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Mount Tongariro and the Tongariro Crossing: A Gem

Published
November 13, 2020
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UNLIKE the sheer peaks of Mount Ruapehu and nearby Mount Ngauruhoe, Mount Tongariro has a series of spread-out slopes and craters and can be ascended as the one-day Alpine crossing, or as part of the longer three to four day Tongariro Northern Circuit, which is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

(By the way, it is strongly, officially, recommended that anyone who is not a serious mountaineer should not attempt the Tongariro crossing, or circuit, in the more wintery months between early May and late October. The same goes for all New Zealand’s Great Walks. They are only ‘walks’ in season.)

You can download a PDF brochure on the Tongariro trails from DOC, on this link. I’ve reproduced the key map from the brochure below, up to date as of the timeof writing. Make sure to download the latest if you are going there, and get a better map for actual navigation as the DOC one is information only.

The Tongariro Northern Circuit and other tracks. Note at bottom left in the original includes a warning that this is not to be used as a navigational map, that it is for information only. From Tongariro Northern Circuit (PDF), Wellington, Department of Conservation, September 2019.

The wider Tongariro area, including Mounts Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, was the first national park to be created in New Zealand when the powerful Ngāti Tūwharetoa iwi, or tribe, aligned their fortunes with the Crown and began to open up their lands for tourism in 1887. It is now one of a limited number of World Heritage Sites of joint natural and cultural significance.

When I first tramped Tongariro in 2011, I did the full Northern Circuit, and it was beautiful. From Whakapapa Village, we tramped eight and a half kilometres across the plains underneath the famous Mount Ngauruhoe, which some film buffs might recognise as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We stopped at Mangatepopo Hut at the entrance of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing,which we joined the following day, and hiked through to Oturere Hut – a five-hour walk of almost thirteen kilometres – passing the beautiful Emerald and Blue Lakes (the Blue Lake is also sacred or tapu to Māori, and needs to betreated similarly to a mountain peak).

From Oturere it was a further three-hour walk to Waihohonu Hut, before the final stretch – a hike of just over fourteen kilometres through the Tama Saddle between Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu – to return to our starting point at Whakapapa Village.

I thought I’d make the most of my time in the national park and headed over to tramp the start of the one-day Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

We tramped up over the central crater of Tongariro, where the snow was quite deep. I soon learnt that hiking with crampons on becomes easier if you follow in the footsteps of the person in front of you. The walk had steep drops, and we had to self-arrest with our ice-axes several times to stop ourselves falling down them, so I was thankful we’d learnt how to do it properly on the snowcraft course.

I did the crossing again in 2016 with a friend I'd made in India, named Yaquoob.

Despite the cold, the tramp to Ketatahi Hut was well worth it, with magnificent views of Lake Rotoaira, Mount Pihanga and even the distant Lake Taupō. The hut is now a museum and shelter, as the greater part of it was destroyed in 2012 when the mountain erupted. I was there at the time, as I was planning to climb Mount Tongariro when a crater called Te Maari blew.

All the volcanic mountains in the Tongariro National Park are still active. So, in addition to the usual hazards you have when tramping in mountainous areas, there’s also the added risk of volcanic activity. As such, DOC recommends that all trampers intending to trek the crossing should check in on the current volcanic alert level of the mountains at one of their offices, or online, before setting out.

I love the grasses and the smell on Tongariro when you first start out, and I don’t mind the weather.

Note

This post is referenced in my new book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand's other half.

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