Emerald Lakes on Tongariro Crossing

Emerald Lakes on Tongariro Crossing

The first time I was in New Zealand, back in 2007, I was set on going on what was known to be the “best day hike in New Zealand.” Unfortunately, weather conditions prevented me from completing the Tongariro Crossing, and I vowed that one day I would return and go on this amazing hike. This past May, my husband and I chose to spend part of our honeymoon in New Zealand, and so the opportunity came at last.

After tramping through the South Island of New Zealand, completing the Routeburn, Milford and Kepler Tracks, we finally made our way back up to the North Island, renting a car in Auckland and driving to the Lake Taupo area. At first it seemed that the Tongariro Crossing was not meant to be, as there were recent volcanic eruptions in August and November of 2012 which closed the northern end of the Tongariro Crossing and established a Summit Hazard Zone around Mount Ruapehu, requiring trampers to hike an out-and-back rather than complete the full track from the Mangatepopo to Ketetahi carparks.  However, we had been crossing our fingers for its reopening during our time in the country and luck must have been with us, because the Crossing reopened on May 8, 2013, the day before we were flying off to Tahiti and only 1 of 3 days we were even scheduled to be in the North Island.

P1010959Ecstatic, we made the relatively short (~1 hour) drive from Taupo to the Ketetahi carpark, where we would be finishing the hike at the end of the day, and left our car there. When we heard the trail would be open, we called and booked a shuttle transfer from Ketetahi carpark to Mangatepopo carpark where we would begin our hike.  The shuttle took us the ~20 minutes to the beginning of the trail along with a number of other eager hikers. We found several shuttle services online and all appeared to offer exactly the same sort of service and have similar pickup times. We used Alpine Hot Bus as they were the cheapest, only $20 per person for Ketetahi to Mangatepopo carpark one way.

Climbing Mount Ngauruhoe aka "Mount Doom"

Climbing Mount Ngauruhoe aka “Mount Doom”

The start of the trail felt quite crowded, especially having come from the Great Walks in the South Island where we had spent the past 2 weeks. The morning light was grey and the sky was clouded as we made our way through a flat valley followed by a very steep uphill section with quite a number of stairs. The landscape was rocky and volcanic, mostly grey with patches of red and yellow from the grasses and lichen.

Towards the top of Mount Ngauruhoe

Towards the top of Mount Ngauruhoe

After taking a couple of quick water and Clif Bar breaks, we reached the South Crater section along with a flurry of helicopter activity. Eventually gathering that the DOC workers were removing the “Volcanic Hazard” signs that had been previously placed due to the 2012 eruptions, we were faced with a very important decision.  To climb or not to climb “Mount Doom”? The roundtrip trail to the top of Mount Ngauruhoe was estimated to be 2-3 hours despite a relatively short and direct route to the top. Feeling like our usual adventurous we-can-do-anything selves, we opted for “yes of course!” and enthusiastically headed on our way, perhaps a little too enthusiastically by my husband who slyly mentioned he “had a ring he needed to get rid of”. (Note: For those of you like myself who did not get the Mount Doom reference, Mount Nguaruhoe was used as the basis for the fictional “Mount Doom” in Lord of the Rings movies, where Frodo goes to destroy the Ring).

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Volcanic Crater

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We made it to the top!

The hike up was incredibly steep (~45 degree slope) made more difficult by the sandy black volcanic soil, a true “two steps forward, one step back” experience. Trying to keep to the rocks where our boots had some grip, and leveraging our ever handy hiking poles, we trudged up to the top of the mountain, the temperatures getting colder the higher we ascended and eventually passing the snow line. Despite questioning our decision multiple times on the way up due to the difficulty of the climb, the views at the top were definitely worth the effort – the clouds cleared at just the right time for us! We could see down into the valley where we came from, and further ahead to where we would continue our hike later that day. The landscape was otherworldly, breathtaking and extremely unusual – barren yet stunning.

P1010990After snapping some photos, glancing down into the volcano crater, and generally feeling very accomplished, we made the long and slippery trek down. Descending in the sandy rocky soil was almost as tricky as going up, however it took much less physical effort and went much faster. Caution was needed as we each slipped and fell a time or two on the loose surface. We saw a couple of experienced hikers running down the mountain, letting gravity do the work as they jump-slid down the incline in a section without larger rocks. While this was much faster and more efficient, it was definitely for those a bit more experienced with the terrain so Tyler and I utilized the more risk averse method, knowing my propensity for accidents :).

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View of Emerald Lakes

View of Emerald Lakes

Back at the base of Mount Ngauruhoe, we ate a quick sandwich and continued on through a flat valley and up another ridge. Catching whiffs of sulfur, we came across some beautiful volcanic red, brown and black colored cliffs, and shortly after were at another peak looking into the next valley. The gorgeous and famous Emerald Lakes came into our view, the colors so unworldly in this strange landscape.

Old Lave Flow

Old Lave Flow

 

 

We proceeded down the sandy path from the Red Crater towards the oddly colored lakes, stopping to take a few photos and appreciate the views.  The unpleasant sulfur smell drove us onward, and we continued along the trail through a wide flat plain until we reached a steep incline. Looking back at the undulating valley below, we eventually realized that it was an old lava flow.

 

 

 

P1020050P1020061We followed the trail along the ridge, passing a calm blue lake on our right. After another short uphill section, the path then headed further down, this time for good. The next few hours consisted of hiking through grassy mountains until coming to the Ketetahi Hut. This Hut was damaged by the recent volcano, as evidenced by the huge holes in the floor which a DOC ranger pointed out to us.

P1020067The rest of the tramp was relatively uneventful, eventually passing down into the tree line to arrive at the Ketetahi carpark. Overall we found this day hike to be extremely unique and beautiful, although a bit crowded for our taste. We decided we would need to do quite a number of other day hikes in New Zealand before saying the Tongariro Crossing is the very best, although this title is probably not off base. To those of you who have New Zealand day hiking experience, what do you think?

 

Two Toned Travelers at Top of Mount Ngauruhoe

Two Toned Travelers at Top of Mount Ngauruhoe

 

Resources:

http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/7987151/Tongariro-Crossing-closure-worries

http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz/current-volcanic-activity.html