Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
Defying Mount Doom
“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. She wears sturdy boots, outdoor pants with pockets just above the knees, and a baggy woollen sweater. It is obvious that she has 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 vast landscapes stretching out in front of your eyes. Simultaneously starting a 19.4 km hike with busloads of others feels like the opposite.
Besides, I have to admit that I feel too experienced for the group. The driver actually checked if no one was wearing jeans when we got on the buss at the campsite. 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?
New Zealand’s most popular one day hike
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 is not a difficult hike. That combined with the views make it attractive for almost every tourist with moderate fitness.
Mount Ngarahoe aka Mount Doom
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 is going to 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 wearing 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 less prepared young people, 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. The surroundings look enchanted like the swamp that Gollem, Sam and Frodo had to walk through on their way to Moria. (Although the scene was not filmed here at all).
As our walking speed is usually a lot faster 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 a feeling of freedom. Unfortunately, every time we pass a group, another one looms up from the mist in front of us.
Craters and pouring rain
So we give 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. Half an hour before I had told my partner I was happy to be wearing a decent pair of outdoor trousers. I had just seen a young woman whose regular trousers were completely soaked and stuck to her legs like a legging. Now, I am the one looking like I have folded and then glued the legs of my trousers together to make it look like a legging.
This was my first moment of doubt about the skies clearing up. Nonetheless, I was still hopeful. Perhaps the sun would just wait to show itself until we reached the most beautiful part of the crossing. And would then blow dry my pants in seconds.
I might have cursed a bit when trying to pull up my soaked pants after using the Dixie toilet at the rest stop (the use of which to be honest, although terribly smelly, was pure luxury). Continuing the hike after this stop means passing point 2 – our last point of return. From there 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 no longer be possible.
We continue walking and gain 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. Although I know it is time to drink and eat something, I need all my breath to climb up in the thin air. Besides, I am not even capable to open the lid of my water bottle.
Finally making it to the last pair of steps, I am 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. I am no longer able to protect my hands from the cold. They are so cold and hurtful that tears come rolling down my cheeks. Or is it just because I am exhausted and no longer understand why we ever wanted to walk this trail?
Some of the hikers turn around, but most of them continue. It is the very first time I fully understand the meaning of weather conditions turning bad. I can imagine why someone would need to be rescued from a mountain. While I am already contemplating if this situation is bad enough to pay the price for a helicopter to bring us back, my partner stays calm. He 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 just managing to make out the contours of the two lakes. 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.
Until I get knocked over by the wind that is. We are now on the Mangatepopo Saddle and should have been able to see the supposedly beautiful Red Crater. I am forced to sit down for a while, just to ensure I don’t get blown in one of the two craters.
The way down is an interesting walk. A combination of walking and sliding down brings us to the Central Crater that is 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 give in. Having resisted hours of rainfall, ice water now starts to leak 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. The black and grey lava stones make way for moss and tussock, green, amber and reddish. The skies clear up a bit so we can enjoy views of Lake Rotoaira, town, and a couple of steamy geysers (Soda Springs) on private land. With the skies breaking open it seems as if we have just started a different hike. A steep mountain slope is revealed from under the blanket of clouds. The slope is covered with vegetation and a couple of small water streams run down from the top. Outside the Mangatepopo hut we to take a break at last. We fuel up and then continue the easy ascend into native forest.
When we arrive at the end 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. As a result of the adverse weather conditions, we have arrived 90 minutes earlier than our shuttle’s first pick-up time. Not sitting down to take in scenery or to have lunch is a real time saver. 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 has found its way to earth through the clouds so I 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. We are hopeful that she had somehow heard about the weather conditions and is here to pick us up and bring us back the camp site. Unfortunately not. She had only 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 is the first time that day that we are able to catch a glimpse of the sun we decide to just sit outside and pass the time in the comfort 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.’
All you need to know about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Can anyone hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
Tramping the Tongariro Alping Crossing is possible for any moderatley fit and motivated traveller. The track does go up and down and is 19,4 km long – so don’t be fooled to think that moderate is the same as easy.
What to wear when hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
I strongly recommend you 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.
How to arrange transport for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is New Zealand’s most popular day hike. An unlimited amount of hikers is allowed on the track, so it can get quite crowded. Be aware that this is an A to B hike instead of a loop. That means that you have to arrange transport in advance to get to the start of the park and back again. You can easily do this at the accommodation you’re staying at.
Do I have to pay a fee to enter the national park when hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
No you don’t have to pay an entrance fee to access Tongariro National Park. You do however have to pay for transportation arrangements because the is an A to B hike.
Where to stay near the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
The main gateway into Tongariro National Park is Whakapapa Village. We stayed at a campsite in the village, but there are plenty hotels here as well. In Whakapapa, you will find the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre that is run by the Department of Conservation. You can check the conditions of the trail and the weather forecast and ask rangers for advice.
Weather and hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
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. Do so 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.