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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The facts:

Distance: 19km from one side to the other; however, just under half of the trail is closed due to volcanic activity.

Where to go: Park your car at the Mangatepopo Car Park on the west side of Tangariro National Park (only 60 cars are allowed each day so arrive early, most likely before 8am). The Ketetahi Car Park is at the base of the currently closed trail. This means you do not need to hire a company to pick you up on the other side and drive you back to your point of origin.

Hike: You’ll hike more than 8km to the top of Red Crater for breathtaking views of the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake..or continue slightly farther to the edge of Blue Lake before returning on the same path.

Our Story:

Our journey began well before the sun peeked over the rolling hills and towering peaks beyond revealing what the dark kept hidden. The night before we found a hidden pullout off of Hwy. 48 to enjoy the solace of camping in Tongariro National Park. It was the engine of a nearby camper van rumbling to a start that signaled it was time to get ready. We assumed they were headed where anyone up at that hour near the entrance of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing would be…to the car park. Only 60 cars are allowed into the parking lot daily, and it can fill by 7am on the busiest of days. If you miss your chance to get in, you’ll find yourself parking down the road and paying $10.00 nzd for a shuttle to take you to the mouth of crossing.

Without making any effort to get ready, we wiped the sleep from our eyes and minutes later followed suit. At 6:00am we too found ourselves headed up the road toward the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Two men, standing in the dark of night, waved us down using only their flashlights. We rolled down the window as we approached to hear on man snicker, “You’re one of the lucky ones.” The smirk on his face signaled his remark was facetious as he knew full well we had just drug ourselves from slumber in an effort to make the cut. We followed the taillights trailing off into the distance as we bounced up a long gravel road to a very small lot marked for cars and one for camper vans. Once we were situated in a spot, which with our camper van can take a few tries, we began pulling on layer after layer starting with long underwear and ending with winter coats and rain gear. An hour later, we piled out of the camper and waddled toward the trail. Nearby a small wooden structure with a map of the pathway and information on what Kiwi’s call the “walk” led to the gateway of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

It’s the most popular tourist activity in Tongariro National Park, and if you’re brave enough to make the trip – you’ll soon know why. Hundreds of people flood the trail each day to battle the often grueling conditions leading to the summit and the breathtaking view of the Ngauruhoe Stratovolcano, Red Crater, Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake, all located essentially around the 8 to 9km mark or the middle of the hike. With so many people on the trail it can be crowded at times, especially in the early morning when most people chose to set out. You’ll find freedom from other hikers by climbing the pathway later in the day, but it means you’ll risk not making it back before dark.

From the Mangatepopo car park, we wandered up a well maintained, and mostly flat trail, before stepping onto a boardwalk following a babbling stream of crystal clear water flowing above vivid orange and green earth. For the first few kilometers we doubted what we read about the Alpine Crossing. “This is nothing,” I even commented several times. I was beginning to think we over prepared. Here we were lugging a backpack weighed down with food, water, extra pants, shirts, winter jackets, rain jackets and additional socks. We both had laced up our hiking boots and layered clothing over long underware as it was cold ahead of the sunrise. If anything we looked the part of your average hikers. Still, wandering along a flat boardwalk next to throngs of foreign tourists with white keds sneakers, cutesy blouses and shorts was a little discouraging. At least several of them had the wherewithal to pick up an overpriced winter and waterproof jacket in the nearby gift shop at Whakapapa Village.

The boardwalk soon disappeared from beneath our feet and was replaced with rough lava rock. At several points, the trail was forced over large lava formations sending people scrambling on all fours to cross the blockage in the pathway. The walk was quickly becoming more difficult as we traversed the scattered lava and began leaning into more of an incline. A sign warning of the last bathrooms on the trail led to the most rancid smelling and filthy outhouses I’ve seen in quite some time, yet the fear of being stuck without a bathroom for the better part of four hours was enough to have many lining up to go (yuck, not me!) As we pushed on, already breathing heavily and beginning to tire, we came across this warning sign.

Are you prepared? Are you fit enough? The sign warned of how quickly conditions in the alpine area deteriorate including a warning about the ferocious wind.. I winced as I thought of what was ahead, but there was still a part of me that believed the warnings about the difficulty may be blown out of proportion. At the same time I sinisterly chuckled as I thought about the people who believed this was nothing more than a walk in the park.

