Tongariro National Park
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the world’s best one-day hikes. At 19.4km it runs through Tongariro National Park in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island. It boasts three active volcanoes – Mount Tongariro; Mount Ruapehu, the island’s most popular skiing destination; and Mount Ngauruhoe, main filming location for Mount Doom.
Living in Auckland at the time, we hired a car with a couple of friends and drove the 6 hours (with an obligatory breakfast stop in Huntly) to the cabin we rented in National Park. The closest town to Tongariro, it’s so ambiguously named because at the time it was the only national park in the country.
A Bad Forecast
The following day was the planned day of our trek, however, with a forecast of -6°C and sleet, all of the shuttles had been cancelled due to severe weather warnings. With that decision made for us, we extended our trip and postponed our hike by a day. Instead, we spent the day visiting Lake Taupo, the biggest lake in the country; Huka Falls, New Zealand’s most visited natural tourist attraction; and a naturually-heated thermal spa.
The next morning, despite there still being a -3°C forecast, we were up at 6am to drop our car off at the end of the trail and then get a shuttle back to the start. There were a ton of different shuttle companies but they all seemed to lump us together on the same bus anyway. There were also a few that did pick ups and drop offs in town, but our way gave us more flexibility to take as long as we wanted.
We got to the beginning of the crossing at 8am, and despite the forecast it was going to be the best weather Tongariro had seen all year. Away went the thermals, ski coats and three layers of socks, and out came the sun cream.
The Devil’s Staircase
The first leg of our journey was a wooden path over flat grasslands to ease us in. Rivers and streams ran off the surrounding mountains. We began a gentle climb up the valley as the terrain got more rocky and the plants more sparse. There was a final toilet stop – and a long queue – before the ascent up the Devil’s staircase. A steep and uneven track took us very slowly from 1400 to 1600 metres above sea level.
Once at the top, surrounded by dried, black lava flows and ash, we got our first uninterrupted view of Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s steep sides ran up to a perfect crater, ringed with red. I’d read before that to climb Mount Doom itself was a three day trek, and I’d only found out the day before that it was actually possible in just a few hours. Now that I knew I could, I wasn’t giving up that chance. The main track bent around to the left, while we, and much better prepared hikers, headed to the right.
Reaching the base of the climb, we heard shouts from above but didn’t yet know what they meant. As we scrambled up the sheer ash face, we took one step forward and two steps back. The dirt collapsed beneath our feet, dislodging stones and sending rocks tumbling to those bellow us. In turn, rocks hurtled towards us from above amidst warning calls. But, moving so slowly, and terrified of hills – let alone active volcanoes – I was rooted to the spot and got hit in the knee.
An old lava flow provided firmer ground and the easiest route up, clambering on hands and feet. Nevertheless, it took me a couple of panic attacks and 3 hours to reach the summit. Sat on the red dirt of the crater ridge, looking down into its black depths, we ate our picnic. Behind us was the snow-capped peak of Mt Ruapehu, and ahead, nestled amongst smaller ridges, two lakes, one green and sulphurous, the other bright blue.
I did the descent on my bum, trying not to look down.
South Crater to Red Crater
The following leg was a much appreciated flat, the South Crater. A barron landscape where mist and sand swirled around our feet. It didn’t last long however, and we were soon climbing again. This time to the Red Crater, named for its distinctive colour that stood out against the dirty yellow surroundings. Sulphorous clouds rose from cracks and the eggy smell was apparent for the first time.
The Emerald Lakes
Below us, we could see the three emerald lakes, such a vibrant yellows, greens and blues due to the minerals in the rocks. The path lead towards them, sloping down over loose gravel, making for the most accidents anywhere on the main trail. The number of steam vents increased and the sulphorous smell grew stronger. The dirt around them was a chalky white.
Set a little apart from the Emerald lakes was a fourth, the much larger Blue Lake. Around its shores, plants started to appear again and a gull – the first wildlife we’d seen since we set off – circled as we ate our second lunch. We still had about half the trail to go, but luckily we’d done the difficult part; the rest was all downhill.
Winding around the mountain, a steady path lead us down. With an immense view of the valley below, we could see Lake Rotoaira and as far as Lake Taupo. The plants became more diverse – grass, moss, shrubs, even flowers. There were still signs of volcanic activity in the steam rising from white-crusted cracks, and streams of cloudy grey water that had stained the rocks red.
By this point, we’d all ran out of water and had just about given up, but we still had the final stretch to go. We entered a forest, dense trees on all sides and no way of knowing which bend would be our last. If we hadn’t been so tired, we might have appreciated it more. As it was, we couldn’t have been happier to see the now-empty car park, as we limped over the finishing line 11 hours after we’d set off.
I finally understood why it took Frodo and Sam three films to climb Mount Doom. We struggled to keep our eyes open on the drive home and we barely said a word over dinner that evening. After much, much rest though, I would definitely do it again.