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Tongariro Crossing (New Zealand)

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Country: New Zealand / World Region: Australasia / Pacific

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      26.08.2010 19:18
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      New Zealand's best one day hike.

      The Tongariro Alpine crossing is billed as New Zealand's best one day hike. It passes between two important andesitic volcanoes, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe and covers 19.4km in length between Mangatepopo to the west of the mountains and Ketetahi Road end to the north and takes an estimated 7-8 hours to complete. It can be walked in either direction, but the way that I did it is the usual way round to do it because that way you have less climbing to do - the start is much higher than the end point.

      ===Where is it?===
      The Tongariro crossing is in the Tongariro National Park, which is located in the middle of New Zealand's North Island. This park contains several active volcanoes and has the only "proper" mountains in the North Island - all the nice dramatic sweeping snowy mountain ranges you see in Lord of the Rings are in the Southern Alps on the South Island.

      ===Why does it sometimes have the word Alpine in the name?===
      In 2007 they changed the name of this crossing to add in the word "Alpine" - it's now the Tongariro ALPINE crossing. This is because too many people did not realise that it was a serious proper mountain hike and would try to do it in completely unsuitable footwear and clothing and then end up needing rescuing. They have big signs up at various places warning you of dire things that would happen, but still people try to do it.

      ===Volcanically active?===
      This region is volcanically active and periodically there are events that would be bad to be around (e.g. a lahar or an eruption). There are signs at several points on the crossing saying what to do if it starts erupting. I wouldn't worry though, at the moment it's at a very low Alert Level rating. Check before you go though!

      ===What mountains does it cross?===
      This hike takes you through a pass between the peaks of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe; both of these are volcanoes that are still periodically active. The crossing itself does not traverse the summit of either of these peaks, but you can do separate side excursions to climb either summit that will add an extra few hours onto your already long hike (you will need to catch an early bus). As the weather was not suitable and I had insufficient time (I walk quite slowly), I did not do this.

      Because the route covers a very steep uphill route for the first 7km followed by a very slow gentle 12.4km meandering descent, what I plan to do the next time I visit New Zealand is to start from the same place, climb up Ngauruhoe and retrace my steps back to the car. Then I won't be dependent on making it to the bus in time!

      ===How high does the route go?===
      According to the basic map I got given, the crossing starts at an altitude of around about 1100m and ascends to a little under 1900m (over 6000ft in "old money"), before dropping back to about 750m. So in good weather, it's not at all technically difficult nor challenging to a person of reasonable fitness, and you shouldn't have any problems with the altitude.

      ===How do I book a place on this crossing? / shuttle buses===
      It's pretty easy to do this trail as you don't need a permit. Do what I did and just book transport a day or two before with a shuttle bus company when you are in the region - I did the crossing when I was based in Taupo.

      The weather is so variable that you won't generally know until the evening before whether or not it is going ahead the next day anyway - it's pretty much down to the bus operators as to whether or not you'll get to hike. There are a huge number of operators that run shuttle buses to and from the crossing from the nearby towns - just speak to the reception of your hotel or hostel and ask them to sort something out. From my hostel in Taupo, it cost NZD $55, which worked out as about 20 pounds. For that, I got picked up at obscene am (well before dawn) and taken to the start point and then picked up from the end and taken back to my hostel. There are dozens of buses waiting at the end point, so do make sure that you get on the right one!

      Before you start, they'll take your details down (including a phone number) so that an alarm can be raised if you don't get back down. They'll give you an emergency number to contact in case you have to turn around part way and make your way back again, but fortunately I didn't need this! It's really important to let them know if you aren't going to need the lift back - every so often a hunt is organised for someone who turns up at a pub with someone they met on the trail!

      They will tell you at the time you book it what time you get picked up - this is generally timed so that you will be starting hiking very early around dawn and getting down well before dusk. However do be warned that you need to be out waiting well before your pickup time - due to my late booking the night before, I wasn't on the driver's list so he left without me even though I was there five or ten minutes early! Fortunately, there were two morning pickups - an early one for people wanting to do the summits and a later one for mere mortals so I was able to catch the later bus.

      ===Can I do this alone?===
      I had worried a little about doing the crossing by myself and thought about booking myself on a guided tour (this was very expensive - around 100 pounds per person) but I needn't have been - the route is amazingly well signposted and it's such a popular trail that there are plenty of people around to help you if you need it.

