The Tongariro Alpine Crossing: One Hell of an Adventure
Deemed as one of the best day hikes in New Zealand
"Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful." - Joshua J. Marine
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand is a must for adventure seekers wishing to test their mental and physical strengths. It's a challenge rife with reward.
Leaving The Shire
Standing in Mangatepopo's gravel car park with Mount Ngauruhoe looming in the distance - Mount Doom for all you Lord of the Rings fans - myself and Jeff (friend) performed the final checks to our backpacks to ensure we had everything we needed;
- Plenty of water
- Food/snacks to keep us going
- Warm and wet weather clothing
- Medical supplies (just in case)
- A fully charged camera
We were good to go.
So, after a deep inhale of fresh, untainted alpine air and filled with a nervous excitement we took the first steps of our 19.5km adventure; a journey that would see us traverse active volcanos, experience arduous climbs, endure mental tests, and witness breath-taking views.
This must have been what Frodo felt like the first time he left The Shire.
The Devil Shows His Face
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing starts off reasonably level with the first section of the hike lined with well-groomed trails, boardwalks over wetland areas, and a few minor inclines to navigate.
It's a chance to open up your lungs, get the blood pumping and immerse yourself in the surroundings.
As we ventured deeper into the wilderness, I experienced a great sense of peace within. The boggy pumice wasteland to either side of us was tranquil. Barely a movement to be seen nor a sound to be heard. Silent but for the trickling of a nearby stream and the crunch of our boots on the volcanic terrain.
We were isolated from the world, cut off from society. Nothing out here mattered. It was just us and nature. Pure bliss.
However, these feelings of serenity wouldn't last for long.
For after just sixty minutes of walking, as we rounded the final corner of the flat stage, we were confronted with the first major challenge of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The Devil's Staircase.
'The Devil's Staircase is a hellish climb… has the potential to crush a person's soul.'
This is where the adventure truly began.
Tame the Beast
The Devil's Staircase is a hellish climb (no pun intended) and the first real test of the crossing.
A chain of man-made treads dug into the mountain face fabricated with timber and gravel made up the staircase, which zig-zagged off into the low-lying clouds.
Think Jack and the Bean Stalk with steps and an active volcano as the giant.
Standing at the bottom looking up can be demoralizing and has the potential to crush a person's soul. If you let it.
As I studied the path, preparing to make my move, I could see people scattered at various points along the route.
They had their heads down, hands on knees, and looked deflated as they stopped to catch their breath - and most likely give themselves a pep talk before taking on the next few flights.
There was no easy way to do this and standing around looking at it wasn't achieving anything.
So, knowing the only way to progress was up, I put my head down, took a deep breath, and attacked those steps as if my life depended on it; stopping only to calm my burning lungs before continuing on.
This would be my strategy; a kind of H.I.I.T workout plan of attack.
Jeff, on the other hand, opted for the slow and steady approach, no stopping but constantly moving. Each to their own, whatever works.
Eventually, through sheer grit, determination, and after a lot of internal arguing and swearing, both Jeff and I made it to the top, dripping in sweat but unscathed.
The Devil's Staircase was done, thank God.
We'd tamed the beast and now it was on to the next stage of our journey - after a well-deserved swig of water of course.
Exploring Strange New Lands
Conquering the Devil's Staircase was tough, both mentally and physically, but it wasn't impossible (obviously). The next stage of the journey, crossing the South Crater, was more pleasurable.
With its flattened surface and free-flowing alpine breeze, the Martian-like contours of the South Crater came as a welcomed relief, serving as an opportunity to reduce our heart rate to a normal pace and allow our legs a chance to recover.
While crossing the South Crater is somewhat of an easy feat, it's by no means dull and it was around this stage of the hike I began to feel like a real explorer.
To the left of us, looking like something Sojourner rover had discovered, the vast wasteland making up the majority of the South Crater and to the right, towering over us like an intimidating teacher, Mount Ngauruhoe - which we were about halfway up by now.
In fact, we were so close to Mount Doom we could see the crater on top and make out the lava flow tracks left behind from its last eruption. An unnerving sight.
We pushed onwards, taking roughly ten minutes or so to cross the South Crater which led us to the next test of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
A climb to the Red Crater.
Stay Focused or Face the Consequences
'Loose terrain slipped from beneath our feet as we traversed the ridge…'
Ascent to the Red Crater didn't seem as daunting as the Devil's Staircase, at least we could see the end goal, the summit. It felt close enough to touch but it wasn't going to be easy.
