Round 1 - In the beginning
Editor's note - originally written right after the events described, this is an account on how you can be young and stupid and still have a good time. More photos if I ever get back to the UK for more than 2 weeks and can scan the things.
Some guy's route map: http://www.thetongarirocrossing.co.nz/images/largemap.jpg
On the 2nd of April was to be the long awaited Tongariro Crossing, or was it? Warnings from experienced locals of 75mph gusts, minus temperatures, and poor visibility, coupled with one member of our tour group's volunteered opinions about who was properly dressed for such conditions reduced the willing members down from 15 to 6; Ted, Betty, Myself, Hendrick, Brooke, and Justin. We wave goodbye to our companions who stand dejectedly under a shelter that marks the start of the one-way, 17km hike. The hardy shuttle bus driver who had said that "he wouldn't do the climb", wished us good luck as we left although it didn't seem like we would need it. The sky was reasonably clear, the wind was low, but it was definitely cold, yet we were wearing enough layers to remain warm. The scene was incredible; a huge flat river ridden plateau in front of us, leading to a steep rocky slope, snow covered. The lower slopes of Mt Tongariro rose on the plateau's left side while Mt Ngauruhoe towered on the right, an awe inspiring sight, peak shrouded in cloud. We followed the gravelly path, which was bordered by snow speckled black rocks - a reminder of the past, and also of the future. Yet at this altitude (1200m) plants flourished, lichens, grasses, and tiny little flowers huddling against the chill.
Sometimes we needed to scramble up small slopes and skirt round ledges, then pick our way across icy streams. Once we lost the path altogether and didn't realise that we were wandering in the middle of the rocky plain some way from it, till Hendrick casually mentioned that there was a line of marker posts some way to our left, and that maybe we should be following them. An hour or so after departure, we were at the base of the rocky slope, it went straight up. The going was hard, the path all but disappeared under the snow if it had ever been there at all. It was like climbing stairs, choosing one after another, occasionally slipping on an icy rock or patch of snow. I could see Justin and Hendrick resting up above, the top was in sight! This proved only to be a respite though, we were only half way up! When we did reach the top of the slope we had a treat in store; another plateau stretching out in all directions, covered in snow, this was the South Crater, 1600m up. The whole landscape was white, especially Mt Ngauruhoe, the dominating feature of the climb so far. Rest and sandwiches are in order. Ted and Betty arrive sooner than expected, they had been some way back. He waiting for her, and her having a hard time of it. However, it transpired that she always caught up sooner than expected, her determination deserved respect.
It was at this point that I noticed the view behind, looking back the way we came. It was fantastic, the flat we'd walked across...and behind, green plains to the horizon while in the foreground green hills, probably volcanic vents from long ago. It was time to go on,a cross the flat white expanse to whatever lay beyond it. Ice cracked underfoot. Halfway to the other side our objective became clear; the slope leading from straight ahead to way up top the left was it. The first slope had been nothing in comparison. Now there were no rocks for grip, it was snow on top of ice. I went slowly because it was so slippery on the steep slope. Sometimes the track inched round house sized boulders where the path became very narrow and tilted towards the long drop on the other side. It was pretty scary at times like those. It was a long climb, rocks appeared sporadically providing handholds, but mostly I was grasping at the snow itself. It was easiest to follow the path of those who had gone before, hiking boots did seem a more necessary element than an optional one. How Hendrick made it to the top in his near plimsolls I'll never know. The views down to the valley on the right was amazing, black terraces building down to the green far off, contrasting dramatically with the white that occupied all other space.
Round 1 - The end of the world
But the promised weather was now moving in; clear skies and views were blocked by broiling clouds, wind strength increased, snow blew up off the slopes into our exposed faces. Backs turned towards the wind, Justin and I waited at the top of the slope for Ted and Betty to catch up before continuing, Brooke and Hendrick went on ahead. We essentially had a white out, you could maybe see 15 metres but that was all. Following the posts onwards, now steeply upwards again, leaning more and more into the wind, we came across a group of people huddled on the small leeward side of the incline, including Brooke and Hendrick. The wind was very strong at this time, and the path diminishing in width, not just the path either, but the the width of the slope itself was down to 6 meters. Justin saw little point in staying and so continued, some took heart from this and followed, others contemplated going back. It was very, very difficult to walk, and with the path up ahead disappearing simply into the storm, it was a worrying time. It would have been easy to just make one slip and have taken a free skydive, to who knows where, we could see nothing of what was below, ahead, or behind. Finding it easier to continue by bending double, I simply ran up the slope, passing others as I did so. Before we realised it we were going down, the wind speed dropped, the going became less difficult. Looking back at what now appeared a peak of some kind, I saw a group of four clinging on to each other for safety, it seemed everybody had made it.
