There’s no turning back now. Bleary eyed and groggy from the 5.30am wake-up call, it’s hard to drag ourselves away from the warmth of the motel beds and into the crisp morning air encasing Tongariro National Park.
We meet the 6am shuttle at the neighbouring backpackers, where half a dozen equally sleepy-looking travellers pile into the minibus, resisting sleep on the 20-minute drive through winding gravel roads to our starting point at the base of Tongariro.
Touted by the Department of Conservation as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Tongariro Crossing attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. The 19.5km trek across alpine valleys, mountain ridges, volcanic craters and lush Kiwi forest is a one-of-a-kind experience, offering unparalleled views of the National Park below and a sense of accomplishment on the other side.
It’s been perfect conditions all week, but come Saturday morning the forecast is for rain and wind. As the sun rises, pale blue and yellow, stretching out across the horizon, it’s hard to imagine doom and gloom ahead, but our group starts an hour ahead of schedule just in case. Being prepared is essential, and our backpacks are stuffed with carb-laden food, water, raincoats and extra layers in case the weather turns, as it almost inevitably will.
The journey is divided into sections – each pit stop marked clearly with a sign post – of various terrains and gradients. The opening leg, from the carpark to Soda Springs, is a perfect way to ease into a day trek, with well-formed boardwalks and limited sets of stairs. The sky is beginning to open up now, and there’s a perfect photo opportunity around every corner as the sun comes up, revealing the ever-changing landscape of the alpine valley. Clusters of flowers and tussocks give way to volcanic rock formations and burnt orange-tinged streams as you move further into the valley.
As we reach the first “checkpoint”, the dark clouds looming over the summit of Ngauruhoe, also known as The Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom, are sweeping their way through the valley, and it’s not long before walkers are surrounded by misty rain and cloud. The slow ascent up into the cloudsis like something out of Sir Peter Jackson’s fantasy films. One by one, walkers traipse up the narrow staircases, through scoria and scorched rocks, any signs of life slowly disappearing as you move further into the rocky mountains.
Drizzle gives way to heavier drops as we reach the turn-off to Ngauruhoe, the uneven rocky terrain turning into a wide open plane of orange earth as we walk through a number of craters to the other side, but the flat desert-like appearance quickly turns into a steep climb as we scramble up the edge of the Red Crater.
Rain is no longer the challenge as 50kmph winds rip through our jackets and pants, forcing us to our hands and knees, desperately trying to find stable earth to grip onto as the orange dust slips away beneath our feet.
A moment of reprieve to catch our breath is short-lived as the next wave of rolling gales comes crashing down on us. The edge of the crater mere metres away from us on either side, it’s an adrenaline-filled challenge, one that pushes us to keep going forward until we reach the top.
As if to reward us for our hard work and death-defying struggle, the grey clouds part, revealing breathtaking views of the Emerald Lakes and National Park.
It’s an awe-inspiring example of nature’s power and beauty. The smell of sulphur from the volcanic pools waft towards us, but it’s only a mild distraction from the crystal-clear waters and captivating geysers that blow steam intermittently.
It’s a foreign world, full of reminders we are merely visitors to this fragile land and must respect its power. Lunch breaks don’t get better than this.
Passing through the halfway point and out over the other side, volcanic paths turn into more familiar territory as alpine flowers, grass and moss spring to life as we descend, growing more and more apparent as we leave the alien lava-stricken earth behind.
Winding our way down the mountain, views of Lake Taupo glisten in the distance, while the appearance of thermal hot spots along the way reminds us of the dangerous world we are passing through. Shelter comes halfway down the descent in a DOC hut, where more snacks are consumed and views are admired. It’s incredible to think where we have come from, and how in minutes the terrain can be so wildly different and unfamiliar.
It’s ever changing as we near the end, alpine grass transforming into luscious green bush, ferns hanging overhead, kauri trees skyrocketing up towards the heavens. By this time, the clouds have all but passed over us and the light gleams through the trees, illuminating the path with a vibrant green that, just hours ago, was reds and greys in the volcano.
It’s been six hours trekking nearly non-stop, and after zigzagging, scrambling and sliding up and down the uneven paths through the volcano, the well-formed tracks through the bush and the downhill pace are a welcome relief.
Signs of life at the exit – weary walkers waiting for their shuttles to arrive – sees high fives all round our group, and we quickly join the others on the grassy patch to rest and wait.