Hiking through Middle Earth – The Tongariro Crossing

landscapecraterviewI arrived in Taupo the afternoon before I did the famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing or a walk through Middle Earth past Mount Doom (aka Ngauruhoe Summit). I was so anxious and excited I didn’t know what to do with myself. I just wanted the day to hurry up so that I could go to bed and wake up. A bit like Christmas except the present was a 8hr invigorating hike up and down varied terrain one on one of the world’s top 10 day walks.
It was a 4:30 wake up call for a 5:30 pickup in front of the hostel. Despite my excitement the day before I admit that when my alarm went off in the pitch dark it was with lead feet that I pulled myself out of bed to get ready for the day. Over my bowl of porridge and fruit in the kitchen though it was comforting to see that everyone was filled with the same bleary eyed anxious excitement as me.


7am start- bundled and ready to go

Once on the bus, our guide, really just the lady who tells you the lay of the land, drops you off and picks you up at the other end, filled us in on what we needed to be wearing, the best way to do the hike and took our contact details in case we didn’t show up at the other end. The day was forecast to be clear and sunny with a chance of showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Visions of my experience in Valet, Switzerland danced through my head. My friend Alice and I had decided that going up a mountain to a glacier wearing only jeans, runners and an RTE poncho, you know the ones you get at music festivals, in the rain and hail was a good idea. While I was significantly better equipped this time heavy rain is heavy rain when you get stuck in the middle of the wide open with no where to take cover. You are going to get soaked no matter what way you look at it. Thankfully, Mother Nature was on our side and the rain never arrived. The only little glitch was that there was significant cloud cover over the Ngauruhoe Summit, aka Mt Doom. Our guide advised us that if by the time we reached the shoot off path to climb to the summit the cloud cover hadn’t receded that we shouldn’t attempt the climb in case we got disorientated at the top and oops off the mountain we went. One also had to reach the shoot off path by 9:15, at the latest, otherwise you wouldn’t have time. So she dropped us off, wished us luck, told us the last bus was at 4:30pm on the other side and we were off.

betterboardwalkWe began the walk at 7am. Wrapped up with scarves and loads of layers although it didn’t take long before they began to peel off. We headed off at a leisurely determined pace willing the clouds to disperse from Ngauruhoe Summit. I personally was of two minds. I knew how hard of an ascent it would be but on the other hand, saying that I had climbed Mt. Doom and seeing the view at the top which I was sure would be worth the amount of swearing I had no doubt would happen, would be cool. I also wasn’t sure if I was physically fit enough though to do that plus the rest of the hike.

Every section of the hike is different terrain from the next. It starts on a boardwalk through marsh like lands then switches to lunar landscapes and grassy fields. Then there is the devils staircase, the name explains it to a tee – I was quite proud of myself when I got to the top of that one. You go down hills of loose scree, around sulphur coloured lakes of emerald blue and green and then down a winding path through shrubs followed by a forest.


We reached the end of the South Crater, decision point for Mt Doom. If we did it, it would add another 2.5 hrs onto the top of the 19km trek and ascend 2291meters. The fog was swirling around the whole mountain and general visibility was poor. There was a bit of humming and hawing, tossing of coins but in the end I took it as a sign and decided I would do the other summit in its stead. There was a small group who went up and the clouds did break at the top and they got incredible views but I am happy with my decision and in someways I think we got the better view as the clouds cleared as we crossed the South Crater and for most of the second summit trek.

tongarirosummitsnowThe second summit, Mt Tongariro, is at the top of the Red Crater Ridge which looks a bit like you have appeared on another planet. It is a very steep track going up and there is a large drop on one side. Once you’re at the top give yourself a pat as you have made it past the steepest part of the track. I took a wee break here for a handful of my trail mix and m&m’s and then we headed up Mt Tongariro. Mt Tongariro goes along the red crater ridge and commands views over the South Crater and Mt Doom. I felt like an explorer on a grand expedition or one of the fellowship of the ring as they go across the mountains in Lord of the Rings. Taking in the our vast surroundings it was hard not be overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of the area. As we plodded our way through the snowy path, breaking into renditions of “Do you want to build a snowman?”, I was forever grateful for my hiking boots as the girls in runners found it too slippery and didn’t get to climb as far. I made it to the top just as the clouds and fogs came rolling back in over the Mountain engulfing the view and me in a grey shroud of mist and wind.

Looking back I can’t decide which was my favourite part. The emerald lakes, the snow, heading past Te Mari – an active volcanic zone it erupted in 2012 and is still smoking today; bidding it’s time I suppose, or the moment when the clouds lifted and the sun came out when we were in the middle of crossing the south crater and found ourselves surrounded by snow capped mountains, or even the long and winding road down to the forest which was warm and sunny and smelt of gorse bushes and sweet grass. It was all pretty great and nothing like I had ever done before. Hard to capture in words and in photos the diversity and rawness of the landscape, well especially with my wee camera. All I can say is if you get the opportunity, do it. It is worth every moment and rightfully so heralded as New Zealand’s…the world’s best one day hike.


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