Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (Part-1)
My beige cotton combats are soaked through, clinging to my thighs like a pair of wet leggings, peppered with volcanic sand, stained with smudges of black ash and yellow sulphur.
Fariza’s outline is barely visible up ahead through the thick cloud. With each step my feet send a mini-avalanche of scoria cascading ahead of me. The arm of my Gortex jacket flaps violently in the strong cross wind. “The Emerald Lakes are down there!” I yell, pointing through the dark cloud off to the right of the trail. I tighten my cuffs and re-adjust my hood. We’ve both seen postcards of this view back at the visitors centre, they don’t look like this!
A fleeting window in the weather reveals the long, smooth and sweeping northern flank of Mt.Ngauruhoe off to the right; the coloured lakes are indeed far below us in the distance, bright turquoise even in this dull light. I get lower in my squat and continue to hop and shuffle down the rocky ridge.
3 Volcanoes make up the park
Mt. Ngauruhoe is one of three active volcanoes in Tongariro National Park, well known amongst Lord of The Rings fans as Mt. Doom from the 2001 Peter Jackson movie: The Fellowship of The Ring, starring Elijah Wood. Mt. Ruapehu is somewhere off to the left, and until very recently it was the last to erupt, in September 2007.
These volcanoes are the explosive type that send ash billowing high into the heavens, and mud flows racing down their slopes, rather than oozing thick gloopy streams of slow-moving lava like you see in Hawaii. The third volcano is Mt. Tongariro (the park’s namesake), all are still active. In fact, Mount Tongariro erupted unexpectedly on Monday, August 6 2012.
The hike is not an easy undertaking
The route we’re taking used to be called the “Tongariro Crossing”, they added the word “Alpine” to it in 2007 to better reflect the hazards and terrain–probably hoping to reduce the number of people attempting it in low-cut trainers and inadequate clothing. Despite being a tough hike, it features on the itineraries of many visitors touring North Island, there’s no shortage of blog posts and photos covering the route.
A slew of local companies offer shuttles to and from the trail, rejoicing in the fact that the most popular tramp in New Zealand is a one-way route of 19.4km–all hikers must arrange transport. The route links the Mangatepopo and Ketetahi huts, and takes 6-7 hours to complete if you’re of moderate fitness.
We arrived at the Tongariro Adventure Headquarters early after spending the night in the nearby Skotel Alpine Resort. We weren’t on the first bus but it felt early enough. Leaving the car at the HQ felt a lot more secure than at an unmanned trail head. The bus took about 20 mins to deliver us to the starting point.
We visited New Zealand in February 2008. In Part 2 I’ll cover our experience (in some pretty bad weather) of this popular hike.