The decent was fairly easy, and something to be enjoyed after what we had just experienced. It was like walking down a sand dune, feet sank easily into the mix of black grit and snow. The mists slowly revealed a startling landscape. We were descending into the Central Crater, a huge basin, like a crater from some huge impact, flat as can be. The basin was ringed by huge spires, pointing towards the now blue sky. We stopped and looked back, warm sunlight fell on our upturned faces. The peak had mysteriously calmed. It occurred at the time that there are some places people aren't meant to go, and things they aren't supposed to see. I'd only caught glimpses, mere glimpses from that 1880m peak of the world below. Oh how I would have liked to see that black and white world unobscured!...On the right of the basin lay a small green lake, while in front, up another steep slope lay another, the Blue Lake. It certainly was blue, and big too, too big to photo in its entirety.
I was having an unbelievable experience, something defining, momentous, unparalleled in my life before, unique to it. Walking in that basin seemed like walking on the Moon, it was so desolate...very hard to describe. More sandwiches, and then off again. A few more rises, knee deep snow drifts, and photos later we came to the beginning of the end, the start of the decent towards the green vale of Taupo. Yet what a sight greeted our eyes! I couldn't have imagined anything more beautiful, an entire landscape lay before me. On the left green plains stretching on to forever, on the right a small body of water, then the enormity of Lake Taupo, separated by a line of volcanoes. Other volcanoes dotted the landscape and protruded from the lake, appearing dark in the brilliant light of the sun. The horizon was a hundred miles away, the clouds on an equal level with ourselves. Colours were vivid, measurements incalculable. No photo or painting would be able to do the panorama justice though I spent a lot of film trying. It was quite simply itself and we were held in wonder.
Round 1 - Fancy seeing you here!
All the way down from that vantage by the North Crater would that view confront us, ever changing, ever beautiful. A gently descending winding path descended from the saddle, following the mountain side, eventually we came to Ketahahi Hut, and rested with all the other climbers from that day. There were about 7 others, not including our party, and we'd met most of them somewhere on the track before then. On that decent at about 2pm, I passed two people going the other way. My first thought was that they were leaving it a bit late, and secondly that they were going to have a hell of a time climbing down the icy slopes we'd come up several hours before. Maybe they were just going to do one of the optional summit climbs and come back, though that would be a harder task still. Trying to climb the 30 degree slopes of Mt Ngaurahoe is "extremely challenging" at the best of times but in snow, and in the weather that was hanging around it's mighty cone, it would be suicide.
They were long gone though, and we should have been too. There was still a good 2 hours to go, a testament to how high we were. The snow was disappearing from the path and rocks now, only remaining in isolated shadowy pockets, nestling behind stones or in the depths of the plants that were springing up. From nothing, to small lichens, to miniature green leaved plants, before purple heathers and then the tussock. On either side of the narrow gravely path stretched grass, dry brown grass, all across the hills till they dipped from view. With the change in vegetation came a remarkable change in the colour of the rock itself. Instead of the black that had been so prevalent thus far (when it could be glimpsed), were now reds, greens, oranges, colours of every shade. This was the result of the chemicals and minerals in the earth being brought up and deposited by steam an water. Vents issuing forth such steam could be seen now and again, a reminder that we were still on a volcano, and that it was still hot. As we crossed a river full of these rainbow rocks, I looked up to see where the tepid water originated from; it was of course the Maori owned Ketatahi hot springs, once accessible but now off limits. Those springs gutted forth a such a huge amount of steam that it looked like some sort of eruption was occurring.
The rate of our decent, also meant a dramatically rapid increase in temperature, and every 10 mins I was taking off another layer of clothes. Hendrick reduced the numbers of pairs of socks he was wearing from 4 to 1 (one pair were on his hands); all were wet. So were mine, and my trousers too. Seems that I really had been feeling bubbles between the two pairs I had on. Piles of clothes in hands we came to a viewing area, a point for those not fortunate enough to have done the crossing and seen the better views from up above. Such a group was coming up from below, the remainder of our tour group! Much rejoicing was had, not to mention jealousy when we recounted only some of what we had done and seen and experienced. There was much to tell. We had to go on though, down through what was now green forest to the road, and awaiting bus. An unmarked forest, though the walk was entertaining enough with many jokes about the woebetider from the beginning of the story being told, and disbelief expressed at the things he did. For example, when the bus had left us walkers, he immediately launched into a tale of people dying in the Smokey Mountains. This was immediately halted by Dutch Anna when she lost it and told him in no uncertain terms to shut up.
