“There we are. Has everyone filled out their names, nationality and phone number on the form?” In front of us is a brisk New Zealand woman – sturdy boots, outdoor pants with pockets just above the knees, and a baggy woollen sweater – who has obviously driven bus loads of tourists to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing many times before. “So, final note before you go. Although you know the weather forecast cannot be trusted, it states that the sun will break through in a couple of hours. If during the hike you no longer feel confident to complete the hike there’s two points of return. Call me from that point and I will pick you up here, at the starting point. Beyond the second point, there’s no cell phone coverage so you have no choice but to continue.”
I do not at all feel addressed by these words. I feel a bit uncomfortable in this tourist bus. For me, walking is about freedom and grandiose landscapes stretching out in front of your eyes, without any other people in it. Simultaneously starting a 19.4 km hike with busloads of others feels like the opposite. Besides, I have to admit I feel too experienced for a driver that, when still at the camp site, checked if no one was wearing jeans. And anyway, the DOC (Department of Conservation) had advised against walking the trail a week ago due to bad winds, so now that we were back in Whakapapa village after changing our itinerary just for this famous walk, being dropped here with loads of others surely predicted an easy hike for us?
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a well-known and loved hiking trail. It’s famous for being New Zealand’s Northern Island’s most beautiful one day hiking trip. There are a few climbs (one of which is pretty steep) but it’s not a difficult hike, which makes it attractive for almost every tourist with moderate fitness. The hike is also known for Mount Ngarahoe, to some (or should I say loads) better known as Mount Doom. Yes that’s right – the fire-spitting mountain that was the only place that could end the saga of the seven rings, and the tyranny of Sauron. That sounds promising. In terms of rough nature, and stretched landscapes I mean – a little less if our climb to the top would be as heavy for us as it was for Frodo.
Cold drizzle welcomes us as we make our way out of the bus. As I look around, I see hikers of all sorts and ages. There are young couples like us with outdoor clothing and a small backpack, older couples with outdoor clothing, walking sticks and heavy-looking backpacks filled with water bottles and energy snacks, and there are groups of young people – less prepared, wearing sports shoes instead of hiking boots, and a poncho instead of a heavy-duty waterproof jacket.
Off we all go in low mist that reveals only twenty metres of our surroundings. Bright minded, my partner and I enjoy the mystique atmosphere it creates, looking almost enchanted like the swamp that Gollem, Sam and Frodo walk through on their way to Moria (and no, this was not filmed here at all). As our walking speed is usually a lot higher than that of other hikers we quickly take over the first bigger groups of hikers on the trail. This gives us some more walking space and freedom, but every time we pass a group, another one looms up from the mist in front of us.
So we gave up in that respect – after all we knew we would be walking with a lot of other people, so better to just accept that and focus on something else. The weather for instance. After two hours of walking in the drizzle and mist, we thought it was about time for the sun to show itself. But as we make our way on the first crater, heavy rain pours down on us instead. Where half an hour before I had told my partner I was happy to be wearing a decent pair of outdoor trousers after seeing those of a young woman stuck to her legs as they were completely soaked, I was now the one who looked like as if I had folded and then glued the legs of my trousers together to make it look like as if I was wearing a legging.
That was my first moment of doubt about the skies clearing up, but I was still positive and hoping the sun would just wait to show itself until we reached the most beautiful part of the crossing. I might have cursed a bit when trying to pull up my soaked pants after using the Dixie toilet (the use of which to be honest, although terribly smelly, was pure luxury) but I was fully convinced there would be no issue at all during the rest of the hike. And so we passed point 2 – our last point of return. From now on we would have to manage to get ourselves to the other side of the trail as reaching out for help with a mobile phone would not be possible from here onwards.
As we continue walking, gaining height on steep steps also known as the Devil’s Staircase, my fingers are getting colder and colder. My gloves are now soaked as well, and although I know I should’ve drunk and eaten something by now, I need all my breath to climb up in the thin air and my fingers are unable to open the lid of my water bottle. Finally making it to the last pair of steps, I’m hoping for better weather conditions on the other side of the mountain. Instead, the wind races over this side of the volcano as if it’s a dragon blowing fire, just to show who’s in charge. By now we face the steepest part of the climb, with a chain in the rocks to help you pull yourself up. By now, I’m no longer able to protect my hands from the cold. They’re so cold and hurtful that tears come rolling down my cheeks. Or is it just because I’m exhausted and no longer understand why we ever wanted to walk this trail?
