Tongariro National Park
The fireworks that welcomed the new year fizzled into the early morning of January the first. As the alarm sounded at quarter to six, my cousin Rachel and I quickly shoved bare necessities into the boot of her car and headed south from Auckland to the Tongariro National Park. The drive down was scenic enough, New Zealand has to have the most beautiful state highways in the world, but it was only preparing us for the days ahead of us, hiking around insanely picturesque volcanic mountains.
We arrived around 3pm, which didn't leave enough time to do a long walk on the first day. We headed up Mt Ruapehu to the Whakapapa Ski Field. Being summer, there wasn't snow on this part of the mountain but we could see snow further up. The air was crisp, but we were not freezing cold. We wanted to do the Crater Lake Walk at the top of the mountain but the chairlifts were due to close at 4pm and we were advised that it is best to do it guided as it is easy to get lost. We wandered past 'Meads Wall' from Lord of the Rings and circled a vibrantly coloured lake just down the mountain from the Happy Valley ski area.
We were still eager to fit in some hiking on that day so we headed down the mountain to the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a three to four-day track that Rachel completed last summer. We did a small section of the track that looped around the Taranaki Waterfall.
As the sun began to sink behind the mountains, we headed towards the Tongariro Holiday Park to pitch our tent in the last glimpses of daylight. This cozy little camp nestled amongst the vast and striking landscapes of the Tongariro National Park would be our home for the next three nights. Rachel placed her 'HikePro' air mattress in the tent alongside the tablecloth I had bought to sleep on. Yes, you read correctly, a tablecloth. That is what happens when all of the airbeds are with the rest of the family and you leave your packing until the very last minute. Rachel always says that hiking should be prescribed to insomniacs, it's true, I slept like a log on my premium Posturepedic tablecloth!
The next morning, we caught the 6.30am shuttle down the gravel road that led to the Mangatepopo Carpark, the start of the Tongariro Crossing. An early morning stroll down the flat boardwalk through the hazy mountains woke our tired minds and the climb up "The Devil's Staircase" brought life to every muscle and joint in our bodies. However, the staircase is not half as bad as the name implies.
Once you are up the mountain, you walk past South Crater, Red Crater Emerald Crater and the Blue Lakes. I am not even going to bother describing how beautiful each of these spots were!
There are two optional turn offs on the track, one for Tongariro Summit and the other for Ngauruhoe Summit. On the first day we did the Tongariro Summit. The rock formations were stunning but the summit had clouded over by the time we got there.
The next day, we walked the first part of the crossing again to the Ngauruhoe turn off to climb the mountain that starred as 'Mt Doom' in Lord of the Ring. The pamphlets back at the campsite described this climb as 'EXTREMELY DANGEROUS' - sounds like our kind of adventure!
It took two and a half hours of climbing the side of the mountain that consisted of scree (volcanic sand) and scoria (volcanic rock) to reach the top. We were assisted up the mountain by a Spotify playlist of Old School Hip Hop and some Drake "started from the bottom now we're here".
The conditions were mostly good while we were climbing but clouded over as we got closer to the top. We could tell we were almost at the summit when we were climbing loose red rock, however, for a while our vision of was completely obscured. We heard voices in the midst of the thick cloud, we met a group of four super cool young explorers, two from France, one from Canada and one from the same suburb in Sydney as me - talk about a coincidence! We pushed on towards the summit with our new friends. They laughed at our fascination with the little puddle of snow as we neared the summit, but the laughter soon resulted in a full-blown snowball fight!
The view from the top was stunning! We felt on top of the world! We ate lunch and wandered around the crater before beginning the descent. You know how I said that the climb took two and a half hours? Well the descent took less than half an hour! Chairlift? No. Giant waterslide down the side of the mountain? I wish. Skiing? Yes, but not on snow. On loose rocks and sand. There were many, many falls but we manged to laugh them off. Rachel, who was wearing shorts, was cut and bruised black and blue afterwards, stumbling down the boardwalk back to the Mangatepopo car park.
When we arrived back at camp we melted our frozen hands in a warm shower before chucking on some trackies before heading down to the kitchen. We stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the tourists, the two kiwis with bare feet eating baked beans out of the pot! We met some of the most lovely people in that cozy camp kitchen, the Welsh girl living in Wellington, the Parisian party boys, the jar opening Germans and the pair of old "JAFA's" (Just Another F'ing Aucklander).
A GUIDE FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE PLANNING ON DOING TONGARIRO CROSSING:
• Book accomodation in advance - this is particularly necessary on public holidays and in peak season however it is always best to book anyway.
• Organise transport - this is a crossing, not a circuit. It takes you from one place to another. If your group is fortunate to have two cars you can drive both cars to the end, leave one there and drive back to the start and then drive someone back to get the car at the start when you reach the end. If you don't have the luxury of two cars, the best way to get to where you need to go is to catch a shuttle. Rachel and I paid $30 for a Tongariro Explorer shuttle from the holiday park (Base Camp) to the start of the track and were picked up at the end of the tracks.
• Check the conditions - weather and volcanic activity is unpredictable but to be as safe as possible check the forecasts.
• Keep your feet happy - sore feet and blisters can ruin a hike. Avoid blisters by wearing supportive shoes, hiking socks and threading hikers wool between your toes. If you have bad ankles like I do, I would recommend ankle boots as the ground can be uneven which puts a strain on them, I was so grateful for my ankle boots when climbing Ngauruhoe.
• Leave early - This ensures that you have time to enjoy the track with out rushing but also that you complete the track in hours of daylight where there are many other hikers around for assistance. If you are catching shuttles, they leave on a tight schedule. If you missed the last shuttle - you are pretty much screwed! We arrived at 7am and caught the 4pm shuttle back.
• Layer up - I went from boiling hot to freezing cold in a second.
• Bring a camera - Even a phone camera will do. There is so much natural beauty and so many photo opportunities on this track, you will seriously regret not bringing a camera!
• Stay hydrated - I don't care if it's heavy, bring more water than you need because there is nowhere to fill up water bottles on the track and you will quickly become dehydrated. I took 3 litres each day in a hydration bladder (funny name, I know!)
• Bring more food than you need - think energy food... Trail mix, protein balls and even the odd sugary snack won't hurt you -it will give you the required energy. It is important to take more food than you need in case of an emergency.
• Bring toilet paper - there are two long-drop toilets on the track, one at Soda Springs and the other at Ketetahi hut, with a long way to walk in between. If you are lucky enough, you might find a large rock along the track to do your business behind but if you do, I can guarantee you it has been well used! Neither of the toilets have toilet paper or soap for hand washing so it would also be wise to bring hand sanitizer. DO NOT leave toilet paper anywhere except the toilet. If you need to use toilet paper while on the track you must take it with you. I would recommend bringing a large ziplock bag for any trash.
• Be waterproof - Weather is unpredictable, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Make sure you have a plan to protect your electronics. A waterproof jacket is also vital. A rain cover and a waterproof plastic for your day pack would be great investments however, a cheaper alternative is to line your backpack with plastic bags to keep the contents dry.
• Take all food waste with you - it doesn't matter if it is decomposable or not, orange skins and banana peels don't compliment the natural scenery! Take a separate large zip lock for food waste.
• Leave the ciggies at home - I saw a couple of people smoking on the track and I was disgusted! It's a national park, have some respect and consider others and the environment.
• Don't wander off the track - it is dangerous and damaging to the fragile alpine landscape.