Tongariro Alpine Crossing

North Island, New Zealand

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Ruapehu and Tongariro, the great volcanoes of New Zealand's central North Island, stand aloof and unchallenged above the surrounding heath and grassland. When blanketed in snow, they appear serene and etherial above the verdant ridges of the approach from the north-west; but Ruapehu, particularly, is still very much alive, and eruptions have, within living memory, sent terrible cascades of mud into the valleys below.

Between them stands 2,291m Ngauruhoe, an almost ridiculously perfect volcanic cone, a giant heap of rock and ash so regular that it looks as if it was deposited yesterday, which, in geological terms, it was. It lacks, perhaps, the snowy summer peak needed to match the mythical splendour of Mt Fuji - one of the few views which really did make me gasp the first time I saw it, looming above the smoggy factoried plain, from the bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto - but it presides over its desert surrounds in bleak majesty.

Ngauruhoe is a mere youthful pimple on the side of the Tongariro massif to its north, a cluster of much older craters whose explosions and eruptions have reduced the great mountain so that its parasite, Ngauruhoe, is now much the higher of them, an indignity which parents of modern teenagers will know too well. Tongariro looks as close as the earth's surface can to that of the moon, three huge conjoining crater remnants, now wierdly flat, like particularly liquid cowpats. A selection of oddities lies scattered around them: violently coloured craters, huge solidified lava bombs, sinister jets of smelly steam hissing from the rocks and acidic, brilliant waterlogged explosion holes.

These mountains are part of a volcanic belt which runs down the centre of the North Island, creating rifts, huge lakes filling long exploded craters, geysers and boiling mud. This is a stretch of the Pacific Ring of Fire, which marks the grinding junctions of the tectonic plates around the ocean's western rim.

The result of all this upheaval is some of the most dramatic, harshly beautiful volcanic scenery you will encounter anywhere, all compressed into a long day's walk. Many say that the Crossing is the best day walk in New Zealand – with justice. This is some accolade in a country whose tracks approach an art form. The Crossing is also a stage of the three or four day Tongariro Northern Circuit, arguably an even better walk although a much bigger undertaking.

The Tongariro area was of great spiritual importance to the Ngati Tuwharetoa Maori people, and became New Zealand's first national park after it was given to the nation by the great chieftain Te Heuheu Tukino in 1887 in order to preserve it, unsullied, from the encroaching settler way of life. The National Park is now a World Heritage Site for both its natural and its cultural attributes. Some key scenes of the Lord of the Rings films were shot here, with Ngauruhoe featuring as Mount Doom.

People usually walk the Crossing north-eastward from Mangatepopo. We set out at 8.30am on a bright, fresh November day, weaving up a valley through pale scrubby grass between the base of Ngauruhoe and a long ridge descending from Tongariro itself. We weren't alone: the Crossing's fame means that, in early summer, we were never out of sight of our fellow walkers.

After half an hour we reached the edge of a relatively recent lava flow, a dramatic 35m wall of black boulders looming in front of us. After a scramble round the rocks, we emerged onto a gorgeous flat, the track fording and following the stream, which runs in several channels over grey gravel. The great uninterrupted sweep of Ngauruhoe's western slopes started a few metres to our right.

We then began a tough scramble up the harsh black rocks of the long and steep Devil's Staircase to the Mangatepopo saddle. Although fit and fresh, for some reason this was really draining. The view looking back from the saddle, when we eventually got there, just about made it worthwhile. To our left, and now apparently an arm's length away, Ngauruhoe's cinder slopes, absolutely devoid of life, showed signs of recent activity. A plume of steam rose from the deceptively small looking cone into the bright thin air. Straight ahead were the broken, scrubby lower slopes of Mt Raupehu, with its own smaller offspring emerging from its shoulder some 20 km away. A long way to the west, an ominous bank of cloud seemed to be rolling in towards us, hiding the bulk of Mt Taranako, another volcano, which protruded in magnificent isolation into the Tasman Sea. We hoisted our packs and trudged on.

 

We crossed the floor of the South Crater, an extraordinary platter of water-washed cinders a kilometer across surrounded by steep broken walls, Tongariro's low surviving peak looming to the left, itself a rewarding and straightforward side-trip. A scramble up the crater side took us to a superb view across the eastern foothills which, astonishingly, given the lush greenery of Central New Zealand, are desert. A tough and sweaty climb on red cinders reaches the highest point of the Crossing, a heap of cinder and pumice at 1,886m on the rim of the extraordinary Red Crater. We gazed into a chasm violently ripped out of the mountain's side, deep, angry red like a congealing wound, with crumbling cliffs of purple clinker and the vertical black shafts of a dyke, the remains of a channel of molten larva, now hollow where its core cooled and subsided. Stinking sulphur steam rose from crevices among the boulders in the bottom.

We slithered gingerly down a steep, narrow scree of small pumice stones beside the crater rim, each step carrying down three or four feet. It would have been an unpleasant struggle for anyone coming the other way. At the bottom lay the Emerald Lakes, a pair of beautiful but sinister sulphuric turquoise puddles filling small explosion craters. The Tongariro Northern Circuit cuts off to the right here.

We tramped off across the kilometer wide Central Crater, another ancient orifice long expired and now wind and water swept, totally flat save for a grey tongue of lava from the younger Red Crater.

Another haul up the crater side, only a hundred feet or so this time, and we reached the Blue Lake, a larger and deeper lake filling a long-dead crater. We ate our lunch gazing at the ultramarine waters as they glittered in the sun. Further round the rim, we sat on a rocky point, where we could see, looking back, the Blue Lake, from this angle a dull indigo, behind it the fierce cauldron of the Red Crater and the soaring Ngauruhoe. Ahead, a corner of Lake Rotoaira, nestling in forested ridges, was framed between the steep slope of the North Crater to our left and Rotopaunga to our right, the active Te Mari crater below, like Ngauruhoe a youthful excrescence on the body of its old, exhausted parent.

A fine path gradually descends round the North Crater's flank, wonderful views opening up across a low range to the massive Lake Taupo, now a destination for watersporty types, but once the scene of a cataclysmic explosion which darkened the sky as far away as China.

A long series of zig zags took us down to the Ketetahi Hut, perched on a small ledge with vast views out to Lake Taupo, where we found some 50 people lying, spread out under the blazing sun like Aztec sacrificial victims or meekly queuing for the lavatory. It felt like a busy afternoon in a ski chalet - I looked for the Glühwein counter - and we scampered away into tussock country, wedging ourselves in a small space between clumps of sharp grass for a private break. Shortly after, we reached a crusty ridge overlooking the hot Ketetahi Springs, to which access was neurotically prohibited, so that we only saw their blasted, steaming little valley from some distance.

After a steady downhill tramp, we reached a stunning hundred meter escarpment, clearly the end of a massive lava flow. In the grand valley below, lush forests gave way to a jumble of huge boulders, with some small, timid trees beginning to make a living in their crevices.

We plunged into the sudden thick forest below the escarpment, happy to be in the shelter of big trees after the rough, exposed mountainsides. A long trudge, some of it beside the stream from the Ketetahi springs - dire warnings not to drink it - brought us, by now footsore, to the roadhead. After a few minutes stretched on a grassy bank, a minibus from our hotel arrived and scooped us up; such are the endearing conveniences of New Zealand walking.

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