Will Your Body Stand The Tongariro Crossing Test?

Tongariro Crossing (7-10 min. reading) Hands up if you've ever stood at the foot of a mountain, lifted your eyes and swallowed - hard?

And also when you looked up? Alarm bells rang and thoughts ricocheted inside your head. "Holy crap, what have I got myself into?" and "I could kill Suzanne." (The cousin who invited you to do this.)

Tongariro Crossing - Mangatepopo Rd entrance to the crossing trackEntry point off Mangatepopo Rd. Mt Ngauruhoe (R) aka Mt Doom of Lord of the Rings fame and Mt Tongariro (L) background

Any enthusiasm you may have had leaches down your body right on out through the heels of your brand new, steel toe-capped boots. And yes, you know the boots should have been broken in but time kind of ran out, okay?

It's daunting enough thinking about climbing Mt Tongariro - never mind actually seeing it, along with Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu in full, glorious technicolour.

Mt Ruapehu - Tongariro National Park, New ZealandMt Ruapehu

Another realisation slams into your mind! This is it, the point of no return, there's no going back. Well, technically you could back out, but it sure doesn't feel that way (maybe you don't mind the red-faced walk of shame.)

Great news!

Once you get going, it isn't as bad as it looks. You'll see how, as I take you through my Tongariro journey, sometimes thoughts are worse than the physical act itself, plus what you can expect to see and do. We'll finish off with the logistics of managing this as day trip from Rotorua.

Let's walk the Tongariro Crossing

My cousin and I went at the end of the summer season (within a few days) and managed to catch a perfect day. Sun, warmish down the bottom and no snow on Tongariro.

Alpine plant on the Tongariro Crossing, NZTongariro Crossing's alpine plants

 A lot of people were undertaking the 19.4km (12+ mile) walk so conversations, huffing and a lot of puffing floated around on the thin air. Quite a few children were walking the trail (overheard toward the end, "Dad, I'm never going for a walk with you again." Ha!) and also a fair amount of older people.

How hard could the Tongariro Crossing be?

Pretty hard actually, or maybe it's more like wearying. You need to have a good level of fitness to take on the Tongariro Crossing and I'm inclined to think, fit or not, most people are very tired at the end, I know I was.

Tongariro Crossing - Stop Sign


Isn't this sign above a wonderful welcome - not - as the climb begins to incline rather steeply. Gulp - this is a serious business.

What if the weather turns (it does up there you know), have I got enough clothes, enough food? What if it begins to snow and I can't see? I'll wander off the track only to fall into a 1,000ft ravine. I'll be turned into a human Popsicle and not found for 5,00yrs (it happened to the Fozen Iceman in the Ötztal Alps). This is so not a good sign. Ha, get the pun?

Mt Ngauruhoe, Tongariri National Park, New ZealandMt Ngauruhoe again viewed from the lava trail

The Tongariro Crossing takes a good 7-8hrs

7h 59m in our case, not that I'm being nit-picky of course - hey, one minute is one minute. Included in that time were numerous stops to take photos, catch a breath (lots of times, it was comforting that everyone else did this too),  have munchies, drinks and lunch, and to soak up the incredible views and scenery. With that, plenty of fuel and fluid is needed to make it through in good shape.

Something else to be mindful of.

Vertigo! Yes, and in the most inconvenient places. Lift your head to look at the mountaintops and whoops, there you go again, listing towards the side of a particularly steep ridge.

Here's the surprising thing though.

You don't actually see Mount Tongariro. Like a chameleon, it blends  into the surrounds. I mean, it's not in your face like Mount Ngauruhoe (the steep pointed one). Now that one? You see. Apparently it's a parasitic cone of Tongariro. Gross, does that conjure up visions of nasty creatures erupting out of your skin too?

As an aside, you may want an additional challenge. A climb to the summit of  Ngauruhoe is a side trip of 1-1½hrs from the saddle between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe with 30min to come down (not the place to lose your footing).

Tongariro Crossing chain ascent.Ascent up to the Red Crater (the crossing's high point)

With the Tongariro Crossing you climb hill after hill. Each time the top is crested, there's an even more formidable one in the distance. Back-lit against the skyline, an army of ants march relentlessly upwards.

