Conquering a volcano: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand

It was dark.

It was 5.15am, and there was a distant ringing of an alarm clock in my ear.

I was tired, unable to sleep through the night, due to the noise from my 15 other dorm mates, but also with slight anxiety that I’d sleep in past my alarm and miss out on the experience of walking New Zealand’s greatest day walk -The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, at the Dual World Heritage Site, in the National Park.

I pulled myself out of bed, got ready, fuelled by body with sustainable porridge and a vitamin drink, checked and double checked I had everything I needed. Layers, food, more layers, food, a torch, my camera … food.

6.15am, and we were off. I was hitching a ride with a friend, and experienced hiker from Christchurch and his brother and sister. The drive to the finishing point of Ketehai car park, took just over an hour.

It was a picture perfect day. Like one of those early New Zealand Winter mornings, crisp, with blue sky and sunshine. I knew it was going to be a good day.

We boarded the bright yellow shuttle bus, paid $30, and were on the way to the start line at Mangatepopo.

On the way, the driver directed our attention to the cloud of smoke coming out of the side of the Mountain. Low cloud I thought .. no, no, just the signs of the active volcano we were about to cross. I had a slight knot in my stomach. What if it erupts? What of we die … oh don’t be so dramatic Abbi …

 

The fact that I am writing this post, shows that I did it. I survived. And it was beautiful.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, sits amid the National Park, in the North Island, near Turangi, South of Taupo. The walk has been dubbed the greatest one day walk in New Zealand, and I can see why. There are options to do this walk in 3 days, combined with other parts of the National Park.

Arriving to the start point and seeing the blue marker telling me, that I had 19.4km to walk. I felt slightly confident, after all .. I had ran a Half Marathon, it couldn’t be that bad!

 

The first part of the walk to Soda Springs was a breeze, well prepared land, with only a few slight hills.

The scenery was incredible, giving you the feeling of complete freedom, being in the middle of nowhere. Snow encased the Mount Ngauruhoe(Mt Doom, from the Lord of The Rings). It was getting warmer, this was a beautiful walk.

The second half of the walk from Soda Springs to South Crater was were things started to change. Known as the Devil’s staircase, it was steep. An elevation of 1600m above sea level meant a lot of climbing hills, which seemed endless. Luckily there were rest stops along the way.

We were also given a map, which gave us estimated walk times firm point to point. We were hitting the lesser times for each point, so we let like pros.

Getting to South Crater was fantastic. You suddenly entered an actual Crater, the smell of sulphur maintained the Volcanic element of this walk, and the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere created a sense of the unknown .. at any given moment, the situation could change. I half expected a chariot of fire to come over the hill, and a movie director shouting ‘cut.’ After all, it was scenes I had only viewed in the movies, or in photos.

 

At the top of South Crater, was the turn off to Mount Ngauruhoe which has a track up to the summit. Taking 3 additional hours return. We didn’t complete this.

South Crater to Red Crater was the biggest hurdle, and by far was my personal nemesis of the walk. The hills seemed endless. The strain was beginning to appear on the backs of my legs. I was warm. I removed a layer. I continued. Sweat began to cover my forehead. I took off my hat. Almost there I thought. No, there is another corner. Keep going I said to myself, it’ll be worth it.

And we made it. The top .. or almost .. one little 200m hill. But we stopped for lunch to refuel. A warm flask of tea warmed my bones, and the sandwiches I had prepared the night before gave me a renewed sense of energy. I can do this. We can do this.

 

 

Up and over the 200m hill to, what is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable aspects of the crossing – the emerald lakes. I stood in stunned silence. They really were as beautiful as the photographs had promised.

The camera got taken out, and I became snap happy, along with the hundreds of other walkers there.

And then I sat down. Rested my weary legs, and just reflected. New Zealand is truly one of the most beautiful and unspoilt countries, I have been so privileged to have lived in.

 

The walk down to the Lakes, took us through some volcanic steam .. it was warm. The Lakes were so Emerald. I wanted to jump in.

After our moments with the camera, we continued on though Red Crater toward the end. We were halfway through by this point, and our Map assured us that the second half was much easier, it was .. though not without some sneaky hills thrown in, here and there .. when I announced ‘you lied to me Map!’.

Our next major stop was at the DOC hut … which seemed a million miles away from the top of the hill .. accessible through a winding path. It was the stopping point for many other walkers, mainly for the use if the long drop toilets (tip .. bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer!)

13km was on the marker … an estimated time of 1.5 hours to walk.

It was the longest 1.5 hours of the entire walk. I had started to tire. We had done the long haul. It was the final push. The home stretch. I was day dreaming of a massive piece of steak, hot bath and comfortable bed.

The final aspect of the walk took us through, a forest area, were signs advised that you were in an active volcanic area, and to keep stops to a minimum!

By this stage, we had a number of other walkers around us, all eager to get to the end.

Then, it happened … we saw cars and buses and people. We had made it. We did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I almost wanted a fanfare, or a well done certificate, but we pushed on walking to the car, and drove back to Taupo, via a local bakery for sugar and caffeine.

7 hours of solid walking. Done. An achievement of my time in New Zealand. Thoroughly recommended, but make sure you’re prepared. For once, this time, I was prepared, unlike my venture into Abel Tasman National Park.

 

Tongariro Alpine Crossing Fact File

1. It is a long walk … no stroll in the park, you need to be fairly fit

2. The terrain is very rugged and unstable at times – wear good hiking shoes, or at least shoes with good tread.

3. It’s all about the layers … the temperature can change multiple times. I wore shorts, which for April is generally not common in NZ, warm socks (these were a bit too warm at times, regular sports socks would do), a singlet (vest top), a poly pro long sleeved layer and a thermal plus sweatshirt top. I had a hat, sunglasses, and some poly pro leggings which I didn’t need. I brought a rain jacket, which I also didn’t use. A pair of gloves would have come in handy at the top. It got rather nippy.

4. Sunscreen … its necessary, even in winter. It gets hotter at the top. I got a bit red around the cheeks, but uncertain as to whether that was wind or sunburn.

5. Emergency supplies – torch and first aid kit (essential to have on you but I didn’t use it)

6. Check in the local isite the crossing information. A good day for some people one day, doesn’t mean it’ll be fine the next. It can change, even on the day.

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FAQs (things I asked others before the walk)
1. Are there toilets – yes! Just don’t expect greatness. They are a bit stinky, as is the case with most long drops. Bring your own toilet roll and hand sanitizer.

2. How much food do I actually need? I normally eat like a baby bear .. but I managed on two filled bread rolls, nuts and chocolate as snacks, fruit (apples and oranges worked well) and lots of water

3. How much water do you need? I took 1.5L in two separate bottles, but my companions had more. I managed with this amount, but an extra bottle in the car at the end wish have been good.

4. Can you do the walk alone? Yes! I previously thought that this was a guided walk, as I saw these advertised online. If you are doing it alone, chances are you won’t be alone. If you are coming from a backpackers in Taupo or Turangi, you’ll most likely book on the return shuttle bus .. you’ll make friends. Tons of people walk it everyday. Its well sign posted, you won’t get lost.

This is by far, the greatest walk I have completed.

Have you done the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? What were your experiences of it? What’s the best walk you’ve ever done?

This has definitely fuelled my passion for the outdoors even more. There are still so many walks I need to get on, in New Zealand.

 

 

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