TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK, NEW ZEALAND — Today, we hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in this national park, which stood in for 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. Sadly, the morning was cloudy, and throughout the ascent to the South Crater, all we could see was white from the clouds. It reminded us of the time we hiked at the foot of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland — and never saw it.
On a clear day, this part of the trail would be stunning, 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 to stop erosion.
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 round-trip 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 that looked like a deposit of toxic, yellow sludge. The messages— including “Geiler Trip,” German slang for super great trip— weren’t too inspiring.
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!
The trail got steeper and steeper, until finally, up on the pass to the Red Crater, the trail narrowed considerably, 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.
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 3-meter- wide ledge — that sign at the beginning about alpine hiking was not exaggerating. Torsten had a blast running and slipping, almost skiing down that loose surface, but we noticed a young Asian woman who was very unsure of her footing. She probed every step to see if she was on firm ground, a useless endeavor on that surface, and it took her ages to descend from the pass. We don’t think she enjoyed the experience.
The trail leveled out by three lakes, which we and 100 other people thought was a great spot for lunch. Again, we heard a lot of German, and 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 volcanic vents higher up wafted down. But it was a scenic spot, with lots of people taking pictures. Most of the teens were taking silly model-wannabe shots, but a couple of German girls were recording a video for the birthday of one of their grandmas.
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. So we bypassed the lake and headed straight down the trail.
This part of the mountain was so steep that the trail went through a lot of long switchbacks, unlike the near-vertical ascent. About halfway down, there was a hut with some welcome amenities, including 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, 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 — presumably because mud slides and flash floods.
When we got to the trailhead, it felt like a Mexican bus terminal, with shuttles from many operators coming and going. Some people were walking around looking lost, some just waiting for their shuttle to arrive. Others were calling out step counts from their Fitbits or phones in all different languages — apparently, we took between 38,000 and 43,000 steps on this hike.
Our shuttle arrived on time, and it took a long time for it to drop us off at our hotel, driving half-way around the mountain. We were the first and only ones to get off at Chateau Tongariro, which gave us the unfamiliar feeling of being rich Americans.
We relaxed the rest of the day. Beth had a beer and a bath, while Torsten 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 on which various buildings were strewn about. It didn’t look like a quaint ski town, like those we’d seen in Colorado.
We ended the day by having drinks in the hotel’s library, listening to live piano music and watching the sun set on the volcano. As it was already 8pm, and the lunch the hotel packed was quite substantial, we skipped dinner, knowing a fabulous breakfast buffet was awaiting the next morning.