Billed as one of New Zealand’s best day hikes, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing winds through a national park best known as Peter Jackson’s Mordor. Could you turn down a chance to follow in Frodo’s footsteps?
I can’t remember how I met tall, lanky Yorkshire Joe. Was he alongside me at the Lake Taupo stop before dawn, waiting for the transfer bus to Tongariro National Park? Did he sit next to me? Did we laugh together when Kiwi Mike, the bus guide, warned us irreverently to be “wary of the Ngauruhoe volcano ‘cos it’s an open anus with the smelliest farts in the Pacific”?
Whatever—without a word being exchanged, here we are, walkmates on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Billed as the best one-day hike in New Zealand, this 19-kilometer trail bisects the North Island’s central volcanic plateau reaching a summit of 1,886 meters.
It all starts deceptively flat at the Mangatepopo parking lot. A boardwalk leads us towards a blinding sun that confers a fiery copper glow to the tussock- and lichen-strewn field we’re traversing. By the time the sun has risen a few more degrees and we can make out the angle of the slope ahead, we’ve both woken up properly.
Now we’re ready to tackle ‘The Devil’s Staircase,’ a steep, irregular incline of volcanic debris zigging and zagging to a top we cannot yet discern. The worts hugging the rocks are still wet with dew and every step is treacherous. I concentrate on Joe’s boots in front of me: He’s taking his time, like everyone else, to check his footing with each stride.
The sound of slipping pebbles makes everyone stop and look aside. Two guys in singlets and shorts are madly scrambling up the slope on all fours as if on the run from wild animals, notably missing in New Zealand. “They’re trying to beat the record,” Joe says. I recall Kiwi Mike’s words in the bus: “For the athletes among you,” he’d said, “the fastest time for the trail is 1 hour and 47 minutes.”
The enforced stop leads our gaze west across the Mangatepopo plain to the Wanganui valley and beyond. There, above a ring of clouds, rises Mount Taranaki in all its glory, 138 kilometers away as the crow flies. The atmosphere is so crystal-clear we can see the snow wrinkles at its peak, a cone so perfect that Taranaki stood in for Mount Fuji in Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai. We marvel, drink some water and take photos.
I remember Kiwi Mike: “Do not, I repeat, do not fall down into the Red Crater. You’ll be trapped!” I look down at the abyss and shudder—would they helicopter us out?
A gasping 45 minutes on, I plant my boot on the edge of the South Crater with what seems my last breath. The terrain here could easily double for Mars, should NASA ever need to fake a landing. Ominous clouds are encircling Mount Ngauruhoe on our right; its perceptible menace was not lost on director Peter Jackson who substituted this landscape for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Because yes, we’re in the middle of the most active volcanic plateau in one of the most unstable lands on Earth. I sense it and so does Joe: “One small burp” he says, “and everyone on the trail is dead”.
After traversing the South Crater, we face a second climb to the Red Crater—it may e shorter, but its far more tiring than the Devil’s Staircase. There the ground was firm and was hard on our bones, but this is like climbing on sand and it’s hard on our muscles.
Once on the rim of the Red Crater—no prizes for guessing its color—we follow a path so tight that it sometimes narrows down to six feet with steep drops either side. Even small gusts of wind make our balance tricky. Once again, I remember Kiwi Mike: “Do not, I repeat, do not fall down into the Red Crater. You’ll be trapped!” I look down at the abyss and shudder—would they helicopter us out?
According to Joe’s book of Maori lore, when priest Ngatoro first arrived here from the north, he decided to climb these mighty peaks with his slave girl Auruhoe. But once up, the weather turned, and a cold wind almost froze them both to near-death. Ngatoro prayed to the ancestral gods who sent the fire demons like a flash and the mountains erupted with fire to warm the priest back to life. The spirits demanded a sacrifice, so Ngatoru threw Auruhoe to the crater and named the mountain after her: Ngauruhoe.
We’re in Mordor, alright.
After such hellish creation myths, it’s no wonder the plateau is sacred—tapu—to the Maori. And it was to preserve its pristine nature in the face of settler encroachment that chief Te Hueheu donated the area to the people of New Zealand in 1887, thus creating the world’s fourth national park and New Zealand’s first: Tongariro.
Some pipits are chirping to celebrate our arrival. Like all New Zealand birds, they look at us unperturbed, with a gaze that says: “I used to be a dinosaur, you know.”
The descent from the Red Crater is hairy, like stepping down a scree, but the view is absurdly spectacular. We can see all the way to the Rangipo desert and the jagged peaks of Mount Ruapehu. Then comes the glorious sight of the twin Emerald Lakes, their green as brilliant as South Island jade. Further on, we pass by fumaroles spewing hot, noxious sulphide gases and reach the north shore of Blue Lake. It’s serene, cold and highly acidic, but some dowdy green mosses are growing defiantly in patches around its edge. Scientists terraforming Mars need look no further than here.
The sun is now behind us as we tread Tongariro’s eastern slopes. Sliding gravel turns to boggy soil with a cover of tussock, daisies and gentians. Why, even some pipits are chirping to celebrate our arrival. Like all New Zealand birds, they look at us unperturbed, with a gaze that says: “I used to be a dinosaur, you know.” And it is here, looking across all the way to Lake Taupo and the voluptuous curves of Mount Pihanga clad in a cloak of green foliage, that we sit down to have our baguettes (me) and energy bars (Joe).
We’d both been psyched up for the ascent, but no one had warned us about the long, spiraling descent. It’s a full hour downhill until we reach the Ketetahi hut, where a ranger counts us all out—glad, I presume, not to have to summon a helicopter today—and then another anticlimactic hour-and-a-half through a podocarp forest starring ancient totara and manuka trees. Fantails—a native bird—flit by as we pass through their territory, waiting for us to disturb insects as we plod along.
We hear the din of the crowd before we make out the coaches waiting at the end of our hike. After the eerie silence of the trail and the sporadic birdsong of the forest, the human hum sounds abnormal, alien, aberrant. We find a bench to sit on and lean against a wall to rest our aching limbs while we wait for the bus back.
It’s taken us six-and-a-half hours overall. We’re told that the athletes who’d rushed beyond us made it in two hours and 20 minutes. Joe and I look at each other. “So they ran through the track and spent four hours in the parking lot?” he asks.
You can get the bus to Mangatepopo and back from Ketetahi hut with Tongariro Expeditions. Note that the weather can be treacherous even at the height of summer and the trail can close at short notice. Proper hiking gear is essential.
John Malathronas is a London-based travel writer whose foreign language skills allow him to get under the skin of a destination. He has authored or co-authored 20 books and has bylines in CNN Travel, National Geographic Traveller and the Daily Telegraph.