Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a life-changing experience

Hiking the ruggedly beautiful Tongariro Alpine Crossing was an inspiring prelude for walking the entire length of New Zealand – an epic 3000 kilometre journey.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing on New Zealand's North Island
  • Laura Waters
  • November 2019

The first time I truly understood the power of nature was when I walked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing opens in new window. Melting spring snow settled in the dips and folds of the volcanic cones that rose like giants from the vast desert floor, while fractured crystal spears glistened on the rivulets of frozen water next to my boots. The sun shone brilliantly from the azure sky but it was bereft of warmth, and the wind – icy and unforgiving – blew straight in from the Antarctic. I keenly felt my own fragility in the forbidding landscape.

At the time, an idea had already seeded in my mind to walk the entire length of New Zealand, from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South, a 3000 kilometre route – 19 of which would lead me over the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the central North Island. My day hike of the Crossing was to be a reconnaissance of sorts and I excitedly shared my bold plan with a fellow walker. But after a few hours immersed in the intimidating terrain on the hike my confidence in the idea withered to something far more subdued.

The start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The Tongariro Crossing is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

About 130,000 people tackle the Crossing each year, having been drawn by its dramatic and other-worldly formations, and it’s often regarded as one of the country’s best one-day walks. Numerous operators opens in new window will transfer you from Whakapapa to Mangatepopo to begin the hike and collect you again from the Ketetahi Road end, as the Crossing is a one-way walk.

Tongariro was New Zealand’s first national park, established in 1887, and the world’s fourth. Part of the Pacific Rim of Fire, it spans a massive complex of volcanoes and craters that, like a curmudgeonly old man, steam and puff and occasionally erupt in spectacular fashion. During an eruption near midnight on August 6, 2012, Te Maari Crater blew a rock the size of a microwave oven at 200kph through the roof of nearby Ketetahi Hut, to land on a bunk – thankfully empty at the time. It occurred just two months before my visit. And it would erupt again soon after.

In a world where so much is now controlled and contained, it was a shock to my system to experience such unbridled power unleashed all around me on the Crossing. The fringe of this epic walk is less than half an hour by bus from the cosy village of Whakapapa, a buzzing ski resort in winter. Yet once on the Crossing the rules of life seem altered – the area becomes a place devoid of the safety nets I’d taken for granted elsewhere.

A plume of smoke bursts from the mountains at Tongariro National Park
The Crossing is home to an active volcano which last erupted in 2012.

On that first hike of the Crossing I followed the orange marker poles arranged sporadically along the route. I traversed the vast plain of South Crater, towered over by Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. Only by looking back from the next climb could I grasp the overwhelming scale of it all. Other hikers appeared as a line of ants trailing across the crater floor, the path becoming but a distant scar upon the face of the earth.

Much of the Crossing spans a desert plateau at a height of between 1100 and 1886 metres. It is a moonscape of scoria (volcanic rock) scattered with twisted pyroclastic blocks. Rare pockets of colour are created by water filling extinct craters. Blue Lake nestles in the large crater at Mount Tongariro, while the three smaller Emerald Lakes are tinted so yellowy-green by minerals seeping from nearby Red Crater they almost glow of their own accord.

The Emerald Lakes at Tongariro National Park.
The astonishing Emerald Lakes are the highlight of the Tongariro Crossing.

Altitude, erosion and regular dustings of volcanic debris mean that very little grows here. In winter the terrain is covered in snow and is the domain of mountaineers, and even in summer the average temperature hovers between five and 12 degrees. On the day I staggered across the rocky ground, endless blasts of crisp cold air from a deep freeze bit at my clenched fists until they turned red raw. Gusty winds pushed and shoved my body as I edged toward the lip of Red Crater to peer into its dark scoria mouth, tinged magnificent red from iron oxide. An exposed dyke through which magma once flowed had created a slit in the crater walls.

