What does your standard New Year’s Eve look like? If you’re a Sydneysider like myself then it probably involves standing on the balcony at a friend’s boyfriend’s rich cousin’s place watching the harbour bridge fireworks, trying to stay awake while watching the TV broadcast with your family at home, or maybe attending a music festival on the beach. With the exception of the second one, these are pretty exciting ways to spend NYE. But this time round, a friend from Sweden and I decided we’d swap the corny countdowns, colourful explosions and champagne and climb the volcano that featured as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films. We were so exhausted afterwards that we both fell asleep well before midnight but it was the most memorable 31st of December I’ve had to date! Here’s all you need to know about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
What is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
Located in Tongariro National Park (that’s Mordor to all of you Lord of the Rings fans) and traversing active volcanic landscapes, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been lauded as New Zealand’s best day trek, and after completing it it’s not difficult to see why. The Crossing is a 19.4km track that passes through some of the North Island’s most spectacular landscapes. You’ll see and walk past three volcanoes along the way: Ngauruhoe (that featured as the menacing Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings), Tongariro and Ruapehu. Ngauruhoe and Tongariro can be summited during the one-day Crossing, while the snow-capped Ruapehu provides a pretty magestic backdrop.
When should you go?
I generally prefer to visit places outside of peak season because I’m not a fan of crowds, but I actually really enjoyed doing this trek in the middle of summer. The fact that there were so many people on the track made it more of a social event. You could always stop and have a chat with someone and we met some friendly people along the way – both from New Zealand and overseas. It was also nice to get some motivation on the way up Mt Ngauruhoe, which was arduous to say the least! It takes a lot of effort to clamber up its steep slopes and there were a few occasions I considered giving up, but after some words of encouragement from hikers who’d been up to the top I persevered (and boy was it worth it!) The weather is also likely to be better if you go during the summer months.
However, do make sure you book a couple of nights accommodation to give yourself some options, as even in summer the track can be closed due to weather conditions. We had initially planned to to the Crossing on the 1st January and kick our year off with a bang but after checking the forecast decided to do it a day earlier instead. This turned out to be a good decision (even though it meant we had to leave Rotorua at 4.30am in order to make it there in time). On the 1st January it was overcast and raining all day, and the track was then closed on the 2nd January due to high winds. We met a lot of disappointed trekkers that missed out on doing the Crossing altogether because they had only allowed a single day. We were really lucky that we could be more flexible and adjust to the weather conditions.
How should you physically prepare?
This track is challenging – even more so if you dare to attempt the steep slopes of Mt Ngauruhoe. If you’ve got youth on your side and are relatively healthy then there’s not much to worry about. I hadn’t been intensively training beforehand (in fact I’d say I was relatively unfit compared to usual). I won’t say it was easy, but I got there! I’d done a lot of shorter one-day hikes and walks fairly regularly leading up to it though which probably helped. If you don’t regularly get out and about I’d suggest doing a few day hikes beforehand to wear in new hiking boots and get a feel for some different terrain. Also, practice walking up lots of stairs! Trust me, you’ll thank me for it…
What should you take?
This sounds obvious, but take plenty of food and water. There is nowhere to fill up with water along the route and it’s a full day that will take a lot of energy out of you. Three bottles of water and a bottle of Powerade was enough for me, but if you know that you drink a lot then I’d pack more than this. Foodwise, I’d recommend taking high-energy snacks. Some kind of trail mix is always handy, along with some bananas, chocolate bars and maybe some rolls or sandwiches.
It’s important to wear a lot of layers, or at least pack them with you. Even in summer you’ll need to be prepared for all weather conditions. The track is called an alpine crossing for a reason – it traverses alpine terrain which is notoriously unpredictable weather-wise. Plus you’ll be hiking for a full day. It may start out looking like a beautiful day but five hours in things could turn ugly. We set off on a beautiful summer day and had great weather along most of the track but the temperature did drop significantly later in the day. Make sure you have plenty of layers and a wind- and rain-proof jacket and pants. And of course you’ll need a comfortable day pack to carry all this stuff in. I recommend getting one from an outdoor/adventure store like The North Face, Macpac or Kathmandu (I got mine on sale from Kathmandu but there are plenty of great day packs out there that would be perfect for this kind of trek).
