NZ’s best one-day walk: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Crossing is at the top of New Zealand’s To Do list and rated as the “best day hike” in the country. With sparkling lakes nestled high up in the mountains of Tongariro National Park and surrounded by craters and volcanos, this 19.4km day hike covers a variety of eco systems. Brett and his parents had never completed the hike before, so the choice was easy when deciding on a weekend getaway.

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The forecast boasted temperatures up to 23 degree Celsius and clear skies. Dozens – perhaps hundreds – of hikers were among us as we dislodged from the shuttle bus at 7:00am and felt the crisp morning air on our skin. I was very content with my decision to pack a down jacket and mittens.

An hour into the hike, as we made our way up the “Devil’s Staircase”, I couldn’t help but wonder what brought each person to hike the trail. For every person there was a varying level of fitness, age, and clothing options (there will always be a person on the trail in jeans, and I pity their chaffed thighs the next day).

For a pair of women, this was a fitness goal. They slurped from their Camelback water bags – replenishing the liquids in their bodies surely just as fast as it was being sweat from their pores. Halfway up the Devil’s Staircase they urged each other to carry on.

A group of young girls were inadequately prepared, as they wore taboo jeans and fresh sneakers – complete with Marc Jacobs backpacks. I think I would have cried with them, had I been in their presence during the muddy descent on a latter part of the trail. Oh to be young and impractical.

For myself, it was the curiosity. In every country, there is always a “thing” that must be seen: the Statue of Liberty in NYC, Stonehenge in England, Machu Picchu in Peru, etc. This trail is the “thing” of New Zealand’s North Island.

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So up we went, single-file like an army of ants on the ultimate pursuit of what had been promised to us if we just continued to put one foot in front of the other.

About two hours into the hike, Mount Ngauruhoe towered over our army. Without a cloud in the sky, the peak was threatening and dominant. Only the bravest of hikers would take the chance climbing to the top – a track I will save for another lifetime.

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Near the turnoff to Mount Tongariro we were greeted with a bird’s eye view of the Blue and Emerald Lakes, along with the steaming Red Crater. This was the highlight on the hike: the landscape that was promised to us tourists whom had travelled from around the world just to catch a glimpse. And it’s true: the Emerald Lakes were as green and jeweled as the photos, and Blue Lake sparkled in the afternoon sun, with its untouched sand begging for a beach comber to set up their umbrella. I was fortunate enough to distance myself between the other hikers and capture some photos without anyone in sight.

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The lakes were surely the highlight of the Crossing, followed by 10kms of switch-backs down the other side of the mountain ranges. The view of Taupo Lake was breathtaking, but trust me, it’s a harrowing feeling to see the parking lot below and know that you are still three hours away. Eventually, with sore toes and fatigued legs, we made it to the parking lot below and we had completed our journey.

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. . . . .

Now back in my flat in downtown Wellington – a fair distance from the mountains and their hidden gems in the sky, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the experience.

At the time I felt that this was not “magical” whatsoever – and I still stand by that statement to an extent. The stench from the sulfuric gas of the nearby volcano was enough to make my stomach turn, regardless of how long it had been since I ate breakfast. And aside from my 30 seconds of staring at the Blue Lake before another army of hikers passed, the mood of the hike is not that of reflection and tranquility.

But there’s something to be said about the must-see “things” around the world and the expectations that are set. And this is something that I need to constantly remind myself of. It’s important to remember that there are many, many others looking to fill the same void in their life when visiting these popular destinations: the curiosity, the achievement, crossing something off the Bucket List. I was initially surprised by the number of tourists eager to hike the Tongariro Crossing, but I shouldn’t have been.

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And although I didn’t initially believe there was enough opportunity for reflection, perhaps there was. I remember looking around at the others and wondering if the ancient Maori tribes would be horrified to see how many people were trampling on their sacred land (albeit with trendy Marc J backpacks in tow). But I think they would be proud of the number of people who had come from around the globe to appreciate the landscape and beauty that the Crossing offers. Although the trail is now commercialized with toilet facilities and man-made stairs, it is well-preserved and clean considering the traffic that flows through each year. (And yes, I did yell at anyone who went near the water… the tourist brochure says not to touch it!).

If I were to summarize the Tongariro Crossing (other than in the previous 850 words of this post), I would advise you to bring plenty of patience, for you will need it on the ascent, the decent, and everything in between. There are many, many others on the trail, but do not let it spoil the hard work that you put in to get there. Because it’s not easy hiking uphill with hundreds of strangers whilst hungry, thirsty, and sick to your stomach from the Sulphur gas vents in the hills beside you. But I think that’s what makes it a unique experience, and now that I think about it: That’s exactly what I was looking for.

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