Heralded as one of the top walks in the world, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing attracts all sorts of visitors from keen hikers to Lord of the Rings fanatics alike. My love of the Tolkein universe and the outstanding New Zealand landscape meant that this was one adventure I just had to complete. Here’s how I found my day hike, from the (literal) ups and downs, stunning views, and “throwing” the One Ring into Mount Doom!
We woke up and checked out early to begin the drive from Taupo to the Tongariro National Park by following the shuttle bus which was taking similarly insane travellers to our starting point. This activity was one that we had been most excited for as part of our New Zealand road trip, as completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is known amongst travellers as an absolute must-do activity in New Zealand. This feat involves a mammoth hike that could take up to 9 hours, climbing various mountains and crossing all sorts of terrain but also to encounter some spectacular views and walk through a stunning national park. The “walk” itself is considered one of the top 10 in the world, and certainly one of the most challenging and worthwhile in New Zealand.
Once at the starting point for most keen hikers, we began feeling full of energy and spirit, excited to get underway especially as the morning weather was so clear and bright. Even for someone like me who does not hike often the walk starts off very easy, hardly an incline and you feel as though you’re covering a huge amount of distance very quickly as the car park soon disappears from view. Eventually things start to change however, and I found the steep steps pretty tiring and hard on the legs. We took a brief break for water, snacks and photos but continued on, knowing that this was barely the beginning as Mount Ngauruhoe – the mountain used as the filming location for Mt Doom and other areas of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings movies – lurked in front us as a constant reminder of where we were heading next.
(Note: Climbing Mount Ngauruhoe is no longer advised as of October 2017.)
Once we were at the base of Mt Doom, the weather had begun to change, and some swift moving clouds passed through the valley. We started the climb raring to go. The beginning felt like any average hike, some difficult bits and generally the hardest aspect of it all was that there was no marked path, everyone just vaguely followed each other and tried to keep an eye out for blue markers every so often to keep on track. However, around half an hour into the hike things began to dramatically change.
With the base of the mountain far below, any sense of a path completely disappeared, along with any kind of foliage. After all, this is an active volcano we were climbing here! It was at this point that things started to get really steep too. I mean I thought the steps before were steep, but this was the kind of steep where attempting to stand upright would topple you over and you’d fall… So it was much better and safer for us to literally crawl our way up. The only problem with this method is the lack of things to hold on to, as the ground is mostly just dirt and ash with a few small rocks, so any one step you take feels like falling back about three. When there are rocks to hold on to, you want to make sure they’ll withstand your weight as you pull yourself up. I mostly chose to follow the path of someone ahead of me who was called out suggestions as to where I could aim for (and shout when the occasional falling rock was headed straight for me!).
Despite the helpful guidance of those further ahead, I still managed to end up looking like a stuck starfish a few times, where I was halfway between my first path and the new one, it was a little scary at times I must say! The worst part of this section of the climb was that you could almost see the top the entire time. At first it seems daunting, and then it’s just annoying because you see people who have made it and you can’t believe that you can be so close and yet so far away. It was hard to believe we spent nearly an hour and a half on this section, mostly because time goes surprisingly fast when you’re concentrating on not falling down a volcano.
Eventually we made it through the clouds, over some easier rocks that became less steep and having become separated due to varying climbing speeds we completed the last section up to the summit together. And it was SO worth it. The crater was so impressive, there’s not really any way to describe it, and the views of the ground below (what we could see at least) were equally amazing. I think the most incredible thing though was knowing we had done it. And we really milked our time at the top with a well deserved lunch break for a good hour.
And then began the descent. Going down the same way as we went up we knew would be an entirely different story, but nothing quite prepared me for what it was actually like. We began trying to walk down, but pretty quickly you just end up sliding down on your backside, like some weird attempt at skiing that turns into a giant dirt slide. The rocks falling down were at times an issue, so people tried to slow down by walking in such a manner that meant they didn’t fall over but also didn’t cause minor avalanches to occur. I myself fell down what must be a record number of times, and I certainly had the bruises to prove it too! But eventually we were back to walking normally (sort of, my toes weren’t cooperating after all that work) with boots overflowing with dirt and with legs that were about to give way.