Regardless, the popular day hike receives a constant stream of people of all ages, some purportedly clutching handbags or even wearing heels. It didn’t seem reasonable that under such bluebird skies, and with other walkers surrounding me, I should feel so out of my depth and yet I did. In recent years, nearly 10 per cent of all tramping-related search and rescue incidents in the entire country have occurred on this one trail, with some walkers twisting ankles, getting lost in mist or simply running out of daylight. But it is largely an underestimation of the rigours of the trail and the elements that catches people out.

A woman looks at the Red Crater at Tongariro National Park
The Red Crater is the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing.

On that first hike, I was taking tentative baby steps down the northern flank of the trail when a jovial Kiwi hiker suddenly skipped past me in a pair of shorts. It was in that moment that I questioned whether I was in the league of those capable of walking the length of an entire country, especially one so wild and woolly. I kept slipping and sliding down the loose scoria that rolled like ball bearings under my feet, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to tackle it while carrying a full backpack laden with camping equipment.

Fourteen months later, I find out. It takes me 54 days to walk from Cape Reinga, at the northern-most tip of New Zealand’s North Island, to Tongariro. After 1100 kilometres, my battered backpack reflects the hardiness I feel in my mind. By now I’ve already faced endless beaches of soft sand, fought through tangled mossy forests, waded icy rivers and climbed endless hills and mountains. I’ve grown accustomed to the ways and moods of nature here, and I’ve learned that I must respect it because to underestimate it – to be complacent – could lead to a swift reprimand in the form of sudden wild weather changes.

Cape Reinga on New Zealand's North Island.
Cape Reinga is the northernmost tip of New Zealand's North Island.

Now, on my second traverse of the Crossing, low cloud hangs over the mountains like a heavy blanket. Within half an hour my fingers are numb and tiny white crystals form on the tips of my hair. Fumaroles leak wispy walls of steam from Te Maari Crater as I climb to the plateau, dreading the steep scoria of Red Crater that awaits me, but when the moment comes it doesn’t seem nearly so bad as I remembered. This time I feel as much at home as the bare-legged Kiwi that once jogged past me in shorts. Now it is I who is the experienced hiker amid a stream of day-trippers.

I hike 35 kilometres that day. It takes me 11 hours. As I trudge the next 1900 kilometres, I will face many more challenges: being literally blown over on an exposed ridge, hammered by a sudden snowstorm – in summer – and sleeping in a mountain valley so cold it turned my tent crispy white. I thought I could have snapped it in half like a corn chip.

A snowstorm at Tongariro National Park.
Summer snowstorms are not an unusual sight at Tongariro.

After five months, 3000km and 10 kilos of chocolate I arrive at Bluff at the southern most point of the South Island a changed woman. Nature’s power and unpredictability are what I love now. It has taught me resilience and courage and led me to discover my place in the universe. I still have the utmost respect for wild places and their whims but I’ve learnt to manage my vulnerability in the face of them.

Recently I returned to Tongariro with a British friend who had never visited. Together we walk the Crossing and I discover it all over again through his eyes. The wind is fresh but this time the only danger is in the sun that fries my friend’s face until it peels like a mottled tree trunk. As we linger on the rugged area’s high peaks and plains, I reflect on how they had borne witness to my evolution – from unsure woman to one who seizes life without fear. The lessons learned in these wild places, with their meditative spaces far from the bustle of society, have fundamentally changed the course of my life. The confidence and clarity I gained on my journey led me to change my career, my outlook, my whole way of being.

A woman poses with a Tongariro Alpine Crossing signpost at Tongariro National Park.
Despite growing visitor numbers, Tongariro isn't for the faint-hearted.

Visitor numbers have almost doubled since I first stepped foot on the Crossing but that hasn’t made things any less intimidating or spectacular. Despite the hundreds of stairs that have been installed in places, and the camouflaged portaloos scattered across its route, Tongariro refuses to be tamed.

Need to know info

Prepare to walk the crossing by checking the weather forecast before setting out. Sturdy footwear is essential, as are warm clothes, sunscreen and a windproof jacket. Allow about six to eight hours for the 19.4km route. Though well formed, some sections of track are steep and rough. Carry all the water and food you’ll need for the day (minimum two litres per person, more in summer months).

New Zealand is home to numerous beautiful hikes. Here's one that the whole family can take on opens in new window.