The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Friday, February 12
A good weather forecast and a well-rested crew (ie - early to bed the night before) meant that the Friday of our week-long stay in the Taupo area was the day of our big adventure: a hike along one of New Zealand's most scenic tramping routes: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing Track.
The track is a route which crosses over a part of the high country of the North Island's biggest volcanic feature - The Tongariro volcanic center. The center consists of four massifs, including the highest point on the North Island - Mt Ruapehu. Other notable peaks are Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing winds up and over the Tongariro Massif, past weirdly-colored lakes and pits, and across bare, desolate craters.
The Advance Party
We planned our excursion over the one-way trek carefully. We got up very early in Taupo - still in the dark, in fact - and made the one-hour drive south to the first of the Crossing's two trailheads. Andy and I left the others at this trailhead to ferry one of the vans to the 'end' trailhead.
We agreed that the advance group would progress upward along the trail, keeping to a slow and easy pace. When Andy and I finished our ferry operation, we would follow up the trail at a faster pace, with the plan to re-merge into one hiking group at some point (hopefully not too far) up the trail. At the end of the day, the van parked at the far end would ferry us back to the start point, where we would collect the second van and begin our return drive to Taupo. A tight, tidy plan.
The good weather forecast had not been in error. As Andy and I drove to the far trailhead and dropped off one of the vans, a beautifully clear morning had dawned. The only clouds visible were the puffs of some geothermal vent, high up on the slopes of the Tongariro Massif. We were looking forward to a day of sublime mountain views.
Trailhead access road
Even though the two trailheads of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing are only about 27 kilometres apart by road, it took us right around a full hour to do the van shuttle. We had told the advance group to take their time getting ready and heading off, but even so, they were probably at least 45 minutes' worth of hiking time ahead of us.
Filling up fast
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of New Zealand's most popular hikes, a fact clearly hinted at by the large number of cars already parked at the northern trailhead. Unlike most groups, we chose to hike the crossing from north to south. We did this for a number of reasons, despite the fact that doing it in this direction meant more elevation gain. First, it meant that we would have a better progression of views, starting off in forested bushland, then proceeding to treeline and saving the alpine highlights for the end. Second, it meant that we would have a much larger chunk of the hike in relative solitude, since the bulk of the hiking crowds were moving in the opposite direction.
Unlike the advance group, the mandate for the trailing group (ie - myself and Andy) was to make up the trail at best possible speed, with the objective of catching up. Therefore, there was no lollygagging at the trailhead, and no casual sauntering. We started off at a brisk pace, walking along the finely-gravelled track through the thick native vegetation of the Okahukura Bush that covered the nothern base of the Tongariro Massif.
A rushing little stream accompanied our walk through the bush. It looked clear and fresh, and didn't visually appear to be geothermally-altered.
Snapping photos as quickly as possible (so as to minimize stopped time), we continued on up at an undiminished pace, passing through a lahar danger area, where a section of damaged trail had been temporarily re-routed (lahars are hot volcanic mudflows that can cause substantial damage). Apart from the damaged section, most of the track was of supremely good quality - often fully boardwalked with a grippy plastic overlay. As the grade steepened, the boardwalking was replaced with extensive sections of wood-reinforced stairways. With the increased grade and our undiminished speed, we were soon fully drenched in sweat. Andy and I began to place bets on how long it would take to catch up to the advance group.
Excellent Trail Infrastructure
For forty full-pace minutes we climbed. Then - quite abruptly - we climbed a curving stairway and emerged into head-high bushland. We had arrived at treeline.
An excellent first lookout was located here, providing us our first broad views over the landscape. Also located here were six un-sweaty hikers, enjoying the warm morning sun. The advance team had been reached!
A few clouds had begun to form here and there at low elevations, but other than that, it continued to be a very clear day. After a break to slather on some sunscreen, it was time to move on - at a shared, moderate pace.
The track led upwards on an easy grade through waist-high - perhaps at times head-high - scrub. Already there were broad views downslope, with a broad swath of the North Island visible to us. Upslope (southward), the bare, arid-looking slopes of Mt Tongariro and its various subsidiary cones beckoned. There were several areas of steamy geothermal activity visible, but one in particular dwarfed all of the others, far on the skyline to the left. It billowed white gas like some sort of mountain powerplant.
The track continued to be class A-1 in quality. Moderately graded and switchbacking where necessary, it was built up and gravelled, and frequently had an embedded plastic honeycomb grid in order to improve traction. The cost per metre of this trail was not cheap, I am sure.
Soon we left the thick scrub, entering a region of alpine grassland. The tawny slope was fairly gentle here, even flat in spots, giving the feel of the Eurasian steppe (or at least what I imagine the Eurasian steppe to be like, since I've never been there).
Our group moved at a suprisingly good and steady pace, despite its size and varying hiking experience. After contouring in and out of a ravine carved into Tongariro's slopes, we began a steeper section. Soon a small structure came into view. This was our next major rest stop: the Ketetahi Shelter, situated at roughly 4750 feet (1450m) on Tongariro's northern slopes.
The Ketetahi Shelter used to be called the Ketetahi Hut. Being a hut meant that it offered overnight accommodation. That came to an end in 2012, when a nearby volcanic vent erupted, ejecting lava bombs that punched several holes in the building and necessitated an evacuation (I later learned that the billowing gas we were seeing off to our left was in fact that same vent). The park service decided to leave the damage in place (as a sort of living musuem, I guess), and turned the hut into a trailside shelter - no longer bookable and usable for accommodation, and to be used for overnight stays in emergencies only.