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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
fluid is needed to make it through in good shape.
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.
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).
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.
What was really hilarious? 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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 $35). 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.
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:
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.
www.doc.govt.nz - Department of Conservation
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).