Venture into a volcanic landscape, follow the path carved out by lava flows and tighten your laces at the foot of Mt Doom. If Frodo did it, you can too.
New Zealand’s best one-day hike takes you through Tongariro National Park, a landscape characterised by contrasts.
Alpine flowers bloom through a thick carpet of rubble. Pools of emerald green glow against basins of grey ash. And even on the most miserable of days, pockets of blue sky cut through the cloud and alpine streams glisten in delight.
Taking on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is no easy feat. The Kiwi’s aren’t kidding when they classify it as ‘challenging’. But don’t be discouraged, hundreds of hikers make the trek every day.
After a friendly 4km introduction, the boardwalk disappears and things start to get interesting. A cyclone that swept the South Island a few days before delivered a generous downpour on its way through. I spent that night chipping the mud off my once crisp black and white Nikes. Colour aside, they did the job, despite being told that proper hiking boots were absolutely essential. I saw a guy doing it in Converse so don’t be deterred.
The first real ascent begins about 6km in. And they don’t call it the Devil’s Staircase for nothing. By the time you reach the top, your glutes will be screaming, but the view back down the valley eases the pain, if only slightly.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have clear blue skies. But if you’re really lucky, you’ll get a scene straight out of a hollywood blockbuster. If NASA faked the moon landing, this is where they filmed it. The stretch across the South Crater (which is actually a glacial basin) looks like an eery lunar landscape. Cloud hangs so low you can barely make out the silhouette of the person in front of you.
Next comes a slow, steep climb up an exposed ridge. Clinging to a chain bolted into the rock, rubble tumbles down the sheer cliff face and is swallowed up by the fog. Now is not a good time to ponder how far down it will fall.
Just before I psych myself out, the terrain levels out and I notice people gathering around a non-descript green sign post. Almost 2,000m above sea level, the peak of the Red Crater marks the highest point of the journey. The view would have been spectacular, if only I could see it. Despite the limited visibility, the sense of accomplishment upon reaching the summit was a reward to panoramic view could top. The collective excitement of everyone around was energising.
The decent was slightly kinder on the legs but the wicked combination of scree (loose volcanic ash and stone) and a steep decline sent me sliding once or twice. Zig-zagging was definitely the way to go.
About half an hour into the decent, the Emerald Lakes emerge through the fog and provide a nice lunch spot after a hunger inducing climb. Minerals that seep in from nearby thermal areas give the water its greenstone hue, but don’t be tempted to take a sip OR a dip. The entire area is sacred to the Maori people so don’t be ‘that guy’.
Golden tussocks line the path from the lakes to Ketetahi Hut. The view from here provides a stark reminder of the volcanic activity in the area. The three nearby volcanoes are highly active but far enough from the track that won’t actually see any lava. If you do, run. What you will find in abundance is solidified lava flows, steaming vents and near-boiling sulphur springs.
The track ends in a verdant wooded forest, making you almost forget the strange alpine landscape you just tramped through. If you’ve organise a round-trip bus ticket with a local tour company, this is where your driver will pick you up. Don’t forget to empty the rubble our of your shoes before you get onboard.
A few tips
1. Bathrooms are basic and it’s BYO toilet paper. Take a packet of tissues unless you want to practice your shimmy.
2. For purposes of conservation and convenience, it is highly recommended that you book a return shuttle from a nearby town. The carpark has limited spaces and unless you want to walk ALL the way back to the beginning, it’s best to let someone else do the driving. A full list of shuttle operators can be found here.
3. Book at least one night’s accommodation either side of your hike. The surrounding towns of Whakapapa, National Park Village, Turangi, Taupo and Ohakune have loads of accommodation but it’s best to book in advance during summer months or if you’re travelling with a group.
4. It’s not called the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for nothing. The weather conditions can be unpredictable and extreme on both ends of the thermometer. Wear a few layers so you can strip off when it gets hot and rug up as you work your way up into the clouds.
If there’s one thing that is essential during the colder months, it’s a rain-proof jacket. I had the delightful experience of having my baggage lost on the flight to the North Island so all the hiking gear I’d packed was useless. Luckily, everything you need can be hired from nearby towns or, in most cases, from your shuttle operator. I grabbed a parka from my driver as I jumped off the bus. Considering the miserable weather, it was the best $20 I’ve ever spent.
5. The hike takes between 5 – 8 hours. Don’t rush. Pretend to stop and take photos so you can catch your breath. But actually do stop and take photos.
6. SNACKS. Pack enough food and water for the entire day. 1.5 litres at the very least! Climbing volcanic mountain is thirsty work. And make sure you take all of your rubbish with you.
Visit the official website for a detailed map of the hike, updates on volcanic activity and weather reports.
So, are you up for the challenge?
This story was originally published on Familytravel.com.au