On the third day of our North Island road trip, we woke up in the National Park Village. It was our basecamp for the big hiking adventure called Tongariro Alpine Crossing, often labeled as the best one day hike in New Zealand and one of top ten day hikes in the world.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one-way track, so we signed up for a shuttle leaving the Plateau Lodge Hotel at 7:00. It was probably the earliest getting up during the whole trip. It was before sunrise, cold and foggy, and the idea of heading for a demanding mountain trek wasn’t exactly a pick-me-up. I was looking out of the car window and waiting for the first sun rays to appear. I felt excited and nervous at the same time. Am I going to make it all the way to the Ketetahi parking lot where the shuttle would wait for us at 15:30 and 17:00?
Tongariro Crossing is a 19.4-kilometer track crossing a volcanic country with two active volcanoes, Mount Ngauruhoe (known to the Lord of the Rings fans as Mount Doom) and Mount Tongariro. Tongariro National Park was used as the filming location for Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies and according to the visitor’s information it seemed like “Mordor” in reality too. All New Zealand information portals warn that a considerable fitness level is needed and you should bring everything from sunscreen to gloves.
I have to admit that waking up so early was a good idea in the end. We got off the shuttle bus just when the sun appeared behind Mount Ngauruhoe. The first steps were easy, the landscape being flat, offering a stunning view of the mountains in front of us.
I was surprised by how many people there were already at the Mangatepopo car park. Considering the warnings in the travel guides, I was expecting that only passionate hikers (and crazy people like we) will dare to do the hike, but already at the beginning of the track it was clear that Tongariro attracts people of all ages and fitness levels. As we started to walk, the large groups of people began to split, separating between fast and slow walkers. I was taking lots of pictures and then running to catch up with Martin, Viktoria and Marek. It was a great strategy to get warm, but it also became too exhausting soon.
Soon after the start, the trail started to raise, and the grasses and flowers were replaced by ash and rocks. It felt a bit like walking on the moon, everything so gray, dry and quiet. At the same time, I was impressed trying to imagine the geological processes that formed this volcanic region and how different it was thousands of years ago.
The Mangatepopo Valley Track finishes in Soda Springs, just before the steep climb called Devil’s Staircase. The Soda Springs site is named after a waterfall that can be accessed from this part of the Tongariro trail. More importantly, there are the last toilets facilities until the Ketetahi car park, so there is a constant queue of people waiting in front of them.
Next to the toilets we also found a sign with threatening warnings: “Are you really prepared to continue your alpine crossing trek?” and “Consider turning back”. I felt a bit unwelcome. Why do they keep sending me home? Aren’t the signs supposed to motivate you to continue? Later I found out why they try to scare the visitors. It’s not meant for normal hikers (and people like me), it’s meant for those that even despite the warning do the Tongariro Crossing in Converse sneakers, strap sandals, jeans or carrying a plastic bag from Countdown. True story, we’ve seen them all.
Climbing up the Devil’s Staircase from 1400 to 1600 m above sea level was tough. We made a break in the middle, to get rid of now unnecessary layers of clothing and to cover ourselves in sunscreen instead. I found out that taking pictures is a great excuse for making breaks while actually trying to catch my breath. Once we got to the top, our reward was a beautiful view of the valley that we just left.
After a recovery on the foothills of Mt.Doom, we continued by the South Crater, enjoying the flat landscape. However, it didn’t last long. We reached the Red Crater, which was with 1886m the highest point of the track. On a spot where the final climb begins, there’s a signal light stopping you from continuing the trek in case there is a volcanic activity. It would be extremely disappointing if it was flashing and we had to get back the same way, but we were lucky and it was a perfectly calm day.
By the time we reached the top of the Red Crater I was tired and hungry. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to make even one more step without having a proper lunch break, but the idea of having a lunch by the Emerald Lakes was quite persuading, so we walked on. From the top of the Red Crater, it was a very steep descent on a gravel surface, but the view of the Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes was spectacular, stunning, outstanding…and I could continue, but look at the pictures, they describe it better.
We started the descent at the Emerald Lakes and only made one more stop at the Blue Lake, with a perfect view of the Red Crater and Mt. Ngauruhoe. And just a moment later, there was one more spectacular-view spot when we came to the edge of the North Crater and the whole valley opened in front of us. In a sense, it was also the point when it started to be rather boring. The path was zig-zagging all the way down, to the left and to the right, again and again. We really needed to go to the toilet, our legs were tired and there was not much exciting ahead of us. I think I would enjoy the downhill walk if I hadn’t already seen so many marvelous places and views that day, but this way it just seemed like a neverending descent.
When we arrived at the parking lot, we missed the first shuttle and had to wait an hour for the other one. We sat down and watched people arriving from the trail, happy, excited, tired or looking cool like if it was nothing. But it was something. For me, it was something to remember for a lifetime.
What was the best hike you ever did? What did you like about it?