Here go those crazy-making thoughts again. Am I seeing right? No, surely those aren't people. You've got to be [insert favourite swear word] kidding me! Maybe it's another track. Please, please, pleeease let it be another track. No such luck because sure enough, that's where we would be headed to next. Every time it looked hugely daunting but turned out to be not so bad.

The South Crater (below) brought some relief as it was a fairly flat, windy expanse of desertness (my own word). I half expected to see tumble-weeds barrel past like in the old cowboy movies.

South Crater on the Tongariro Crossing, New ZealandSouth Crater looking towards the ants!

What was really gay? I actually started singing 'Climb Every Mountain'. Really! And I hate The Sound of Music. That alpine air certainly makes a person do weird things.

It's hard to grasp where the Tongariro Crossing top is until you reach the Red Crater (1886m), and a sign says it is the highpoint. Initially, I didn't realise that it wasn't the top, top.

Tongariro Crossing's highest point. New ZealandThe Tongariro Crossing highest point - see what I mean about ants? And these are close.

The Tongariro Summit itself is another (easy) 1hr 20m return side trip from the Red Crater. This is all on top of your 7-8hrs. We thought about it - for a minute. Maybe another time.

Being up so high on volcanoes would, I imagine, be similar to standing on the moon or some other far-flung planet.

Like those other planets, Tongariro has been ripped apart again and again over preceding millennia. Left behind are deeply scored ravines coloured in brilliant shades of scorched, red and black fused scoria.

It's also been left a battered, barren wasteland that, contrarily, is beguiling with the harshness pocketed by moments of great beauty. Why else would people keep on climbing it?

Red Crater on the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.Parts of the Red Crater with Ngauruhoe in the background

Broken rock litters the unforgiving ground everywhere but is quickly forgotten with one look over the side. This is where the Blue and Emerald Lakes make their grand appearance.

And it's true

The lakes really are jewels. Nestled in a brimstone hell-pit of desolation, all that's missing is a fiendish red devil with an evil laugh and a three-pronged fork beckoning you down, down, down.

Against a backdrop of hazy mountain ranges in the distance, the Blue Lake is situated in a crater quite a bit higher than the Emerald Lakes. To complete this surreal picture? Fluffy clouds floating by below eye level. Unbelievable!

View of the Blue and Emerald Lakes on the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.View from Tongariro Crossing highpoint overlooking the lakes

You can see people walking down a ridge, left-hand side of the pic below, to the Emerald Lakes. It looks relatively easy doesn't it? Don't be fooled. When you're there, it's steep, and each side of the track is a long way down.

The Emerald Lakes on Mt Tongariro Crossing, New ZealandEmerald Lakes

Loose, steaming black scree signals the beginning of the descent. Now that is scary - not the steam, the scree that has you sliding two or three steps for every one taken. One wrong step? It's all over rover, welcome to hell (can you hear that evil laugh).

Along with plenty of others I ended up on my backside a couple of times and cousin Sue just about lost it with an attack of cramp. Do you realise how hard it is to manage cramp while you're sliding? A narrow ridge is so not a good place to get it.

Once safely at the bottom, it's another climb to get to the Blue Lake (below). It's a strange feeling looking at a lake perched up in the sky like that.

The Blue Lake on the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.Blue Lake

The track runs alongside the lake before yet another climb up through the pass where Lakes Rotoaira (foreground) and Taupo (looking like the sky) in the far background come into view.

Views of Lakes Rotoaira and Taupo from a Tongariro Crossing pass. New Zealand


From now on the track, with tussock most of the way, is solidly downhill including hundreds of steps pretty much all the way (hours of it yet) to the Ketetahi Carpark.

Of  interest here, apart from the fantastic views, are the Te Māri craters (below). They erupted in a cloud of steam and ash in 2012 and appear on the right-hand side of the hill. You wouldn't want to get too close as the area is very hot with steam billowing out of the craters.

