Mission: Mount Tongariro alpine crossing, New Zealand, rated
the best one day trek in New Zealand and one of the top 10 day treks in the
Distance: 17.78 kilometres to the 1886 metre high summit of Mount Tongariro
Hollywood movie draw: perfect views of Mount Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Bragging rights: endless.
So we’re off. After an hour bus ride from Taupo on the north Island, myself and three fellow travellers — from the Netherlands, Germany and Brazil — set off around 8:45 a.m. for the six hour return hike up the Mount Tongariro alpine crossing. Our energy is boosted by the cloudless sky and warm sun beating down, causing us to quickly shed several layers. The day before, hikers were climbing the mountain in the pounding rain blown horizontal by the wind, so we consider ourselves lucky. The first hour along the Mangatepopo stream via a wooden boardwalk is an easy warm up.
A trickling stream ambles over rocks and earth stained vibrant burnt red colour. The rocky landscape is peppered with green brush and further up the sloping hills, larger rocks tower up, looking like stone sentinels guarding over the passage. I had watched the Fellowship of the Rings and we’re all feeling like Frodo and company. I half expect a pack of drooling, sword-wielding orcs to appear from behind a corner and charge at us. To our right looms the Mount Ngauruhoe volcano, as foreboding and ominous as it looks in the film when it stars as Mount Doom, the depths of which the ring must be destroyed. The trek to the 2291 metre summit is considered a dangerous ascent. There are no track markings although hikers are told to follow the solid lava flow during the hour and a half ascent. It’s recommended only when the weather is totally clear and calm and since the forecast called for 80 kilometre an hour winds, we were forced (or secretly relieved) to give it as pass.
We pass the Soda Springs and begin the quad-crunching climb up the Devil’s staircase, a network of zigzagging wooden steps that lead us to the South Crater.
We reach a desert-like crossing, a flat and baron open space that’s a welcome respite from the hour-long Stairmaster. But pain is a familiar feeling during this hike. The wind blows the sharp dust across the plane with such ferocity it pierces our bare calves.
The hour climb up to Red Crater Ridge is a chest-heaving venture, where our light banter subsides and we’re concentrating on breathing and lifting one leg in front of another. It feels like I’ve got weights strapped to my ankles and that I’m dragging a cart behind me. At the same time, the wind is so powerful, I feel it could toss me off the mountain like a paper doll.
Some people are better prepared with walking sticks, ankle-supporting hiking boots and a backpack with a straw feeding them water. But the ridge of the crater looks so close that I tilt my head into the wind, stare down at me feet and soldier on, as do the others in front and behind me. As we reach the crater ridge, the reward is as valuable as precious emerald stones. That’s the colour of the emerald lakes, which glint off the vibrant sun and are even more stunning on contrast to the sand-brown earth cradling the three pools of gem-coloured water. A few hundred metres from the emerald lakes, the blue lake gleams like the sky at early twilight. I sit down and take in the view, which is well worth the three-hour physical strain. I try and eat my sandwich but every bite of the ham and cheese is mixed with the fresh dust that’s still blowing incessantly.
The Te Maari Crater, an active volcano just to our left, is spewing out gas and steam, which is why we can only do the crossing to the emerald lake and back. Typically, hikers are picked up in a parking lot on the other side of the mountain.
After a few Kodak moments, we head back the way we came, about two and a half hours as we practically ran downhill, all the way basking in the victory of a mission accomplished.