One Does Not Simply Walk The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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One blogs about it.

From the Picton ferry, we rolled in to spend a last night in Wellington with Anna and Steve at the ex-Polish Embassy. Loz went up to the Botanic Gardens to take in the last nights of the summer celebrations there, whereas I preferred to catch up on sleep. In the morning, we took our last long drive in New Zealand: north to the small town of Turangi, at the foot of huge Lake Taupo. This brought us in reach of the volcanic zones of the North Island, part of the Ring of Fire that encircles the Pacific. Specifically, it brought us within striking distance of Tongariro National Park, home of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. For that evening, though, we relaxed by visiting the nearby Tokaanu thermal pools, where we got sucked into a tennis/volleyball game with a family of NZ dairy farmers. Someone (me) also had the brilliant idea of buying sausages for dinner, and using the leftover ones to make delicious sandwiches which we packed away for the next day.

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Tongariro National Park contains three active volcanoes: huge Ruapehu, with multiple craters and vents, and the more conical Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. The rest of the park is a spectacular alpine landscape, and the 19km one-day walk across it is one of New Zealand’s most famous “tramps”. All three of the peaks are tapu (sacred) to the local Maori, and they gifted the peaks to the government in order to preserve them. Tongariro, with its classic cone shape and red-hued summit crater, also starred as Mount Doom in LoTR, and the desolate landscape of the plateau between the peaks put in several appearances as Mordor. We began by parking Shadowfax at the end of the route at Ketetahi, and catching the shuttle bus to the start point at Mangatepopo. Ruapehu loomed over the car park, issuing innocent-looking puffs of white smoke from its largest crater. It last erupted in 2012, and the area close by it is still considered a “volcanic hazard zone” in which stopping is ill-advised.

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The walk begins with a pleasant, gently rolling tramp through low alpine vegetation and streams, but it soon starts to rise steeply and brings you alongside the Red Crater of Tongariro in a Martian landscape of bare soil and rock. Walking along the summit ridge, the wind was fierce and punishing even on our hot summer’s day, and the ground is a lethally steep mixture of ash and rock into which you have to dig your heels constantly to prevent slipping. Further along the ridge, three volcanic lakes come into view, glittering in the sunlight like precious jewels and reeking like hellpits.

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As you leave the ridge, you begin working your way around by Ruapehu, with a vista out towards Lakes Rotoaira and Taupo and across to Mount Pihanga. Ruapehu was continuing to issue steam, not just from its main crater but from a half-dozen vents dotted around the summit, and we kept moving briskly despite sore feet. Slowly, the trail winds down past hot springs to a lush forest trail that leads you back to the final car park. It took us just over six hours to walk the 19.4km at a markedly brisk pace, and we fetched up, blistered and exhausted, next to Shadowfax at 2:30pm, about to drive an hour and a half to the volcanic wonderland of Rotorua.

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