Walking the Tongariro Crossing
We were six, mad, over fifty year olds who were planning to walk the iconic Tongariro Crossing. Firstly, let me say that although this was a life changing experience, I had not counted on it being a life ending one. Next time, I would take the helicopter....same wonderful views - less risk and effort.
We did a significant amount of research, but did not really grasp the enormity of the project. Having said that, the rest of our group would not have taken the easy way out; they believe that the views appeared even more spectacular because of the experience.
Lonely Planet recommends the Crossing as one of the World's best one day walks "Explore the pulsating volcanic landscape of the Tongariro National Park and tackle the Tongariro Crossing, rated as the World's finest day hike".
The walk is 19.4 kms of which 17 Kms are tiring but easy and about two kms are sheer terror for a whimp. Average walking time without stops is 5 -6 hours although some people run it in far less time. We took 7.5 hours including lunch and stops - well let's be honest, I took that long, a couple of the others had completed it in 6.5 hours.
From the car park at Mangatepopo the track ascends 765m and at the other end, it descends 1126m to the Ketetahi Rd car park. There is no risk of oxygen deprivation at that level, but shortness of breath at the top is often a sign of fitness deprivation.
We had planned to walk the Crossing on Saturday. It came as no surprise that the weather prevented that possibility. Changeable weather is a big risk. Luckily we were able to stay and walk on Sunday which was beautiful. The weather was about as stable and good as it can get. We had been 'weathered-off' once before in February. It pays to allow a few days in the area.
It was sunny but cold. On top of the Volcano that means freezing. We caught the first bus at 7 am from our base in Turangi. Several tour companies run buses to the start of the walk and thousands walk every day (Luckily they are all encouraged to walk the same way).
I should have known this - the entire population of New Zealand must have completed the walk. I know this because everyone we mentioned it to during the preceding weeks would remark 'ah yes, we did that last year'. Or even more disconcertingly 'we do that every few years'. It sounded like a 'doddle' that everyone can do.
We boarded the bus wearing three or four layers of clothing and fought for the remaining few seats. Others watched with silent surprise and it dawned on me that we were older than everyone by a factor of at least three. In addition, they were comparatively naked - compared to us.
We soon discovered the reason. The bus, for only $35 return, offered a full sauna as well as transport to and from the mountain. By the time we piled off the bus, the heater plus our layers of clothing had effectively raised our body temperatures to a level where the freezing air outside the bus would really have its full impact. Still, here we were, ready to set off on a great adventure that would change our lives!
The first part of the walk is deceptively OK. It was frosty but flat and although we could see the path rising up to the ridge ahead - it didn't look too bad. Just a quick tip here - the walk passes a turn off to the Mangatapopo hut.
This is the last toilet for a LONG TIME. It is wise to visit - a few in our party who didn't go (no names mentioned) found themselves seriously looking for a large rock at the top of the Volcano amongst hundreds of others. Do not underestimate the effect of cold.
Beyond the easy bit is the terror- tory. In the route-guide handed out on the bus is simply says: 'It is not a difficult or especially long walk, although one section is quite strenuous. Near the beginning, a 45 minute hand-over-hand climb over raw, black basalt has most walkers sweating and pausing for breath.' In our case, the raw basalt was covered in ice and climbing hand-over-hand was more like hand-and-foot-over-head.
Unable to hold on with gloves and with tramping boots slipping on the icy rocks, young Asian girls were sliding onto the climbers below and everyone was looking for a place to climb without a gaggle of scrambling bodies that might fall on them. I struggled to avoid bayoneting my fellow climbers with a pair of walking poles which, although invaluable for the rest of the walk, turned into an impediment during this part of the track.
To be fair, the fall looked steep below but it probably wouldn't have been a deathly fall. The young climbers looked as if they would 'bounce' off the rocks anyway but I knew for sure that we older climbers would certainly 'splat'. Finishing the last 5 hours of the walk with a broken leg would slow progress considerably even with walking poles and missing the last bus would be a problem.
Walking across the South Crater is easy. Then there is an up and down experience. Down the steep ash scoria slope which could double as a thrill ride at Disneyland, along a ridge where the wind threatens to blow you into the Red Crater and past the unbelievable and aptly named Emerald lakes.
The Red Crater really is RED. The walk along-side the Red Crater is nothing but breath-taking. People appear like ants compared to the massive landscape colours are unreal - the crater lakes are turquoise and green and the mountain red and dark grey.
After 5 hours of walking, the Kaiteriteri hut appears in the distance. The queue for the long drop is never ending and can probably be seen from space. I was pleased that I used the original toilets at the start of the track....and that's an understatement.
It’s a strange thing, but the sight of the hut - a small reminder of civilisation - leads one to believe that the end is nigh....but it isn't. Beyond the hut are the makings of an orthopedic surgeons dream.
The downhill stretch meanders for hours and does untold damage to the knees. Apparently, many walkers have booked in for knee replacements immediately after this walk. It isn’t hard – but it is relentlessly downhill.
Crawling back onto the bus at Ketetahi car park, we didn't speak. How could we? We had just had a life changing experience - all we could do was open a bottle of wine (or three) after which we could find the energy to brag about our day's exploits to each other back at the motel.
I can honestly say that thrill-seekers will feel as if they have taken Cocaine after this walk but we whimps will be hiring a helicopter next time.....but I must admit to feeling extremely smug that I had a go.....it was the experience of a life time and the photos are incredible.