Loose terrain slipped from beneath our feet as we traversed the ridge, negotiating our way along the trail - which was much less groomed at this stage.
At times my heart skipped a beat.
Although not in any immediate danger, losing your footing at such heights is enough to give you a jolt of adrenaline, reminding you to stay focused or face the consequences.
Slowly but surely, we clambered along the track, tapping into the pre-discovered self-determination from the Devil's Staircase when needed.
We made it, we reached the summit, ticking off another of the Tongariro Alpine Crossings challenges. Result.
And the Red Crater did not disappoint.
One More Intricate Challenge
Reaching the summit was incredible, the views stunning and feelings of accomplishment overwhelming.
It's one of those times where you allow yourself to get lost in the moment.
Your senses are heightened, you feel at one with nature. With clouds rolling over the mountain tops, a shimmering Blue Lake on the horizon, and Emerald Lakes but a stone's throw away, the whole experience felt like a dream.
But it wasn't, this was real and if we wanted to make it to the end of our adventure in good time, we would have to continue making progress; which meant dealing with one more intricate Tongariro Alpine Crossing challenge.
Descent from Red Crater summit to the Emerald Lakes below.
Making our way down required a certain finesse. Given the steep gradient and the loose scoria beneath our feet, keeping balance was key so as to avoid injury.
The last thing you'd wanna do is slip over, build up speed as you tumble, and arrive at the Emerald Lakes face first, cut up, beat up, and in need of a new pair of undies.
So, with careful footing and exercising all the poise of a mountain goat we got to work; eventually making it down without concern or having to break out the first aid kit. Hurrah!
Look Out for the T-Rex
Standing by the Emerald Lakes is surreal.
'…you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd somehow been transported back to the Jurassic period.'
With plumes of sulphurous steam venting from outlets along the banks, surrounded by untouched reddish-gold wastelands and an eerie calmness to set the tone, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd somehow been transported back to the Jurassic period.
All that's missing is the roar of a T-Rex as it comes stomping along the skyline and you're there.
The Emerald Lakes mark the halfway point of the crossing so it was the perfect point to unburden our backpacks for fifteen minutes, enjoy a bite to eat, and reminisce about the journey so far.
Sat on a boulder eating lunch, marvelling at the beauty around us, it was easy to slip into a trance and spend longer than was needed static, lost in a prehistoric daze.
So, in order to stop our legs from seizing up too much, and before we got comfortable in one spot, it was time to get moving again.
Next stop, the Blue Lake.
No Swimming Allowed!
The distance from the Emerald Lakes to the Blue Lake is short, flat (except for a slight incline leading up to the shore), and takes only ten or fifteen minutes to walk - thank goodness.
Perfect for getting the blood pumping again and preparing your mindset to see out the remainder of the hike.
Just because the technical section of the journey had been conquered was no reason to switch off. You're still in an Alpine environment after all, which requires focus and attention to the end.
Reaching the Blue Lake was just as fulfilling as making the summit.
Staring out over the undisturbed, sacred waters - which, by the way, means no touching, drinking, or eating beside - is spectacular. It's hard to take into account the magnitude of the lake, mostly because it is, in fact, a volcanic crater.
Once again, I found myself drifting off into a daydream, mesmerised by the wonders of this adventure.
The Final Descent
After bidding farewell to the Blue Lake, it was time to embark upon the final descent. A three-hour hike through the bush, over streams, and past more active volcanos.
As we made our way back towards sea level, leaving the challenges of volcanic terrain behind us, the trail became less hazardous, giving us a chance to enjoy the scenery - even at this stage of the journey, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing continued to amaze.
The views were spectacular, landscapes that looked like paintings and sounds of nature which calmed the soul. We could hear birds singing as streams flowed in the distance. Angelic.
I found this section of the crossing most relaxing after everything we'd been through.
From the nervous excitement of venturing into the wilderness at the beginning to the overwhelming joy of conquering the Devil's Staircase.
From crossing a Martian-like desert as an 'interstellar explorer' to the heart-racing experience of scaling the Red Crater to the summit.
Not to mention the mind-blowing views of the Emerald Lakes and the Blue Lake.
It had been a day had been jam-packed full of adventure so it was nice being able to enjoy the final few kilometres reflecting on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as a whole, unwinding to a certain degree and embracing the beauty of the great outdoors as we made our way to the finish line at Ketetahi Car Park.
(Originally published here)