      ===I don't have any hiking gear with me! What do I do?===
      Depending on the operator, they may well have a system to loan you any gear that you need for a small amount. I borrowed a set of waterproof trousers for a deposit of NZD$20 (about 10 pounds), which was returned to me afterwards because I didn't use them.

      ===What do I need to do this hike?===
      If you don't know how to do basic hiking then join a rambling club before you go all the way around the world to do this! If you go in the (Southern Hemisphere) summer like I did then you can get away with some pretty basic items. I wore a basic T-shirt and hiking trousers, hiking boots with decent socks and used a hiking pole to help cushion my knees on the descent.
      In my backpack, I had a fleece, sweater, hat, scarf, gloves, waterproofs, torch, mobile phone, a compass, whistle, 2.5 litres of water, 1 litre of sugary squash, emergency rations, a packed lunch, snacks and more snacks. Definitely don't underestimate the food and drink you can get through on a long hike like this. But do take careful note of where the toilet facilities are if you are bothered by that sort of thing! In winter, you will need a lot of additional gear, but things like crampons and ice axes are the sort of thing that you either know about already or would need to learn about on a course or similar.

      ===Lord of the Rings connection===
      There were several places in this National Park that were used for filming Mordor in the famous Lord of the Rings trilogy and the crossing passes over Ngauruhoe, which is better known as the filming location for Mount Doom. As it happens, it's only a couple of hours drive South from Matamata, which is where they filmed Hobbiton. The Hobbiton set is actually open to the public and because of its proximity, I had visited it the day before.

      Cue many postcards home saying "Yesterday: visited Hobbiton. Today: climbed Mount Doom. See how much easier it is when you get a good map and actually ask for directions?".

      Come on, consider the evidence: a fellowship of nine and all of them men. Do they fit the cliche that men never ask for directions? Hmmm, let's see: do you ever see any of them stopping and looking at a map? No! Do we ever hear them saying "I TOLD you we should have turned left after we had that battle with the wargs?". Again, no. Ask yourself, could this be a coincidence? Could they have cut it all short if they'd just taken Arwen or Galadriel along instead of one of the interchangable hobbits?

      ===The walk itself===
      On the day of my hike, I woke up bright and early for my 5.40am pickup, threw some clothes on and waited in the pitch black outside of the hostel for my lift. This turned out to be a bit longer than expected due to the first bus leaving ten minutes early without me, but the later bus was only about forty minutes later, so it just left me with time to savour an extra coffee (I'm a firm believer that there is only ONE six o'clock in the day!). The bus meandered around Taupo picking people up from their various hostels, before heading out on the long drive over to the start point. On the way, we stopped at Taurangi to pick up more hikers and gather any last minute provisions from a 24 hour garage and the Ketetahi Car Park (which was the end point of the hike) to gather the brave souls who had decided to leave their cars in the car park for the day (it has quite a risk of vandalism).

      We arrived at the start of the trail around 7am, which was well after dawn and allowed for a fresh-looking "Before" picture next to the trail start. Sadly, the weather that day was very cloudy so you can't see the mountains in the background. Happily, though, this makes hiking easier - I would really have struggled on many other days of my trip when the temperatures were in the thirties of degrees Celsius. I was very pleased to note that the way was marked regularly with poles and all the branching paths signposted so there was no way I could get lost. And later on in the day, when the mist really set in, I got to make real use of these once the path was so vague as to be invisible apart from the poles.

      The first part of the crossing is from Mangatepopo car park to Soda Springs and is reckoned to take an hour to an hour and a half and is rated as Easy. However, that didn't allow for the amount of time I spent stopping and taking photographs! I'm doing a Geosciences degree, so there was a lot for me to photograph round here, but the rest of you might not be quite so dorky.

      You can picture me now repeating ad nauseum: Wow, what an impressive cliff! *Snap*! Oooooh, nice outcrop! *Click*! Phwoar check out the cleavage on that rock! *snap*! See what I did with that geology joke there...?

      For an Easy graded walk, I was a little bit concerned at how much scrambling and climbing using four limbs was needed when I looked ahead and saw the next section was labelled as Difficult. I'd certainly say that that part was fairly gentle going, but I hesitate to describe it as easy because I think people with balance problems or limited mobility wouldn't be able to do it. It offered some stunning views, so I think this section on its own would actually be a good walk for if you are feeling lazy but want a nice afternoon stroll. With the long grass and dramatic hills either side, it reminded me very much of Snowdonia or Scotland.