Oh, how quickly I was put in my place. Only a few hundred meters from the sign, the trail took a sharp turn upward forcing us to lurch forward as we walked. Then came the stairs. Hundreds of stairs laid out before us with only short periods of steep trail between. As we began the journey up, I felt the muscles in the my legs tighten and tire. I continued to push onward passing people who had already dropped to the side of the trail to rest. My heart was racing and it sounded as though I had pushed myself through a series of sprints as I gasped for breath. Dan, who was tired and breathless as well, began pushing me up the stairs from behind. Apparently my pace wasn’t quick enough, but instead of scoffing at the gesture, I was simply relieved to get a little the help. We climbed stairs for around an hour breaking only to clamor over huge lava rocks in the trail. When we finally remembered to look up, we found ourselves above the clouds and in the middle of a huge lava field at the base of the Ngauruhoe Volcano. Its black sides are broken up only by vibrant streaks of red running concentrated near the top, which which was softly shrouded in clouds. It was absolutely breathtaking.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached a break in the climb. Here we had the choice of continuing on the Tongariro Apline Crossing or scaling the side of the Ngauruhoe Volcano itself to the very peak. The scale to the very top would add an additional 3 hours on the trek, and I feared it would render my legs useless for the remainder of the hike. Those who chose to make the climb appeared to us as ants zig zagging their way up what I can only imagine is a much steeper pathway than the one we had just conquered.

At the base of the Ngauruhoe Volcano is a flatland nearly void of signs of life. As we looked at the pathway ahead, we were relieved at the simple nature of the walk and amazed by the view. It was as if we were standing on another planet. As we began to cross the barren land, our relief at the ease of the walk faded. Upon the ridge in the distance was the faint outline of people struggling upward. Soon we too were charging upward, grabbing whatever we could to keep our feet from slipping out from beneath us. As I began stagger, Dan chuckled and to me I was walking like people in movies do, right before they lurch forward and die. Instead of shooting him a stinging glare, I faintly smiled knowing exactly what I looked like.

The trail here is wide, with dozens of different pathways branching outward as people search for better ways to pass. Our hiking boots failed to grip the wet, clay-like soil beneath our feet and left us wishing we had purchased hiking poles to help steady us. It was here, those in their flat, white sneakers and shorts looks as if they were going to cry. The bone chilling wind took your breath away leaving those who were unprepared frantically reaching for whatever clothing they could wrap around the bodies. In fact, the wind blows so hard, it could easily knock you off balance during your climb, and those who have made the trek before told us they’ve seen much worse and we were lucky to be traversing the peak on a seemingly calm day.

When we reached midway up the spine of Red Crater a beautiful, deep pit sunk into the Earth leaving deep red and black walls behind. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Our momentary pause to photograph the vista was quickly interrupted by the howling wind. Freezing and tired, we buried our heads into the relentless wind and quickly moved on.

The crossing follows the backbone of the crater offering unique views at every angle as you move toward the peak overlooking Blue Lake. As you cross the crest, the sweeping views nearly take your breath away. It was here any doubt that had crept into my mind about tackling the crossing simply disappeared. Pictures don’t do the scenery justice. There is no replacement for sitting in the red earth at the very top, tired and cold, but overcome with a sense of wonder, amazement and joy. My heart went out to those who started the trek, but unable to take the conditions, turned back before reaching the summit.

From this point, you can continue down to the edge of Blue Lake; however, your best vantage point is from the top of Red Crater and trekking to the lake would only add another grueling downhill slide and return uphill climb to your already long 18km roundtrip hike.

To ensure we spent as much time admiring mother nature’s work as possible, we braved the cold and wind to sit and eat our lunches at the peak. Once we were satisfied we had captured a photograph from every angle and imprinted in our minds a lasting impression of the peaks, valleys, steaming lakes and volcanos we turned to return along the same trail we just ascended. Our sense of accomplishment was overwhelming.

The wind howled as we slid down the slope trying to control our speed hoping we wouldn’t take out those who were still struggling upward. The hike back offered a welcome reprieve for our already aching muscles. Unfortunately, our admiration for how easy the decent seemed soon turned to frustration over how far we still had to go. Soon our legs began to shake as we clamored down step after step and were forced to restrain ourselves on the steep downward slopes.

After what seemed like and eternity, but in reality was about two hours, we came upon the beautiful stream we followed up. We refused to stop and rest on worries that if we did, our legs would revolt and refuse to continue forward.

Finally, cresting the hill above the car park was like a dream. I can only imagine it would be as if you spotted a mirage in the middle of the Sahara. We used the last bit of remaining energy we had to race to the camper van, rip off our shoes and lie lifelessly in the back.

Despite the extreme fatigue, we were both overcome with a sense of satisfaction knowing we had completed a very difficult climb with the reward being a somewhat rare and magnificent look at mother nature’s work.