Tongariro Alpine Crossing: Simply Walking into Mordor

A bit more than a month ago, my coworkers and I were chatting over some Friday beers when the topic of hiking came up. I mentioned that M and I wanted to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, as the guidebook rated it the best one-day hike in New Zealand. None of my coworkers had done it but many were interested. Therefore, we organized a company-wide trip to do it!

Surprisingly, M and I were the most outdoorsy people of the group, so we wrote up emails telling everyone what to expect and what to bring. The hike is an eight-hour, 19.4 km (12 mile) trek up and over the saddle between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe (no, I don’t know how to pronounce that). Both of these mountains can be summited as part of the hike, but Mount Ngauruhoe, which played Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, is both incredibly steep and ashy and an active volcano. Our group, most of which had not done any serious hiking in a while, would have enough of a struggle just getting to the end of the trail. M and I emphasized the need for lots of water, food, and warm clothes (the highest point of the track is 1886 m, or nearly 6200 ft) and hoped that everyone would be prepared.

The elevation gain along the trail.
The elevation gain along the trail (click for official site).

Since we had many people with complicated schedules, we postponed our trip until the weekend of March 21st. This timing was a little late in the season, I thought, and watching the weather in the week leading up to it seemed to confirm my fears: temperatures were near freezing. However, a few days before we were set to leave a new forecast came in: sunny and double-digit temperatures! We decided to leave from work on the Friday, M and I in one car and a coworker with a huge Honda Odyssey driving the rest.

Finally, the day came! M and I set off from central Auckland at 4pm, which in retrospect was not nearly soon enough to avoid Friday rush hour traffic on the single highway south. Still, we were luckier than the other car, which was plagued with last-minute logistical issues. Even though they left soon after us, it was enough that they caught the brunt of traffic. In fact, we ended up so far ahead we had time to stop for a lovely meal around 8pm in a town called Otorohanga, which boasts a great little pub called The Thirsty Weta. We can recommend their burgers, and the pale ale brewed on site met with M’s approval! Sadly, we couldn’t stay for the live band that was setting up- we still had a lot of road to cover and with the arrival of darkness couldn’t even enjoy what we presumed was spectacular scenery.

Even with the hour long delay, we managed to arrive at our destination, at 11pm, less than a minute behind the other car. How’s that for unintentional coordination? We were booked into a place called the Skotel, which bills itself as New Zealand’s highest hotel. Since there was a wedding happening there that weekend, we were in the cheap wing, which was more like a hostel, with unisex bathrooms and a large common area. It reminded everyone of living in dorms, but the kitchen was well equipped and the showers were hot and that’s all that we really wanted! Two coworkers had enthusiastically downloaded some movies for us to watch together, but it was far too late to start and so everyone headed off to bed.

From the balcony of the Skotel.
From the balcony of the Skotel.

The next day, we got up bright and early and had a quick breakfast before meeting the 8am shuttle bus to the trailhead. I felt this was a little late to be starting, but after 5 hours of driving and the late arrival last night, no one wanted to try for the 7am bus! Once we loaded onto the bus, the driver passed around a form for us to put our name and contact info down. She explained that if we didn’t make it to the end of the trail, she’d have to go out looking for us. After a 20-minute ride, we were at the trailhead car park. It was surprising how busy it was; at peak times around a thousand people tackle the trail per day and the perfect weather (clear and sunny) had brought them all out. There was also a reminder that the region is volcanically active in the form of a warning signs and instructions about what to do in the event of eruption. The warning level was green for go though!

It's hard to tell, but it was green I promise!
It’s hard to tell, but it was green I promise!

The first part of the trail was  a gentle upward slope through scrub and jagged volcanic rocks to the Soda Springs rest stop. It had great views of Mount Ruapehu, the third major peak in the park and where our hotel was located. In the winter it’s a major skiing destination (hence the name of our hotel).

The view back.
The view back.

Much closer, of course, were the two mountains we were heading towards. Mount Tongariro is the older volcano and therefore shapeless and eroded, but Mount Ngauruhoe is newer and has a very distinctive profile, which probably led to its casting as Mount Doom. As we got closer to the mountain, we left behind the scrub for gnarled volcanic rock. It’s not surprising that a lot of the filming for Mordor took place in the various volcanic landscapes in this park.

No way were we going up there.
No way were we going up there.

Everyone was enjoying this stroll through the rocks and admiring the view, then we got to the base of the next section and looked up. This section of the track is called the Devil’s Staircase as it climbs 200 m (650 ft) up in a few short kilometers. We stopped at Soda Springs (the springs themselves were a short side track away) to have a snack and use the facilities. The national park was gifted to New Zealand by a Maori chief, who recognized that the best way to preserve this sacred land was to place it under government protection. This area was so sacred, in fact, that the Maoris avoided even looking at these mountains. Out of respect, then, visitors are encouraged to use the toilet facilities provided (not that there’s much cover anyway).

The view of where we'd been!
The view of where we’d been!

