The Tongariro National Park is one of those places that seem unreal, taken from another world. Smoky volcanoes, Moon-like valleys, colorful lakes. It is hard to believe that such different landscapes are so close to each other.
The most popular options to explore the park are the Tongariro Northern Circuit (one of the Great Walks) and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km long day walk.
I decide to do the latter.
The first part of the track, from the Mangatepopo car park to the Soda Springs is a pleasant walk. It is slightly steep and surrounded by low vegetation and nice views.
After the Soda Springs the real hiking starts: the alpine zone. Right there a big panel asks me if I am sure to continue:
Are you really prepared to continue your alpine crossing trek?
- Is the weather ok?
- Do you have the right equipment & clothing?
- Are you fit enough?
Weather… well, it is a bit foggy but otherwise it seems ok. I have the right gear, food and water. Fit enough…? Good question, I hope so!
I will confess you something: I was really looking forward to that crossing, but scared as well. I walk a lot but I never do any sport, and had never done a hiking like that (almost 20km with a serious slope: start at 1100m, up to 1900m, down to 800m over sea level). I was testing my limits there.
In addition to that, I had already seen how fast weather could change in New Zealand. At the moment it was fine, but what about two hours later? And also… I was traveling alone!
But I did not need to worry about being alone. The track was not crowded but I had always someone in sight, and the track was clearly indicated. Impossible to get lost.
As I walked up the mountain I found myself inside the fog. Suddenly the views disappeared but the fog gave a magical, mystical atmosphere. I was entering Mordor.
It was a bit windy so the fog came and went, came and went.
One moment I could see Mount Ngauruhoe (a.k.a. Mount Doom) and even the blue sky. 10 minutes later, Mount Doom had vanished.
The climb from the South crater to the Red crater was, in my opinion, the hardest part of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. But I barely noticed being tired: the views were stunning, breathtaking, mind blowing.
On the right, a deep valley with no vegetation, reddish color and interesting rock formations. On the left, Mount Doom and a yellowish lake behind the mist.
At the end of the climb I found another stunning view: the Red crater, which is indeed incredibly red.
Side note: do you also see a face on the crater, or is it only me? I see a rather serious, angry face. Is this the entry to hell?
When I thought the surprises were over, I saw what was on the other side of the crater: the Emerald Lakes.
That was my best moment in the trek, the climax. I had done it to the highest point of the crossing on time and good shape, and was rewarded with the most unreal landscapes I had ever seen.
The descent to the lakes was a tough one: very steep and easy to slip due to the loose stones.
Of course I stopped every few meters to observe the views and take photos. On the right I had the ever present Mount Doom behind the Red Crater. In front, three lakes with the most unreal color, the Emerald Lakes.
Around the lakes there were a lot of people sitting and eating. Oh yes, it was lunch time. I imitated them and found a good place to sit and observe that incredibly green water.
Now I might break the magic of the moment, but I have to say it: it was a bit smelly. Bright colors come with a price!
After lunch I went around to explore the lakes… and realized there was smoke coming out from the earth! Yes, it is an active volcano zone. Then I remembered what we had been told before we started hiking: “if you see smoke, do not worry, it is normal; if you see something else… run!”.
It was difficult to leave behind the Emerald Lakes, but it was time to move on. From the Central Crater I got a different, but equally impressive, view of the Red Crater.
A short climb from the Central Crater, and I reached the next stop: the Blue Lake. From here, the track went all the way down!
As I started to descent, I felt a change in temperature: it was getting warmer. At the same time, I found vegetation again.
While I was walking down I felt a bit sad. I was heading to the car park. The best part was over.
And then… I had another great view. The amazing landscapes were not over! A big lake and mountains near the horizon, and on the right… a very smoky crater!
The walk to the Ketetahi hut felt long. I was tired. By then the track was more monotonous, going slowly down between low vegetation.
The final part, the last kilometers before arriving to the Ketetahi car park were a surprise. As if to compensate the lack of plants and trees during most of the trek, the last part crossed a dense, ever green forest.
And just like that, it was over. But the memories of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, its unreal colors and landscapes, will last for a long time.
GOOD TO KNOW
- Access to the park is free
- How to get there: most accommodation options have a shuttle service to & from the park
- Price: NZD$28-35 (from National Park)
- Schedule: pick up between 7:00-8:00, return between 15:30-17:00 (from/to National Park)
- Shuttles are also available from Taupo (which is farther than National Park).
- Be ready for unpredictable weather, and take the right gear, food and water. More information on http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz
- If you liked this kind of landscapes, there are some more in Atacama (north of Chile) and Uyuni (south of Bolivia). I will write about it later on, stay tuned!
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