Featured Image: Ruapehu over the heathland
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 4 February 2019
Postcard from Tongariro Alpine Crossing: one of the world’s best one-day walks
The Tongariro National Park
In the centre of the North Island of New Zealand is the magnificent Tongariro National Park, which is New Zealand’s oldest National Park set-up in 1894.
Tongariro National Park the sixth national park in the world is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1886 the local Maori iwi the Ngati Tuwharetoa had the land surveyed and set aside for the government to manage to prevent the selling of the mountains to European settlers.
When the Tongariro National Park Act was passed in October 1894, the park covered an area of about 252.13 sq km, later additions brought this up to a size of 786.23 sq km.
The park’s three volcanoes Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu — all active — are the southern end of a 2500 km long range of volcanoes. The northern end of this volcanically active zone within New Zealand, which passes through Taupo and Rotorua, is White Island in the sea off the Bay of Plenty. All three are magic places to visit and within a few hours drive of Tongariro.
The cause of this volcanic activity in New Zealand is where the Pacific Tectonic Plate is subducted under the Australian Plate.
Ngauruhoe previously erupted every nine years, but the last eruption was in 1975. Mount Tongariro has two active vents the Red Crater, which last emitted ash in 1926 and the Te Maari craters on its northern slopes, which erupted in August and November 2012. One of which put a boulder through the roof of Ketetahi Hut causing its closure as an overnight option. It remains in use on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing only as a day shelter.
Mount Ruapehu has major eruptions about every 50 years 1895, 1945 and 1995-96. Minor eruptions are frequent with at least 60 since 1945.
Lahars are another problem on Mount Ruapehu and also Tongariro. A lahar is a mudflow or debris flow (ash and rock) mixed with water and caused by volcanic activity. Lahars have been recorded on Mount Ruapehu since 1861, important ones were 1953, 1968, 1969, 1975, 1995 and 2007. The 1953 lahar damaged a bridge on the main Auckland to Wellington railway a short time before a train was due. The train derailed and 151 lives were lost.
Mt Ruapehu has two ski areas and is one of the few places in the world where one skis on an active volcano. Lahar danger and the action to take is communicated carefully in these ski areas, but research shows that less than half the skiers know what to do, when the alarm sounds. Although one suspects they may follow, when others run like hell uphill.
The main accommodation areas are Okahune, National Park and Turangi. More upmarket options are the Tongariro Chateau and some apartments at Whakapapa. Pick-ups for the Tongariro crossing are mainly from National Park, Whakapapa and Turangi but also from further afield.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
There are many good walks in New Zealand in spectacular country. Nevertheless, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been labelled one of the best one-day walks in the world. The walk is certainly spectacular through rough volcanic terrain, up and between two active volcanoes Ngauruhoe and Tongariro with snowy Ruapehu in the background.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19.4 km tramp up and over a saddle followed by a long descent. Most walkers begin at the Mangatepopo Car Park and walk to the Ketetahi Car Park because the ascent is 765 metres and the descent 1125 metres. The elevation at the beginning is 1120 m and at the end 760 m. South crater is 1650 m, the Red Crater summit is 1886 m and the Emerald Lakes 1695 m.
The walk takes 6-8 hours for most people and many companies offer lifts to and from either end for a fixed fee. This is usually easier than organising cars to either end.
Up until 2007 the walk was called the Tongariro Crossing. The Alpine was added to emphasise the extreme weather that can be experienced on the exposed terrain. The weather can also change very quickly, as almost anywhere in New Zealand and in the Australian Alps. Nevertheless, many walkers are unprepared with appropriate clothing for changes in the weather or with the proper fitness for the endurance required. Denise and I fell partly within this latter group.
The Tongariro Crossing itself, December 2018
Denise and I first walked the Tongariro Crossing in March 2000. It wasn’t a bad day, but mist came in around the Red Crater, which we didn’t see at all. We just felt the heat generated beneath our feet. We were very careful on the narrow ridge as we couldn’t see anything. We only saw the coloured lakes dimly through the mist. We didn’t find the walk particularly difficult.
In December 2018 we chose our day (the day following our arrival in National Park from Wellington), which was a perfect summer’s day — quite hot at times, requiring lots of sun cream — with only light breezes on top.
Unfortunately, we’d both been struck down with a pernicious flu about a month before we left for New Zealand and with one thing and another didn’t do any walking beforehand, plus we were older than on the first trip. Consequently, we were unfit and ill-prepared for the walk physically. Nevertheless, we had our cold weather gear with us and were experienced enough to know that no matter how physically deficient we felt, we could finish the walk. It took us 9 hours.
