After a very relaxing stop on the shelter's front deck, we saddled up and continued onwards. Our choice of doing the hike in the reverse direction seemed to be working out well. We had so far encountered relatively little traffic, and it gave this section of the track a more relaxed, secluded feel.
The track now switchbacked more extensively, tackling the steeper upper slopes of Tongariro with length, rather than grade. We angled ever closer to the aforementioned volcanic vent (known as the Te Maari vent), now looking quite active and formidible as we drew near.
Although there was no active eruption occurring, the Te Maari vent and crater looked, to our untrained eyes, pretty active. There were one or two main vents and many little ones, creating a slope that was covered in twisting, rising clouds of white gas. The main vents poured out what looked like vast quantities, which rose up, slowly twisting, to merge with the atmospheric clouds that had started to form around us at this altitude. The vent was impressive in this state; it must have been spectacular (and probably a bit scary) in eruption mode.
After carefully observing the Te Maari vent at the closest point along the track (which I estimate to be about 1.2 to 1.3 km away), we returned to our trek up Tongariro. After a couple more switchbacks, the carefully constructed trail ended. We now walked on a mountain trail such as you would find in most other places of the world. More uneven, with rocks and natural steps. This more natural trail would be with us until we descended back below this elevation (roughly 5500'/1680m) many hours later, on the other side of the massif.
Up to this point, we had been climbing back and forth, back and forth on the northern slopes of the Tongariro Massif. Now, though, the trail turned into a ravine cut into the slope and began climbing directly upward, to the south. Up ahead we could see what looked like a high pass of some sort, not too far away, with blue sky behind.
It did indeed turn out to be a pass, one that revealed a whole new world previously hidden to us. Laid out before us was a desolate but beautiful scene: a large dry flat stretched away slightly below our level, bounded by equally dry slopes and volcanic summits. A dark lobe of a recent lava flow spread across part of the dry flat. Through a low point to the south, we could see distant lands. And, rising above all to the southwest was a distinctive red-tinged cone - the top of Mt Ngauruhoe, Peter Jackson's choice for the peak to represent Tolkien's Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. In short, this expansive scene was our first view of the Tongariro Massif's high alpine zone.
This point was also where we met the first wave of hikers from the opposite direction. This was a very distinctive event: we were hiking up the slopes towards the pass and viewpoint, and then, fairly suddenly, a stream of hikers came toward us from the opposite direction. The concentrated nature of the south-to-north hiker stream probably had to do with the fact that much of the hiking on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is done under the logistics of tour and guiding companies, who probably have some sort of fixed shuttle schedule.
So, while we didn't have much solitude any longer, we did have some amazing views in compensation. A short hike further along the trail (which had now flattened out) brought us along a sideslope to reveal the beautiful azure gem of Blue Lake, sitting in a depression on the eastern edge of the massif. The strongly-colored water was very clear, and we could see the lake's bottom down to a considerable depth.
From the rim above Blue Lake, we could see a large chunk of the next phase of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. From where we were standing, the track led along the edge of the rim for some distance, then descended a small slope to a wide flat (which is actually the Tongariro Massif's Central Crater). After crossing the flat, the clearly visible line of the track began to ascend a fairly steep slope to a bump on the edge of a craggy, crater with dark, reddish-brown interior walls. This was Red Crater, and the high bump over which the trail led was the high point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Beyond this point the track disappeared from view. From our vantage point, hundreds upon hundreds of tiny ant-like dots - hikers - slowly inched along the track.
So, our way was clear, and it was clear that our way - at least until the base of Red Crater - was going to be quite easy. Strolling along the rim above Blue Lake, we took in the stark beauty of this self-contained pocket of volanic wilderness. The Tongariro Massif's topography was such that we were quite insulated from any views of the surrounding low country of the North Island. We could have practically been on another planet up here.
Beginning Central Crossing
We walked side-by-side on the wide, flat track across the Central Crater. Lori noted that the track leading up to the highpoint on Red Crater looked pretty daunting, and indeed it did look steep and long (and loose). I assured her that it was only about a 500-foot climb, and that she had already done nearly seven times as much elevation so far today. It seemed a convincing argument to me, but of course the view from one's own eyes is a powerful thing to try and counter.
Before the final climb up to Red Crater's rim, though, we passed by the beautiful string of geothermally-colored ponds known as the Emerald Lakes. Set against the blue sky and pink-and-red tinged ground, the lakes positively glowed with an unnatural-looking bright green color.
The little ridges and paths around the lakes offered many scenic views, so we stopped here to explore a bit.
Emerald Lake and crater rim