Time: 5 – 8 hours
Difficulty: moderate (summer)
Peak season: November – May
Location: Tongariro National Park, North Island, New Zealand
Covering 19.4km of the Tongariro National Park – New Zealand’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site -, is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which used to be know simply as the Tongariro Crossing, but after many underprepared and ill fated attempts, it was changed to incorporate “Alpine”, to assert the necessity of proper preparation when undertaking the hike, especially under winter conditions. Located in the middle of the North Island, it is a 330km drive south of Auckland, the largest city, and 320km north of Wellington, the capital city.
This one-day scenic “tramp”, as the kiwis call hikes, passes through spectacular volcanic topography – multiple craters belonging to Mount Tongariro and the phenomenal coned vent of Mount Ngauruhoe.
The walk is a Linear A to B, between car parks. It is advisable to prearrange transport to get you back to your vehicle at the end of the day. We hitched a lift back, but during the busy season, this might become easier or harder depending on how much of a serial killer you look. The Mangatepopo car park, on the western side of Mt Tongariro, is the usual starting point, leading to Ketetahi car park, in the north. This is the route usually taken, as there is more descent travelling from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi – and the route I would advise during the busy season, to avoid swimming up stream amongst rushing rapids of fellow hikers, pouring over you from the other direction.
It took my partner and I, five and a half hours to complete the trail – west car park to north car park, and another hour + to get back to our car at Mangatepopo. The closest town with a supermarket and (fast) food establishment open late is Tūrangi, 35 minutes north, so factor this in if you’re planning on starting or finishing your day here. We push a fast/medium-fast pace and stopped occasionally to take pictures. I estimate that fit hikers could comfortable do it in 5 hours, with anything up to 8 hours being a reasonable timescale, depending on pace, size of party, time spent resting and detours. Bottom line, leave 5 – 8 hours to enjoy it, it’s worth catching your breath.
I’ll be honest, I’m writing this a few years down the road, so I can’t remember precisely how long it took to do this, or how far it was to reach that, but, what is more easily defined, was that it could be broadly dissected into three sections, minus detours – climbers are discouraged from sumitting Mount Ngauruhoe, due cultural taboos within the local Maori Iwi’s (tribe) customs. I’m not sure if this was the case when I hiked it, but due to the many summiteers, making the tramp up, I’ll have to give the benefit of the doubt on this one. I will omit this detour, out of respect. Breaking it down into what it feels like: a long flat walk, followed by sections of climbing and descending variable terrain, whilst taking in the many wonderful visages and vistas, this is the what it’s all about, then, a lengthy descending walk out.
We were running a bit later than we wanted – we had planned an early rise but as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, and my thoughts turned to that first cup of coffee, I was rolling out of bed, at the pace of a stone blowing in the wind – quite still.
Eventually, I managed to pull myself together and we made our way to Mangatepopo car park, after a light breakfast in Tūrangi. We got on the track at the dark depths of 10am – a late start in hiking terms. I would advise to get off earlier – 8am should be perfect. The car park was near full with dusty 4×4’s, but the track was all but deserted. We concluded, we better haul arse if we wanted to get back to the car before sundown. And with that, we headed off.
Much of the first hour or so was easy walking, on flat, muted earth, with the occasional boardwalk in areas. At around the hour mark, you’ll hit Soda Springs, the first detour – a short walk and you’ll be under the trickle of this mini oasis. We were still pushing the pace, so we opted to enjoy it from afar, and powered on.
There is a short but steep climb, known as the Devils Staircase, from the Mangatepopo Valley to the Saddle, with the first up close look at Mount Ngauruhoe, to greet you in all her glory. Mount Ngauruhoe, which is met on our eastern flank, is a secondary, and newest, vent of Mt Tongariro. It is an active stratovolcano, which stands at 2’291 metres in elevation. This majestic cone will be familiar to fans of the Lords of the Rings trilogy, as the ominous Mount Doom.
There were multiple paths up, with one, straight up the lively scree. As we arrived, we witnessed a helicopter departing, later we would talk to other hikers who had witnessed the person falling, and toppling, head over heels from the scree ascent up Mt Ngauruhoe. A poignant reminder of the dangers foolhardiness can entail. Since then, I read that the signage has been removed, in part, due to safety precautions, with the large amount of accidents that emergency services have to deal with at this remote location, but primarily, at the request of the local Iwi, which believe a mountain embodies the spirit of their ancestor, and summiting it, is like standing on their ancestors head.
From here, we crossed the South Crater, a wide flat section, where we enjoyed the views of Mt Tongariro on our left and Mt Ngauruhoe on our right for some while, as well as giving our legs a rest from any gradient, before making our way up another climb, for the Red Crater.
The view is vast, and beneath the awe and wonder, I couldn’t help but feel a low level terror, looking down into menacing florid hue, the hot blushed rocks, of the observably named, Red crater. This is the highest point of the crossing, detours not counting, at 1’886 metres in evaluation.
The next notable feature, is in the descent toward the stunningly vivid Emerald Lakes, in which, dropping off sharply, made it hard not to simulate ski turns as we traversed our way down over the volcanic pieces of scree, animated underfoot. It’s well worth the effort, as the unique pigment, attributed to the leeching of minerals from the surrounding rock, make for a vibrantly rich, striking and dramatic display, evoking that inestimable wanderlust in me, that reminds me why I started travelling in the first place.
I took moment to breath it in deep here – this was my personal high point -, it’s worth noting, not to breath in too deeply, otherwise you get hit with a nostril full of sulphur.
Continuing, we passed once more, a picturesque sight, of the Blue Lake, it’s bold and lucid navy circumnavigated onto the final stretch. We zigzagged in lush grassland, through densely packed forest (which was a surprising endnote), passed an under appreciated waterfall, descending all the while, triumphantly to the Ketetahi car park. High five!
Far from done, we honoured the walk by stretching out and downing some water, before getting our thumbs limbered up to hitch a ride back to our van. This proved trickier than we thought, but we ultimately prevailed, grateful for the kindness of strangers. By chance, were being given a ride by a friend of the person who had been airlifted to hospital in Taupo, in the helicopter we had observed, earlier in the day. After giving our humble thanks, we were dropped off at the top of the Mangatepopo car park road, so close, yet so far! Savouring our extra kilometre of glory, we walked down the dusty track, with the light of the setting sun.
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