Well, finally we reached the bus, coffee, and comfy chairs. It didn't feel like a 17km walk, certainly the second day of the Routeburn Track had seemed harder. I'm not complaining though, and neither was anybody else, despite some being inexperienced, unfit, or poorly clothed. We had had an incredible experience together, 7hrs that will probably never be forgotten. For me, even after all the other things I'd done, it had been the highlight of my trip.
Round 2 - Ooh, would you look at that!
Now for the account of my second Tongariro Crossing, in 9 days. I did it again because one, I wanted to see it without snow. Two, because I wanted to see all the views I'd missed, and three because if I hadn't, right then, on this trip, it really would have dwelt on my mind for how ever many years it took me to come back and do the crossing again under those conditions.
Although the day started with clouds, they burnt off soon enough to leave perfect conditions. The weather remained warm and sunny throughout, with no clouds and no snow, exactly what I wanted after last time. And so it was that I saw all the incredible views that I didn't even know were there before, including The 3 Emerald Lakes - somehow we must have walked past these oblivious, either they were frozen over and so inconspicuous, or we'd come down from the Red Crater by some other route than the normal one. Now I know why that area is called that; what I thought of as "The Peak" (the place where we nearly got blown off the mountain), is in fact the rim of a huge red coloured crater, somewhat self destroyed. Amazing what we'd missed, it couldn't have been more different.
Instead of just doing the crossing as before, I also did the optional route up to the summit of Mt Tongariro - a slippery and winding track through a brightly coloured landscape, along ridges and over piles of rocks. In contrast to the black rock elsewhere, this route traversed mainly yellow and orange ground, though there were areas of what looked like ash, and others like an artist's easel. How glad I am that I did it, I almost didn't, for it was the best part of the whole crossing. Even the journey to the 1967m peak was incredible. First the debris field of coloured rocks, then the layered pillars and monuments, not to mention the view over South Crater, with Mt Ngauruhoe rearing up in the background. The appearance of Mt Ruapehu from behind Ngauruhoe was what really got me going. I laughed at how ridiculous the whole thing was - what I was doing, what I was seeing! You say stupid things at times like these, sometimes words you make up on the spot and won't find in any dictionary. Finally I was at the summit, which was really a huge pile of rubble. I was agog. A 360 degree panorama extravaganza, like the top of Conical Hill on the Routeburn Track but with better scenery, as hard as that is to achieve. To the West, down a rock strewn slope, then across hundreds of kilometers of pastures and fields lay Mt Taranaki - the volcano I'd walked on only days earlier - seemingly floating in the air. To the North lay the ever so blue, Blue Lake, with Lake Taupo behind, and the flat expanse of the North Crater on the left. The view of Lake Taupo from here was awesome, better that when we'd seen it from lower down...no need to move your head, it was all there, all 12'000 square kilometers of it, sparkling, surrounded by volcanoes and their supporting hills. Huge when seen from below, but up here appearing tiny. To the East and South-East, lay the mighty cone of Mt Ngauruhoe, fronted by the immense South Crater, while on it's right reared Mt Ruapehu, snow capped, 500m taller than its cousin.
I could see now with the snow having departed from Ngauruhoe that it wasn't just black, but indeed smeared red at the top, and had light coloured lines trailing all the way down to it's base. I stayed up there for a long time. Eventually feeling satisfied I made my decent down the slippery path and then continued as normal via Red Crater, Central Crater, Blue Lake, then down for two and a half hours, confronted again with THAT view all the while till it was blocked by trees.
Now I could leave New Zealand happy, I don't think I would have done otherwise, it's that special a place, and mattered to me that much.
You can catch an extra glimpse of the area itself at
There're some good pics of both snowy and dry conditions.
Well, there you have it, the report of what turned out to be the best part of my NZ experience. I enjoyed it more than skydiving, found it more exhilarating than bungy jumping, more peaceful than seakayaking in the beautiful Abel Tasman. It might be unrealistic to say something like "I hope you all get to do the Crossing some day", so I'll say this instead;
"Fear less, hope more;
Whine less, breathe more;
Talk less, say more;
Hate less, love more;
And all good things are yours."
You probably know that I pinched that, but at this time of night I'm not feeling particularly inclined to be imaginative.
So long, until next time...
No comments posted yet.