Whether you are a seasoned hiker or simply enjoy some occasional walking adventures, you should seriously consider Tongariro Alpine Crossing track that crosses a spectacular volcanic terrain in Tongariro National Park, located in New Zealand’s Central North Island region.This adventure is not a “walk in the park” – it is 19.4 kilometers one way and takes somewhere between 5.5 to 8 hours to complete, so some serious preparation will be required to undertake this trek. That said, it is definitely worth it and could easily be one of the best hiking experiences in your lifetime. The track itself would be hovering somewhere between the beginner to intermediate difficulty level in good weather conditions, however you will find that there are quite a few places along the way to stop and catch your breath.On clear days, you will be rewarded by spectacular views on water-filled volcanic craters, old lava flows and stunning views down the valley from dozens of vantage points along the track.
From Mangatepopo Car Park, the track will lead you towards Soda springs, which is the easiest part of the track, as most of it is a wide boardwalk and beaten formed trails. It will take you approximately 1.5 hrs to make this part. If you decide to continue further (because this is where the fun starts) then the track will take you up to Red Crater, which is effectively the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It should take you approximately 2 hours to get there, and the first 40 or so minutes (depending on your fitness level) will require you to make your way up the Devil’s Staircase and, as the name suggests, it is quite evil for not-so-fit walkers as this involves several hundred meters of steep climbing up the stairs embedded in the mountain.Make no mistake - you will be rewarded and then some for your efforts as when you finally made your way up to the Red Crater, the stunning views across the Emerald and Blue lakes (and beyond) will blow your mind away. The photos you will take around Red Crater will easily be some of the most stunning adventure photos you will ever take that will wow your family and friends. The Red Crater derives its name from its stunning, mostly red colour (but also black, brown, rusty red and yellow) created by high temperature oxidation of iron in the rock. We spend most of our time in this section of the track, taking dozens of photos of the stunning landscape and selfies.
From the Red Crater, you will begin your descent towards the Emerald Lakes – the mind-blowing stunning water-filled explosion craters, brilliantly coloured by the minerals from the adjacent thermal area. The water is acidic and not suitable for swimming or drinking, but the spectacular views more than make up for it. The descent itself can be quite treacherous thanks to the loose small stones under your feet that will happily roll away and take you with them if you are not careful.The track will then take you to the active volcanic zone. We don’t mean to scary you but the last volcanic eruptions occurred here in 2012 on two occasions (http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/7979461/Panic-on-Mt-Tongariro-as-volcano-erupts), so observe the warning signs in the area and respect the environment you are visiting. That said, if you believe in stats, then the previous eruption before that happened 116 years ago, so the stats are on your side.
Another short climb, although nowhere near as bad as the Devils Staircase, will take you up from the Central Crater to the Blue Lake (Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa) – a stunning 16m deep freshwater lake. The lake is quite big compared to the Emerald lakes, measuring 1 kilometer wide. As the name suggests, the water in the lake is blue, thanks to the minerals in it. Swimming or eating food near the lake is not allowed as the lake is sacred – it certainly looks that way. The track take you past the lake and on the way down the track there will be more stunning views of the volcanic valley, as well as Te Maari craters still steaming after the eruptions of 2012. Truly spectacular view.
After that the track will mostly go downhill zigzagging its way towards the Ketatahi hut, where you will most likely join the long queue for the long awaited toilet break.
It is easy to get a sense of completion of the track at this point, however bear in mind that you have another good 2-2.5 hours of walking from the Ketatahi shelter to the carpark, where your pre-arranged transport will be waiting to pick you up. It took us just over 2 hours to get there, where we almost missed our pick up van. After 7 hours of walking and climbing, the descent towards the car park may seem easy at first, however it made us feel every single most unused muscle in our feet we didn’t know we had. The last part of the track seemed never ending, exacerbated by the fact that you are walking on a boardwalk turning corners in the forest with no end in sight.
Some side notes for your information:
- There are 2 side summit trips that you can attempt during the crossing. We didn’t do those due to time constraints but you certainly can if the conditions are right.
- The first one is Mt Ngauruhoe that you can summit from South Crater. This is before you reach the Red Crater. You will most likely find lots of walkers summiting the mountain following a polled route.
- You need to allow up to 2.5 hours for a return trip. The area can be dangerous and you should avoid it in case of any signs of volcanic activity.
- The second side summit trip is Mount Tongariro itself – another polled route that can be taken from the Red Crater. Bear in mind that it is best to do this if you are prepared and the weather plays it nice on the day, as the track can be very cold and exposed in windy conditions.
Tips to remember:
- Check the weather conditions before the hike.
- Ensure that you are fully prepared for this trek, pack lots of water and some food high in protein. We had about 4 litres of water between the two of us, a 6 pack of protein bars, 2 sandwiches and some snacks. There is no natural drinking water on the track.
- In terms of clothing, ensure that you wear hiking or some sturdy shoes – runners are no good as the rough volcanic terrain can destroy them. We did see some people wearing sandals, but you can do better than that.
- Don’t be fooled by good weather, the conditions on the track can be very unpredictable and the weather can change in a tick. Pack or wear some gloves and beanies. Make sure you have waterproof or at least water resistant jackets. Also pack a sunscreen.
- Don’t worry about the timing to complete the track – it’s not a competition, just enjoy the views and take lots of photos.
- Finally – arrange a transport in advance. Just google it – due to its tremendous popularity there is no shortage of services offering transport for Tongariro Crossing. You don’t need to worry about the exact time of a pick-up, the transport company will give you at least 2 alternative pick-up times as people make the crossing at their own pace.
- The walk may seem like a difficult and challenging task to accomplish – and it probably is, but if you are well prepared this will be one of the most memorable experiences in your life. It certainly was for us.