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Tongariro Alpine Crossing by Buddhima Wickramarachchi – Auckland

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If someone should ask me what’s the best day hike I’ve ever done (5 times now), it would most definitely be the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand. The walk takes you pass some amazing sights and most importantly, ‘Modor’ in Lord of the Rings (you’d know what Modor is especially if like me, you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings). It’s a relatively easy walk, though there are a few places where the ascent and descent are steep.

Located in the Tongariro National Park, this 19.4km trek across volcanic plateaus takes about 6-8 hours with enough time to stop for breaks, to take photos and simply to enjoy the magnificent view around you. The walk is quite popular with both locals and tourists, hence I recommend avoiding long weekends as they may be crowded. You’ll find it hard to believe you haven’t been transported to a different planet as you admire the mounds of volcanic rock, mountain springs and lava flows that surround you.

Here’s a bit of history, until 2007, the trail was just called the ‘Tongariro Crossing’ however, the name was officially changed to reflect the more challenging conditions on the trail, especially during winter. The landscape is almost Martian-like, offering some incredibly unique views as you tramp across the sparse hills and mountains.

Getting there

Given that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is not a circuit trail, you have the option of starting the trek from either end and for that very reason you are required to book a shuttle to be dropped off at the start or to be picked up from the end or both. If you are staying in Taupo or a nearby motel at the National Park, check if there are shuttles that pick you up from where you are (most places do). Shuttles run throughout the day from 6:00am to 4:30pm (they usually cost about NZD35-45 each way and if you happen to start from Taupo or at a motel a return trip could cost you NZD70-80). I would suggest you start early so that’ll leave you enough time to enjoy your walk.

What I usually do is, drive to Ketetahi, which many consider to be the end of the trek, park my car at the car park and take a shuttle to the starting point at the Mangatepopo car park. Doing this can help keep your mind at ease during the trek, because you don’t need to worry about meeting the last shuttle at the end point. You could park your car for about NZD10 at the Ketetahi car park which is patrolled by someone until about 5:00pm. However, I strongly suggest that you don’t leave anything valuable behind. They also run shuttle services, which should be booked in advance online, that take you to the starting point at the Mangatepopo car park.

Highlights of the journey

We started the track from the Mangatepopo car park (Note: the car park here has a strict 4hr parking restriction). At the beginning it was a generally flat grade with boardwalks in place, allowing for an easy start. We were rewarded with a kaleidoscope of colour in both the volcanic rock and low-growing ground cover, especially the vibrant mosses.


After a good hour/ hour and a half of walking we then came to the Devil’s Staircase. A cautionary sign at the bottom of the ascent requires walkers to choose whether to continue or turn back. My last visit to the Alpine crossing in December 2019 was with my not so fit wife. She did not complain as promised, but that day we took more breaks than my previous four trips combined. It quickly becomes apparent that the stairs are steep but luckily there are several blocks of small stones encased in wire netting to rest up on at the midway point. This will allow you to catch a breather and enjoy the view. On a clear day Mount Taranaki is visible, sitting in splendid isolation on the western horizon.

Once you are at the top of the Devil’s staircase the terrain levels out with two side trails deviating from the main track, one leading to a nearby waterfall called Soda Springs (15 mins return) the other to the summit of Mount Ngaruahoe (3 hours return). It will become apparent to hikers why this area was chosen as Modor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There is an unsettling feeling of tension and smouldering bitterness as if there are ancient scores to settle, the Māori legend coming to life.

Next we walked from the south crater towards the red crater. At the end of the South crater, we found another steep climb which took us to the highest point on the crossing. The panoramic view from 1,886m above sea level made us speechless and the passing chilly breeze makes you feel like you are on top of the world. This is the much talked about highlight of the trek. The red carter on one side, the Emerald and Blue lakes ahead and simmering steam vents which takes you to a whole new world.

After passing the Emerald lakes, we reached the Blue lake. This was an old volcanic vent now filled with rainwater. From the Blue lake you’ll enter what seems like a never ending decent. This part of the track is deemed the ‘active volcanic hazard zone’ where hikers can see the Te Maari craters up close, and view the craters formed when flying rocks landed during eruptions. Please keep to the track at all times.

Ketetahi Carpark is where you’d finish your track. If you booked a shuttle, they’ll come here to pick you up or if you parked your car by the main road, like I do then it’s a short dusty walk along the gravel road.

Things to remember

Please take plenty of water with you and stay hydrated. There is no drinking water available along the track. It is advisable to carry snacks and some nuts to have when you stop for lunch. There are few toilets along the way, but do expect small queues.

The weather while on track and especially on the top changes quite often. Do take enough clothing and stay warm and don’t forgot your sunscreen.

For more up to date information you can visit https://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz/


Buddhima Wickramarachchi – Auckland

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