By Jade Johnston
It’s been declared the greatest one day walk in New Zealand – which is quite an honour to obtain since New Zealand is chalk full of amazing hiking opportunities. It is a section of another acclaimed four day Great Walk, and it is also a site of deep spiritual significance to the Maori people. Oh, and it starred as Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings films. Whats not to love? It’s none other than the Tongariro crossing.
The Tongariro Crossing
One man we met while hitchhiking declared it to be boring walk – “nothing more than a bunch of rocks”, but those of us who are not from places dominated by volcanic landscapes will find it to be much more than that! The Tongariro national park contains three famous volcanoes; Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom!), and Tongariro itself. These dormant volcanoes dominate the landscape and create an other-wordly atmosphere.
The volcanoes and the inherent geothermal activity which comes along with it have created a spectacular landscape of steaming fissures and brightly coloured blue and green lakes. A completely different environment to the lush tropical forest at their bases.
A Shaky Start
James and I originally wanted to complete the full four day great walk, but unfortunately several factors stood in our way. The two biggest stumbling blocks were time and weather. Time because my visa was nearing its expiration, and weather because we were trying to undertake this walk in October.
We were lucky that we got to do the walk at all, as high wind speeds at the summits and along the ridges make it too dangerous to undertake, and transportation companies will cancel their services if they think the risk is too great. If you are arranging your own transport to the walk, then please, please, please, pay attention to weather conditions and DO NOT attempt the crossing in bad weather conditions.
We had a shaky start. The walk was cancelled the first three days that we booked ourselves in. Luckily, the town of Taupo has enough activities (both free and otherwise) on offer to keep anyone busy for a few days – more on that in another blog post!
Taking on the Tongariro Crossing
When we exited the shuttle bus we were greeted by fog. Nothing but fog. And cold. It almost seemed like a lost cause, but we decided to press on. The first hour of hiking took us through alpine scrub and volcanic rocks, and was fairly flat and easy to handle. After about 45 minutes, the sun began to win its battle with the fog and clouds, and we began to catch glimpses of the Ngauruhoe peak. Spectacular!
The first hurdle to complete on the crossing is the friendly named “Devil’s Staircase.” The department of conservation has built dozens of steps which take you up to the first of the ridges. I hate steps – and other than the mud, it was the steps which caused me to pretty much hate everything about the Stewart Island hike. However, I somehow seemed to manage all right on the Tongariro and even passed several of the other people from our shuttle bus. (Either I was more mentally prepared, or I was feeling more competitive on that day!)
Ngauruhoe summit and the South Crater
After completing the Devil’s Staircase, those who want even more vertical punishment can opt for the Ngauruhoe summit sidetrack. However, don’t attempt this if visibility is low as the track is not well marked and it is easy to lose your way.
The next challenge came with the south crater. As October is still spring time in New Zealand, the snow had not completely melted. Those who had ignored all the warnings to wear proper hiking shoes got very wet feet as they trudged through the snow and slush. I got to show off my awesome Canadian skills by teaching English James the proper technique to walk through snow. (As flat footed as possible – any heel, toe action will have to sinking in knee deep in no time!)
The Dangerous Side of the Tongariro Crossing
The most dangerous section of the Tongariro crossing is along the summit of the red crater. Here is where the highest wind speeds are reached. When I first reached the ridge, I was blown right off my feet and landed hard onto my hands. After that, James helped keep me upright as the wind almost made it difficult to inhale fully. Apparently, it can get so windy up here, that the only way to safely traverse the ridge is by crawling on your hands and knees. It was at this point that we were glad we only did the crossing, and not the four day walk, as then we would have had massive backpacks with all our gear on as well!
The Beautiful Blue and Green Lakes
After finally crossing the ridge and escaping the wind (and after having a good whinge about it all), we came into view of the blue and green lakes. These bodies of water get their colour from various volcanos sediments, and are really a sight to see!
As you descent towards the lakes, it is important to stay aware of your footing. There are a lot of loose rocks here, and it is very easy to lose your balance.
We then crossed another snowy crater, and found a place that was somewhat sheltered from the wind to enjoy our lunch. From this point foreword, the walk is predominately a descent.
Successfully completing the Tongariro Crossing
As we descended from the height of the volcanoes, the terrain eventually changed from volcanic rock, to alpine scrub. From here we could see the steam coming off of hot springs in the distance. As we descended further we left the scrub, and entered a tropical rain forest. We had to quickly shed as many layers as possible as we ambled past ferns and trees, streams and waterfalls.
At the parking lot, as we waited for the shuttle to pick us up again, we all lazed in the sun and pulled off our boots. A stark difference from the snowy and cold alpine conditions we had all experienced just a few hours before!
Tips For Making the Most of the Tongariro Crossing
- Wear lots of layers! At the summit you will be more than thankful for your mittens and hat, but at the base you will be glad you wore that summery singlet underneath.
- Bring proper hiking shoes! You would not believe the amount of people we saw do the walk in trainers. Although it is possible to do the walk in trainers (aka you won’t die), you will be much more comfortable and have less potential injuries if you just wear the proper footwear. There are many places that will even rent you your footwear, so there is really no excuse.
- Rain jackets and if you have them, waterproof overtrousers are pretty much essential. The weather changes by the second up on the crossing, and the better prepared you are, the more you will enjoy your experience.
- If you have any issues with your knees or balance, then consider investing in some walking poles. They have been proven to reduce knee strain and impact by up to 25 percent. I use them on every hike since I have bad knees from past injuries, and they are life savers. They also make ascents and descents easier.
- Heed to weather reports! If the department of conservation says not to attempt the crossing – then don’t! If you want to know how many tourist they have to search and rescue from the mountain, then just go to the Taupo visitor centre. They have all the newspaper clipping on display.
- Don’t forget your camera! The Tongariro crossing is an unforgettable experience and is a landscape you will not easily find anywhere else in the world.
The Nitty Gritty of the Tongariro Crossing
Shuttle busses are probably the best way to get to and from the Tongariro Crossing, since the nature of the crossing has you starting at one place, and ending at a completely different place. Shuttle busses operate out of several towns in the area, including national park, Turangi, and Taupo.
Taupo is the town furthest from the Tongariro crossing, but I think it is the best one to base yourself out of. Taupo has many other attractions to keep you busy if your Tongariro crossing needs to be postponed, and there are more accommodation and entertainment options available.
You do not need to book ahead with the department of conservation for the Tongariro Crossing, since it is a day hike. However, if it good idea to book your transport in advance, especially if you arrive in the high season. If you are planning to do one of the multi day walks, you must book your huts/ camp sites with DOC in advance.