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On Walkabout On: New Zealand’s Tongariro Crossing

If you are into hiking and on the north island of New Zealand you absolutely, positively need to make time available to walk what is considered by many to be the world’s greatest day hike The Tongariro Crossing. The hike is located in Tongariro National Park which is located about an hour south of the beautiful north island city of Taupo in the near center of the island:

Tongariro Crossing Map

Tongariro National Park is one of New Zealand’s premier national parks with some of the most spectacular scenery in the entire country. The park is composed of three spectacular volcanoes Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro. All three of these volcanoes are still active with Mt. Ruapehu erupting just last year.

My wife and I had to get up early in order to drive from Taupo to the trail’s start point. Getting up early provided a nice opportunity to see the sunrise over the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park:

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The road to the national park is extremely scenic with it first passing through heavily wooded forest land before giving away to desert shrub:

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It may be hard to believe but New Zealand despite its “clean and green” credentials actually has a large brown desert in the middle of the north island. The volcanoes of this park are definitely the jewels of the desert.

Mt. Ruapehu pictured below is not only the most active volcano on the north island but it is also the highest mountain on the island as well with a summit of 2,797 meters:

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The rocky volcanic terrain around Mt. Ruapehu was actually used as the setting for the land of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My wife and I felt like we were crossing Mordor as we drove our rental car on this rugged dirt road to reach the start point of the Tongariro Crossing:

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Driving down the road provided many scenic views of another iconic image used in the Lord of the Rings movies and that is of Mt. Ngauruhoe pictured above which was depicted as Mt. Doom in the movies. Before long the road finally reached the start point of the trail and I and one other couple were the only ones there that morning:

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It was around 6:00AM now and I was doing this hike solo because my wife has a bad knee and cannot do long and steep hikes like this. Thus she dropped me off and went back to Taupo and was going to pick me up later on that afternoon at the end of the course.  The information shed near the trail’s start point had plenty of good information to read before setting off. The Tongariro Crossing is actually part of a much larger hiking trail known as the Tongariro Northern Circuit that loops around the entire park:

 

The entire course is supposed to take about four days to accomplish which I would absolutely love to do some day in the future, but for now I was just going to have to settle for the small part of the circuit that the crossing encompasses.  The Tongariro Crossing begins at Mangatepopo Hut which lies in a barren volcanic valley and ends in the lush forests at the bottom of Mt. Tongariro just north of the Ketetahi Hut. The hike covers various and extremely steep terrain across the volcanic spine of the park. I could never forget that these were active volcanoes I was crossing because there was plenty of signs along the way to remind me:

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The signs were a bit ridiculous because they give pointers on what to do if the volcano you are on starts erupting. The advice was of the “Duck & Cover” variety that would be useless if the volcano started to erupt. I made a mental note to myself that if the volcano started to erupt I was just going to run like hell down the side of the mountain that wasn’t erupting. It probably would not do much good either but at least it wasn’t of the Duck & Cover variety.

Fortunately it didn’t appear I was going to have to deal with any eruptions on this day as I started up the trail. As the trail began to ascend up the volcanic valley, I quickly gained a good view of how barren this desert is:

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Here is what the desert looked like right around the trail:

The desert isn’t all desolate though because melting snow from the volcanoes makes various marshlands along the trail that are frequented by many birds:

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Some of these creeks running down the mountain have even created many beautiful waterfalls that can be seen from the trail:

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Some parts of the trail actually had to have boardwalks constructed for it in order to allow hikers to cross some of the larger marshes:

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However most the terrain is of the desert scrub variety shown below:

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Here is a closer look at one of these desert shrubs:

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Eventually the trail reached the top of the valley where I was rewarded with spectacular views of Mt. Ngauruhoe and its massive lava fields:

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The next portion of the trail traverses these massive lava fields from the volcano:

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Amazingly even in these lava fields you could still find spectacular waterfalls that brought life to an otherwise lifeless landscape of rock:

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The trail quickly became extremely steep with pole markers for hikers to follow:

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The trail had been a fairly steady ascent up until this point about an hour and a half into the walk where it became extremely steep and rugged. The climb up the lava rock just didn’t seem to ever end. It actually felt like the snow capped summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe was towering over the trail laughing at me:

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Eventually I did reach the top of the lava rock and was rewarded with spectacular views down the volcanic valley I had hiked up. The start point for the Tongariro Crossing begins just past the hill on the far left of the picture below:

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As you can see in the above picture the desert environment around the volcanoes was created by prior eruptions that spewed molten rock destroying the vegetation. Off in the distance you can slowly see the New Zealand vegetation slowly creeping in and reclaiming the terrain but it may all be for nothing if the volcano erupts again.

From the top of the top of the lava field I was also rewarded with clear views of the 2,518 meter high Mt. Taranaki:

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Mt. Taranaki is part of New Zealand’s Egmont National Park which lies on the north islands west coast. An old Maori legend goes that Mt. Taranaki used to be part of the chain of volcanoes here at Tongariro National Park, but had to flee to its present location because the elder Tongariro caught Taranaki with Tongariro’s lover Pihanga which is a smaller volcano located near Lake Taupo.  During his flight from Tongariro to its current isolated position on the west coast, Taranaki carved out the valley that the Whanganui River runs through between Tongariro and Egmont National Parks. It is also believed that Mt. Taranaki is often cloudy in order for the mountain to hide its tears from losing its lover Pihanga.

There was no clouds to hide Taranaki’s tears the morning I was on the mountain, just beautiful views across the valley. However, I didn’t have long to enjoy the view because a much larger challenge than anything I had faced yet on this hike was waiting for me on the slopes of Mt. Ngauruhoe.

Next Posting: On the Slopes of Mt. Doom

Prior Posting: Video of the Aratia Dam

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