Tongariro Alpine Crossing - Challenging but worth it

So we arrived at the i-SITE (this is a tourist office found in most towns in New Zealand that gives you very helpful information or books things for you etc.) in a town called Turangi about 45 minutes from the Tongariro National Park.

By: John Blain

To be honest, Chantel mentioned this Tongariro Alpine Crossing to us and we went into the i-Site thinking we would get some maps, book a campsite and go for a short jaunt the next morning.

Nope, that didn’t happen. Somehow I was in there, looking at the maps/routes/weather warnings/trek advisory posters and I turned to John and pointed out there was no point coming here and doing a short walk. We might as well do the whole hog. I could see that John was no more interested in a long walk or dragging me on a long walk with the added fun of a big mountain but sure he agreed anyway. Maps in hand, site booked in a holiday village and on we drove.

We arrived at Whakapapa Village a short time later and passed on through to a ski field further on. When we got Whakapapa ski field it was really weird because there were lots of cabins perched on rocks with proper access.

It looked like a village on another planet, deserted and rocky. It was cool there and I could really imagine what it would be like snow covered and gleaming white. Neither of us has been skiing yet but it may be just one more thing to add to the list!

So we had a look at the ski lift that is still operational and leads to the highest café in NZ. To be honest, I really couldn’t see how I would do it. My fear of heights would make it 40 mins (20 mins each way) of hell. So maybe skiing should be taken off the list again…… It was also 25 dollars and the café was about to close so that was excuse enough for me to say no but also for John to agree (I’m sure it would have been torturous having to listen to me about every squeak, creak and shake up there).

Ruapehu Ski Fields

We headed back towards the village to set up in our holiday park, stopping to take some nice pictures along the way of the mountainous views. The three main mountains here are Ruapehu (the largest and where the ski field is), Ngauruhoe (The famous Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings) and Tongariro. All three are volcanoes and are relatively active with Mount Ruapehu having a significant eruption in 2007. 

So the next morning we were up early to catch our shuttle bus to the start of the track at 7am. I still don’t know what we were signed up for apart from it was 19.4kms that began at one car park and ended at another with a trek through Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. The Lonely Planet also told me that it reportedly “the best one day walk in NZ”. Can’t be too bad then so, who would call it the best if it was atrocious.

We set off and the first 45 minutes were fine, just a nice walk along flat heather covered ground with up close views of the mountains. We then got to a little waterfall called soda springs. This was the last toilet stop until the hut a few hours away. A quick loo stop and a look upwards at a step volcanic slope, I was anxious. On we ploughed. This was the beginning of the struggle for me. Steps.

Steps. Steps. More Steps. A god damn never ending supply of steps. The only good thing was that the views were so nice; stopping was a good opportunity to take them in and capture a good photo. I quickly noticed that people were taking this easy, slow and John gently told me too so I calmed the head slightly and took my time. It was tough though and even an old couple passed us out. Bad times! 

When the steps were over we reached a flat crater Mars like area and it was worth it! We had about a 10 minute walk along this taking in the views of Mount Ngauruhoe to the right (a lot of people climb this in addition to the crossing but small steps right? He he) and Mount Tongariro to the left in the distance.

I could see there was another big climb ahead of us to reach the highest point on the crossing. As we got closer the wind became fierce and bloody cold. Coats went back on; hoods up and the climb began. This was a lot better than them damn steps at the start but as we climbed higher up the ground was loose and slippy and the wind was so strong.

All I can say is fair play to those hard core trekkers and climbers! I struggled on. John didn’t even look phased may I say. Not a bother to him. When we got to the top most people were taking a rest because it transpires that there is one other wee climb before you get to the very top point of 1884m. We started at about 900m lower than that. 

We had half a sandwich, some water and walked on to be met with the Red Crater of the mountain. It was pretty amazing, I’ve really seen nothing like it before. Once we reached the top the views below were breath-taking. Behind us was our entire trek so far and ahead of us were volcanic lakes – the Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes. The other funny view ahead was the steep, slippy descent. Lots of people were sliding down, losing their footing. This was going to be fun! The concentration on the way down meant that we didn’t talk much but I enjoyed it a lot. At this point of the walk I was so happy that we decided to do it. I think we still had about 11km to go.

Emerald Lakes

As we walked past the emerald lakes and toward the Blue Lakes it started to get cloudy and the views diminished. By this point we were in automatic, talking random chatter and stomping on. The descent really began after the Blue Lake and basically for the last 8km or so it was downhill. Easy you think but actually the descent was harder on John and his knees were giving him a wee bit of trouble.

When we got the hut in view, we realised we were making good time and I was proud that although I took stops now and then I wasn’t completely unfit! The trek to the hut seemed to take forever as it was a windy track similar to a wheelchair ramp squashed into a small area. When we arrived the definitely needed loos were availed of and we had that last half of our sandwich and a nice rest. There were lots of people having a rest here, there was still two hours of walking left and some people seemed tired.

The last two hours were long, very long. Not tough physically but it seemed to go on forever. I was walking fast to get it over and done with but John’s knees and tolerance for my speedy pace diminished so we took it (a bit) slower. The final part of the walk was through a really nice forest with a river running through it. By the time we were in the forest for a couple of kilometres, I was really questioning my ability to read distances! 

But we made it to the car park with about seven hours of trekking done. My feet were tired but it was well worth it. We had to move on as we wanted to get closer to Wellington that evening so off we went with stiff legs down the road to a place called Wanganui for a lovely hot shower and a very nice deep sleep. 

Oh and I do agree – one of the best day walks in New Zealand.

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