Close to my home in NZ, is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The Crossing is rated as one of the best hikes worldwide and at a mere 19.4km, it takes hikers/trampers through a spectacularly varied alpine landscape. The Department of Conservation (DOC) estimates the Crossing takes 7 to 9 hours to complete, and as it took me 8 hours I suppose I’m nicely average. It is important to note that as the name suggests, this hike is NOT a loop but a crossing of the length of Mount Tongariro. What I’m trying (and failing) to make clear is that there is a start point and a finishing point to the Crossing, and they are NOT the same points. Therefore transport needs to be organised from one end to be able to return to the start point at the Mangatepopo car park, and hence transport home. There are a variety of bus companies that transfer hikers between car parks but we just parked one car at the start and the end. Confusing statement done.
At the start of the Crossing, there is a feeling of excitement and mystery. It starts off nice and easy, with a flat track and interesting plant species to photograph. There are hills and sheer distance blocking the view of the true pain to come… but it is beautiful pain. Pleasure and pain and all that Jazz.
I then, with the mindframe “this is a bloody easy hike, actually”, arrived at the Devil’s Staircase – a morale-breaking stair climb from 1400 to 1600 metres above sea level. It was such hardwork it felt as though the Devil himself, and not DOC, cut the track into the mountainside for kicks and giggles. But determination and a sense of impending shame if I turned back, meant I conquered those stairs and as a result enjoyed the spectacular views of the surrounding National Park. This proved that Heaven really is above Hell. (This walk seems to prove a lot of things, maybe not scientifically, but still… proof, man.)
After passing through Soda Springs, I battled the scoria (or loose rock) around the South Crater and Red Crater. At this point I expected an Orc invasion from below, so rough and harsh is the environment. It’s amazing how the landscape changes so dramatically, as once I passed the Craters, I received a lovely view of the pristine Emerald Lake.
Beyond the Emerald Lake is the sacred Blue Lake (I don’t have a photo, blast and wretch). Respect is a must at this site with no eating or drinking allowed. For a lunch break, we continued onto a snowy plain where, in my case, food was hungrily devoured. Although I completed the Crossing in mid-December there was still snow in spots and this made for a novel rest break.
Heading towards the Ketetahi Hut, we wound down through alpine forest and were fortunate to spy Lake Taupo in the distance. Now, most people think that going uphill is the most difficult. How wrong they are. Going downhill is a knee-killer. The first 30 minutes of going downhill is glorious relief for the lungs and butt muscles. The following couple of hours are a knee-breaking wrench on the body. But nothing lasts forever and once we made it downhill through tussock country, we entered a wonderous forest landscape with bubbling creeks, mossy trees and a comfortable, flat boardwalk that leads to the Ketetahi car park and the completion of the trek.
Must takes: A comfortable pack with map, plenty of water, food, sun protection, and survival kit containing compass, basic first aid, space blanket, torch, signalling mirror, whistle and toilet paper. Ensure you wear decent hiking boots and thick socks, and take plenty of layers – I had a thermal shirt and tshirt on at the bottom of the Crossing; at the top I had on six layers that included a ski jacket. I saw many people walking the Crossing in jeans. Jeans, in my opinion, is not appropriate for hiking/tramping as they are heavy, cold and hold moisture. Jeans also up the chaff potential by a mile meaning the inside of your thighs could be redder then a baboons’ backside by the end of the Crossing. Check the weather and change plans if necessary. The Department of Conservation website has all the information you need to prepare appropriately.
This is a truly wonderful day hike that may test the spirits but is visually stunning throughout. It is an accomplishment to be proud of but take heed: it is a privilege to complete the Crossing. People have died due to a number of different reasons on the Crossing, and the number of non-fatal accidents requiring airlift evacuations is high. Respect the Crossing and Mother Nature as they always win in the end. Have a nice treat ready at the end of the Crossing because you’ll deserve a reward!