It’s still early at National Park Village and the sun is shining low behind Mount Ngauruhoe, radiating around its near perfect volcanic cone, and offering an early taster of the views the day will offer.
We bustle into a bus and a few minutes later we have arrived at the start of the trek. Our journey of at least 100 steps starts at a pebbled path, weaving through a heathery and small bush landscape. Lumbering ahead and on either side of us are Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. As we go the landscape slowly changes as the boulders get bigger and the bush becomes sparser. We have basalt rock on the one side and andesite on the other. Remarkably the lava spewed up by these two volcanoes is different and Doug, our guide from the tour company Adrift, talks us through the geology. We then start a slow ascent up the Devil’s Staircase. Whilst it’s steep the steps are easy to climb and you can see the top. The weather is clear and when we stop for a breather the peak of Mount Taranki is clearly visible in the distance behind us.
Maori legend has it that Mount Tongariro and Mount Taranaki were brothers who both fell in love with the same girl. A mighty battle was fought with both sides packing powerful punches. Eventually Tongariro won. As the loser Taranaki was sent away, or was so pained to see his brother with his love that he left. As he did his feet trudged along the ground forming deep grooves, and his tears filled them with water.
As we near the top of Devil’s Staircase there’s a commotion – lots of shouting and strange “pock pock” sounds coming from above. It’s a pretty unnerving when you’re in an active volcanic region. Looking up we see climbers ascending Mount Ngauruhoe. Someone, somewhere up there among the criss-cross of trails, has set off a rock avalanche. Mount Ngauruhoe is climbable but it’s a dangerous route with a lot of lose rock, and these avalanches are part of the adventure, and risk.
We ourselves have reached the top of one of the steepest sections of the crossing and carry on into South Crater. It’s quite something to be standing in the middle of a volcano with a yellowy flat expanse around you and with mountainous rock swelling up on all sides. Today the ground is soft but not squidgy. A few days ago there’d been a storm and it was pretty muddy up there.
Having got into the crater we have to get back out of it, and so we start another ascent. At the top the winds are reaching 48km/hr. They have to reach 70km/hr before an expedition’s cancelled, but it still feels pretty windy. At the first peak, we look out to Oturere Valley, used as Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Following the path round its time for a celebration as we have reached the summit of our walk. There are awesome views of red crater to our right and Blue Lake ahead of us. Behind Blue Lake there’s Lake Taupo. Having just past through such an arid place the watery view is very welcome. A little while on we start slip sliding down towards the aquamarine Emerald Lakes and lunch. There’s an eggy smell from the sulphur and looking around you can see flumes of gas escaping from patches in the earth. It’s unusual to say the least.
After lunch the great scenery continues as we carry on to the great Blue Lake. We cross over a ridge into a new and ever increasingly grassy environment. Ahead the path snakes and hairpins down the slopes for what looks like miles.
We reach a sign showing private land ahead, and large white flumes coming from the side of a valley. It’s the Ketitahi Springs where Maori came to bury their dead in the bubbling mud.
Eventually we reach the Ketitahi cabin. You used to be able to sleep here and in a sectioned off room there’s a bunkbed. Rather sinisterly there’s a hole in the roof of the shed, where a massive rock has fallen going through the mattress and through the floorboards below. A huge explosion went off 4 years ago and along the next section of the Crossing large craters pinpoint where rocks fell like meteors.
The bush gets bushier and eventually we are in woodland. There’s a chirping, whirring, clucking noise from a nearby Tui. It’s lovely to be in the cool green and Doug finds berries for us to try. The woods get increasingly woodier until at last we reach the end or our trek. We’ve gone at a nice steady pace and it’s taken around 8 hours.
The Tongariro Crossing is often cited as one of the best one day walks in the world, and it’s easy to understand why. To be passing by awesome mountain ranges, stunning lakes, fascinating geology, steaming earth and cool forest all in one day is incredible. The walking is hard but fun, in both a fun-at-the-time and fun-to-look-back-on way. It’s simply mind blowing.
If you’re interested in doing the Tongariro Crossing, or some of New Zealand’s other incredible treks get in touch at [email protected]