travel diary: tongariro alpine crossing
I wake up at 5 a.m. The alarm didn’t ring yet and I turn it off not to wake up my sleeping family. I slide out of my warm blanket and put on clothes which I laid out the previous evening.
The air inside the motorhome is cold. Clothes are cool. I put them on layer after layer, warming up slowly. Outside temperature shows -2C°. It takes me 10 minutes to get ready and I take my equipment bag, close the door and start walking towards the reception – the meeting point. I’m too early. Noone it there yet. The first bus left at 5:30 a.m, but there were no empty seats so I have to wait until the next one arrives at 06:00 a.m..
The sun is rising slowly. The air is crisp and chilly. I take out my camera to take a photo of the Mount Ngauruhoe while waiting for the next bus to arrive. People start drawing near – mostly young couples. Some are wearing trekking clothes, some are wearing sneakers. Noone talks much. We all stand there in front of the reception, flogging over one foot to another, trying to keep ourselves warm. I am the only one who stands alone.
Finally the bus arrives and a merry driver greets us with a broad smile and cheers. I take the front seat, we board and immidiately take off for the drop off point on the way to the Whakapapa village. The bus driver – a friendly born in the area kiwi tells us to stay positive and to enjoy our day – according to him in the past 4 months there were only a couple of clear days. Today is one of them.
We talk about this and that and than the bus stops. The driver says “goodbye”, reminds us about the pick up details and takes off. I see 5 other buses bringing people to the start point of the trail.
I walk towards the sign saying “Tongariro Alpine Crossing – 19.4 km“. And start walking.
Two days ago I couldn’t even imagine that I could make the crossing – with the 2 year old one on board I haven’t even considered the option. But thats what love is all about – you talk about your wishes and your significant other helps you to make them real. And here I am walking in the early morning hours the route I was so eager to walk. And hundreds of other dreamers are walking side by side with me.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most popular routes in New Zealand and is an alpine crossing one could do in a day. To be precise one would need about 7-8 hours for the whole way.
Very soon I learn that this walk is not about finding solitude but is about learning how to observe without getting distracted. For solitude I should have chosen a different route or should have started climbing during the night.
First 2,5 km are easy to walk – wooden pontoons, flat but powerful landscape with icy plants, water streams and early morning views over the Mount Ngauruhoe. Here and there I recognise the set up to the Lord of the Rings movie – a lot of filming indeed took place in the area.
At some point the road goes up and signs appear asking passers to check whether they are properly set for the crossing – warm clothes, water supply and good shape being the most important issues. The steps are climbing higher and higher up, people start to spread along the way. I hear german, english and french around me.
Mount Ngauruhoe stays on the right and I walk straight and follow the pass towards Mount Tongariro. When I reach the pass icy wind hits me. Up there the wind blows strong and severe. I put on my warm clothes back – I took them off while climbing up. The cold wind blows so strong that I can’t hold my camera, so I take only a few photos.
Amazing views open from Mount Tongariro – over the whole Tongariro National Park, towards the Mount Ngauruhoe and all the way towards Mount Taranaki. I admire the view – the naked landscape, the path lava crolled during the recent erruption, the ash Mount Ngauruhoe spit out and the amount of travelers standing next to me admiring the same.
It feels like being on the Moon. The Moon full of people.
While walking I spot the same people I met when I started walking – some stop for a rest, some stop for photos. I don’t stop much I just walk.
Couple of steps later I stand in front of the amazing panorama showing Emerald lakes, the Blue Lake and the lava flow from the Red Crater. Minerals leached from the surrounding rock make the lakes color turquoise. Even though my face is completey frozen I think I smile. A young guy approaches me to take a photo of him. “Your lip is bleeding”, he tells me. I put a thick layer of lip gel and start the descend.
The steam rises from the lakes and from the steam vents above the lake. The sulphurous smell hits my nostrils.
The walk down the Red crater is tricky – the loose scoria underfoot moves quickly and easily and I take extra care not to slide.
I stop at the Emerald lakes for a snack and continue though the next pass toward the Blue Lake. The Blue Lake as well as volcano craters are Tapu (sacred) and it is disrespectful to touch or enter their premises.
A couple of kilometers more and I reach the Blue Lake – it’s water is turqouise and the views from it’s shores are breathtaking. From here I start walking down towards the pick up point.
The path is long and curvy like a snake. At some point the whole valley with Lake Tekapo on the right hits my eyes. There are still 10 km to walk.
7 km later I arrive at a small hut where everyone stops for a break. I eat the rest of my food, drink the water and continue walking. From constant walking down my knees start to hurt – 3km more to go.
At some point I enter the forest – it is warmer here. Water streams make their paths and I also walk by a small waterfall. Knees hurt. I keep walking, but I know I’m almost there. Through the forest I walk alone – the crowd dissapears and many stay at the hut above to have rest.
All of a sudden the forest clears and I find myself on a parking lot packed with happy tired faces. Most of the people sit on the ground, talking cheerfuly and with their shoes standing next to them. Everyone is happy and exhausted.
I look at my watch. 14:00. It took me around 7 hours to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing route. I’m happy and exhausted and feel my knees burning, but first I find a place on the ground to sit down and take my shoes off.
Tips on making the most of your Tongariro Crossing
- start walking from Whakapapa village drop off point (all maps show this as Start point of the crossing), not the other way around. The most exciting part of the road is between the Whakapapa and the Blue Lake.
- wear proper trekking clothes – appropriate shoes and warm clothes are essential!!! I recommend taking gloves and a hat. Lip balm is also a good idea.
- don’t take kids along – the road is not an easy one to walk with a little one. It is too exhausting for you and for the kid and there are no possibilities for a proper stop. It is also way too cold for the little ones and strong winds wouldn’t do any good.
- snack and water are essential to bring along – the crossing takes about 7 hours to accomplish.
- it is worth waiting for a good weather for completing the crossing. You won’t enjoy the walk and you won’t see much if it’s snowy or rainy. I hear people wait days for the sky to clear up.
- please don’t forget than even though it could be accomplished in one day Tongariro Alpine Crossing is named “crossing” for a reason – mountains are not to be joked with!