If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months or more, you’ve probably noticed a trend. We walk. A lot. Yes, it may be free, easy, and often one of the best ways to experience a new place. But by this time you must be wondering — aren’t we sick of hiking?
Well…no, not really. It’s safe to say that New Zealand is home to the most varied landscape on the planet. The topography, climate, and vegetation all change drastically as you travel up, down, or across these small pieces of land. Each trail has proved to be undeniably unique, beautiful, and full of surprises, and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which will end up being the last long walk of our trip, was no different. Traversing 20 kilometers of the central North Island’s volcanic highlands, the Crossing navigates volcanic peaks, wide lava plains, and thermal hotspots.
But first, if you are going to have an enjoyable day completing the Alpine Crossing, you should temper your expectations. Piles of travel brochures proclaim it to be the best day hike in New Zealand — or even, ambitiously, the world. A bold statement, and one that lures tens of thousands of people a year to the trailhead. We’ve walked many beautiful trails in New Zealand and I’m sure the rest of the world has a lot to offer. Let’s just call it a nice walk and leave it at that.
So, we were expecting crowds, but were still quite shocked to see several hundred other people joining us at the trailhead on a cold, windy, cloudy morning. Hiking up in a steady stream of tourists with views partially blocked by the back of some stranger’s head, we got the strange feeling we were part of an Old West covered wagon train rather than experiencing a South Pacific wilderness. We neglected to photograph this portion of the trip for obvious reasons.
Grandiose titles and crowds aside, Tongariro National Park holds a captivating landscape. The trail winds through vast empty sweeps of land filled with chunks of black volcanic rock, pressure-warped pieces of brown and red pumice, and hardy gnarled shrubs. It’s beautiful in a stark and dramatic sort of way, and, once again, completely different from anything we’ve seen so far.
As we approached Mount Ngaurahoe—the brooding volcanic peak that served as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies—the clouds shrouding the summit evaporated. It looked like a long, boring climb, but we had to do it.
Surprise, surprise, it was a long, boring climb. Loose ash and pumice slid down the sides of the steep cone with every step, requiring nearly twice the effort, and a cold wind blasted us, numbing our fingers and noses. The crowds were left behind, though, and views opened up with each step upwards. By the time we reached to top we had forgotten about all the effort to get there.
Thin wisps of volcanic steam rose from the bottom of the ice-crusted caldera, mixing with the passing clouds. Broad sweeps of barren land spread out below us, dotted with emerald lakes and plumes of sulfuric steam from geothermal vents. Lake Taupo glittered in the distance and 130 kilometers to the southwest, the tip of Mount Taranaki poked out from above the clouds. It was utterly freezing at the top, with ice-cold winds threatening to blow us over the edge.