The Mangatepopo Car Park was chaos central when we arrived at about 7.45 am. There were a large number of large and small buses, SUV four-wheel drives and other vehicles, with walkers milling around. (Private vehicles are not encouraged). In 2000 we walked by ourselves meeting with others but not that many.
The track is equipped to handle around 600 walkers daily but on busy days it’s getting as many as 3000. Visitor numbers have been increasing 15 percent year-on-year with around 125,000 people walking the crossing in 2016.
Despite this when we set off and despite lines of people in some places crowds were not a problem. At most during the day we could see perhaps 100 people from horizon to horizon. But we didn’t feel crowded at any time. People passed us occasionally. Everyone was friendly.
The walk from the car park to the Soda Springs turn off and the bridge is relatively flat with excellent views of Ngauruhoe ahead. There are toilets just before the bridge to the beginning of the first climb and these are spaced regularly beyond. (Numbers preclude even urinating outside.)
There is a warning sign here about how strenuous the walk is about to become and at a couple of other places, encouraging people to turn back if they are having trouble. Most of the walkers we saw that day were quite fit and did not find the walking arduous. But, about ten percent, including ourselves, found the going difficult at various stages. With those numbers and accidents, it is not surprising that some tourists have to be helicoptered out on a regular basis, and that search parties have to be sent out occasionally.
During our first climb, we could see two other groups of trampers doing alternative walks. One on the left was climbing up the steep ridge and presumably following it to the highest part of Mount Tongariro. The other was climbing up the steep sides of Mount Ngauruhoe, which looked challenging to say the least.
The first climb up to the saddle between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe is the longest climb. From the saddle one has magnificent views back south to Mangatepopo and far beyond. One can often see as far as Mount Taranaki on the coast from various places on a clear day.
One then walks through South Crater, but there are two more quite steep climbs up to the peak of the Red Crater the highest point 1886 m, and one smaller one up to the large Blue Lake, also known as Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa (Rangihiroa’s mirror).
Some walkers find the descent from the Red Crater peak, on a volcanic scree slope (a mix of pumice rocks and dust), quite challenging but we found it relatively easy once you developed a pattern of slide and stop. The photograph of the start of this scree showing two of the emerald lakes and Blue Lake beyond doesn’t show quite how steep it actually is.
The descent is to the three vivid Emerald Lakes, known as Ngarotopounamu (greenstone-hued lakes). An amazing place. There is an active fumarole nearby.
One then walks up a slope to the Blue Lake. (See the rolling Scree photo above.) The track then winds around the northern slope of Tongariro and descends in a zigzag track to the Ketetahi Shelter. This part seemed quite long and we needed a 20-minute rest before proceeding. The view from around Ketahi Hut is spectacular down to Lake Rotoaira with Lake Taupo beyond. Lake Rotoaira was the site of an important Maori settlement and a Maori crossing point from the east to the west.
There was no way we were going to make the four o’clock deadline so we phoned our pick up, as requested, and told him we wouldn’t be down until 5 pm. The walk from the Ketetahi Hut in other circumstances as one descends from the alpine heights through heath and into forest would have been quite pleasant, but we were tired and the walk seemed endless. My muscles weren’t up to steps from this point on and I tended to stagger down them in an uncontrolled way.
When we reached the lahar danger place beside, a lovely stream a few kilometres from the end which was about a kilometre long, we didn’t expect anything, but would have been hard pressed to run had we heard any loud noises from above. In the last half kilometre we came across an Indian couple. The wife was staggering but the husband was being solicitous and holding her arm.
We were very tired and we had to hobble for the next day or two as our muscles recovered, but the walk was magnificent in the best conditions. The photographs tell the story.
The Tongariro Alpine Walk is indisputably the best one-day walk in New Zealand and if you have the chance don’t miss it.
Other things to see and do from National Park
We stayed at Turangi on our trip in 2000. Turangi is a nothing sort of town and hasn’t changed much in 20 years but it has a good coffee shop, supposedly good pies — a New Zealand quirky liking for odd savoury pies, and some interesting things nearby.
In December 2018 we stayed at National Park in a separate very comfortable ski apartment surrounded by three similar ones on a single block of land. In summer although there are plenty of tourists much of the accommodation is empty.
We passed through Okahune on the south end of the park on our way to National Park and picked up supplies for our stay at the New World Supermarket there. Okahune is also a pleasant tourist town with good facilities, walks cycling and other tourist things to do.
National Park with some aspects of a ghost town typical of a ski area in summer is a pleasant spot with great views of Ruapehu. National Park has limited facilities but five eateries ranging from a good upmarket restaurant at the station to a pizza cafe and a tavern. There are also basic groceries available at the petrol station. Walking and cycling are the main options at National Park with other adventure activities including kayaking.
