tongariro alpine crossing
Mountainous, rugged terrain. Lake and valley views. Sacred Maori blue pools. Clouds of volcanic steam. Native, thick green forest. Sweaty groups of hikers hailing from foreign lands. These are a few of several encounters to experience on the Tongariro Alpine Great Walk. What exactly is a “Great” Walk? Both Kiwi and Australian citizens are proud of their state parks and natural sights- and both countries have a term for the experience of enduring a hike or a trek or a “tramp,” depending on where you are from.
We decided we wanted to do one. Just one. One was good. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike included an eclectic mix of the aforementioned descriptors. Not to mention, it was 20 KM long and would take an average 8 hours to complete. Also, it was the 2nd named UNESCO site in the world. And of course, one musn’t forget that Tongariro was seen in Lord of the Rings, also known as MORDOR!! Needless to say, if we conquered Tongariro, one “Great Walk,” would be enough.
The Night Before
We camped at a free campsite listed under the helpful New Zealand App, CamperMate, and woke early to drive to the parking lot. It’s important to note that unless you want to do a round-trip hike, book the shuttle bus! We parked our rental in the lot and the shuttle bus drove us to the start. The shuttle bus would later pick us up at the end point, and drive us back to the parking lot. Go the extra mile to do this, so you don’t actually, GO the extra mile.
In the Morning
When we arrived to the parking lot, one of the workers cautioned us about bringing warm clothing. Devin wore shorts and scoffed at her warning. Ryann ran back for another jacket but Devin said I would be fine. Riding on the shuttle, people were wearing Northface puff jackets, scarves and warm hats. Ryann had a tank top and a light pullover. Teeth chattering, she was skeptical and wishing she brought another jacket.
Getting off the bus, we caught a glimpse of the sunrise and the glistening morning mountain dew. Ahead and behind us were other shuttle buses, with our fellow hikers set to embark on the “Great Walk” with us. We felt both happy and unhappy about the other hikers. We felt happy, in the event that there was an emergency, we will have help. We felt unhappy, listening to the group of obnoxious men screaming swear words. We counted our blessings that we didn’t take the hostel route through New Zealand – God bless Airbnb and campsites.
The first part of the hike was spent walking alongside a little stream and ascending wooden stairs. This was nothing! But we knew it wouldn’t last. At least at this point, Ryann was happy she in fact did not have additional layers because she was already down to her tank top, and not even an hour in. The sun shone down and we started a nice, quick pace to try and distance ourselves from the group behind us. We passed a group of older people who looked to be in their late sixties, early seventies. If that didn’t give us the momentum or encouragement we needed, we’d be hopeless.
The Hard Part
The next section of the trek wasn’t so easy. We read about this online- the ascent up 348,971 steps. Not really, but ohhh boy were our glutes hurtin’ after that! We finally reached it and saw a pretty view and how far we already came. Whew! Can’t stop now though, we kept going up, up, up until our climb up the shale rock. Once we did reach the shale, Ryann was soon swearing at herself for cursing the steps because at least the stairs didn’t move and slip and slide from under. Either way, Devin made it up to the top in an impressive timely manner while Ryann pushed hersef red-faced and wheezing, but did it! The victory celebration ended shortly after seeing a woman from the elderly group make it up like it was nothing. We took pictures and observed the breathtaking views.
Down below, we saw the beautiful turquoise-colored pools that the Maori held sacred. It was listed online to keep a respectful distance and to not eat or walk near it. Ryann was angry and bit her lip to keep herself from saying anything to that obnoxious group of guys (the cursing ones mentioned earlier) that took turns urinating behind the pools. We assumed the Maori ancestral spirits would handle it.
Easy Does It
After the steep incline, we now had to make our way DOWN the shale rocks. This was much, much easier. Devin took it upon himself to instruct anyone who seemed struggling. He showed them, whether they liked it or not, the zig-zag pattern which proved much easier for those willing to give it a try. Ryann wasn’t as fast as Devin skiing down the shale, because the mountain was atop such a steep cliff that it wouldn’t be that difficult to lose footing. If that happened, down, down, down you went over the side to your likely death. Yes, the worrying, anxiety-stricken Ryann was at it again and took her time while Devin seemed to be competing in the Olympics. He won Gold while Ryann didn’t even place. Either way, it was a very nice change from climbing the incline for what seemed like hours.
We stopped to take a look at the pools up close, but decided to take a rest where there were less people. We stopped at the next lake, taking bites out of our apples and eating nuts by the handful. We definitely worked up an appetite. We had packed two soup cans, the stove and fuel to eat a hearty lunch on our hike. We were sweating and firing up the stove to eat a bowl of hot soup didn’t seem appetizing or refreshing. We finished our snack and continued on. The soups would wait.
Volcano Warnings and Other Trauma
Next on the trail was much appreciated by Ryann’s quads, but not by Devin’s bad knee. The next two hours would be strictly on a decline, as we made our way down the mountain and around the valley. Mostly, there were built in steps to assist in the trek. But what was the most helpful, was the volcano eruption sign! [seen below]. Ryann had an extra hop in her step at this point and we made good time until we were clear of the “danger zone.” It was fascinating to see the volcanic steam that clouded around the top, a reminder that at any moment, a leisurely hike could turn into something far worse.
Luckily, it wasn’t the day for a volcanic eruption! We continued our descent, stopping to take in the beautiful panoramic views. We stopped for a quick bathroom break and to rest and rehydrate. We checked the time, only about 2 hours left. But we needed to hurry if we were going to make the shuttle!
The end was in sight and we weren’t looking so much at the beautiful view anymore, but rather for a parking lot! The lake in the distance was quite a sight, but to us, being in the lake would’ve been much better. It was HOT! Finally, we saw the end of the steps and the beginning of a forest. Hallelujah, shade! Unfortunately, there were still steps. My goodness, how high did we climb?
A Stroll Through the Forest
The next hour was spent power walking through the native forest, climbing down stairs and crossing bridges over streams. We had to be quick to make the shuttle. We picked up our speed even more and we didn’t even stop to tie Ryann’s shoe or rest.
Another sign was posted warning of a flash flood area. It had advised to not enter if “you hear noises upstream.” We did stop and listen. We heard our own heavy pants, but couldn’t hear anything upstream. We crossed and continued- it was nearing pick-up time and we didn’t see signs of a parking lot yet! But our hopes were not lost, we kept going with positive thoughts that the shuttle would wait.
The Final Stretch
The shuttle did not wait. We reached the parking lot, sweat pouring, aching knee, untied shoes and sunburned, and the shuttle did not wait 2 minutes. Ryann asked if we could sit in the shade before heading down the extra km to the parking lot. Devin agreed, trying to see if the shuttle would return. We rested, we waited, but there was no sights of the shuttle.
We gathered our things and prepared ourselves for the final stretch. We didn’t make it out of the parking lot before the shuttle drove in. THERE ARE MIRACLES! The bus driver greeted us and opened the doors- it could easily have been the pearly gates of heaven.