The Tongariro Alpine Crossing right in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island is a World Heritage Site that’s arguably the best hiking trail in the country. It stretches for 19.4 kms. passing through Tongariro National Park ringed with three active volcanoes one of which (Mt. Ngauruhoe) gained fame in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Mount Doom and takes from 6-8 hours from end-to-end depending on how fit you are.
We attempted it right on Christmas Day leaving the entry point in Mangatepopo at 8:00 o’clock on a chilly and cloudy morning. You have to arrange for a shuttle from your hotel to drop you off there and then pick you up once more at the other end. The trail started off on level ground with volcanic rocks and scrub surrounded by rocky, low-lying hills in the distance. After about 45 minutes, the way got steeper and the vegetation started to change as the ground became darker with large boulders dotting the landscape. At this point, the wooden platform on the trail ended replaced by a rugged earthen footpath sometimes with pools of water. At the first rest stop called Soda Springs, there were two toilet facilities and a small bridge to cross into the Devil’s Staircase. This was the section where the hard, winding climb began starting from an elevation of 1,200 meters to 1,400 meters and there were signs asking you if you wanted to go back!
Although the ascent through the stony volcanic soil was steep, there were a series of built-up staircases to help you navigate quicker but you have to stop sometimes to catch your breath. The views got better as we climbed higher and we decided to rest and drink the water we brought while munching on dark chocolate. Below, the view was awesome looking back to where you came from with the green plains stretching as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately, the thin clouds on the horizon started getting thicker until it blotted out the sun completely and it enveloped Mt. Doom until it disappeared from view just as we neared its base. It is still an active volcano with seismic activity going on every now and then. A sign depicting its eruption back in 1975 tells the story of how the pyroclastic flows almost trapped a group of students with the park ranger so trekkers should be aware that they were treading on dangerous ground.
The tiring stretch suddenly gave way to a flat stretch of land which was the South Crater. We were now walking on an ancient volcanic crater filled with hardened lava flow with a brownish lake on the side. Another hard push thru a steep section of loose rocks brought us to the ridge of the Red Crater which was literally and spectacularly colored deep red because of the iron deposits that were left behind during its last eruption in 1850. From this highest point on the Crossing at 1,880 meters, we got an awesome view of the emerald and blue lakes down below which are actually sulfur springs with heated water bubbling up thru vents underneath giving rise to steam billowing all around.
Getting down to the lakes was quite crazy because the loose surface of rocky soil made you slip and slide all the way to the bottom. We were now halfway after 5 hours since we started so we decided to take another rest just like the rest of our fellow trekkers – we greeted each other a Merry Christmas! After taking a lot of shots of the place and its surroundings, we moved on since the sulfuric smell wasn’t all that pleasing. It was a short climb to the North Crater which once was filled with molten lava that cooled and solidified, giving a level surface that was about a kilometer long. We passed by the blue lake whose cold water was acidic and considered sacred by the locals so it was disrespectful to eat or drink around it, much less touch its waters.
The path winded down through grassy vegetation that now appeared along the way and then as if on cue, the heavens opened up turning the light drizzle into pouring rain that drenched us thoroughly! It was all I could do to keep the camera dry as I tightly hugged the backpack inside my jacket while trying to keep my balance on the muddy, narrow trail that skirted the mountainside.
The wide vista opened up once more once the rain abated and we could see the whole spread of the beautiful green landscape beneath us including Lake Rotoaira in the far distance. Sections of the gravelly trail had a wooden boardwalk where we zigged and zagged our way down through numerous switchbacks filled with tall grass that swayed in the cool breeze. It became boring after some time and I kept wondering if we were getting any closer to our destination since the path twisted and turned endlessly on and on and on…..
Below was the Ketetahi forest which we soon reached after more than an hour of hard trudging. It was quite dark under the thick tree cover due to the heavy dark clouds hanging above while we traversed several more kilometers thru a winding muddy path parallel to a fast-moving stream. I was overjoyed when we finally passed by the 19-km. signpost and made it out of the trees fully exhausted into the carpark where we waited for the shuttle that was going to take us back to the hotel.
We had spent nearly 9 hours traversing the Crossing and though I was dead tired – my legs felt like lead and my toes were hurting like hell – it was an exhilarating experience like no other with remarkable views start to end! Sure, I’d do it all over again but this time, I’ll fly a drone along the way….
Some practical pointers:
- There are many hotels in the town of Turangi but it would be better to book one close to the Tongariro National Park not only because you can see the volcanic peaks up close but also the travel time to the park entrance will be quicker.
- You have to arrange transport to the start of the Crossing thru a shuttle bus from the hotel or from any of the companies offering the same service. They will drop you off at the carpark at the start and will pick you up at the end of the 19.4 km. hike. Drop-off and pick-up times are sometimes hourly from early in the morning till evening.
- Ideally, it’s good to start early in the morning at the break of dawn before other trekkers arrive. That way, you will have the trail all to yourself at the early going because sometimes it can get pretty crowded especially at the two major climbing points in the Devil’s Staircase and the Red Crater.
- You have to dress well to keep warm since the weather may suddenly change from bright sunlight gale-force wind or pouring rain. A waterproof jacket with a hood is recommended as well as a hat to keep away the sun. Though you can comfortably wear training shoes, sturdy hiking boots would be better to protect your ankles and to get a better grip on the rocky terrain and the loose volcanic soil. Sunscreen and sunglasses are quite essential as well.
- At least carry a 1.5 liter of bottled water for it can get quite thirsty after a long, hard climb, and sandwiches or biscuits would satisfy your hunger pangs. Chocolates, too are good to munch on and give you extra energy.
- Bring along your phone (to use for emergencies) and a camera, of course, though a GoPro plus a pair of binoculars would add extra enjoyment to your trek.
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