Some of the hikers turn around, but most of them continue. As it’s the very first time I fully understand the meaning of weather conditions turning bad and can imagine why someone would need to be rescued from a mountain, I’m also in favour of turning around. While I’m already contemplating if this situation is bad enough already to pay the price for a helicopter to bring us back, my partner stays calm, offers me his gloves and decides we have to continue as there’s no guarantee the way back will be better. So we continue the walk, occasionally slipping as our feet lose grip on the black lava stones, climbing up the steep ridge while fighting the strong winds trying to push us off our feet. So much for making the comparison with Frodo just for the scenery.
The Emerald Lakes. And oh, how beautiful they are with their bright coloured turquoise waters. At least, that’s what I’d heard from other travellers and read in travel books. “Totally worth the climb.” For us the excitement came in the form of seeing the contours of the two lakes at all. For the umpteenth time we feel how amazing the views must be when walking around here in clear skies, and what a great spot this would have been to sit down, stretch our legs and enjoy some food. Instead, we continue the walk as it’s too cold to sit down. At least, until I get knocked over by the wind and am forced to sit down for a bit, just to ensure I don’t get blown in one of the two craters (one which is the supposedly beautiful Red Crater) on both sides of the Mangatepopo Saddle. The way down is an interesting walk. A combination of walking and sliding down brings us to the Central Crater that’s patterned with patches of snow. As mist reveals some parts of the snow-capped crater we get a sneak peek of how beautiful the hidden scenery must be. As we follow the path through the snow, my hiking boots start to protest and after resisting hours of rainfall, ice water now leaks through. Although we stay put here for a couple of minutes to take in the surreal surroundings, continuing the hike with a frozen butt and legs, numb fingers AND wet socks is not entirely lifting up my spirits.
The scenery changes completely when we leave the craters behind us and the black and grey lava stones change to moss and tussock, green, amber and reddish. The skies clear up a bit, providing us with views of Lake Rotoaira, town, and a couple of steamy geysers on private land – also known as Soda Springs. With the skies breaking open and revealing the steep slope covered with vegetation and a couple of small water streams running down from the top, it seems as if we’ve just started a different hike. We stop to finally have something to eat outside the Mangatepopo hut, and continue the easy ascend into native forest.
When we finally arrive at the end point of the track, a handful of people is already waiting for their transport back to town. Some are lucky and can just hop in a car. Others – like us – have to wait for another 1,5 hours for a bus to return to the village. A combination of quick walking and the weather conditions preventing us to occasionally stop to take pictures, let alone sit down to take in the scenery for a while or enjoy lunch, made us arrive 90 minutes earlier than our shuttle’s first pick up time. Calling for an earlier pick up is not possible, as – and yes, we had been notified – there was no cell phone coverage here.
Luckily by now, the sun had found its way to earth through the clouds so I could take off my boots to dry and warm up my feet a bit. And then to imagine Frodo and Sam had to do this on bare feet…
As the Kiwi lady drives up the road, we veer up – hoping that she’d somehow heard about the weather conditions and is here to pick us up and bring us to the camp site. Unfortunately not, she had just arrived earlier so that those hikers that might already have finished the crossing sooner would be able to sit down somewhere dry. But as it was the first time that day we were catching a glimpse of the sun we decide to just sit outside and wait in the light of those few sun rays. At least one thing we learned from this potentially stunning but in reality monstrous walk was that our bus driver had been right this morning when she said ‘the weather forecast cannot be trusted.’
Off to your own adventure!
Tramping the Tongariro Alping Crossing is possible for any moderatley fit and motivated traveller, but the track goes up and down and 19,4 km long – so don’t think moderate is the same as easy. I strongly recommend to wear decent outdoor clothing and hiking boots, bring your raincoat even when it’s sunny when you take off and bring enough water and food with you.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is New Zealand’s most popular day hike and an unlimited amount of hikers is allowed on the track, so it can get quite crowded. You don’t have to pay a fee to enter the nation park, but be aware that this is an A to B hike instead of a loop, so you have to arrange transport in advance to get to the start of the park and back again.
Transport can easily be arranged through your accomodation. We stayed at a campsite in Whakapapa Village, the main gateway into Tongariro National Park. Here you can find the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre run by the Department of Conservation, and check the conditions of the trail and the weather forecast.
Based on my experience, I would advice you to wait another day if on your arrival at the starting point of the trail all you see is mist – even if the weather forecast tells you it will clear up. I’m sure that from my story you can understand where this advice is coming from 😉
Check out the website of the Department of Conservation for all information on the track: http://www.doc.govt.nz/tongariroalpinecrossing.