While we’d been scooting around the North Island in our little home on wheels, I’d been secretly a bit disappointed with how little we’d been walking while in New Zealand. It was just too easy to jump in the van and see the sights without having to walk for miles, but soon my legs would be glad for all the rest after we decided to take on the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
In recent years, the crossing has become all the more popular thanks to Lord of the Rings because it takes you directly through the heart of Mordor and you can even climb Mount Doom itself (although that will add an extra three hours to your journey)!
So, after consulting the local guides, checking the weather report and booking our transfer to the starting point, we readied our day packs for our hike and settled in for an early night. By 5am, we had packed up the van with bleary eyes in the freezing cold and set off in the dark to get a good parking space at the end of the walk.
When the shuttle arrived to pick us up and take us to the start of the trek, the sun was just rising. The bus was full and the driver helpfully regaled us all with stories of people getting stuck on the mountain and the volcano going off in recent years – just what we wanted to hear!
At the starting point we could see just how busy it was, with several other bus-loads of people being deposited at the same time.
There is no doubt this is one of the most popular treks in New Zealand – there was already a huge queue for the long drop toilets (the last ones for a few kilometres).
The path stretched out in front of us and disappeared into the snow-capped mountains ahead. Pretty soon, we were wide awake and bouncing along in the crisp morning air, soaking up the landscape around us.
The trail takes you past three active volcanoes – Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Tongariro – with the latter having erupted as recently as 2012. Luckily no one was hurt at the time, but it’s always a possibility on this hike!
The enormous Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom) dominated the sky line and we must have taken hundreds of photos of it as we made our approach and the scenery gradually changed from swampy alpine tundra to black old lava flows.
Soon we reached the Devil’s staircase – a nasty uphill section that takes you up 200 metres.
As we climbed further and further up the pass, the temperature became noticeably cooler and patches of soft white snow soon became vast icy fields – contrasting starkly with the volcanic black rock.
We had come prepared for anything with our rain jackets, fleeces and supplies. We knew that it would be cold at times and that, at this altitude, the weather can change very quickly. So I was gobsmacked when we were passed by a group of runners wearing little more than skimpy lycra jogging-bottoms and a tshirt!
I was even more amazed by these crazy fitness fanatics when we reached the first really challenging part of the walk – an icy and very slippery climb up the side of a mountain. I have no idea how they managed to get through that bit in a hurry!
After hours of relentless (and sometimes a little perilous) climbing up the icy paths, we reached the highest point of the trek (at about 1,900m) and were rewarded with stunning views of the surroundings.
This point is also where the first famous feature of the walk is – the Red Crater – and we were hit by the now familiar smell of sulphur in the air. Apparently the red colour is from high temperature oxidation of iron in the rock, but we couldn’t see all that much of it for snow!
We hadn’t been descending for very long when we reached one of the trek’s most famous features – the emerald lakes. Against the snow and the clear blue sky, the three jade-green lakes popped with colour that’s caused by minerals leaching from the nearby thermal area. Although beautiful, they’re a bit stinky!
The next major sight was the blue lake, which we reached after walking through a near-empty snow field. Without the same perspective perched up high on the mountain, it was hard to make out the distinctive sapphire hue of the blue lake – but it was clear to see the colour is completely different to the green lakes.
The last stretch of the walk took us through vast swathes of alpine tundra, complete with steaming sulphuric vents, and finished with lush forest. Every now and then we were reminded of how dangerous the nature around us could be, with signs warning us not to stop for the next hundred metres because of potential flash flooding or lava flows.
My legs, which had been enjoying the exercise up until the last hour had begun to ache in complaint so I was a little relieved when we eventually reached the place we’d parked the van six and a half hours earlier.
It wasn’t hard to see why people speak so highly of the Tongariro Crossing – it’s certainly an interesting walk with spectacular and unique scenery. If you have a reasonable degree of fitness, it’s well worth adding this hike into your New Zealand itinerary. It might even end up one of the highlights of your trip.