After several weeks of hot, dry Summer sun, the rains came to interrupt play. Typically, this coincided with our arrival at Whakapapa, the mountain village at the heart of Tongariro National Park and gateway to New Zealand’s “Best Day Hike”-The Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Undeterred, all we could do was wait. The previous year, we’d missed the window of opportunity by a few days. The cold air had set in and with it, our cold feet chose to leave the long mountain trek for another time. This would prove a wise move, as this is no walk in the park, even on the best of days.
At 12 miles in length or 19.4km, The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, is not only a big day out, it’s also high. Climbing 750m from the start, to the landmark Red Crater, it descends 700m to the finish on the opposite side, at Ketetahi Road.
Covering a vast volcanic wonderland, of steaming vents and blackened lava fields. Consisting of an active volcano trio: Mt Tongariro; Ruapehu and Ngaruhoe. Each, make up The vast and hugely popular Tongariro National Park. The highest of these peaks, is Ruapehu, at 2797m, it’s also the highest in the North Island.
As the weather closed in, we checked the prognosis with the National Park Visitor Centre, in Whakapapa villlage. With a window of reprieve set to come in a few days later, we retreated over to Taupo, about an hour’s drive away.
From here, we’d be close enough to make our move, once the weather improved. Hopefully, we’d be away from the cold air of the mountain area.
Finally, the forecast from the met service showed signs of improvement. As the last week of February approached (height of Summer in New Zealand), our moment came.
Still, the night sky brought chills and a real nip in the air, even on this lower ground. We knew up on the mountain, there could be a real chance of frost or even ice.
The iSite in Taupo, perfectly caters for The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Up to date forecasts, detailed equipment lists, maps and information adorn the walls. We checked with the staff on the situation for the following day, at last, yes, the weather looked perfect. This meant, the shuttles were running once again. Fingers crossed, our moment had come.
The crossing is a one-way trek, with parking no longer permitted in your own vehicle. So, basically, a shuttle bus has to be arranged, to take you to the start, or possibly pick you up at the finish as well. Buses start at around 5.30am and carry on up until about 9am, with a journey time of 30 minutes, to ferry walkers to the start point.
We booked ‘The Mountain Crossing’ shuttle bus, for an 8.30am start, through the iSite in Taupo. This would leave from their dedicated car park , located at the closest point to the finish, where we’d also park our camper for the day. We chose a later time, simply because the weather was so cold, we wanted the sun to be up and any frost to be gone!
We also wanted to have our van parked at the end of the walk , ready for our return in our own time. If we’d have arranged a shuttle from some other location, we’d have had a shuttle to the start and a pick up shuttle back to their parking area further away.
These buses left at set times during the afternoon, with the last being around 5pm. We didn’t want any pressure to rush back or fear of missing the last bus!
Feeling like we need to do a bit of a rehearsal, we ended up checking out the shuttle parking and the actual finish, ready for the following day.
Knowing where exactly to drive to and how far it was, from the end of the walk, made it all a lot clearer.
Now, all we had to do was find somewhere to stop for the night, close to the start. This is where it got a bit tricky! We couldn’t book anything in advance, simply because, we didn’t know if the shuttles were running until the day before, following the bad weather.
So, we had to find a campground within easy access for the morning. Our first choice, turned out to be closed, for a private function. Our second option was full, which left our final choice, a basic camper stop, conveniently located, just 10 minutes to the shuttle bus.
“Crossroads”, is a field, with horses roaming round freely, a drop toilet and optional 5am shuttle service to the start of the walk. At $20 per night, this would do us perfectly.
Just as we stirred our carb-filled pasta dish on the outside stove, the biggest pig we’d ever seen in our lives walked past! It was worth the $20 just to see it!
As the sun went down, the cold set in. Out came the sleeping bags, on top of our usual, home style bedding, always a sure sign of a chill in the air.
Just one last check after packing up our rucksacks and filling the drink bottles, with the recommended 3L of water each! Not leaving anything to chance, we’d allowed for extra layers, plenty of food, sun protection, a first aid kit and just about everything that we’d need for that ‘just in case moment’!
Now, all that was left was an early night!
By 5am, we were awake with the sound of other happy camper’s heading off for their shuttle buses. It was so cold, frost covered the grassy camp and the windscreen was frozen solid!
The last thing we wanted, was to crawl out of the warm sleeping bags! As no one was really left close to us to annoy, I braved the cold and started the engine. Hoping, that the ice melted and the heater of the cab would soon blow some hot air through.
After a hot mug of tea and a hearty breakfast, we gathered our bags and drove to the shuttle car park for the 8am. The car park was really full, with cars parked from people on those earlier shuttle buses. Checking in at a little hut, we were told to board the bus ready for our 8,.30 departure.