Te Māri Craters on Mt Tongariro, New Zealand.Te Māri Craters

Dodgy knees & blackened toenails

Now if you've got dodgy knees, this is where they will majorly kick in so Walking Poles are a must have.

One other thing? Toenails slamming into the front of your boots, every step of the way. I know, right! Not something anyone cared to alert me to prior. As I write this page, a couple of weeks later, one blackened toenail is on it's way out, the poor thing.

Since then I've spoken to others who've also lost toenails on the Tongariro Crossing, sometimes multiple ones. I thought only runners got this condition, now I know otherwise.

One way round it would be to carry light, open-toed sandals to slip on for this section.

Downhill on the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.Down, down, down

I'm not saying this happens to everyone though. Heck, people ran downhill... effortlessly. If only.

I've decided to make a recommendation to DOC to turn this section of the Tongariro Crossing into a luge track. That would make it so much easier... and a whole lot more fun too. You can see by the pic above that it would be great for luging.

And if that doesn't happen and I want to walk this trail again, a helicopter on standby would be the way to go.

Of rumblings & running

Walking in native bush towards the bottom, a sign appears that reads along the lines of: if you hear any rumblings, do a runner. A runner! What do you mean do a runner? I've just walked 19km over volcanoes and now you're telling me I may have to do a runner.

It was obviously because of water and rocks blowing out of the Te Māri Craters. Grasses were flattened in places and smaller trees and shrubs had been smashed to pieces by one or more of the large rocks lying on the ground. And only recently too by the looks of it. It was like a war zone.

Tired or not? The slightest hint of a rumble and you wouldn't have seen me for dust. What? If the size of the rocks and the smashed shrubbery was anything to go by, you wouldn't want to be hanging around either.

After about 5min there was a collective sigh of relief at the next sign saying we were out of the danger zone.

Tussock and native shrubbery on the track downhill

A short while later and we were finished. Done! Our bodies had stood up (mostly) to  the Tongaririo Crossing Test. It was so lovely to sink down onto a bench at Ketetahi Carpark, albeit rather briefly. 

Shuttles and buses were everywhere so we hauled our weary backsides up to go locate ours which would take us back to the car at Mangatepopo Rd.

The driver laughed when telling us people are mostly seized up by the time they're dropped back at their vehicles. What a meanie. But it's true. And we were.

Logistical Information

Quick Timing Info

  • Leaving Rotorua at 6am to Mangatepopo carpark (one coffee stop on the way)
    2½hrs

  • Tongariro Crossing walk inclusive of refreshment/toilet/photo/rest stops
    7hrs 59min

  • Shuttle ride back to vehicle at Mangatepopo carpark
    20min

  • Return to Rotorua (one coffee and meat pie stop - something to stick to the ribs and eaten with ravenous gusto)
    2½hrs

  • Equals a very long day of going on 14hrs - and both stoked that we finally did it!



View Rotorua to Tongariro Crossing in a larger map


Shuttles

Unless you plan on taking two vehicles, dropping one at the endpoint and leaving the other at the start, you will need to catch a shuttle.

How we did it

Knowing how tricky the weather can get on these mountains, I didn't make any advance shuttle bookings.

The day my cousin arrived I jumped online to check the weather report for the National Park area over the next 5 days. The following day was the only one forecast to be fine.

Bookmark the MetService - Tongariro National Park page to keep for your own travel dates.

Located a shuttle (NZ$25). It was suggested we book a pick up for the end of the walk and to leave our vehicle at the beginning of the track (Mangatepopo Rd carpark). That was it, I booked and we were on our way.

How you can do it better

In hindsight, it would have been quicker to park up at Taupo or Turangi and catch a return-trip shuttle from there or, to park up at the Ketetahi car park and catch a shuttle to the start point.

As it was, by driving to the start and catching the shuttle at the end to take us back to the car, it took a further 20min to get to the car which then had to cover the same ground on leaving. An extra 40min of needless travelling at the end of a tiring day. The last thing you want.

I've since had a good look at all the shuttle companies and my recommendation would be to use Tongariro Expeditions (prices start at $30). They've got what I said up above together with another pick-up point. It's a  Base Camp secure car park (in front of the Tongariro Holiday Park) closer to the mountain.