      At Soda Springs are found the last set of toilets until you reach the other side of the pass, although "set" may be being a bit optimistic given that one of them was missing its door. Which means that the queues here in busy season get seriously long and offer an excellent opportunity for a light snack or two whilst you wait. Not that I really needed much of an excuse having been steadily grazing for the past hour. Well I had to keep up my strength on a 19.4km walk after all!

      After leaving this point came the signs that it might be a difficult walk. No, really. Large big signs hammered in warning you of dire direness that would befall you if you went past there and it would all be your fault and nobody would find your desiccated corpse for years, if ever. Maybe I exaggerate a tiny bit, it was all very sensible stuff along the lines of wearing the right footwear and so on. Far too many people go hiking without the right equipment and get into trouble and cost lots of money to rescue, so it seems only reasonable.

      The next section is Soda Springs to the South Crater, rated as moderate to difficult and reckoned to take 40 minutes to an hour. This section is known as the Devil's staircase, because it is a steep 200m high staircase taking you from an altitude of 1400m up to 1600m and is reckoned to be awful. Now I'm not saying it was a barrel of laughs, but I think they might be overdramatizing it just a bit with the name. And why is it always references to the Devil in these melodramatic names? Off the top of my head, there's the Devil's cauldron, Devil's dyke, Devil's kitchen. I guess "Mildly irksome slightly impish staircase" doesn't really have the same ring to it. I've hiked the Inca trail, and *that's* got challenging staircases, this devilish staircase had nothing on that. I just plodded away and got there in about the scheduled time. Looking back through the mist, I got the impression that if I were there on a sunny day, I'd have some amazing views.

      When I got to the top of the staircase, I encountered a large number of people sitting around eating their next meal of the day. I lose track of how many meals I found people having: breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea or one of the numerous snacks in between. I reckon someone could make a killing taking a box of Mars bars up there and flogging them to the hikers. This point was where the brave and hardy souls who were setting off on the side route to Ngauruhoe were setting off from. Visibility was seriously lacking that day due to the low lying cloud, so I'm not sure what they hoped to achieve other than the claim that they had climbed to the top of Mount Doom. But good for them, if they enjoyed it.

      Walking through the South crater was an eerie experience - it was extremely flat (even by the standards of the fens where I live), boulder-strewn from old eruptions and full of small flowers and other plants - I had expected this to be completely barren! It has a vaguely otherworldly feel to it, a bit like you are on Mars or the Moon (though sadly without the exciting bouncing walk). I made the acquaintance of a couple who were walking at a similar pace to me when they kindly helped me with my snapshot taking. That's one of the great things about travelling in New Zealand - people are always offering to help with the photography and keen to chat and share tips for places to visit. Even travelling alone, it's hard to be too lonely - there's usually someone to talk to if you stay at a hostel. Though I did lose track of the number of times people said "Wow, that's brave" when they found out I was touring alone as if I were canoeing alone along the Amazon or something equally outlandish, rather than just driving around a friendly first world country.

      The climb up to the Red Crater, which at 1886m was the highest point on the trail, was distinctly precipitous. There were stretches where I had to traverse a knife edge ridge, which must be alarming in high winds. Even on a relatively calm day like the one I had I found it a bit on the scary side with the exposed drops to either side. I was certainly glad of my hiking poles to help me balance! This was rated moderate to difficult as well and that time I believe it!

      From the Red Crater, there are apparently some stunning views of the Emerald Lakes. But sadly the view I had was of mist and more mist. The path this far takes half the overall time to do the crossing, but was only a third of the distance. I found it a little bit on the depressing side, knowing that I still had another 12km to go! This point was the turnoff to the much easier Mt Tongariro, a "mere" 1967m, but I really didn't have the time to do it. For most of the crossing I found myself checking my watch carefully to make sure I was sticking to the time limit - miss the last bus and you're stuck making your own way back! The buses are scheduled for able bodied speedy walkers, not feeble plodding asthmatics like me! For this reason, I would like to go back and do it again, but be able to take my time and visit more of the trails in this region.

      After another meal (I know!) and a rest break came the start of the route back down again. I generally find down harder than up because it's tough on the knees. This proved no exception here, when I had to climb down a steep scree slope to one of the Emerald lakes. By the time I got to the bottom, I think more of the scree was in my boots than left on the slope! This next stretch is the Central crater and was the point where I started feeling a little anxious lest I get lost - there were few people around and the mist was so heavy that I could barely make out the trail markers. I was moving from one marker to the next never really knowing where my path was going to take me next. Anyone more than a couple of minutes ahead of you or behind you was soon swallowed up by the ominous clouds and it was easy to imagine that I was all alone there.

