“What are the best things to see and do in New Zealand?”
It’s a question that I get asked all the time, and I’ve never really known how to answer it satisfactorily – until I did New Zealand’s famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing late last October.
Normally, you’re more likely to find me at one of my favourite Kiwi beaches, or out for beer in Auckland (NZ’s largest city), than hiking or bungee jumping. And yet these are exactly the sorts of activities the people I meet on my travels expect me to recommend to them.
Well, I finally got my ass into gear and ticked something off the list. I did one of New Zealand’s most famous hikes, and now I can officially recommend it to visitors. This is what you need to know about conquering the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in October.
The Tongariro Crossing
The Tongariro National Park in the central North Island is New Zealand’s oldest national park. A recognised World Heritage Site, Tongariro boasts dramatic natural scenery, unique and beautiful landforms and some awe-inspiring volcanic peaks and craters.
I don’t use that phrase ‘awe inspiring’ lightly. You might even have seen it before. Tongariro doubled for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings movies, the frightening home of the big baddy Sauron and his army of rabid orcs.
The Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe volcanoes are impressive enough, but the fabled emerald lakes – pictured below – are as impressive as anything I’ve ever seen in my world travels. It hasn’t been photoshopped. Volcanic minerals cause the lakes to turn that colour, and you can actually smell the sulphur in the air around it.
It kind of smelt like farts, to be perfectly honest with you.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is supposedly the best one-day trek in New Zealand, and although I haven’t been on many other treks, I have to assume that’s correct. It’s amazing.
The 19.4km (12.1 mile) hike will take you past these lakes and active volcanoes. It can take anywhere between six and nine hours to complete, starting at the Mangatepopo Valley and finishing at Ketatahi Road.
You’ll need to catch a ride to the starting point, and organise for someone to pick you up at the other end. There are a lot of tour operators in the area that’ll do that for you, and many of the lodges in the area will organise it for you if you ask them.
The only problem with that is, depending on how quickly or slowly you make the crossing, you may have to sit and wait a while for your ride back to civilisation once you’ve completed the hike.
But if you’re anything like me, you could do with the rest.
The crossing starts fairly easily, but before long you’re faced with a mountain of stairs. You’ll be out of breath by the top of it, but you’ll be rewarded with stunning views. After that, there’s a ragged climb or two over dirt and loose rock, but for the most part the main crossing avoids any major climbs.
So, do you need to be super fit to be able to do the Tongariro crossing? It would help, but it shouldn’t be too difficult as long as you’re generally fairly fit and healthy. I’d argue that making sure you’ve got the right gear, like having good hiking boots, is the most crucial thing (see below for what to pack).
I’d just gotten back from nearly a month of eating and drinking my way across California on my honeymoon, and I had no trouble. Then again, I’m in my late 20s, I’m not overweight, and although I don’t hike or go to the gym regularly, I do enjoy going for the occasional long walk.
However, I was in a world of pain the next day, and the day after that. My poor legs just weren’t used to walking up and down mountains. I looked like I’d been in the war when I limped into work on Monday morning.
Can you get lost on the Tongariro Crossing? You can, but you shouldn’t. The Tongariro Crossing is well sign-posted and there is bound to be more than a few people making the trek at the same time.
You certainly won’t want to get lost. It could be very dangerous. So make sure you don’t go off the track, and bring a map with you just in case (you can pick one up at your hotel or lodge before you set out, or download one and print it out before you set out).
Make sure you start the trek with plenty of time, too, as it could be treacherous to attempt the Tongariro Crossing in the dark. Bring a cellphone just in case (see more essential items you’ll need to pack, below).
In the end, I managed the Tongariro Crossing in around seven hours, at a fairly leisurely pace, stopping every now and again to fuel up or to take some photos.
It was a day well spent.
Tongariro weather conditions
When we set out on the Tongariro Crossing from the Mangatepopo Valley, it was crisp-but-sunny spring morning, and I was wearing track pants over my shorts. I stripped down to my shorts when we came to the first big climb, and then immediately put my track pants back on when we got to the top – because the wind picked up and it started to snow.
Only in New Zealand – or up a really tall mountain – do you get really changeable weather like this. It can be fine one minute and then snowing the next.
Make sure you check the weather forecast before you attempt the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, and then keep an eye out as you go.
Check out the weather forecast and track conditions here before you set out on the crossing. And bear in mind that these volcanoes are active – be prepared to vacate the area immediately if Ruapehu (or any of the others) go off.
What you need to pack
Be prepared. That’s what they say in the Scouts. You’ll want to pack as lightly as you can for the Tongariro Crossing, so your backpack doesn’t become too much of a burden, but still have all your bases covered.
There are no shops along the Tongariro Crossing, so you’ll need to bring your own food and water. Because it can be quite strenuous, you’ll need plenty of fuel. I brought a couple of sandwiches, some bananas, trail mix and a couple of chocolate bars. I also brought about two litres of water.
Almost as crucial is your footwear. Sport shoes – or sneakers – are not a good idea for attempting the Tongariro Crossing in October. I bought some cheap hiking boots from The Warehouse, and they were perfect for the trek. I can’t speak about what footwear is best for the rest of the year, but I’d still prefer hiking boots to sport shoes.
You’ll also need plenty of warm clothing – layers are preferable, because you can strip them off or add them as you go along, depending on the temperature. A beanie is essential, because it can get windy, and I had woollen fingerless gloves, which weren’t nearly as ideal as ones with fingers.
You’ll need a water-proof jacket, in case it rains or snows. Bring some sunscreen and sunglasses, too, as there’s no shade on the hike, and you’re exposed to all the elements.
Don’t forget to bring a map and a phone, and only a fool would attempt the Tongariro Crossing without bringing a camera to photograph all the amazing sights!
This is only a rough guide to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. For more information, check out the New Zealand Department of Conversation’s official website.