Three and a half hours after starting the mountain climb we were back at the base, and it felt like we should be off home already. But no, an annoyingly helpful sign reminded us we had another 6 hours or so. Fantastic. So on we went, this time feeling less than enthusiastic about things as the weather was becoming colder, cloudier and wetter. The first section of this stage of the hike was ok, nice and flat but that didn’t last long. Things were very much up and down after that, and while we were treated to some stunning landscapes at times, it was a shame the cloud were getting lower and decidedly windier too.
After another hike up, down and all around the place, we made it to the Emerald Lakes which were pretty spectacular even in the foggiest parts, so I can only imagine how impressive they must be in good weather. That’s when we thought we must be near the end, but oh boy were we wrong. There was plenty more to come, but there was also little scenery of interest for a while (or anything visible at all really) so this part felt especially hard work. We emerged at the top of yet another hill after winding around corners for an eternity, thinking once again we were at the end (pretty optimistic I know) but this was legitimately the final leg.
We had another 2 hours to go, the weather had cleared up almost completely and everything was downhill! Life is good again! We at last had a chance to enjoy the walk and chat, reflect on the challenging day and learn about what we’d achieved. There’s nothing quite like a hike to teach you more about your coping mechanisms in situations, and we quickly felt really proud of ourselves for persevering in the dismal weather!
We continued downhill along a clearly marked path for quite some time, until eventually reaching a thick forest with rivers trickling along the footpaths. This was such different terrain from the bare rocky paths of the start, but it was a welcome break and with the rain gone at last we felt we’d entered into a whole new park with wildlife and life all around.
All of a sudden, after hours of trying to guess if we were there, we stumbled rather uneventfully (the fanfare must have been away that day!) into the finish line car park. And then realised we had to get back to our car…. But thanks to the wonderful kindness of strangers it didn’t take us long to hitchhike our way back to the start, get in the car and drive off feeling absolutely on top of the world.
We treated ourselves to a well-deserved dinner of Dominos pizza and frozen yoghurt, while recounting the day’s events with other successful hikers and feeling pretty damn chuffed with ourselves (if a little sore too!). I don’t think sleep has ever come so easily in my life as it did that night, but what an achievement to have made. It’s certainly going to remain as a highlight of my time in New Zealand, and a highlight accomplishment of my life so far having done that hike. I would recommend it to anyone!
And there we have an exhausting day of hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing! I hope you enjoyed reading about my experiences, here are a few Tongariro Alpine Crossing tips to take away. Happy hiking!
Top Tips for completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing:
- Get snacks and supplies for the long day ahead – it’s the little things that help and in some cases that means copious amounts of banana chips!
- Keep hydrated – there’s nothing worse than feeling dizzy halfway up a mountain. Trust me.
- Bring suncream – I know many a hiker who returned with burned knees and scalps after forgetting their lotion. The sun is extremely strong in NZ!
- Wear proper walking shoes – it’s no walk in the park (get it?) so protecting your feet is a must unless you’re willing to face the consequences.
- Start out early – it might be a pain to be up before the sun but to avoid extreme weathers in dangerous spots getting ahead will work out for the best.
- Find transport early – ask your accommodation about how to get there as more than likely you can pay for the shuttle bus to take you.
- Remember how to get back – conversely if driving, you’ll need to go back to where you started as it’s not a circular track.
- Don’t be careless – that goes for descents, climbs, and throughout the hike. If someone looks like they’re going the wrong way, they probably are. Stick to the paths instead!
- Don’t over do it – climbing Mt Doom is an awesome thing to do but if you think you’ll struggle, then don’t start. Turning back might be more trouble so know your limits.
- Rest if you need – that goes for completing the hike in a day, and for if you’re worried about working too much. There are places to stay in the park if you want to do so.
- Read up on what to expect – you’re probably interested seeing as you’re already here but it’s worth checking it’s the right kind of activity for you!
- Recover after – Taupo has some awesome hot springs and a beautiful lake to rest at and enjoy for the day or two following your hike.
Have you completed the crossing, and did you find it as hard as I did? Let me know your thoughts on LOTR film locations, the best hikes in New Zealand, or your favourite outdoor stories!
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