      After another while hiking up the next crater wall came the zig zagged path down to the Ketetahi hut. This area is full of bubbling springs and is the start of the green vegetation which looked rather boggy for the most part. Much of this section is over chicken-wire covered boardwalks to ensure that you stick to the paths and not disturb the local flora and fauna. It was all too easy to get turned around in this area and be left with a very poor sense of direction. However, the blue marker points every km along were reassuring in letting me know I was making progress, however gradual!

      The Ketetahi hut was absolutely jam packed with people when I got there. This is the next place to go to the toilets or fill your water bottle. I had taken plenty of water with me, but still found it handy to be able to get some more. I didn't venture into the hut because they have a strict no boots policy and by that point I figured that if I took my boots off, they'd never go back on my feet again! Much better to just keep plodding on. The signs at this point were reassuring - only a couple more hours of hiking left! By then, I was into some serious fantasising territory about never moving again once I got off the trail.

      From here onwards, the flora got ever more lush and verdant until it eventually became a full blown forest with running streams, mossy trees with gnarled roots. This didn't make the progress very fast as there was all too much of interest to photograph. With each kilometre I passed, I became increasingly keen to get to the end of the trail. By the final few kilometres I was nigh on jogging in my urge to get back and on the bus. The very last kilometre I'm convinced was at least three times the length of the ones at the start of the trail! I found myself thinking "Just another corner and then I'll be there..." for at least the last half dozen corners. The exit when it finally came appeared extremely suddenly and I found myself blinking in the bright light after the dimness of the forest surrounded by many people (all eating) and lots and lots of buses which made it interesting to find the one I was after. After a little look around, a friendly woman with a clipboard noticed me looking and came up to me and said "You must be Becky, you're the last but one person I need to find before we head off". She took an "after" shot of me looking extremely bedraggled compared to the morning and I staggered wearily onto the bus and promptly fell asleep for the whole journey back I was so tired!

      Tiredness, however, did not stop me plodding the twenty minutes walk over to get my long-awaited pizza that evening. Never has a pizza been quite so welcomed as on that night! That night, I slept like a log well into the next day. But it was certainly worth it! I was a lot less footsore than I had expected and the leg muscles and knees were all fine. I put that down to eating well and staying hydrated on the trip.

      ===Facilities en route===
      As it is part of a network of trails throughout the National Park, there are several mountain huts en route which you can stay at if you are doing a route that lasts more than one day. Beds in these are fairly cheap (15 - 31 NZD depending on time of year, which is about 10-15 UK pounds) but are very basic - they tend to be a single dorm but they usually have drinking water, cooking facilities and a couple of long drop toilets that requires nerves of steel (or desperation) to use. I didn't use these huts to stay in, but I did stop by to refill my water bottles and make use of the limited toilet facilities. Some of the toilets en route were so limited that they lacked a working door so are really only for the bravest and most desperate.

      ===How tiring is it? / How fit do you have to be?===
      I easily finished this in the recommended time, but I was pretty tired the next day. By the time I got to the top, I was fantasising strongly about the pizza that I was going to have for dinner that evening, which is a sure sign of a nice strenuous hike. I would extremely strongly disrecommend this trip if you aren't fit enough to climb Snowdon. Regular hill walkers should have no problems with this.

      I managed the climb up to the top with no problems at all, though I sweated and huffed and puffed so much that I must have been seriously ripe by the time I got back down. It's hard to say how you'd compare - I'm fit and in my early thirties but have crippled lungs from lifelong asthma so whilst I'm much fitter than unfit people, I can't keep up with fit able bodied people. I just plod along and keep on going and it all works out fine.

      ===Is it accessible to people with restricted mobility?===
      No, no, no and some more no. Do not try to do this with a wheelchair, pushchair or if you have balance issues. Depending on your specific mobility requirements, you might manage the first half hour or so, but it very quickly turns into the sort of climb where you actually have to do scrambling and use four limbs to manage it. There are some parts where you go along an exposed ridge with sheer drops to either side.

      ===Conclusion===
      I would strongly recommend this route to all serious hikers and people who, like me, just enjoy going for the odd six or seven hour gentle stroll up a big hill. If you are a bit worried, check with your doctor and have a go at Snowdon or something similar before you leave. If you can manage that without collapsing then you'll probably be OK.

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