Otherworldly walking on New Zealand's Tongariro Crossing

by Jon.Sparks

Often hailed as the world’s best one-day walk, the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand goes through positively Martian scenery, with active volcanic vents and multi-coloured lakes en route


I know some highly educated people who think JRR Tolkien was a Kiwi; such has been the impact of Peter Jackson's movie trilogy based on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The cold facts are that Tolkien’s ‘Shire’ was the country of his boyhood in the English Midlands, but Peter Jackson insists that the movies couldn’t have been made anywhere but New Zealand. Even so, it wasn’t Middle-earth that I was thinking of on the Tongariro Crossing; it was Mars.

The Tongariro Crossing (18km for the basic route without side-trips) is often called the best one-day walk in New Zealand. That’s a bold claim in itself, but there are plenty who hail it as nothing less than the best one-day walk in the world. That’s a claim that simply has to be investigated, and so here we are, piling out of a minibus at the end of a gravel road under a blue southern sky.

The first hour is fairly gentle: a manicured track follows the Mangatepopo stream, skirting chaotic lava flows. The black twisted rocks look raw and new, bare of vegetation. Then there’s a rocky climb to Mangatepopo Saddle, a half-hour’s hard labour, and the toughest climb of the day if you miss out the optional side-trips.

The toughest of those side-trips starts from the Saddle, climbing 600m to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe (2291m). This classic cone-shaped volcano is probably only about 2,500 years old; the last serious eruption was in 1974. From a distance its outline is serenely beautiful; up close it looks more like a classic slag-heap. The climb is at a uniform angle of about 35 degrees, on loose volcanic scoria. Try as you might, there’s no avoiding ‘two steps up, one step back’ syndrome.

Most walkers give Ngauruhoe a miss, saving themselves an hour or two of treadmill ascent. Of course, they also miss the hugely expanding views, which on clear days include the other great Fuji-shaped volcano of North Island, Taranaki, far to the west. Much closer, to the wouth, rises Ruapehu, the highest peak on North Island, which played the role of Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies.

The grind ends abruptly; two more steps, and we were on the crater rim, a simmering hole a hundred metres deep, perhaps 150 metres across. The walls were vertical, even overhanging in places: black, white, yellow and red, all the colours of fire. There was no sign of life, save a few figures dotted around the rim.

Picking the right line on the way down gave me the best scree-run of my life, descending 500 metres in 10 minutes. In our British hills, scree-runs are eroded out in a few years but these mountains keep renewing themselves. In contrast, the next stretch, crossing South Crater, was pancake-flat. The crater floor was barren sand and gravel, the cliffs to the south equally lifeless. It was here, in this black and brown and gold desolation, that I began to feel we were walking on Mars.

A short climb amid contorted rocks gained the eastern ridge of the crater, a long view down over lava flows, a gentler ascent leading now to the ridge between South and Central Craters. From here, the ridge could be followed to Tongariro summit, but we didn’t have the hour to spare. And just ahead, Red Crater beckoned.

Red Crater is the most active area on Tongariro, and its summit (1886m) is the highest point on the direct Crossing. The facing wall was a tortured mass of red, streaked with black. Steam poured from countless vents, even from the ground under our feet, and the smell of sulphur was almost overpowering. There are unnerving fissures in the ground, as if chunks of the slope are preparing to slump into the crater. Those of a nervous disposition may want to hurry on, but if you stop in silence for a minute you can hear the mountain seething away beneath you. This is a walk for all the senses.

The descent to Emerald Lakes is steep and loose, requiring care, but not really difficult. The Lakes are really three large pools, and more turquoise than emerald, but I’m quibbling. The colour is intense, even under an overcast sky, and doubly startling in surrounds of lifeless brown. The mineral-rich waters are not for drinking.

The track skirted the floor of Central Crater, a desolate black field of lava, then made a short climb before descending to Blue Lake (no quibbles with this name). The short climb away from Blue Lake was the last on the Crossing. Its crest gave the last views of Central Crater, Red Crater and the summits of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. A place to linger, but a long descent still awaited.

For the first time since the start of the walk the dominant colour was the green of vegetation. Ahead, the view opened out to the northward: the scrubby, tussocky slopes fell away sharply to gentler slopes cloaked in bush. The end of the walk was down there, still 900 metres below. Beyond again lay first Lake Rotoaira and then the much larger Lake Taupo.

Covering more than 600 square kilometres, Lake Taupo occupies the basin of a vast caldera formed in an eruption estimated to equal a hundred Krakatoas and reliably dated to 186 AD; it’s almost certainly the origin of records of darkened daytime skies and bloody sunsets from both China and Rome. It certainly puts the Tongariro Crossing in perspective. Lake Taupo could swallow hundreds, maybe thousands, of Ngauruhoes.

The track dropped steeply to Ketetahi Hut, where there are toilets and fresh water as well as accommodation for those requiring it. Beyond this the expansive views were swallowed up as the path descended into bush. Time to reflect as we ambled down to the final road-end. Best walk in the world? I couldn’t quite say that - but if there’s a better one out there, let me at it.



Where to stay

Bayview Chateau Tongariro: spectacular luxury hotel on the slopes of Ruapehu.

Ski Haus: comfortable budget accommodation