The highlight of the North Island is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – a 17-19km (depending on who you ask) trek across the volcanic Mount Tongariro (and optionally Mount Ngauruhoe for the experienced masochist).
A group of us from the Kiwi tour undertook the crossing. We were picked up from our hostel in Taupo at 5:30 am and driven to the starting point by an outfit called Tongariro Expedition. The weather was perfect, and the views from around Tongariro’s various craters and lakes were amazing. We were warned that the Devil’s Staircase would test us, and it did. This climb, which starts after an hour or so of fairly gentle walking, takes you up about 300m to South Crater. South Crater itself looks like a Martian landscape – orange, almost completely flat and devoid of vegetation except for some grass-like tufts. An optional climb up to the summit of Ngauruhoe supposedly takes about 3 hours from the top of Devil’s Staircase, but Ngauruhoe is an intimidating sight even at this height, and we had no time left to do it even if we’d wanted to.
The climb up to the ridge of Red Crater is more difficult and dangerous than the staircase. We didn’t have to contend with strong winds, fortunately. However, melting ice had turned parts of the path to slippery mud, and this was a little unnerving given the steep drops on both sides and the lack of obvious hand holds. The other parts of this ascent consisted of loose rocks, in contrast to the well formed steps encountered previously.
There was certainly a sense of achievement upon reaching Red Crater, though most of us chickened out on going to the actual summit of Tongariro. Red Crater is much smaller than the other craters, but higher up and still active. Rocks on the ridge’s highest point were hot to the touch. The subsequent descent to the Emerald Lakes was quite easy, because it involves more-or-less sliding down volcanic sand, but this results in your shoes becoming full of the stuff (which can be surprisingly sticky). The Emerald Lakes are the recommended lunch stop, though the sulphur smell doesn’t do much for the appetite.
From here we descended into and trekked across Central Crater, which featured a large lava flow and snow-covered inner slopes. From the subsequent ridge you can see Blue Lake. We walked through a couple of snow drifts along the way. The way down is an agonisingly long trek descending from Tongariro’s northern slopes. For the last hour or so you pass through thick vegetation, and this would make a great walk in itself if it weren’t for the aches and blisters acquired over the previous six hours. By the time we reached the end – a little over 7 hours after we started – we were all utterly worn out and sore, but universally glad that we’d done it.
The next day the weather closed in and Tongariro disappeared beneath clouds and rain.