Tongariro Alpine Crossing – the best day trek in New Zealand?

STOP!

CONSIDER TURNING BACK

When these words greeted me partway through the trek, I admit I wasn’t inspired with the greatest of confidence.  I stared at the bold blue warning sign and asked myself – was I really prepared?

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Warning sign

Wearing cheap, questionable trainers, I wasn’t convinced I met the criteria for “right equipment and clothing”. However, as several websites had advised that this footwear would be suitable, I decided to take my chances on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Lauded as the best day-trek in New Zealand, thousands of people hike across this phenomenal volcanic landscape each year without problems.   Nevertheless, in poor weather conditions, the 19.4 km, eight hour trek can be dangerous, which is why a morning check of the weather forecast is vital.  At 4 am, it’s an early wake-up call to be ready in time for the shuttle bus which transports eager trekkers to the starting point.  Stifling a yawn, I was cold, tired, but brimming with excitement as I watched dawn break over the beautiful Mount Ngauruhoe.

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Dawn at Mount Ngauruhoe

At the entrance, I spotted the first of many colourful signs that warn or inform along the way.  It was a map of the Crossing, with several marker points sectioning the trek into more manageable chunks.  First there was the Mangatepopo Valley Track – an estimated hour’s walk.  Then from Soda Springs, hikers would be presented with a veritable smorgasbord of visual wonders, including the Red Crater and Emerald Lakes.   The walk to Ketetahi brought the total hiking time up to six hours before the final slog to the finish – no stroll in the park, then.

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Map of the Crossing

Putting my best foot forward, I set off with my two trekking companions.  A bitterly cold wind blew immediately into our faces.  With the exposed terrain offering no reprieve from the elements, the path proved more difficult than I thought. However, I was spurred on by the increasingly impressive surroundings, which soon became littered with gnarled rocks forged from the nearby volcano.

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Walking across the pyroclastic flow

The route we followed crossed over an old pyroclastic flow dating from 1975 – a clear reminder that this was still very much a geologically active area.  We ascended the rubble strewn slope, the path growing abruptly steeper, until at last we reached South Crater.  There, the land levelled out, and as we made our way across the empty expanse, a chill fog cloaked the air, obscuring what lay ahead.  A thin crust of ice covered the ground and our breaths became clouds of condensation.

The atmosphere of the trek began to change.  What had been fun and relatively easygoing to begin with now had a slight edge of danger.  The well defined path disappeared, forcing us to scrabble precariously between shards of jutting rock and jagged boulders.

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Heading toward Red Crater

Several times, I found my foot slipping, the poor grip on my shoes contributing to some dicey moments.  With the benefit of hindsight, I can safely say that trekking in trainers is not to be recommended here.  I missed the sure tread of my hiking boots – left at home to save room in my rucksack.  As we climbed ever higher, the temperature plummeted.  Frost spread its tendrils over signposts and tufts of grass, plunging us into a winter-like world.

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Frozen grass

Visibility became dramatically reduced.  For me, this turned out to be a good thing, as the nerve-racking drop either side remained thankfully hidden.  In those handful of minutes, it felt like we were on top of the world, lost in a land of cloud. Then the path began to slope down again and the mist slowly receded.  After our long uphill struggle, we were finally rewarded with a teasing glimpse of the Emerald Lakes.  They were striking; almost extraterrestrial in their appearance.  Standing next to these turquoise pools, I felt a real sense of wonder – this was Mother Nature at her rawest.

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Emerald Lakes emerging through the mist

Now we had reached the halfway point, I was beginning to fully appreciate the ‘alpine’ part of the Crossing’s name. In spite of wearing gloves, my fingers were freezing, to the point where I had to put them in my mouth to revive them from numbness.  Keen to return to a lower (and warmer) altitude, we pressed on.  Almost as an afterthought, I threw a glance over my shoulder and was abruptly amazed.  No longer concealed by mist, the awesome Red Crater could now be seen in all its glory.  Rusty reds merged with earthy browns, while smudges of burnt black and sulphurous yellow all added to the palette of colours around me. Staring back at the path weaving alongside the crater, I could scarcely believe that I had walked across that broad knife-edge and nearly missed seeing it.

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Red Crater

Next, we passed Blue Lake, and reached the final stage of the trek.  In 2012, an eruption from the Te Maari craters forced the Crossing to close for safety reasons.  By a lucky coincidence, the Ketetahi Track had only recently reopened several days before I arrived, enabling me to complete the entire length of the trek from start to finish.  Prior to this, visitors needed to turn back at the midway point and skip the second half.

We took a pit stop outside the Ketehahi hut and admired the sweeping view of the landscape.  It was a little unnerving, to think that not so long ago, volcanic rocks had been hurtling though the roof of that very same building. Nearby, a Maori warning sign marked the edges of the danger zone, with the still steaming craters lurking ominously in the background.

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A Maori ‘Rahui’

From this point on, the path was entirely downhill.  When we at last reached the car park after eight hours of walking, I was exhausted, but exhilarated.

So did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing live up to its famous accolade as ‘the best day trek in New Zealand’?  Having not tried them all, I can’t guarantee for certain.  However, during my six week stint in the country, I can safely say it was without a doubt the best day I had there, and one of the most memorable in my travels so far.

 

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