TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK, NEW ZEALAND — Today, we hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in this national park, which featured prominently as Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies.

After more than a week in New Zealand, and plenty of hiking on shorter trails, it was time for our first New Zealand Great Walk. This track, a 19.5 km walk up the side of a dormant volcano climbs more than 700m from the start to the top, with the total elevation change being greater because of the ups and downs from crawling out of the craters.

We ordered our shuttle for 8am and it brought us, along with a youth group of 18 hikers, to the trailhead. To my disappointment, it was cloudy. All throughout the ascent to the south crater, all I could see was white from the clouds. It reminded me of the time we hiked at the foot of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland — and never saw it.

On a clear day, I suspect this part of the trail would be stunning, hiking along a stream with a volcano on either side. The trail was packed with people from all around the world and of varying abilities, so at times the going was pretty slow. Initially, there were some wildflowers and we saw a beautiful spiderweb covered in mist droplets, but the trail soon traversed only rocks. Once we passed the Soda Springs, there was a sign warning of alpine dangers and urging people who do not feel prepared to turn around, a warning we later found out some hikers should have heeded. The trail climbed very steeply, mostly on wooden steps and mats filled with gravel which I assume were put there to stop erosion.

A group of hikers ascending in the mist to the first crater.

At the saddle before heading into the first crater, there was a spur trail to climb to the top of the volcano, a 3-hour roundtrip hike on which we passed because we didn’t expect any views due to the clouds.

Once we reached the South Crater, the sun made an attempt to break up the clouds, with only modest success. It was a bit of a cat-and-mouse game to take pictures, because one had to be fast to get anything but white. The view was clear enough, though, so that we could see the messages people had left by arranging rocks in an almost-dried up lake which looked like a deposit of toxic, yellow sludge. The messages were very “inspiring”, almost making me pity the NSA for having to sift through a lot of humanity’s mundane communication: “Geiler Trip”, loosely translated as super great trip and “Nice Sara.”

It wasn’t until we hiked up another couple hundred meters to the Red Crater that we saw that the clouds were hanging on the mountain and that the other side was clear with blue skies. At last!

Climbing out of the first crater onto the spine between craters, and getting our first glimpse of blue sky. The trail narrows from this point while climbing steeply.

The trail got steeper and steeper, until finally up on the pass to the Red Crater, the trail narrowed considerably (to maybe 3m) with steep drop-offs on either side. This would not have been a problem, except for the very strong winds that pushed us around. At this point, we were glad to have brought hats, gloves and good windbreakers, which all saw action on this stretch of the hike.

At the top of the pass, we could see several lakes ahead of us, and it became clear that both the up and the down paths are on the spine between craters, which means narrows trails with steep drop-offs on either side. Our downhill hike now consisted of a lot of loose sand and gravel on a roughly 2-3m wide ledge — That sign at the beginning about alpine hiking was not exaggerating. I had a blast running and slipping, almost skiing down that loose surface, but both Beth and I noticed a girl in a brand-new, red down jacket, who was very unsure of her footing. She probed every step to see if she was on firm ground, which was a useless endeavor on this surface, and it took her a really long time to descend from the pass. I’m not sure she enjoyed the experience.

The trail leveled out by three lakes, a great spot for a lunch break, as was evidenced by the hundred other people having the same idea. Again, we heard a lot of German, some Dutch and French. The lakes’ water had an eerie green color, as if lit from within, and occasionally, the smell of rotten eggs from some volcanic vents higher up wafted down. But it was a scenic spot with lots of people taking pictures and the obligatory model-wannabe poses preferred by teenage girls. I overheard a couple of German girls recording a video for the birthday of one of their grandmas.

The spot was still windy, and eventually we started to get cold and marched on. This time, the trail was flat for a while before ascending to another, bigger lake. This one had blue water and was called Blue Lake — go figure. We had originally planned to have lunch there, but now we were glad we didn’t, because it was a cold and very windy spot with no shelter from the wind. So we bypassed the lake and headed straight down the trail, which was now descending towards the parking lot on the other end.

The descent from the top of the pass along a sandy, narrow path. The green lake in the foreground was our lunch spot.

This part of the mountain was so steep that the trail went through a lot of long switchbacks, something we didn’t notice to be the case on the other side,. The ascent went straight up. About half-way down, there was a hut with amenities, i.e. toilets, and we stopped for a break. Our shuttle driver told us at the start that it would take about 2 hours from the hut to hike out, and we had some time to burn, so we hung out on the mountain. By now, some of the other faces in the crowd were familiar from the hike, which made the people-watching even more interesting and fun.

Another hour down the trail, we finally entered the woods and hiked along a clear, fast-moving stream. A sign warned about a stretch of a hazardous area, warning we shouldn’t proceed if we heard loud noises from above, and that we should not stop. I assume the trail was routed through a little gully where mud slides and flash floods would be rushing down.

About 1.5 hours from the hut, we finally reached the end, and I felt transported to a Mexican bus terminal: Shuttles from all different operators constantly coming and going, people coming off the trail, hopping on shuttles, some people walking around looking lost, some just sunbathing waiting for their shuttle to arrive. This was again a very international crowd, but the one uniting feature was their calling out step counts from their fit bits or phones in all different languages (I understood the German, Dutch and English call-outs, but was lost with Chinese and Japanese). Based on the other hikers’ numbers, I estimate that we did between 38000 and 43000 steps on this hike.

View from the blue lake of Mt. Ngauruhoe with snow covered Mt. Ruapehu in the background.

Our shuttle arrived on time, and it took a long time for it to drop us off back at our hotel, driving half-way around the mountain. We were the first and only ones to get of the bus here and staying at the most luxurious accommodation. It felt like being singled out for being the rich Americans staying in posh rooms.

We got back around 16:45 and relaxed the rest of the day: Bath and beer for Beth while I drove up to the end of the road, which led to a ski area on a neighboring volcano. It was a strange place because there was only one restaurant and the scene was dominated by sharp volcanic rock onto which there were various buildings strewn about. It didn’t strike me as a cozy ski town like the ones in Colorado.

View of the two volcanos across Lake Taupo.

We ended the day by having drinks in the hotel’s library, listening to live piano music and watching the sunset on the volcano. As it was already 8pm, and the lunch the hotel packed was quite substantial (and quite good) we skipped dinner, knowing a fabulous breakfast buffet was awaiting the next morning.