Holy crap, you’ve got to be joking! That was my first reaction when a friend suggested doing the Tongariro Crossing about a year ago, but over time it became more and more appealing. Described as the best one-day hike in New Zealand, it was only a matter of time before I plucked up the courage to brave it. Since I am involved with the Bear New Zealand group I thought it would be a good idea to invite some of the bears along and make a weekend of it.
So it started. Two months of planning and expecting interest from maybe a handful I was surprised to get around twenty assorted bears and followers all enthusiastic and as excited as I was to tackle this super-hike.
Alas nature was not to be kind to us, throwing up a little hissy fit eruption two weeks before we were due to go which closed half the track and the weather forecast in the week leading up included heavy rain, snow and gales. Still, NZ bears are a hardy bunch and seventeen of us arrived at our hotel from Auckland and Wellington on Friday prepared for anything that nature could throw at us.
We were welcomed by the amazing Lorraine at the Adventure Lodge and Motel. A perfect combination of boundless energy, enthusiasm and organisation skill, she soon got all the arrangements sorted. After that it was a relaxing evening making new friends and drinking cold beers in front of a lovely log fire.
7am the next day we woke to a perfect clear blue sky. We made the most of the hearty breakfast on offer, packed up our kit and got ready for an 8.30 start. Between us we had a range of fitness levels and ages ranging from 37 to retirement. Although some had done the crossing before we were all equally excited about going. About half the group had decided in advance to tackle the optional side trip to Ngauruhoe summit, aka ‘Mount Doom’ from Lord of the Rings, ably led by Richard, our nominated guide for the day who was on his fourth trip up. The rest of us were just keen to make it up Tongariro and back in one piece.
The group quickly split into the fast ‘Ngauruhoe’ group and the rest of us moving at a more relaxed pace. The first section from Mangatepopo to Soda Springs was a relatively easy hike but hard enough to cause a few blisters in the group, so it was a short stop at Soda Springs for some well placed plasters to prevent further damage.
The next section up to the South Crater is known as the ‘Devil’s staircase’ and it was soon clear why – a 300m elevation climbing steep slopes and endless stairs that soon had us panting and sweating. Eventually we reached the Mars-like landscape of South Crater with Mt Ngauruhoe looming to the right and Mt Tongariro to the left. It was made all the more stunning by the dusting of fresh snow that had fallen the night before.
Next stop was ‘the saddle’ half way up to the Red Crater and after three hours of hiking it was time for lunch. This was the turn around point for some of the group as a combination of blisters and exhaustion kicked in. A few of us battled on up towards the Red Crater past ‘the icy crag of death’ and a slope which Brian described as ‘like trying to climb up wet concrete’. Muddy and panting, we made it to the highest point at 1886m and were rewarded with amazing views down to the Emerald Lakes and Te Maari Crater spitting out foul smelling gas. The whole area was steaming from the heat below the earth. From here Duane bravely chose to tackle the Tongariro summit while the rest of us decided to begin the descent.
Meanwhile the Ngauruhoe group were battling their way through the ice to the cloud-shrouded summit having adopted two stray Dutch tourists on the way. They scrambled down the scree back to the base of Ngauruhoe leaving a large skid-mark in the snow as they descended. Amazingly they all also made it up to the Red Crater to really make the most of the day.
Going down was a lot easier with gravity doing most of the work but that didn’t stop the legs complaining. The scenery on the way down was even more stunning in the afternoon sun. It was also great to see snow-capped Mt Taranaki away in the distance.
Back at the hotel we had showers and made for the hot tubs – a great way to soothe the aching muscles and compare stories of our day. The Ngauruhoe group eventually made it back about 1.5 hours after the rest of us and also headed for the tubs or a well-earned nap. By this time Will and I had cracked open a bottle of Central Otago Pinot and were soaking up the last of the afternoon sun.
Next came dinner where once again Lorraine was a brilliant hostess and we tucked in like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. Her husband Ron was chef for the night and made sure we had ample food even for hungry bears. We also got our ‘just done Tongariro’ t-shirts and certificates to prove we’d done it.
So did it live up to expectations? Yes and then a lot more. It’s the longest, hardest hike I’ve ever done but also the most rewarding. It’s an amazing feeling pushing yourself to your physical limits while hiking two (very) active volcanoes.
Huge thanks to the gang – Will, Brian, Grant, Andrew, John, Tony, Mike, Mark, Duane, Richard, Paul, Chris, Simon and last but not least the barking Hamish who all made the weekend one I’ll not forget in a long time.
| Dave Rimmer
Planning this trip yourself? Start your trek at www.tongarironationalpark.com.