Tongariro Alpine Crossing – 19.4 kilometres

 

“New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual World Heritage Site. The Tongariro National Park is rich in both cultural identity and dramatic, awe-inspiring natural scenery. Unique landforms, including the volcanic peaks of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu ensure the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered a world-renowned trek.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is heralded as the best one-day trek available in New Zealand, while others say it ranks among the top ten single-day treks in the world.

Many who complete the 19.4-kilometre journey will tell you the climbs can be steep and the weather unpredictable, though worth it in every aspect.” [http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz]

Since relocating to NZ a few years ago, we’ve wanted to do the full crossing. But every time something else comes up. Or the weather turns nasty. Or the mountain pops, causing a track closure for about nine months. You know how it goes. This time we had our hearts set on Labour Weekend when we could be joined by Johann and Nettie.

We left from Wellington on the Saturday morning, quickly making a stop at home in Palmy before continuing our trip to Whakapapa Village where we stayed. The weather was miserable. We expected that our plans would be ruined again as we arrived late in the afternoon on a rainy, cold and windy day. After a quick beer at the local pub, we cooked a light pasta before turning in, hoping for the best. The transport trips were cancelled for the Saturday (the day of our arrival) due to the bad weather and we were expecting to have it cancelled on the Sunday – our planned day for the trip – as well. A call would be made early in the morning to decide whether transport will be provided to and from either ends of the crossing. If not, it is safe to assume that the track is “unofficially closed” for the day.

And what do you know. At 6:45 we were informed that the transport agencies (we used ROAM at $35 per person for transport to and from our accommodation to the start and finish) were in operation and we could do the crossing if we wished, despite MetService predicting temperatures of -11 at Red Crater (the highest point on the track) and winds of up to 65km/h. Apparently 65km/h winds are the upper limit for the authorities. Anything more severe and it is no longer safe to journey across. Should the crossing effectively be “closed” due to bad weather, our alternative would have been to just walk up to Red Crater, or summit Mt Tongariro, and back, as Gerry and I did the previous time. Or just to go as far as we could before nasty weather forces us back down.

Luckily none of this was necessary and we quickly grabbed all our stuff and caught a ride to the start at the Mangatepopo carpark on the western side of Mr Tongariro. It was quite misty and windy, but luckily we had little to no rain.

We started off with hundreds of other trampers. By the bus loads we were dropped off in a staggered fashion over a period of about two hours. So luckily not all 1000 (or however many) on one go, but spread over a couple of hours. The long queue of walkers all along the path made it look like the crossing would be a walk in the park. I guess hoping for a nice an quiet outing in the mountains is a bit much asked on one of the very few long weekends in NZ. Add to that the fact that the crossing is the most popular one-day track in NZ and famous amongst tourists, and you know exactly why there are so many other walkers on the path.

We could unfortunately not see any of the summits of the surrounding mountains, but the extremely cold weather and wind added to the adventure. Icicles started to collect on us the further we went up, with winds lashing at our jackets. At the last bit of uphill just before reaching the saddle at Red Crater (1886m), the wind was really trying to blow us off the mountain. It was freezing cold and a few other trampers turned around, claiming not to be geared properly for the extreme weather. Wise decision.

As soon as we went over the saddle and down next to Red Crater, the wind was already a bit less extreme. By the time we reached the three Emerald Lakes, the mist opened up and we decided to stop for tea and a biscuit next to the lowest of the three Emarald Lakes. It was still rather cold, but the sun peeked out every now and again and the terrible wind and cold was soon forgotten. Almost. We still had our fair share of freezing temperatures, but the beautiful scenery made up for any discomforts.

At Blue Lake at the edge of the Volcanic Hazard zone we stopped for a quick lunch, very much aware that we are walking on active volcanos, before making our way to the hut that was battered in the last eruption. No longer in use, but still there as a shelter in case of an emergency. Boulders of up to one metre in diameter were spewed out by the Te Maari crater during the 2012 eruption of Mt Tongariro, making enormous dents in mother earth.

We continued down the mountain through indigenous forest back to the Ketetahi car park on the northern side of the mountain, where we caught the bus back to our cabin.

The day turned out great. It was cold and very windy, but most exciting. You walk through alpine meadows, summit mountains with fantastic volcanic features, across lunar landscapes and craters, active volcanoes, springs, lava flows, scoria, mounds of volcanic desert that looks like statues and past lakes. We even got to play in the snow! This is a must do for anyone living in or visiting New Zealand.

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