Tongariro National Park is home to the 8th natural wonder of the world – the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This world-renown trail is 19.4km across some of the New Zealand’s most breathtaking terrain.
Now to be quite honest Richie found this track online and was incredibly excited to do it. All I heard was 19.4km and mountains.
I was scared s#!*less to say the least. So what did I do when faced with this unknown coupled with not being the fittest woman alive? I went on the internet and read things like ‘extremely difficulty hike’ ‘need to have a high level of fitness’ ‘incredibly tough’ ‘must be an experienced hiker’…….Let’s just say it did not put me at ease.
Booking an Agency
You can complete the crossing without using a company however it’s not a loop and you’ll need to organise your own transport back. We decided to book in with Active Outdoor Adventure. For $35pp we were dropped from their office to the Mangatepopo Car Park then picked up from the Ketehai car park and brought back to their office. They run buses at 5:45am, 7:15am and 8:45am, with return journeys from Ketehai car park running at 2:30pm, 3:30pm and 4:30pm. This is the recommended route as the other way is much more challenging and includes an additional 350m climb (no one needs more climbing!).
We also decided to pay an extra $15 dollars to camp in our campervan at their office the night before we did the crossing. Now full disclosure the ‘campsite’ was menial. There was no water and only one (traumatising) portaloo but it was convenient for one night. The people running it were prompt, friendly and informative. Best part? The give you an ice-cold beer (or water) when you get back on the bus after completing the crossing – well deserved!
We initially booked in to start the crossing on the 5:45am shuttle. I wanted to give myself as much time as possible to get it done however the night before was pretty wild and for safety the company decided to hold off bringing anyone to the crossing until 7:15am. We arrived at the Mangatepopo Car Park and, after a pit stop in the public bathrooms (which are surprisingly nice), we officially set off on the hike at 8:15am.
The first hour of the hike is a gradual steady incline on boardwalks and gravel walkways. It’s easy to follow and well worn – this hike is incredibly popular, and you’ll meet plenty of other hikers of all ages and levels of fitness. There are steps at this point but they’re gradual and interspersed throughout the initial hour.
Eventually you’ll make your way to Soda Springs where there is an option to do a small side trail (about 10 mins) to the waterfall itself. Here you’ll come across the second bathroom spot on your route. From this point we commenced the second hour of climbing. Although this was a steady climb up multiple flights of stairs, it is gradual and as long as you go at your own pace, manageable. I found that i would do a few flights of stairs then pause for a break and be passed out by a few groups of people. Once I started climbing again I would then pass these people further up taking their own break. Don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing and just focus on you.
While we were up here, we saw just how quickly the weather can change. It was blue skies on our walk however minutes the clouds rolled in and our view was fairly limited. Luckily for us this only lasted a few minutes and we weren’t denied the incredible views.
From this point you’ll begin the hardest part of the climb – the Devils Staircase. This is a tough steep incline. What makes this so difficult is the loose scree on the mountain. It’s easy to slide and fall, this coupled with the high winds on the day we completed the crossing made it quite challenging. The signs tell you that it takes 30 mins to climb up to the top however I’m sure it took me longer. My advice here is simply to go at your own pace. Richie was much faster than me and he scurried up in no time. I went at my own pace and stopped for breaks regularly – remember it’s not a race so listen to your body and stop whenever you need to.
The beauty of the Crossing is that every time you complete a tough climb like the Devils Staircase it rewards you with incredible views. Once at the top you’ll get see the magnificent Red Crater.
Unfortunately, what goes up must come down. Once you reach Red Crater you must now get down the other side to the magical Emerald Lakes. In all honestly this is the bit I found toughest. It’s like trying to walk down a mountain of loose sand with huge chunks of rock – no easy feat. I can honestly say I fell no less than 15 times on the descent. I found it tough to get my footing and ended up side stepping and sliding down it for the most part. Luckily the end is in sight – even if it does feel like you’ll never get there. Overall, I would say it took me 20-25 minutes to make it to the bottom. I was tired and hurt but the views in front of you soon make you forget all about it.
I made it, I got to the Emerald Lakes. I was basking in my achievement, taking it all in when I managed to fall on completely flat ground and turn my knee. We took a break here to recharge and have lunch and after resting for 20 mins (aside from lots of cuts and bruising) I was able to walk so we ploughed onward.
After one final smaller climb we reached Te Wai-Whakaata-o-te Rangihiora (Blue Lake) and we were finally on the way downhill.
The downhill route gives you incredible views of the mountains, forests and lakes in the surrounding area and we were so lucky to have such a beautiful clear day for the crossing. The descent to the Ketehai car park is a gradual decline across gravel and boardwalks. The one downside of the decline is that it is narrow, and we found ourselves stuck behind groups of people going much slower than us. For the most part there are places to overtake groups and people stand in and let each other pass by regularly.
On your descent you’ll come to the Ketehai Shelter. This is a busy area where many people stop for lunch. There are also bathrooms if needed. From here it’s an easy gradual 2-hour descent on boardwalks, and eventually through a forest, to the Ketehai car park. The last 3km are a tough slog. You’re hot, your feet are exhausted, and in the forest, you can’t see the end point. It feels like you’re going around one bend after another and that you’ll never see the end. Suddenly you burst into the car park and voila! You’ve done it!!!
Despite all my worrying I thought it was much more manageable than expected. We ended up completing the crossing in 6 hours and 45 mins which I was delighted with. My number one piece of advice when you finish – do as much stretching as possible. You’ll thank me the next day. After a nice cold beer, we headed off to the Discover Lodge Campsite for one of the best showers I’ve ever had, dinner and a very very early night!
What to Bring
Assuming I haven’t put you off – below are the key things I recommend bringing:
- Water, water and more water – especially in the summer months. We brought 2.5 litres each and it was a perfect amount. However, if you plan on doing the other side trails while you’re up there make sure you bring additional supplies
- A Waterproof and windproof jacket. When we started at the bottom it was so hot but by the time we got to Red Crater it was FREEZING and I was exceptionally glad of my fleece and raincoat
- Comfortable shoes. Richie and I did the track in our trainers (Nikes) however most sites will recommend wearing hiking boots. Honestly it very doable in trainers and my feet, aside from being tired, were pain and blister free by the end. There is very uneven terrain and a lot of loose scree, particularly at the top. If I was doing it again I would probably wear hiking boots, but this is mainly because I am the clumsiest person known to man and honestly every little helps
- Layer up! Like I mentioned it was a beautiful day when we completed the crossing. The sun was shining and there was hardly a breeze. Richie wore tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt while I wore long leggings and a gym top. We also packed a fleece and a heavy windproof jacket each. I also worse a very expensive $10 peaked hat to keep the sun off. It’s better to bring these and not need them than the other way around. If you’re going to complete the crossing in the winter months it’s also recommended that you bring some thermals as well as a hat and gloves
- ALL THE SUNSCREEN. I cannot express this enough, there is absolutely no shelter on the trail, and you will get burnt to a crisp if you don’t SPF-up. We brought some and reapplied regularly. I didn’t burn but I do have some questionable tan lines after it
- Fully charged mobile. If anything happens you need to be able to call emergency services or your tour operator. Also, you got to get those Instagrams (Richie took no less than 200 pictures that day)
- If you have space it could be also worth bringing a First Aid Kit (I could have used one)
Overall the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the best hikes I’ve completed in New Zealand and I honestly couldn’t recommend it enough!
Have you completed the crossing or are you thinking about giving it a go? Let me know in the comments below!