Marcus Lush attempts the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

I have no idea whatsoever why I have never done the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It baffles me. I first heard about it 13 years ago and you know how sometimes when you hear about something after everyone else has, you are kind of embarrassed that you were so slow on the uptake?

By: Marcus Lush

Published in Escape, Sunday Star Times.

Well, that was me with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. As a result, I have had a snitch about it ever since, as is human nature. If you are slow off the boat about something, you always feel a bit awkward about it. If you are an early adopter though you love it!

So for me the Tongariro Alpine Crossing belongs in the same group as Led Zeppelin and Seinfeld; I was late on the uptake. Anyway, to cut to the chase, I have done the Crossing. I loved it and now spend large parts of my day trying to get others enthused.

What is it? It’s a walk that goes for 20 kilometres across a national park between two active volcanoes in the centre of New Zealand. It’s as simple as that. Do not fear it – it is not tricky or complicated. Why is it so famous? I don’t exactly know – as I said it became famous without me knowing it.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

I suspect what happened is that it became famous in the Lonely Planet guide. As we New Zealanders were all busy discovering the Abel Tasman track and the Routeburn, those cunning foreign backpackers were going nuts for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I think, perhaps, Kiwis are used to equating the South Island with beauty and perhaps prejudged the quality of this North Island alpine walk. The foreigners, on the other hand, had no preconceptions and were happy finding beauty no matter where it was.

I did the Crossing in February. It was crowded – unbelievably so – but I went with an open mind and actually loved the crowds. This is not a getting away from people experience – this is a partaking with others experience, like the Rugby Sevens, Round the Bays or Opera in the Park. You go with your mates: you plan it and talk about it and look forward to it and do it – and have a laugh along the way and lots of drinks and backslapping afterwards.

I was surprised how many Kiwis were doing it. You read the stories about how we, as a nation, are obese and inactive, but do the Crossing and you realise the opposite is true. Some people have all the latest gear; others are doing it in jeans and a $2 poncho from The Warehouse.

Of course you are not supposed to, but Kiwis are Kiwis – sometimes we don’t get the memo.  And yes, of course it is wrong to be ill prepared for the outdoors but I reckon that so many are doing it, if you do get in trouble someone will stop and help out – or phone for help from a wally phone. So as long as you aren’t the last to start you should be alright.

The walk took me six hours, but I had luxury digs to get back to. I could have happily spent twice as long dawdling, talking, taking photos, tweeting. And for me this was the first time – the first time of many as I suspect I will do it annually. It was that good.

What advice have I got? Plenty. The carparking is a hassle – you start and finish in different parts of the Tongariro National Park, so it does require car moving logistics – and by all accounts the carparks are not safe. You can park at the end and jump on one of the buses back to the start, plus there are shuttles from Turangi and Taupo – that might be the best bet.

You could do it on your own, but I think this is a ‘‘the more the merrier’’ walk. Take food and drink but don’t drink too much as it is hard to relieve oneself inconspicuously. There are two toilet stops four hours apart, so use them. I also wish I had taken gloves as it was cold at the summit and my hands froze – and I consider myself hardy – go figure. 

As there are so many people on the walk, a silly hat would not go amiss, as the fellow walkers seemed to be gagging for a conversation starter.

I am sure there are some people that hate the walk, but I imagine they are outdoor zealots who see popularity as a bad thing. I give praise that I am not like that. I also thought it would be covered in rubbish (some days 1500 people do the Crossing) but no, it was immaculate, with no rubbish (or bins) anywhere. And that is pretty much all the advice I have to give.

One could get geeky and learn the geology and history of the place, but the walk is so visually stunning you don’t really need to hit the books to appreciate the context of the walk. I imagine that one would feel prompted to read more about the walk after doing it. That was my experience.

Confession time! I did the walk with a guide. That was part of my arrangement with the Destination Great Lake Taupo people that hosted me. This is not something I would normally do. His name was Terry from Walking Places. I have no idea how much he charged, but he was a star.

If there was a group of you who were unsure about the conditions then Terry is your man – I can hand on heart guarantee he would not leave any of you on the mountain. I can also guarantee he won’t let you leave any rubbish on the mountain. Terry is old school and has as much credibility as anyone I have ever met. Also he was factually spot on.

After reading much about the area afterwards I can verify that everything Terry said was correct. So often in my line of work, I meet people who will forsake the facts for the sake of a good story. Terry is not like that. I reckon the walk is so good you could also turn it into something you do for a special occasion. Anniversary, birthday, whatever – make a real meal of it.

I stayed in places both in Taupo and Turangi that I would describe as upmarket. ‘‘What would you like for breakfast, Mr Lush?’’ sort of places. Places where they are only too happy to get up at half past five and make breakfast. That is not something that usually happens at the places I normally stay.

Marcus Lush was hosted by Destination Great Lake Taupo, Acacia Cliffs Lodge Taupo and River Birches Lodge Turangi.


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