With three active volcanoes, close to 20km of trekking and potential extreme weather conditions, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is not a trek for the faint of heart, yet every day hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people attempt the crossing.
It was hard to imagine such an unforgiving landscape considering we’d just spent a week gallivanting around the coast and through lush rolling hills. But even with our naïve understanding of the trek, we heeded our warnings, knowing full well it wouldn’t be easy. At 19.4km, the trek can take anywhere from 6-8 hours and along the way there would be no food, no water, and eventually, no turning back.
From the moment we booked our shuttle and watched an 8 minute informational video, I was terrified. Although we were partaking in the trek at the best time of year, it would still be risky; as both the video and the shuttle assistant lady informed us. High winds and potential rain are always a possibility on Tongariro, and when you are climbing a nearly 2000m crater with sheer drops on both sides and loose rocks below your feet, weather can mean the difference between a successful trek and a rescue. As everyone in New Zealand liked to remind us, they don’t have the deadly creatures like Australia; it’s the weather you have to watch out for.
With my failed constant attempts to abandon doing the trek, on Wednesday morning when our alarm went off at 5:30am, my husband dragged me to the car, locked the doors and drove us an hour from our peaceful retreat in Lake Taupo to the base camp of Tongariro.
I watched as the landscape began to change slowly, the alpine crossing looming on the horizon. The lush and green rolling hills fell away and a dusty bushland grew up around us. Somehow, I was coaxed from the shuttle and began the walk past the numerous warning signs.
Tongariro has been named one of the top ten best day hikes in the world. The diverse trek takes you through desolate and rocky terrain which disappears into a flat and dusty crater that you then summit before beginning your journey down, past emerald lakes, through rolling yellow mountainous hills to a lush and tropical forest. It’s about the most dynamic walk you can ask for.
Before the trek began we were handed a map and guide for our crossing. Each section of the trail was separated into difficulty ratings with either a smiley face, less than smiley face, and a frowning face. I was less than enthusiastic to know that only about 2 hours of the hike would be “smiles”.
The first hour of the trek wasn’t too bad. The ground was rather even, with beautiful views of Mount Ngauruhoe, better known as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. We enjoyed the morning sun as we walked past the Soda Springs, making our way to Devil’s Staircase.
Personally, I think the name was very accurately given to the staircase, considering the further warning signs at the bottom and the number of people we passed having turned back. I would like to say that my husband and I handled the steps with great ease and dignity but I would most certainly be lying. With many stops along the way, a few choice words about our decision to do this trek, and the continued threat from my husband that he might be sick, we did survive the staircase to be graced with a break.
The walk along the South Crater was easily my favourite part of the day. The walk across the crater, over ancient lava flow and past volcanic rock, was flat and effortless. If I hadn’t seen the people summiting the crater on the track in front of us, I would have thought the purpose of all previous warnings were useless. But of course, 1.5 kilometers comes and goes quite quickly and before long we found ourselves traversing over lose rock and steep ledges.
I’d like to point out that in proper hiking shoes this part of the trek would not have been nearly as terrifying, however, in my New Balance memory foam walking shoes, I was pretty close to calling for a rescue. Okay – maybe it wasn’t that bad. I mean, I didn’t cry. But with little grip on my shoes and soft dusty earth below my feet, I did get stuck a few times. I’m sure if Scott hadn’t coaxed me through, I’d probably still be up there.
Eventually we did make it to the top of the crater. For a few moments we sat above the clouds, catching brief glimpses of the beautiful blue and green lakes to come, and of the track we’d already conquered.
Although it was only a short way down to the lakes, it took us quite a while to get down. There were people falling all around us; people with hiking shoes and hiking poles, old people and young people. The ground below our feet was so unstable it didn’t take much to go for a tumble. By the time we did reach the bottom of the gravely and rocky trail, my shoes were filled with stones and we were covered in dust from head to toe. We decided to break for lunch and take the golden opportunity to empty the rocks from our shoes.
At this point my feet were swollen and sore, my body was exhausted and I would have happily spent the rest of the day relaxing by the emerald-coloured lakes, admiring the orange hue circling the water. The lakes get their colours from thermal minerals in the surrounding rocks, although unlike other thermal pools in the area, these ones are cold. You still want to think twice about going for a dip, however, as these pools are very sacred to the Maori people of New Zealand. It is considered very disrespectful to even touch the water in the lakes.
Our break didn’t last long as our muscles started to stiffen up quickly and we still had over 2 hours to go. The next part of the track would be all downhill and surprisingly would prove to be the most difficult stretch too. It was amazing how quickly I began begging for uphill again. Rather quickly my knees began to ache. The continuous downhill movement put pressure on my toes as they continuously slammed into the front of my shoes. We passed a guy with bare feet and although I wanted to judge him, I realized that at least he’d still have toes intact by the end of the day.
It wasn’t just the pressure on my joints that made the last stretch of the walk so unbearable; it was the fact that at this point we could see the end of the trail in the distance. The people far off in front of us still looked like ants which meant we still had a big distance to cover.
We descended into the trees, lush and tropical plants spread out around us. The warm and humid temperatures of the New Zealand summer day had returned and the wind had all but died off. It was so bizarre to be in such a green and thriving forest after spending the last 4 and a half hours passing through extremely desolate landscape where even the strongest plants couldn’t survive. We had spent much of the day completely exposed to the elements, which left me understanding why so many rescues happen on the alpine pass.
Although at the start of the day I found it almost impossible to picture the finish line; to imagine what it would be like to cross the 19th kilometer. When we did hit the last kilometer marker and we knew it was only another 400m before we reached the end, a new wind of energy came over us both. After snapping a very excited photo in front of the last marker, we mustered up our last wind of energy and ran. I’m not exactly sure why we decided to run. It may have had something to do with the fact that the old couple who we’d been neck and neck with the last 5km had started to run, it may have simply been the excitement of knowing we were that close.
We could hear voices in the distances and the low murmur of engines. We knew we were close. Our feet were blistered, our lungs on fire, our legs numb and our clothes soaked with sweat and dust but one stride after another we closed in on the end.
6.5 hours, 30,000+ steps, 315 flights of stairs, 19.4km.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing: challenging, trying and incredibly rewarding. Eventually I regained feeling in my legs and my toes stopped aching. With the pain and exhaustion gone, we were left only with the memories of the wild views and contrasting landscape, and the proud feeling of succeeding in our wildest adventure yet.
Emily Meyer is still relatively new to the wonderful city of Medicine Hat, having moved here in May 2016. She was born and raised in Ontario and lived in Australia for a year and a half. Emily has visited 33 countries and will share some of her experiences and advice for globetrotters of all ages.