The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of Taupo’s destination adventures. A one-way trek shuttle and pickup is the mainstay business venture for a number of companies that operate out of Taupo; hundreds of enthusiastic outdoor tourists pay to have themselves taken out and picked up in order to complete the 19.4 km walk across the high pass before being returned.
Did I mention that it’s the real-life location for Mordor in the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings?
We cycled back in to Taupo from Kinloch for this purpose exclusively. Not to be satisfied with the leg strain of seemingly-countless kilometres on our heavy touring bikes, Bronwyn and I somehow convinced ourselves that the 30,000 steps required to complete the pass at nearly two kilometres above sea level would be just another stroll through the park. We had marched up Mount Garibaldi annually with the kids at Island Pacific School with full backpacks – how tough could a meandering trail popular with tourists really be?
We’re getting too old for this, I guess.
The short version of this story is the one where I talk about how we were sore for four days after the hike, particularly in our hamstrings and calves. Some of the photos we would take in Napier (a few days later and, I might add, after taking a bus from Taupo to Napier – we couldn’t even cycle there) are actually of us stretching out those still-burning calves on Art Deco walls. But that short story would skip out on all the fun.
Our pickup for the crossing from our motel was at 5:50 am in Taupo. We rode the shuttle up with eight or ten other tourists from different places around the world. Suspiciously, there weren’t any Kiwis on the shuttle. I guess they knew better. (Either that, or they don’t need a shuttle because, in their classic Kiwi hardcoreness, they park at one parking lot and just do the hike in a there-and-back-again fashion. My guess is that many of them don’t get around to doing it.) We dozed a little bit as our bus driver, who referred to herself with the affectionate self-moniker Popcorn, drove us up to the start of the trail and gave us a run-down of what we needed to know about safety on the mountain and the timeline for our pickup at the parking lot at the other end. After an hour’s trip, we got dropped off at the Mangatepopo parking lot and set out on our way.
You need to bring all of your own food and water for a trip like this. There’s no Starbucks waiting for you when you get to the Red Crater Summit at 1,886 m above sea level. Bronwyn and I put away a tray of supermarket muffins before starting our march, the relatively-recently-active volcano Mount Ruapehu peeking out at us from the right of our path as if to solemnly ask, “are you two sure you know what you’re getting yourselves into?”
The admittedly-wonderful aspect of this hike is the way it works as a microcosm of New Zealand’s landscapes: a little bit of everything. Since the Mangatepopo carpark where the hike begins is at a higher elevation than the Ketetahi carpark where it ends, you get a glimpse of everything from arid desert-like stretches to alpine meadows to mountain passes to coniferous forests and eventually into a balmy temperate almost-rainforest just before it’s all over.
We were pretty stiff by the end of it, but the hardest part of all was the fact that we just picked the wrong day to make the crossing. Most of our time up there was in the cloud, as evidenced by the condensation that coated my face for the highest elevations. Sadly, that same cloud precluded us from seeing more than a few fleeting glimpses of Mount Ngauruhoe – the real-life Mount Doom, an impressive conical stratovolcano that can be summited if the weather conditions are nice and you have an extra three hours of hiking you’d like to get done before the end of your day.
Or if you’ve been sent to drop off a ring your Uncle Bilbo gave you as a somewhat-misguided gift.
While we passed through the otherworldly mist and fog of the Southern Crater, we would occasionally see the still-snowcapped volcano popping out through the cloud.
The descent from the peak at Red Crater was a loose-gravel surfing adventure that filled our shoes with volcanic material as we attempted to see the famous Emerald Lakes. Again, due to the clouds, there wasn’t much to see. I’ll say this though: the pictures that other people have taken and posted on the internet are really, really nice. I’ve been there, but it’s tough to describe.
The Ketetahi Hut serves as a temporary resting spot and the last chance you have to use the toilets before you finish your descent. It’s found in the middle of a series of undulating switchbacks, appearing very near to you before the path swings you far, far away in a gradual descent into oxygen-rich air. We spotted some impressive thermal vents off to our right side as we made our way down.
While Bronwyn and I began to seriously question whether or not we were “hiking people” by the end of the walk, we enjoyed the overall experience and are happy to say that we did it. I do wish that there were more photo opportunities on the day we went, but hey, that’s what the internet is for.
But please – if you’re going to do this hike someday, make sure you stretch out afterwards.
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Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com