Tongariro Alpine Crossing or
“What it might be like to walk on Mars”
We were told that if there were any “tramp” (ie. kiwi for trek) to do in New Zealand, it’s the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Smack dab in the middle of the North Island, it attracts hundreds of hikers a day who make the trek in one direction, most booking a shuttle bus to return them back to the start. We booked a campsite along the track in advance, thinking we would be backpacking with our big packs and need to break up the hike over 2 days. However, this is really a day hike, albeit a long and sometimes strenuous one, taking 7- 9 hours for most people. We ended up camping near the start of the track, 7km from the entrance at the Mangahuia DOC campground. Our plan was to hitch to the start of the track, hike the 5 km to our campsite (Mangatepopo), ditch our packs/set up our tent, and continue the rest of the hike, hitching back around to the start and hiking back to our campsite for the night.
Over at the Mangahuia campground we meet various travelers who are either embarking on the tramp tomorrow or have just completed it. A couple from Novia Scotia, quickly trying to bathe in the cold river as Germans (always Germans) easily swim about, give us some tips for our long day ahead. We also meet a slightly pretentious burner from Oakland, who wouldn’t stop talking about his “involvement” in the regional burns, (KiwiBurn just ended) and his “connection” to the original founders. Wait, we thought we’d left the bay area?
The next morning we wake to the sound of bees and the itching begins. Did we mention the sandflies? These tiny evil creatures that bite leaving blood and a severe itch that lingers for days? Well, there are tons in New Zealand, especially around the rivers, and we’ve only managed to accumulate more bites around our ankles. Apparently Deet only goes so far.
After some walking and a lucky hitch we begin our trek around 9am. It’s a clear, sunny day, which will make for good views.
About 2 hours in we reach Soda Springs, a tall cascading waterfall, but soon after the landscape changes. Black-charred volcanic rocks make way to red gravel, as we find ourselves in a giant crater looking up at the active Ngauruhoe volcano (aka Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings) and over other craters in this barren lunar-looking landscape.
The vertical scramble to the top of Mt. Doom takes 2-3 hours return, so we continue on. A steep, gravelly ascent takes us to the summit of the track, overlooking milky emerald and blue lakes in the distance. The way down is more like skiing on shale, with hikers falling/sliding all around. Once we pick the stones and sand out of our sneakers, we’re rewarded with a geothermal wonderland of different-colored pools. The last third of the tramp snakes through green, rocky terrain as the fog and wind pick up. Suddenly the heat is gone and we’re rapidly whipping out our jackets. Going downhill is simply torture for our knees. The trail takes us through flash flood areas along a river and by 4pm, we’ve finally reached the end, hobbling to the finish and collapsing on the ground. We pray that there isn’t too much more walking in our future, given our campsite is near the start. Luckily a nice couple from Michigan gives us a lift back to the start, and manages not to kill us as the concept of driving on the left-side has not yet sunken in.
Back at Mangatepopo, the campsite is abuzz with hikers lacking our exhaustion. Most have camped here to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a 2-3 day loop. None of them are dumb enough to do our particular trek. Our limbs would ache for days. But so so worth it.