Explore your options and book your Tongariro Shuttle >>


Food | Clothing | Toilets

I couldn't believe how some of the young people were dressed. You would have thought they were popping out for a Latte at their local cafe. Light tops barely big enough to wipe your nose with, short shorts, sneakers (not even running shoes) and no food to speak of. What the....?

It leads one to think how insulated we live to be so blase about the vagaries and power of nature. What do you think?

Take with you:

  • Food ie. protein rich sandwiches (warms you up), fruit, nut bars and the like, chocolate (very welcome) and chippies, hot soup in a flask would be wonderful at the top too.

  • Fluid as in water, I took two 750ml bottles but only drank one. (No water on the trail is drinkable). A friend who has previously walked the trail, told me about a fellow walker who took hardly any water. What did this person do? She drank not only her own water but my friend's and somebody else's as well. Don't be that person.

    RTS Tip: I'd also picked up a bottled Berry Smoothie and that one little drink was dynamite, so refreshing and a real pick me up. If there's a next time, I would get a bigger one.

  • Boots (I loved my John Bull boots because they kept my feet cosy, and the support, especially going down the scree and around rocky bits, was wonderful). Many people wore running or walking shoes.

  • Hats, gloves and scarves as you get up into the colder parts
  • Woollen or polypropylene clothing because cotton won't keep you warm when you get sweaty, and you will. Even though it's cold, you'll be hot from the exertion. Polyprops/thermals or the like are standard items of clothing in NZ during winter (outdoor shops like Kathmandu will know what you're talking about). They wick moisture away from the skin so you don't get that cold, wet, yucky feeling like you do with t-shirts or normal undergarments. The upshot is, you hold onto your body heat.

  • You can pick them up in the outdoor shops (look out for sales because they can be expensive), Farmers and even The Warehouse for Polyprops (not as good a quality fabric). Polyprops are cheaper than Merino but also more breathable, hug your body better (do get looser as you move) and are quicker to dry. A girlfriend always buys the Merino because she's got sensitive skin.
  • Rainproof coat and overtrousers keep you snuggly and warm not only with rain but the icy winds. I borrowed this gear off a mad fisherman of a brother (thank god for brothers - they come in handy sometimes) as it's not like I go on major hikes every day.

  • Sunscreen - yes, Sue was sunburned on one side of her face. I had to laugh because it looked like she'd been slapped.



  • A first aid kit, of which the plasters came in handy for a blister.



  • Map and compass - I have to admit that we didn't take these. We were lucky as the visibility was excellent.



  • Cellphone for emergencies (no coverage in the valleys but crystal clear reception up the top - it felt quite surreal when I received a couple of calls while having lunch up top) and GPS is great to have too.

When it comes to winter, whole different story. On first reading up about the Tongariro Crossing, the words 'take an ice axe and crampons' (what the hell is a crampon) freaked me right out. And we were going right on the crossover period! Iceman, iceman. Enough said.

Long story short, prepare for all conditions.

  • Toilets are located at the Mangatepopo Carpark, Mangatepopo Hut, Soda Springs, Ketetahi Hut and Ketetahi Carpark. Quite a distance is covered between Soda Springs and Ketetahi Hut so time it well.


Handy Link for Further Reference

www.doc.govt.nz - Department of Conservation


In closing

If you're a novice to this type of hiking, like I was, you'll have a better understanding of what's involved now and some of the challenges you can expect to face - and maybe some you weren't expecting.

I worried about the fitness, only getting up to 13km max beforehand and not doing enough hills. As a gauge for you, I normally walk 3-4 times a week (including lots of local hills) and go to the gym 3 times a week. My cousin Sue trained up a lot beforehand, in excess of 6hr hikes.

Was the trek testing? For sure. But like I said, it was totally manageable taken in bite-sized chunks. 

My question is, are you ready to put your body through the Tongariro Crossing test?

If you do, I'd love to hear back if you got the urge to break into song. Some of your crazy-making thoughts would be great to hear about too (please tell me I'm not the only person to think like this).

Happy Hiking.


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