Hiking, Lessons Learnt, New Zealand, Travel
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Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand – Best Day Hike

(Click here to see the rest of our pictures from Tongariro Alpine Crossing)

My love for New Zealand (probably similar to a lot of people) started after watching Lord of the Rings. I knew one day I would visit NZ and see the wide, open valleys where Aragorn rode his horse; the enchanted forests where the elves lived and Mt. Doom (kingdom of Mordor) where Frodo Baggins walked to in order to destroy the Ring. Sounds cheesy, I know!

Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings

Although, we didn’t take the official Lord of the Rings tour with throngs of other tourists, we did get to experience similar views on most of our hikes around New Zealand.  The bus rides between towns also provided some incredible views and added to several motion sickness moments.  Note: If you get car sick easily, it is highly recommended to take motion sickness pills before bus/car rides in NZ. I never got motion sickness until I started travelling on NZ buses. Those windy roads and hills can be brutal on your stomach.

On the way to National Park: shot out of a window of a bus. I am such an amazing photographer 😉

Even before we left for NZ, a lot of people had recommended us to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It is considered one of the best day hikes in NZ.  The trek passes through volcanic ‘moon-like’ barren landscape, glistening bright bluish-greenish sulphar lakes and craters of active volcanoes – Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom) and Mt Tongariro. The hike is 19.4kms and takes about 7-9hrs.  This sounded to be a very different hike than any other hike we had done before, so we couldn’t resist it. 

We left Wellington early in the morning by bus and got to the National Park town in the afternoon. The town looked pretty dead but in winter it is converted to a busy ski resort (skiing can be done on one of the active volcanoes in the area – Mt. Ruapehu).

National Park town: Where are all the damn tourists?

The YHA at National Park is located in the middle of the town with nice views of Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom).  The place was kind of cool/bizarre as the rooms were situated around indoor rock climbing center which guests could use for a daily nominal rate.

View from YHA kitchen: Mt Doom doesn’t look as menacing with bright blue skies and no lava fumes

The indoor climbing center at YHA National Park. Impressive, eh?

We woke up early at 6am not knowing what to expect. Apparently, the weather is very unpredictable in the area. Gusty winds and rain can turn the perfect conditions to very treacherous in the blink of an eye.  There are no trees to provide any shelter either. One Aussie guy who was in our dorm room had just finished the hike a day before and he mentioned that people in his group turned back because the weather got really bad. He said the winds could have been as high as 100km/hr.  Hmmmm.  Dan and I did our anti-rain dance and went to sleep  🙂

Thick veil of clouds engulfing Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) in the morning

It was a chilly morning and the clouds hovered low in the sky.  We took the YHA hostel bus which dropped us off at the trailhead after a 35 minute ride.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing map: Walking to Ketetahi

We started the hike at 8am. I was cold and my fingers were numb and we were only at the base of the mountain. The good thing was that the sun started to come out and burn the low lying clouds. The other good thing  about this hike was that I felt incredibly light. Why? Because I wasn’t carrying a backpack!  It was a day hike so we packed basic water and food supplies in one backpack. No such luxury for Dan 😛

Freedom from backpack

I think Dan and mine anti-rain dance the night before totally worked as the the temperature started rising and all the clouds disappeared. The bright blue sky and the black and dark brown volcanic rocks lent some amazing scenery along the way. 

Dan – the backpack carrier 🙂

The only living creature (except for tourists!) we saw during the hike

At the base of Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) after 1 hr

The next part of the hike was walking through massive crater valley, followed by a very steep climb through some loose rock and gravel.  We were surrounded by Mt. Doom one one side and Mt. Tongariro on the other. It was hard not to feel tiny amidst the imposing vastness.

Dan and Mt. Doom

Watching the clouds come in across the valley

As we started to climb the steep ridge, clouds started to crawl in and wrapping everything  – sun, rocks, ash, us – in its way. It seemed like smoke was spewing out of one of the volcanoes..

Hazy Delhi sky

 Smoke or Clouds?

