G had longed so much for his kiwi trip. He had come halfway around the world to visit me for a month, and simultaneously checked the fifth continent off his bucket list. A nature lover and adventurer at heart, he decided early on that Tongariro Alpine Crossing would be a must during our North Island road trip. The whole track spans over 19km across breath-taking volcanic terrains, and from the highest point no one could resist a photo opportunity with the world famous Emerald Lake that has long become an icon of the crossing.
The weather wasn’t kind to us closer to the day. Chances were that it would be rainy and windy so we weren’t sure if the trip would be doable until that very morning. The warm rays of sunlight beaming through our rectangular glass window signaled to us a beautiful day ahead. Making sure two rain ponchos packed in an easily accessible spot, we carried our bigger-than-usual gear to the car and drove off the nearly empty State Highway 1, leaving the windows slightly open to smell the backcountry’s fresh air.
Mt. Ngauruhoe from Mangatepopo highway
The car park was already packed out by the time we got there, but fortunately G got us a spot! We changed shoes and made our way up towards the hut where most of people begin the trek. At 1100m altitude, the weather wasn’t great for photography but at least dry and breezy. From here we could see Mt. Ngauruhoe, a mere 2,500 year old volcano on the southern edge of the Tongariro volcanic plateau.
The first track through Mangatepopo valley was easy. We crossed a weaving walkway built in the middle of century-old lava flows and alongside a small stream. According to New Zealand’s department of conservation, the valley was carved out by glaciers during the last Ice Age and subsequently filled up with lava rocks from Mt Ngauruhoe. I wound’t say the landscape was strikingly beautiful, but not like anything I had ever seen. G advised me to stick with the formed track to avoid damaging the pure nature.
At the end of the boardwalk, the hike towards the South Crater, also known as the Devil’s Staircase, got more complicated. We ascended the steep and rocky terrains before entering a damp plateau between the volcanoes, then back to uphills again. The weather also changed constantly with dark clouds rolling in and out at times, causing some drizzle and slippery ground. The further we walked the more desert-like our trail became. No more soothing sound of the stream, no more flowers, grass or whatsoever in the surroundings. Just a purely barren and craggy land.
Mt Ngauruhoe is visible throughout the track
We stopped at the South Crater (1660m) to catch our breath and have lunch. G walked over the rim of the crater to snap a few shots of the volcanic landscape while I felt a bit annoyed for not being able to take proper photos. From here we were just one hour away to the next summit.
Steam coming from the mouth of Red Crater
Following the marked route northwards we made it to Red Crater, the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (1,886 m) around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The visibility was quite poor. One minute the sky was clear and we could see the Emerald Lake down below, the next minute the view was gone. I wasn’t sure if the white thing on the lake surface was clouds or volcanic steams, but G insisted it was the latter. After a while, the wind started blowing very hard and heavier clouds blocked out all visibility, making it not so easy to approach the lake. We sat down at the Red Carter and waited for opportunities to admire the Emerald’s beauty.
By mid-afternoon we decided to descend to the car park just to find the path had become murky like this:
The crossing is located within the Tongariro National Park but definitely not some leisure walk in the park. If you’re lucky the view might be clearer but extremely changeable weather isn’t rare when it comes to a country in the middle of the ocean. So, better come prepared.
- If you have a car, depart early since the number of parking spots is limited.
- Pack a raincoat and heaps of lightweight clothes.
- Try not to drink too much, although it is advisable to keep yourself hydrated along the track. There are few toilettes along the way, I only recall one at Mangatepopo Hut and another at the Soda Springs.
- Do your homework, at least check the weather forecast and know what to expect.
- Share your plan with someone else at home, just in case.