Rush hour on the Tongariro Crossing

The
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the iconic walks in New Zealand – in fact
it has been described as “the greatest one-day hike in the world”. Nowhere else
would you be allowed, even encouraged, to trek across the surface of an active
volcano – and not just in ones and twos, but in hundreds. There are warning
notices at the start telling you how to spot the signs of a volcanic eruption
(such as ‘flying rocks’) and advising you to get off the mountain pdq if you do
spot them. The hike is officially classified as ‘challenging’, which in kiwispeak
usually means extremely strenuous.  We weren’t
sure if we were up to it – but we wanted to have a go.

 

The
Crossing is really big business: lots of companies exist solely to run busloads
to the starting-point (no other way of getting there) and collect them from the
finish.  (They also hire boots, hiking poles
etc to people who haven’t got their own equipment.)  The walk is weather dependent – not safe to be
on the mountain in heavy cloud, strong winds etc.  The transport people only decide at 2pm each day
whether they will operate next morning.  

 

So
last week, we were monitoring the Met Office’s website to try to assess the probability
of doing the Crossing on Saturday.  The weather
in Wellington was dreadful, so we were not hopeful, but surprisingly the forecast
for Tongariro National Park was reasonably good.  On Friday our chosen company (Tongariro Expeditions)
gave the go-ahead, and so we drove the 200 miles to Turangi, just to the south
of Lake Taupo, and set the alarm clock for an early start on Saturday.

 

The
walk is 19.4 kilometres, from the Mangatepopo car park in the west to the
Ketetahi car park in the north, and weaves its way between the multiple craters
of Mt Tongariro, passing close by the side of Mt Ngaurahoe (aka Mt Doom) on the
way. We drove to the end point, and were picked up by a bus which had come from
Taupo loaded with youngsters doing the walk. When we got to Mangatepopo we
found lots of other buses disgorging walkers, and one of the surprises of the
day was the crowds of people we were walking with pretty much all the time. The
start of the walk is gently uphill for the first hour, though quite rough
underfoot, until you reach the Last Loo at the foot of the Devil’s Staircase up
to the South Crater of Tongariro. This was a newly laid track, and easy underfoot
though very steep.

 

From
there the path is flat across South Crater until you climb up the far rim with
views to the east. There is a track up Ngaurahoe from here, for mountain goats
and the terminally insane, but most of us stuck to the main track, which climbs
up steeply along a fairly narrow ridge to get to Red Crater. This is a real
active crater, with steam and smoke coming out of it, and the highest point of
the walk is on the rim there. We were told “Don’t fall into Red Crater, because
you won’t be coming out” – cheerful.

 

The
path down to Emerald Lakes is steep and very slippery, being mainly volcanic
sand – it’s a bit like going down a sand dune, as it keeps slipping down in
front of you. We came down cautiously, and joined the crowds picnicking round
the Emerald Lakes. (There are three small lakes, more turquoise them emerald, but
absolutely stunning against the mountain backdrop.)  The path then crosses Central Crater on the
flat and climbs a ridge next to Blue Lake, with amazing views back over the
three volcanoes of the Central Plateau in a neat row. It’s downhill all the way
from there, down the north side of Tongariro to Ketatahi Hut (more loos,
hooray!) and then past the Ketetahi Hot Springs to the forest and on to the car
park. We made the entire trip in 8 hours and 35 minutes, including rest breaks
and taking hundreds of photos. We were amazingly fortunate with the weather, as
it stayed fine and bright all morning and only clouded over later when we’d
seen most of the really scenic stuff.

 

We
drove back to Turangi, had drinks in the pub and a soak in the hot tub in the
motel, and then went for a nice meal to celebrate both Valentine’s Day and
completing the Crossing. After that we felt fully recovered, and in fact found
it less strenuous than we expected. The worst part was probably the crowds (think
M25 in the rush hour, with people instead of cars), but it was a unique
experience and the scenery was unbelievable.  Definitely worth every step!

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