Sturdy hiking boots are also a must for the uneven and difficult terrain you’ll encounter. Don’t wear shoes that have no support or grip. I wore a pair I’d bought from Macpac that served me quite nicely. One guy we met along the route was wearing Converse that had been torn to pieces. Towards the end of the trek he landed too hard on his ankle after stepping off a bridge onto flat ground, twisted his ankle and had to be helped back to the carpark by his friends. He was lucky it happened within half an hour of the finish; if something like this happens to you halfway through the crossing, you’ll be limping back in the dark.
I’d also pack first aid essentials, toilet paper (you’ll be walking all day, at some point you will need to go!) and sunscreen. One brilliant tip I received from a hostel owner in Rotorua the day before we did the crossing was to stuff cotton wool inside the tips of your shoes. This particularly helped with the steep and slippery descent down Mt Ngauruhoe. Even if you don’t end up doing that, the Crossing itself has some steep downward sections. If your toes are constantly being pushed against the top of your shoes then they will rub and become sore very easily but mine – thanks to the cotton wool – were perfectly fine! Another tip I’d recommend is packing some gloves to protect your hands. If you choose to climb up Mt Ngauruhoe, you’ll end up using your hands an awful lot, both on the way up and down, and an extra layer of protection will make a big difference.
How long does it take to complete?
This really depends on your fitness level, how often you stop for breaks and whether you choose to summit Mt Ngauruhoe or Mt Tongariro, but it could be anywhere from 7-12 hours. We ended up taking around 11 hours but we took a fair few breaks and didn’t walk super fast. Mt Ngauruhoe also added an additional 3 hours to our timeframe and don’t underestimate how long it will take you to summit it. The way up can be nearly vertical and you’ll be clambering rocks on all fours at times. Boulders and rocks regularly careen down the slopes, posing a danger to those in their way, so you need to be on constant alert. If the clouds roll in, visibility can be poor too, so you won’t be moving anywhere fast.
How do I get there and back?
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one-way trek, which means that you start and finish at different points. Most accommodation options close by offer shuttle services to and from the start and end points of the Crossing and you need to book these in advance. The simplest option, if you have a car, is to drive to the finish of the Crossing at the Ketetahi carpark, and then take a shuttle to the start. That way, you won’t need to stress about finishing the Crossing in a certain time frame and you can simply hop in your car and drive yourself back afterwards, without needing to wait around for a bus.
What are the highlights?
Without a doubt summiting Mt Ngauruhoe was the standout moment of this trek for me. It was also the hardest part but the feeling you’ll have upon reaching the top is second to none. You’ll get to peer down into the mouth of an active volcano and the views from the top of the surrounding barren landscapes will take your breath away (if it hasn’t already been taken away from spending an hour and a half getting to the top, that is). That feeling is only beaten by the feeling you’ll have upon making it to the bottom again – the descent is an experience in itself. The second highlight for me was seeing the Emerald Lakes. The amazing bright hues of these lakes was caused by dissolved minerals. You won’t find many views as incredible as that of the Emerald Lakes as you make the descent down from Red Crater in your lifetime.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. It’s also the hardest day trek I’ve done! It’s Mordor after all, so it was never going to be easy! But despite the crowds, the aches and pains and the challenging uphill climbs, it was well worth it. On par with seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland, hiking in the fjords of Norway and riding camels in the Sahara, I’d definitely put it on my list of top 10 travel experiences. If anything I’ve written here has inspired you to do it, then fantastic! Just come prepared. The scenery you’ll encounter is some of the most beautiful in the world, but you won’t appreciate it if you’re hobbling along on a broken leg, are parched from dehydration or shivering uncontrollably because you didn’t pack enough layers. Show some respect for the land you’re passing through, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the best days of your life.
Have you done the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? Let me know your experience in the comments!