Tongariro Alpine Crossing
New Zealand is definitely the place to be if you’re the kind of person who’s into an outdoor active lifestyle. Tramping (Kiwi speak for hiking) is always a topic of conversation with my housemates, fellow international students, and Kiwi friends. I’ve had so many conversations about the different regions of New Zealand and what there is to do and see there or about cool places I’ve recently traveled to. It seems like all I talk about sometimes! One place which I had heard a lot about since coming to this country is Tongariro National Park which is right in the middle of the North Island. It’s famously branded as having “one of the world’s best day walks”. I took one look at the three sparkling turquoise volcanic lakes and I knew I wanted to go there and do that.
At the beginning of my two week break (yes I got a two week fall/spring break for whatever reason but I’m not complaining) I booked a one night two day trip up there with my housemate, Giulia. We took the bus up on Friday morning and spent the afternoon at National Park Village marveling at the picturesque trio of mountains which span the skyline. The three are Mt Ruapehu, Mt Tongariro, and Mt Ngauruhoe, which is actually an active volcano, not a mountain and is better known as Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings.
On Saturday, we got up at 5AM to catch the earliest shuttle out to the trail head. It was pretty cold outside, around 0 degrees Celsius and our driver informed us that it would be about 10 degrees colder and much windier up on crater. Good thing we had lots of layers. The walk was 20km and we were a little nervous because the forecast also included some snow. We were prepared for the worst just in case!
We started walking as the sun rose, which was pretty cool. It was nice and flat for this bit and we got to walk right to the edge of Ngauruhoe. It was absolutely amazing and part of me expected to see an orc pop up from somewhere behind the jagged volcanic rocks.
We started up the edge of the volcano, basically lots of stairs with no railings, steep inclines, and wind so strong that all I could hear was a whistling sound in my ears. The photo below is from when we wanted to take a break on the way up, it was so windy we had to sit down on the edge of the volcano. Let me tell you, if you ever want to be uncomfortable, standing on a loose gravel incline with no rail and strong wind is one way to do it. As we got higher and higher, it got colder and the wind got even worse. At one point, we wanted to stop for a snack but it was so cold that not moving was pretty unbearable, especially when it involved taking gloves off.
Finally, we got up to a flat part which was a crater area between the mountains/volcanoes. The Red Crater was basically the moon and one of my favorite parts of the hike. It was kind of sheltered so it really did feel like a whole different planet since the wind was more chill.
The next bit was the most intense part of the hike and the most difficult terrain I’ve ever experienced because of the weather. Climbing out of the crater, the trail took us to the peak height of the track on rough terrain with loose volcanic soil/rock which was covered in a layer of frost and ice. After a short time climbing, we were covered in a layer of frost too.
On the way up, we were inside a cloud of snow which made visibility difficult. Most of the time, all we could see was the trail in front of us for a short distance and hardly anything to either side. There was one point where we were climbing up and the strongest gust of wind I’ve ever felt hit me from the side. I immediately crouched down on my hands and knees so I wouldn’t be pushed over the edge and I looked back at Giulia who was behind me and she was doing the same. There was a guy in front of us who kept walking as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, Kiwis go wild yo.
At one point, the cloud cleared a bit and we got a glimpse back at the Red Crater from above! Once we submitted that thing, we shuffled down a steep section and found ourselves next to the famous Emerald Lakes! To give you an idea of the weather, just know that I didn't even notice this HUGE freaky colored lakes until I was right next to them! If anything, I smelled the sulfur gas first before I saw them. It wasn’t until Giulia and I were back in Wellington the next day when we realized that there were actually three lakes, and not two like we thought since the clouds were hiding one. We still can’t figure out at what point we might have walked right past it without knowing.
It was so windy we only stayed for a few minutes. Once you're done reading this, google "Emerald Lakes" and you'll see why Giulia and I were so salty about our Crossing experience.
We were up in the clouds a bit longer but the terrain was much flatter/easier than the summit area. I remember this part feeling like a huge exhale, a relief that we were on the way down and the hardest part of the hike was over.
On the descent, we made it out of the clouds and back into the sun. It’s weird how much the weather can change depending on where you are. Emerging from the valley, we got this spectacular view of lake Rotoaira and lake Taupo, which is the largest lake in New Zealand. It was nice because the end of the track weaved back and forth along the side of Mt Tongariro and slowly eased us down instead of the harsh vertical climb at the beginning of the trail.
Walking along the trail, we could see active volcanic/geothermal areas on the mountain with smoke billowing out, a sea of golden grass whipping around in the wind, and a little stream with bright orange rocks. It was so relaxing.
The last 4km took us through a tropical forest which seemed like it never ended. It was actually kind of aggravating because at that point, we were pushing 6 hours of walking and I just wanted to sit. Once we FINALLY finished, it felt like I just finished a damn marathon! I was so excited to text my parents and my other housemate that we had survived Tongariro in -10C, wind and snow.