The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the absolute highlights on the trail and a stretch I was most looking forward to. We had been talking about it for ages, keeping a close look on the weather forecast hoping for that sunny day to come. I was really, really wishing for it to be nice but the forecasts didn’t look too promising.
When we arrived in Taumarunui we had planned the next Saturday off to take care of our blogs and bounce boxes. Suddenly the forecast turned and the next Monday and Tuesday looked promising. We promptly cancelled our break and headed out on the 42nd Traverse, determined to reach the northern start of the crossing by Sunday evening to have an early start on Monday.
The Alpine turning scenery was a welcomed break from the forests and farmlands we had so far. The Traverse was fun, we only had rain during the night and besides of one very muddy and slippery uphill where we all had a Bambi-on-ice moment the track was nice and in good condition.
We woke up to a clear sky on Monday morning and started climbing at 6.40. Starting from the north side it is almost a 1200m ascent to the highest point of the crossing at the peak of Red Crater. The trail suddenly rises out of the forest, giving a first view of the smoking cones of Te Mari. The last eruption here happened only 1,5 years ago. It was gorgeous watching the mounting steaming in the morning sun. We took a break at the Ketetahi Shelter (the hut is closed due to damage from the eruption), overlooking the breathtaking scenery of the Taupo caldera. For a moment it looked as if clouds were coming in but the grey zone just missed us and headed north. For the entire day, we had brilliant sunshine.
It was really quiet on the trail and we were having a blast. Up until the Blue Lake we hardly met any other people and it took until the Emerald Lakes until we started meeting the masses. The DOC recommends walking the trail south to north so the day tripper stream is going the opposite way of the TA. We ploughed our way through the bottleneck from the crossing of the Central Crater to the top of the Red Crater. One women shouted at us that we were going the wrong way. Oh madam, quite the opposite! We are going in exactly the right direction! After the Red Crater rush hour seemed over so for most of the morning and the afternoon we had relative peace and quiet. It was great! I don’t like sharing my mountains.
The scenery on the crossing is just absolutely wonderfully amazing.It is reputedly one of the best day hikes in the world and it is definitely on the best hiking stretches I have ever done. I was so stoked the weather was THIS good. We all got excited about climbing up Mount Doom so when we got there at around 2 we started preparing for the ascent. However, there were so many people on the mountain and I was already feeling pretty tired from the crossing so I convinced PJ and Serina to camp somewhere and come back the next day for sunrise.
This is the point of the story where karma really started standing on our side and made up for all the miserable days of the last weeks. We were hoping to possibly stay at the Mangatepopo hut and head out from there. Unfortunately, this hut is part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit (one of NZ’s Great Walks) and was fully booked that night. We hung around for a while and started talking with Mike and Mike, two American trampers who just started the circuit. They proposed that we could share on their tent site and together we convinced the hut warden Aaron to let us stay. In the end it turned out that we should have been sent away so we really had a lucky shot there.
It started getting overcast in the evening so I almost regretted not going up when we had the chance. But at 3.30 the next morning we woke up to a sky lit by millions of stars. I have not seen a night sky that impressive since Mongolia. The Milky Way spanned across it like a giant rainbow, the Magellan Clouds casted a blue shine in the south and the Southern Cross stood firmly over the horizon. Seeing this we started preparing for a beautiful morning out. We left our tent and most of our gear behind at the campsite.
When we left at 4.30 it already started shimmering and we could walk without our head lamps. Everything was silent, nothing moved, it was magical. Halfway up the Devil’s Staircase the sun started rising and the sky turned pink. I stood still for a while, listening to the nothingness around me and looking over Mount Taranaki in the west, its snowy peak glowing red in the morning sun.
As we got over the saddle and on the plateau to the southern crater the rising sun coloured the entire valley gold in its early light. It was so immensely beautiful. We sat down for a small break, met a jogger who was a surprised to see us as we were to see him, and started climbing Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom) still in utter silence. The cool early morning air made the climb much easier and the lack of screaming Germans made it all the more enjoyable.
Ever since I caught a first glimpse of that mountain I mentally prepared for total warfare to get on its peak and total warfare is what I got. We made the grave mistake of ascending on the scree slope instead of the rocks (we didn’t get a good look of them in the shade). Scree works like sand, but even less stable, so for every meter up you go 70cm back down. The ascent is over 700meters, straight up. Somewhere halfway up the mountain I suddenly had a shock realizing how high up I was on this steep, steep slope.
It took a lot of self-convincing and 5 minutes to regain calm at the top but it was worth it. Clouds were blowing in and out over the plateau below, highly dramatizing the view. We looked at Mount Ruapehu (the highest peak in the park and that other Mount Doom), went up to the bloody red crater,enjoyed the view. About 1,5 hours after we got there the masses started making their way up too so we started descending. In a staggering 30 minutes we skied down the scree and stood back at the base of the mountain.
At that point there was an endless queue of people both on the trail and the mountain. The magic of the morning had vanished. But we had it. I was so happy that I ran/jumped down the Devil’s Staircase, motivating puffing bypassers heading up by wishing them a good morning, a merry christmas and a nice day much to the entertainment of PJ and Serina.
We had a nice lunch break at the hut, packed up and walked down to Whakapapa. I was exhausted, we all were, and 13 hours after our early morning we dropped our packs at the holiday park and went for a well deserved pizza. It was one of the longest and most exhausting days on the trail so far but it was also the best one we’ve had.
The next morning we continued to National Park on another beautiful track to settle down for Christmas. We treated ourselves to a nice motel with a spa pool, a disappointing meal in the local restaurant and a day where we did absolutely nothing. We watched the Lord of the Rings, watched the pourdown outside, called our families and had a relaxing time.
I never would have dared to wish for two such days on Tongariro. Even the park rangers got excited and were filled with disbelief when they looked at the forecast. Out of five good days in the last two months, we managed get two consecutive ones when we were up there. If anything I would have asked for Christmas that would have been it. It was the best present one could ever imagine.
Our friend Andrew says: you give to the trail, you get something back. During the past few weeks, we’ve given a lot, more than we wanted, but we were royally rewarded. The crossing boosted our motivation and our spirits. Now looking forward to a week on the Whanganui river for a magical New Year’s Eve. We hope you are all enjoying your holidays as much as we are.
– by Eef De Boeck