Hey, I got a crazy idea. Let’s walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the great one-day tramps in New Zealand, on Christmas Day. No one else will be there. We’ll have it all to ourselves! Thus it began.
If you are a faithful reader of this blog, you may remember two months ago my wife and I made a half-hearted failed attempt at the Tongariro before being turned back by blistering cold and gale-force winds (Tongariro failed attempt). The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a famed 12 mile hike, some say the best in New Zealand, generally done in a one-way direction over an active volcanic landscape in the central North Island.
Today, Christmas Day, I was going to do it with my 16-year old son, Matthew, who had arrived here a few days ago to go to school (more on that later).
I had booked a motel room for the night before in Turangi, the town closest to the Tongariro crossing. Several weeks earlier, some of Rebecca’s friends had come from the United States to visit. Unfortunately, perhaps in the excitement of coming to New Zealand, they had gotten the spelling mixed up and mistakenly booked a time-share in this same town, Turangi, instead of our city, Tauranga (different spelling) and ended up staying at least part of their visit some 200 km away from us. And to make matters worse, Turangi is perhaps the most Colorado-like area of New Zealand that we’ve seen—rushing trout streams, lakes, pine forests, tall mountains notwithstanding the spewing of geothermal gases from vents scattered around the mountains.
But that said, they did have a great time there and in passing they had said that there was a great Chinese restaurant, Hong Kong, in Turangi. In fact, they said it was one of the best Chinese meals they had ever had.
So when Matthew and I checked into the motel in Turangi, and as the receptionist directed us to our room, I said, “I heard there was a great Chinese restaurant here in town.”
Without turning back, the woman said, “No, there isn’t. But there is a bad Chinese restaurant here in town called Hong Kong.”
She stopped and turned to look at us, “And I certainly wouldn’t eat the chicken there before hiking the Tongariro crossing.” Okay.
The next morning, after playing it safe and not eating at Hong Kong, we waited in the Ketekahi carpark for the shuttle to the Mangatepopo starting trailhead. And as car after car pulled up dislodging more and more people, we realized we weren’t the only ones deciding to hike on Christmas Day. There were lots of other people who had the same brainy idea—loners, misfits, people who perhaps had antagonized their families over the years, atheists, but also whole families of Korean and Asian tourists (children, parents and grandparents).
Initially, at the beginning of the hike Matthew and I decided to let people go by in the hope that eventually we would have the trail to ourselves. But it was not to be. As soon as one group went by, others would emerge from around the bend behind us. And when we reached a slight rise in the trail, we could see dozens of people strung out behind us. And then as we started walking up the steep Devil’s Staircase, we could see not dozens but hundreds of people behind us all as if on some sort of sacred pilgrimage panting and making their way up the endless steps of the giant mountain.
So at least for us on this day, despite the scenic beauty, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was like taking a long walk, six plus hours, with several hundred of your closest friends. Except they’re not your closest friends. In fact, you don’t know any of them. But you get to know some of them in a weird sort of way. Over the next 19.4 kilometers, you will pass and be passed by the same people numerous times.
In fact, there won’t be a moment—actually there were a few moments near the very end— when you are alone or out of sight of a gaggle of fellow trampers.
But it is a spectacular hike. After the Devil’s Staircase, you reach the turn-off for a separate climb up Mount Ngauruhoe (2287 meters), the basis for the famed Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings climbing which would be a separate 3 hour round trip hike from that point. Then you drop down into a basin. Here Matthew and I were walking along enjoying the nice flat section we were walking across. Then we looked around and noticed the peaked ridges surrounding us on all sides and realized that for the last half hour we’d been walking across the bottom of a huge volcanic crater (South Crater). Can this thing erupt? What if the ground beneath us suddenly began to crack open? Best not to think too much—just keep walking.
The entire upper portion of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is an eerie, moon-like environment of volcanic origin. It is a lot like walking above timberline in Colorado. Banks of clouds rolled past us at the higher altitudes. I could imagine how relentless the sun would be up here on a clear hot summer day.
After South Crater, there is another steep uphill to a junction with a turn-off where you can climb Mount Tongariro (1967 meters) itself. A little ways past the turnoff, Red Crater is visible, another massive volcanic depression of red earth with a distinctive gash on one side.
The trail then drops down to Emerald Lakes, several small emerald green lakes with volcanic vents puffing steam nearby.
Then the trail skirts the fringe of Tongariro’s Central Crater and the edge of Blue Lake, a larger lake, before exiting the volcanic valley and beginning the long descent down.
A sign at the beginning of the descent warns of the recent activity of Te Maari, an active volcano, which erupted two years ago. The signs warn you of escape routes in case of an eruption.
On the way down, you see ominous plumes of volcanic gases arising from the active area of Te Maari. Part way down is the Ketekahi hut, a DOC hut. Once you could spend the night here, but now it is only a day shelter presumably because of the recent activity of Te Maari.
Farther down, signs warn you that you are entering the likely route of the lahar, the pyroclastic mudflow that often occurs when a volcano erupts, if Te Maari erupts.
The hike down is long. It’s like the climax of a movie having occurred, the upper volcanic reaches of the hike, and then the movie having a very long drawn out ending that keeps going and going and going. That’s what the final descent down was. Nice but a bit too long.
Finally, we arrived at the starting point where we had left the car. It took us six hours and 40 minutes at a slow pace with plenty of stops for photos. It was more fatiguing than hard. Certainly many of the fourteeners in Colorado are far harder.
It was certainly a fun hike although a bit different than I imagined because of so many people on the trail. Hiking through the volcanic landscape, what came to mind was a phrase I first read in Aaron Ralston’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, where he said ‘geologic time is now’.
Geologic time is now.
We often tend to think of geologic forces as something that happened years ago, relegated as it were to a more ancient time of earth. Also because these same forces often occur so slowly over time, or in fits and starts, we tend to not think of them as existing now. But seeing the volcanic landscape and activity of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one is acutely reminded that the same geologic forces that have occurred on this earth over the last hundreds of millions of years are occurring right now under all of our feet.
Two-minute video that I made of the crossing—