketetahi Hut was in sight. It is one of 950 managed by the Department of Conservation to provide shelter for people in the outdoors. However, because of damage sustained in the 2012 eruptions you can no longer stay overnight. We passed a sign advising to keep stops to a minimum.
From the hut there’s still another 1.5 hours left, basically all downhill. Toes were starting to press noticeably into the ends of my boots but I was otherwise feeling not too bad. We were targeting a bus departure time that if we missed, would see us waiting another 1.5 hours so we were pretty motivated to press on.
Trudge trudge trudge. Tussock-covered hillsides transitioned to bush…
…and then to beautiful shady forest…
…and a lahar hazard area courtesy of Te Maari.
Then finally after seven hours on the Crossing our very weary bodies made it to the end. We clumped into the assembly area and wasted no time in flopping until it was time to find the bus.
It was a fantastic day, challenging and hugely rewarding not to mention filled with absolutely stunning landscapes and views. That evening from a trail in front of our hotel we looked over to Ngauruhoe and Tongariro and the space in between that we now know to be the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The Crossing is part of the 43km Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of NZ’s nine Great Walks. The Great Walks haven’t really appealed to me but there’s something very satisfying about travelling on foot and well, there is the whole thing about seeing more of my country’s awesomeness. I’m going to have to reevaluate.