The Chateau and Whakapapa visitor centre is 11 min away by car and the ski area a few kilometres further. In 2000 we went up on the chair lift part way up the mountain but in 2018 new ski lifts were being installed and there wasn’t anything to do here, except walks.
As well as the Tongariro Crossing we did a series of short walks around the area to scenic spots. One day we went to Turangi on a tourist jaunt, which took all day. We visited the thermal pools had a bath and had coffee and lunch in Turangi. We visited the Tongariro National Trout Centre and museum, walked by the Tongariro River and saw our first blue ducks (whio) in the only habituation enclosure in New Zealand, preparing them for release into the wild across the country. We also went to the historic Pa and village site at Lake Rotoaira but didn’t visit the site of one of the last battles in the Maori settler war.
The next day we went to Whakapapa to the visitor centre and up to the ski area, great environments. We also visited Tawhai Falls, which was Gollum’s pool in Lord of the Rings. Mt Ngauruhoe was Mount Doom. In a self-indulgent splurge we went to high tea at the Chateau for a late lunch, which was spectacular with a wonderful view of the Ngauruhoe volcano through the window.
We spent three full days (four nights) at National Park which wasn’t enough.
Key words: North Island, New Zealand, Tongariro National Park, Tongariro Crossing, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu, Mount Doom, Lord of the Rings, Mangatepopo Car Park, South Crater, Mount Taranaki, Red Crater, rolling scree, Emerald Lakes, Ngarotopounamu, Blue Lake, fumarole, volcano, eruption, lahar, Ketetahi Shelter, National Park, Chateau Tongariro, Whakapapa, Okahune, Turangi, Tawhai Falls, Gollum’s pool, Lake Rotoaira, Lake Taupo, whio
I’m not going to include various sites to look up as they are mostly self-explanatory and there are excellent New Zealand government and commercial sites for information.
For the Tongariro Crossing the price for pick-up and return appears fixed at NZ $35 from National Park in 2018. Well worth it. I’d advise you to go with one of the smaller companies, i.e. the lodge you are staying at or nearby, rather than the big ones. They are more likely to look after you if things don’t quite go to plan and they tend to be more flexible.
Video of the 2007 Lahar and more information on Ruapehu Volcano
The 2007 Lahar on Mount Ruapehu is quite frightening from up close posted on youTube by Geoff Mackley in 2009(8 min 46).
Information on the geology and history of Ruapehu Volcano including lahars is also useful.
A Comment on New Zealand Walking
The New Zealand DOC does a fantastic job of creating and maintaining walking or tramping tracks across New Zealand and always has. They have a system of DOC huts across New Zealand that would be the pride of any country. Australia has good walking tracks but responsibility is spread across the states and territories. Both state federal governments provide limited support and in recent years have cut funds to National Parks.
A Small Rant
New Zealand is a tourist orientated economy with a limited population. They do a terrific job at all levels, especially when it comes to walking and cycling facilities.
One overseas tourist in his family blog said of Tongariro Crossing and the other walks they did in New Zealand, Roy’s Peak and Hooker Valley in the South Island, that they were a little disappointed because the tracks they encountered were: ‘too pristine, too manicured, too safe almost’. I can partly sympathise with the sentiment but need to dispute the facts.
On they day we did the Tongariro Crossing and from their photographs on the day they did it too, the track did appear extraordinarily safe and lacking in adventure. This is the exception rather than the rule. On some days you risk being blown off the track and in many conditions the track may be hard to find and to follow, despite the markers.
Many of the major tramps in New Zealand appear benign on good days, but can be treacherous and occasionally impassable on bad days. There are also hundreds of kilometres of other tracks in New Zealand designated for experienced and well-equiped walkers only. For example parts of the north south transits and alpine crossings. I’ve heard that even the most experienced find these walks extremely hard at times, very challenging and even hazardous. Conditions of wind, sleet, snow and rain are frequently encountered. Raging streams and land slips are not unusual. Tramping in New Zealand is wonderful but not always for the faint-hearted.
My friend Peggy put me onto Brad McCartney’s Blog on the Te Araroa Trail which goes from one end of New Zealand to the other. Peggy transited Africa on a truck with Brad. Read several of his posts at random and you will get an idea of the conditions that the other half of trampers in New Zealand encounter. The blog is terrific. He hasn’t quite finished yet!
Brad also did the Tongariro Crossing ten days before we did. It is worth comparing accounts and photographs. Also look at his failed attempt a few days before, which demonstrates what it is like in normal bad weather.
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