As the bus filled to capacity, the doors closed and we were off. After 30 minutes, mainly along a narrow gravel track, we arrived. Thankfully there were toilets at the drop off point. So, with a quick stop came the chance to take off some layers. The sun had come up and the warmth soon felt quite intense, skies were blue and clear-we’d hit the jackpot on the weather front!
20km is a long way for a day hike. I’m adding a bit on here, as by the time you walk extra bits before and after, you may as well round it up!
The first few km were easy enough. A gravel path to begin with which soon lead to a pretty boardwalk, with the best possible weather, making perfect walking conditions.
Drop toilets along the route, were really well placed, ideal after sipping on that 3L of water each. Oh, you need your own loo paper, by the way!
As the first steps come into sight, we set about putting in the first bit of leg work. In the distance there were queues of people, walking up a ridge. Those that had left earlier, were now coming into view. We were told there would be 3000 people walking the route today, a trail reminiscent to rows of ants, could now be seen all around us.
Our legs put in the effort to reach the top of the steps, gratefully, laid into the hillside, leading to a rocky plateau. The views took our breath away. As we glanced behind, the perfect shaped Volcano, Mt Taranaki, stood proud, it’s snow capped peak, appearing to touch the blue sky above.
Now was a good time to stop for coffee, as always, the trusty flask came out and we perched ourselves on a rock for a break.
All along the route, were marker poles, like the one in the photo with Nigel here. These are to help get your bearings, when the weather is poor, hard to to believe, it can be so bad, when it’s such clear visibility and warm air.
Climbing on through the the lunar landscapes, we’re surrounded by the flows of lava, now darkened masses of craggy rock. The flat, yellowing ground below our feet, brings colour to the otherwise, blackened landscapes.
The volcanic peaks of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro are in our views, both are off-limits to walkers. We wouldn’t attempt either one, but notice a couple of lone hiker’s ignoring the rules and appearing like dots in the scraggy slopes.
The ridge up towards the Red Crater became closer, the people clambering up were packed in like sardines. The remnants of ice from the previous night, clung to shady sections ahead. The parts which had melted, were now wet and muddy, trodden by the thousands that had already walked before us, earlier in the morning.
At this point, a queue began to form, of those ill-prepared in their converse pumps, stuck like glue to the orange toned mud. Whilst, those eager to make it at a steady pace up the slippy slope, had to just linger until safe passage allowed.
All we could do was wait our turn, frustrated at going so slow, we found it more difficult to climb up, without getting a rhythm going and a good pace to glide us up the slope.
Finally, we were nearing the top, after a couple of slippy sections, where I’d felt myself slip backwards for a split-second.
Amazing views were now upon us, the brilliant weather, playing up to the hype of this incredible walk. As we stood on the red earth of the ridge, the stillness and clarity around us, brought the most stunning panorama.
We could see for miles around, from Lake Taupo to The Dessert Road, we were on top of the world! It proved difficult to take our pics, too many people, all trying to do the same thing, meant lots of strangers in our shot!
The descent was a bit tricky! A deep shale and fairly long, steep section lay in wait. More queues had formed, making it difficult to get going down hill.
The initial sandy gravel and steep slopes, made it hard on the legs and boots! Some people had froze on the spot, whilst we tried to give encouragement, we managed to make it down without too much hardship.
Digging our heels into the sandy base, seemed to help us gain a sturdy footing, whilst others chose to run down, like mountain goats.
It was difficult to miss the stunning outlook from here, amazing views below of the Emerald and Blue Lakes. This had to be a spot for our lunch.
After a good break for our picnic lunch, it was time to move on. Another small climb lay ahead, after crossing a flat section of volcanic dust, the path lead towards The Blue Lake.
Heading around the mountain, we caught sight of Lake Taupo, way ahead in the distance. The views stayed with us for the second half of the walk, as we passed steaming vents on several sections.
Rocky, darkened lava flows surrounded us, whilst bright red colours brought a vibrant glow to the earth.
The last section, or final 9KM, was all down hill, yes, it sounds a long way and it was! Steps and paths of matted, metal and plastic underfoot, seemed to make it rather difficult on the aching feet!
Grateful for all the toilets en-route, we took another stop overlooking the views before heading on down the mountain. By now, it seemed such a long way to go, before we’d reach the van.
The good weather and fine outlook spurred us on. As we meandered down the paths, several people ran past us, late for their last shuttle bus.
The last few km, took us through a pretty forest section, a welcome change of scenery, before reaching the public car park and the finish! Hooray…We’d done it!
This car park has limited parking, it’s where some shuttle buses pick up from and as we cleared the trees, groups of weary walkers boarded their buses back. Some still running past, just about making it onto the last bus.
For us, it was a further 1km back to the camper, at the shuttle parking. We were shattered and this last bit seemed like an awful one way!
As our camper came into view, there was only one thing left to do-drive to some hot pools for a good soak!
A great end to a fantastic day and perfect to ease those aching limbs!
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