Into the Crater

Tongariro Crossing Starting Point

The Tongariro Crossing is renowned as the best day-walk in New Zealand, and that’s a pretty high benchmark. I was sceptical. Firstly because I’m a cynic, and secondly because NZ is exceptionally beautiful and anything qualifying as ‘best’ in that context has got to be the kind of amazing which forces you to fight back tears of joy at the majesty of it all.


To Maori this area is sacred, and they gifted it to the people of New Zealand as a national park in 1887. Maori believe that Ngatoro-i-rangi, high priest of the Ngati Tuwharetoa (wrap your mouth around Ng-ah-tee Too-Far-eh-toe-ah quickly!) tribe of Lake Taupo, climbed to the summit of Ngauruhoe to view the land.  But when he reached the top he found himself in the middle of a sudden snowstorm. He cried out to priestess sisters in the North to send him warmth, and they responded by sending fire from the earth. It burst from throughout the North Island, creating the craters of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, and saving Ngatoro-i-rangi’s life. The high priest slew (!) a female slave (!) named Auruhoe, climbed into the newly-formed crater and tossed the body in to give his prayer more strength. Then he claimed the surrounding land for his people.

My day started at 6.30am: I rubbed sleep from my eyes and struggled to acknowledge that it was in fact Saturday, and I was awake early enough to witness bunnies getting their breakfast outside the hotel window. I don’t function well in the mornings.

Walks in NZ that are worth doing tend to be one way, and pre-arranged transport drops you off at the start and picks you up at the end. Because the Tongariro crossing takes between seven and eight hours, they like to have everyone walking by about 9am, and it takes a while to pootle round town in a battered old Japanese bus and pick people up from their door, and then drive to the end of the gravel road where the walk starts. In one of those moments which causes us to shrug and mutter “Well, it is New Zealand”, on our bus was a six year old who was doing the walk for a second time, and a couple who were planning to carry their ten month old baby up there in one of those baby backpacks. We became more confident.

The walk is 17km long, much of it steep incline or descent over volcanic landscape. The second hour of the walk is near-vertical, and very inclement weather can close in quicker than you can say oops I left the waterproof at home. Even the Department of Conservation, an organisation not given to exaggeration, issue leaflets warning against going up there without suitable equipment and fitness. The bus driver stopped his too-early chirpy joking long enough to utter the sentence “Seriously, folks, you are going into Alpine conditions: this is no picnic and you need to have a moderate level of fitness and be well prepared.”

The volcanoes are active.

We were concerned enough to fill two full day-packs with enough warm clothing, food and water to sustain us for about three days, the most detailed topographical map money can buy, and two fully charged mobile phones. In the category of what were you thinking?, an astonishing number of people were heading up the mountain looking like they were going to a fashion show on the summit: denim shorts, sandals or trainers, and in one case, what looked like a Gucci catwalk ensemble complete with jauntily-angled fine-knit angora cap.

We began walking and I set the device affectionately known as “The Geek”: a GPS that my parents bought us a while ago.  The first hour of the walk is over some flat bits of volcanic rock.  I wanted to motor through to Soda Springs because I’m fairly certain that’s a level on one of the Mario Bros games and I needed to see whether there were little mushrooms and coins hidden in the nearby rocks.

Mineral deposits turn the water a funny colour, which makes for rather striking photographs.

It’s also the last toilet for about 8km.  I felt my life would not be complete without a photo of a long-drop in such a remote location. Fortunately, the photograph sort of has a point. The point is that this walk qualifies as overcrowded. Look at all those people!

Spot the long drop, and the 'crowd'.

Then, the tough stuff started: a near-vertical climb up “The Devil’s Staircase”. We’re going right up to the top. If you look closely, you should see groups of out of breath people suffering. It’s about a 45min climb if you’re going hell for leather and you don’t care about your lungs exploding.

The Devil's Staircase.

The bit in Lord of the Rings where Frodo and Sam are climbing to Mount Doom was filmed here. Plus, Mt. Ngauruhoe is Mount Doom.

Ngaurohoe, aka Mount DOOM.

Once you get to the top, look what you can see!

This is all pretty cool, but what really makes the sweat worthwhile is this:

The Red Crater.

We are standing on the rim of the crater looking down into it, and that massive thing that looks like a vagina is an enormous vent. The ground around us is steaming, hence the haze over the photo.

Slightly further on are some lakes where we had lunch:

A tarn. I love tarns.

Crater Lake fills up from underneath. Every so often it bursts the dam on the far side, and dumps its contents into the valley below. A dump is imminent and so the DOC recommends no bathing in the lake. No shit.

Crater Lake.

We moved on across the next section to another ridge, and I turned around to look behind me to see where we had just been farting about:

The full extent of the lava flow. To the left in the picture you can see the path we took from the crater.

The black stuff is the lava flow from an erruption. It last errupted in 1996, and before that 1995. It’s probably the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen, and despite the fact that I could barely function on Sunday, I want to go up there again. This country is amazing: these photographs are the edited highlights of this walk.

By the time we got to the end of the walk, I had two enormous blisters, and The Geek was reading 18.2km (which I think is because we took the side-trip to see Soda Springs). We had to go to sleep at 9.30pm and even my curmudgeonly old miser self was too exhausted to insist that we stay up long enough to watch the DVD we had paid to hire from the hotel. The next morning we were ruined, but we didn’t care. This was undoubtedly the best walk either of us have ever been on, and that includes being helicoptered up to the top of Franz Josef glacier to go ice-walking, another amazing NZ experience.

There’s just one problem: we’ve been spoiled. I honestly can’t comprehend a hike to beat this one.


3 Responses to “Into the Crater”

  1. 1 clay ball October 6, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Oh my goodness!!! Thank you for sharing these amazing, beautiful photos & the story to go along with it!

  2. 2 unmitigated me (m.a.w.) October 7, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Nic, you have lived places I have only dreamed of ever seeing, including where you are right now! Michigan is a truly beautiful place, but oh, my!

  3. 3 Stacie October 8, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Absolutely amazing photos, you have truly seen some remarkable places.

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