Clouds  versus the Hikers

We finally got to the top of the ridge and witnessed some amazing views of the Blue Lake. We decided to do a side trip to the top of Mt Tongariro which provided some incredible 360 degree views of the surroundings. The hike to the top of Mt. Tongariro also prepped me up for what was to come in the later part of the hike – walking on ash and very loose rocks.

Dan taking in the beauty…

Me chit-chatting with some dudes on the top of Tongariro

Empty and Vast

Troups on the Tongariro summit

After a short lunch break consisting of our leftover chickpeas and rice and a few squares from our dark chocolate block, we headed back across the ridges and down the steep, ashy slopes to the Emerald lakes and crystal clear Blue lake.  The day before, Dan learned about an odd technique used by climbers to quickly decend steep scree fields of small rocks, dirt, or ash.  Apparently, the slopes of the Mt. Doom hike are perfect for this as you can see in this clip.  Dan used this technique on the steep slope down to the emerald lakes, shown below.  It took him 2 minutes to get down using the screeing technique while it took me 20 minutes.  My husband apparently thinks he is still 20yrs old and has to try everything that has a chance of causing him bodily harm.  The whole way down I felt like my feet were going to slip out from under me.  

Heading back down from Tongariro

Dan screed the path at the top right, top to bottom in 2min

tongariro hike scree hillDan’s Scree Hill

 The vivid, green pools of liquid known as the Emerald lakes look very inviting for a quick dip, but that would not be a very good idea considering they are a toxic combination of who knows what that is boiling up from all around.  We got to smell the acrid odor of sulfur for a little ways down to the valley.

Quick dip anyone?

After the Emerald lakes, we still had atleast 10 kms to go.  We walked through another huge crater valley, up another ridge line to hit the Blue lake. The Blue lake looked less menacing than the sulfury Emerald lakes although, I still wouldn’t dare to stick my toe in the water.  There were still no signs of life anywhere on the trail despite the crystal clear waters.

Walking on the surface of the moon

The less evil looking version of Emerald Lakes — Blue Lake

Along the way, we saw an area with the signs of old lava flow. It appears that the lava flow from the last eruption stopped dead in its tracks right here.

Hardened lava flow from the last eruption

After we got past Blue lake, we started to make our descent down the other side of the mountains. We could see the beautiful Lake Taupo and Taupo area in the distance which was a refereshing site after 5 hrs of browns and blacks of the volcanic terrain. We would wind down the grassy, zig-zag trails for what seemed like endless kilometers.  After4-5 kms of more of the same scenery, I was starting to go a little crazy – partly due to hunger and heat exhaustion from the sun.  Maybe a little rain right then wouldn’t have hurt.

Once we hit the tree line, we still had another 4kms left and we knew the 3PM shuttle bus would be leaving in 30 minutes. The next bus would be at 4pm for which we really didn’t want to wait.  We decided to jog the last 4 kms of the trail. The thought of getting to the end faster outweighed the extra burden on our already tired legs.  We raced past many hikers over the last few kms and wondered if they had already given up on making the 3pm shuttle.

never-ending switch backs!!

Running like a mad woman through the forest to catch the bus

We finally reached the end at 3:02pm but luckily the bus hadn’t left. Those of us there boarded the bus and collapsed on our seats. We couldn’t wait to get out and have a nice shower and a nice dinner. Right at that moment, the dreams of spicy Indian curries were shattered by the bus driver. He announced we need to wait for more people to finish and board the bus because the 4pm shuttle bus was not large enough for those left on the mountain.  DANG it!

We waited for another 30 mins in the heat as all the people we sprinted past casually strolled down the trail to the waiting bus. It kinda made our run feel a little pointless but we gained solace in the fact that we burnt some extra calories in preparation of our Indian food binge later that night.

Lesson Learnt: Slow and steady wins the race. Running for buses is usually pointless.

Dan: “Can I lick the plates?”

6 Comments

  1. Marme says

    You guys are so brave! I love your pictures! I think the last one of tummy rubbing Dan is so funny! Thanks for sharing your adventure with us!

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