The steep climb up the Devil’s Staircase took about an hour. Everyone in our group was at slightly different fitness levels, including one who’d never been on a hike before at all (turns out there’s not many hiking trails in the UAE where she’s from), but we all struggled. For M and I, our struggle came mostly from our pack, which we had loaded with what we’d thought was essential. At this point, though, we started to suspect that we’d brought too much stuff with us! Finally we reached the South Crater, where we had another snack and admired the views both up to Mount Ngauruhoe, down into the valley, and nearby to the birds that hopped around, looking for crumbs. Sadly these were the only birds we saw on the entire hike, but they were new to us!

A hungry Australasian pipit.
A hungry New Zealand pipit.

We weren’t done with the uphill climbing yet, though. After crossing the floor of the South Crater, we had one more climb up a ridge to the Red Crater, which was the top of the track. Unlike the previous climb, which was among large volcanic boulders, this section was along an exposed ridge. One of my coworkers started struggling as she’s afraid of heights and she wasn’t alone: the narrow track, with long drops to either side and a strong cold wind blowing across it, made most everyone a little nervous. We even had to climb a short section using a bit of fixed chain!

We climbed up the ridge to the left.
We climbed up the ridge to the left.

Working as team, we slowly made our way up to the spectacular views of the Red Crater, and a well-earned lunch. We were very happy that we’d made it to the highest point of the trail! That meant no more uphill sections, right?

The unsurprisingly-named Red Crater.
The unsurprisingly-named Red Crater.

After lunch, we stood up ready for some downhill for a change. Unfortunately, the downhill section awaiting us was possibly the worst section of the entire track: a steep descent along a thin ridge made entirely of loose sand and gravel. Our poor afraid-of-heights coworker, who had just about recovered from the climb up, looked a bit pale, but another coworker helped her down. The rest of us were on our own: some slowly picked their way down one step at a time, while others decided that it was best to let momentum do its work and descended quickly in a cloud of dust. I was part of the first group; at times it felt like skiing on top of all the loose rock. The heavy pack was, for the first and only time, an advantage as it made me sink deeper, and therefore have a more solid grip, into the gravel.

The descent. It was much steeper than it looks!
The descent. It was much steeper than it looks!

Our hard work was rewarded by views of the stunning Emerald Lakes, which we collapsed besides at the bottom of the descent. This collection of small lakes were all a different vibrant shade of green, and looking out over them to plumes of steam beyond was the most picturesque moment of the trip. For some reason, though, a few other hikers thought it would be a good idea to go swimming in these lakes. I don’t know what makes them green, but it can’t be good for you! None of the swimmers seemed to suffer any immediate effects, so I guess it was refreshing.

Many places were defined by their color here.
Many places were defined by their color here.

After a quick stop at the Emerald Lakes to regroup, we continued on. The rest of the track was mostly downhill and overall it was much easier than what we had done, but fatigue was setting in. We set off across another crater floor, then climbed out of it to start descending into the valley beyond. That last short uphill section seemed to nearly defeat the woman who’d never hiked before, but with encouragement she found her second wind and continued.

An old lava flow across the crater floor.
An old lava flow across the crater floor.

We briefly stopped by Blue Lake (which had, as you may guess, a more conventional color), but at this point it was progressing into the afternoon and we were becoming conscious of the 5pm bus pick-up time. Past the lake we entered the Danger Zone: an area that has been closed since a small eruption in 2012 on Mount Tongariro. The website and signs suggested not stopping on our way through this area, which suited us fine but made us look suspiciously at the clouds of steam rising in the distance.

Not as close at it looks.
Not as close at it looks.

The terrain changed back into scrub as we worked our way down the gentle slope into the valley. As always, the view was incredible: we could see the trail winding below us, the forest and road that was our destination, and the vast Lake Taupo beyond it. We had plenty of time to admire it as the trail was quite long: we could see why very few people do the track in reverse!

Stunning.
Stunning.

There was one last stop at a backpacker’s hut halfway down the slope, where we could sit down, admire the view, and even use the toilet. We enjoyed some chocolate that we’d brought in our overpacked bag, but all too soon had to get up and start the last leg of the trip. The last two hours were by far the worst: my knees and ankles hurt (why did we not take hiking poles?), blisters formed then popped on my toes, and the pack seemed heavier than ever. Most everyone else was in a similar way, though our more fit coworkers kept our spirits up. We entered the forest, which was shaded and cool, providing relief from the bright sun (everyone ended up sunburned). At last, we spotted markers indicating that we had only three kilometers left. Around every bend we hoped the car park would appear, and finally it did!

The best view of all.
The best view of all.

On the ride back, everyone fell asleep. Once we reached the hotel, we all stumbled back to our rooms. One coworker slept for the next 13 hours, but the rest of us eventually recovered enough to take a shower and get some food. M very kindly drove to the next town over to get snacks and a pair of flip-flops (they’re called “jandals” here) for me. M and I and another couple on the trip got the keys to the hotel’s hot tub for a relaxing soak, which was the perfect end to the day. We were all in bed and asleep by 10pm, though!

The drive back the next day was subdued. The weather had turned again to cold and overcast, making us appreciate how lucky we’d been with the weather! M and I made a quick stop in Hamilton to admire their statue of Richard O’Brian (of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame), but we didn’t linger. Everyone, including me, wore jandals to work on Monday and we had lots of great stories to tell!

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