In the seventies, travel guide Lonely Planet described the Tongariro Crossing as the best day walk in New Zealand. No one will argue much; it’s a walk through an amazing landscape with stunning views, amazing landforms and jewelled lakes. But there are a couple of caveats: one is a claim that limited time meant the author had only done this single walk and therefore had nothing to compare it to; the other is that it is one of the hardest day walks in the world, let alone New Zealand. To see the things he waxed lyrical about (and, yes, so will I) you have to walk twenty km over some of the most challenging terrain NZ has to offer, it will take six to eight hours to do so, and the weather can change in an instant.
Neil and I first did The Crossing in 2003. It was already popular, but there were only a couple of minibuses disgorging eager trampers into the cool early morning air. Warned about the lack of toilets en route we used the single long-drop by the car park, hoisted packs and set off. Ahead of us Mts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe drifted in and out of cloud, the saddle between them that we would climb looking a little daunting; behind us the mist gathered and chased us, obliterating any expected views.
We stumbled along the rough path, scrambled up the unformed track towards the saddle, discarding layers as we warmed up and the sun found us. We skied and slipped down the loose scree slopes towards the famed lakes, laughing and pausing at the bottom to tip half of the mountain out of our boots. Then we descended to Ketetahi and the end of the walk, my knees begging for mercy and my muscles grateful for the hot pool we slipped into at the campsite later.
I’m getting ahead of myself, and I will be more effusive in my descriptions later, but the main point I want to make here is that this walk is hard. Bloody hard. We were not long out of England, where we walked regularly and far, our legs and backs strong, and the effort it took surprised us. We’d done our research and were well prepared but some aren’t – people die on this walk. Some are incorrectly dressed and shod (cotton is a no-no and a waterproof jacket a must, even on what might seem the sunniest of days); some continue walking when they really should turn around, either because the weather is closing in or they have overestimated their abilities. Even the best prepared can fall foul of the terrain – at least two people have died from heart attacks on this track. And to add a little extra frisson, the mountains you walk in the shadow of are active volcanoes, steamy fumaroles the evidence of this. One of Tongariro’s craters erupted twice in 2012, spewing chunks of rock a metre wide onto its slopes and into the Ketetahi Hut, by a miracle causing no injuries.
Twenty years ago the warnings were there but easy to ignore or even miss if you didn’t look far. Year on year the number of walkers has increased – 140,000 people a year bringing much appreciated revenue to the region. The path was upgraded and multiple sets of toilets were installed. The word spread and more people arrived, up to five thousand a day in peak season (before the pandemic). Signs were installed encouraging people to turn around if the weather ahead looked challenging or if they were tired, telling them to stick together and not walk alone. In an effort to emphasise the harsh environment the title was officially changed to include Alpine. In short, there are no excuses for attempting this walk without the proper equipment (including crampons and an ice axe in any season other than summer). But still the number of rescue callouts has risen.
This is not a walk to be undertaken lightly. It is not a walk to be undertaken with anything less than a pack full of layers of clothing, including waterproofs – even on the sunniest day – and more food than you would think you could eat. It is not a walk to be undertaken in jandals (flip flops) or city sneakers. The only suitable footwear is that sturdy of sole and ideally of ankle height. If you don’t want to get your pale blue name-branded trainers dirty, you’re in the wrong place and wearing the wrong shoes. Yes, the track is now well-formed, but it is still going either up or down for most of its length and once you are on it you cannot leave unless you walk out or are carried on a stretcher.
Nineteen years ago this walk challenged and astounded us. We wanted to walk it again but have desisted for years, not wanting to do so within a crowd and have to queue at some sections, shuffling along at a pace chosen by others we cannot pass. We didn’t want to be in the middle of a landscape we know is special and not be able to appreciate it because of the crowds. When our borders closed, the frequently heard comment locally was a good time to do The Crossing. With hindsight we probably should have picked a weekday rather than the Saturday of a holiday weekend when there would have been even fewer people. Here’s a taster of what we saw and there’ll be more in the next post.
*My photographer asks me to point out that the pictures from 2003 are iphone photos of prints from the good old days of film.