8.30am. The shuttle driver warns of how hard the next few hours will be, briefly describes the challenges we’ll face, and asks us to use the toilets now available along the route and not just hop off the path as: you wouldn’t do it in your own home, please don’t do it in ours. He also asks that we don’t touch the water in the lakes as it is tapu (sacred), something we weren’t told the last time we were here. We step off the bus and there’s another change – two DOC rangers loiter by the start of the track with intent: the intent of checking that people are well prepared, know what they are about to face and aren’t wearing jandals. They acknowledge they have no power to stop people, but at least they can try and tutor the unwary.
We lather on suncream, put on hats, grab poles and step onto the track. At 9am it’s already warm, the sky clear and no sign of that changing. I prepare myself for a hot, shadeless day. Within minutes we are in the middle of nowhere, a mix of low plants and eruption-debris strewn slopes leading to an impenetrable looking cliff. Scattered rocks lie abandoned by lava, twisted by heat and pressure into grotesque and alien shapes. The cliff face, growing closer with each step, is dark, pushed from the earth by eruption, fluted into columns like a church organ.
The path is wide, easy to walk two abreast, becoming boardwalk over parts that would be soggy at times, although not today with over a month since any significant rain. We follow the course of the Mangetepopo Stream up a gradual incline along the shallow valley, a nice warm-up for the legs before we tackle the huge climb ahead. A side path leads to Soda Spring Falls, a pale fan of water sliding over boulders into a patch of green watered by its flow, a flow diminished by the recent heatwave.
The path wends its way uphill to the beginning of the Devil’s Staircase. The moniker was a misnomer on our last visit, the way being a scramble over and around rough volcanic rocks, pulling yourself up by the hands, to a ledge halfway up, then carrying on much in the same vein to the top. Now there is indeed a staircase, wooden steps interspersed with uneven patches, twisting upwards. This is where it gets hard (and where you see the first of the signs encouraging you to turn back if you have any doubts about your capabilities) and groups of walkers spreading into thin lines, slower ones puffing and slogging up the mountain. I’m not the fastest but I’m a long way from the slowest and by the top we’ve passed a few dozen people that we have so far not even seen on the track.
The South Crater lies in front of us, wide and smooth. It reminds me of the vast salt pans of Africa, so flat you could lay a spirit level on its surface and it would read true. To the right Mt Ngauruhoe rises, the top of its perfect cone slipping in and out of wispy cloud. A dark mass from the distance we normally view it, this close it glows with colour, the vibrant red of its summit rising from pink-tinged scoria slopes above the sulphured-yellow of the crater. No one is on the path to its peak, a clear white line on its 45º flank.
We march across the crater, enjoying the lack of effort and the cooling breeze, munching handfuls of scroggin. Ahead the next ridge rises. We follow the vague path to the saddle, then swing left to the hardest part of the track so far, a virtual wall of scree and loose stone. There’s no real path, no helpful steps, just a scramble where each footfall can slip you back a couple of paces, a wrong step possibly sending you off the edge in a painful tumble. I’m glad to be doing this in full visibility rather than in cloud that can obscure the danger. Those unused to such terrain are scattered like the rough rocks spat from the volcanoes. One woman in a crisp white shirt leans into the slope, almost sobbing when each foot slides backwards as she places it, grabbing handfuls of dust and dirt as she scrabbles for some purchase. She looks so unstable I wonder if she will make it. A man, presumably her partner, stands above, yelling words that sound more of exasperation than encouragement. I wonder how many people do this merely to please another.
We gain the top and pause for breath and the view. This is as high as we will walk and, whilst the clear day allows us to see for miles, the most arresting sight is of the Red Crater directly below. Unlike the flat expanse of the one we walked across, this is a deep steep-sided hole. A gaping wound in its side is a lava dike, the remains of a vent from which lava flowed and retreated, leaving an exposed tube, its pale inside a striking contrast to the dark red and brown surrounding it, colours caused by extreme heat oxidising the iron in the rock. The bright sunlight that normally subdues colours cannot touch this, the red glowing as though it is still hot. Far below are the Emerald Lakes, a clear path leading to the Blue Lake in the distance.
Having climbed, we must now descend and, if up is hard, down is just as challenging. Normally I’d traverse a steep gradient in zig-zags but this is a moving slope and it’s easier to dig in heels, harder to find purchase with a sideways placed foot. Younger walkers do as I did before, practically ski their way down, sliding into and across the scoria. I tread carefully, placing each foot, waiting for the shifting of the ground to stop, then moving the other. A couple of times I move out of the way of faster bodies, at least one out of control, arms flailing and legs whirling. To my surprise he makes it to the bottom without incident, turning and whooping back at his mates. I do the same, without the whooping, turning to see Neil high above me, camera hoisted.
I scout a place for lunch, sniffing cautiously. There is no way to avoid the sulphurous smell of rotten eggs, fumaroles the other side of the lakes emitting steam and aroma that drifts lazily across the land. The breeze is gentle but cool; even though I’m sweating the exposed skin on my arms feels cold. We park ourselves by the side of the water, and I wrap a layer around me. The lake glows from within, minerals turning the water a deep turquoise, not emerald as the name suggests, although I admit they do appear to change colour depending on the weather and the depth of water. There are more people than I would have liked to share this space with but most are quiet, enjoying a break in the scenic peace.
Ahead of us a dark shadow reaches halfway across the North Crater, not a spreading forest or a cloud over the sun, but the extent of the lava flow, cooled and solidified to create a low plateau. Everywhere you look there is evidence of the nature of these mountains, that they are alive beneath us, that any second we could find the sun blotted by something more sinister than elevated condensed water vapour.
The Blue Lake changes colour as we approach, becoming grey in darkening cloud that looks like it might drop rain on us at any time, a reminder of how quickly conditions change. From the lake we swing north and downhill, Lake Rotoaira far below. In the distance, Lake Taupo glistens. This body of water lies within the caldera of an extinct volcano, last reported as erupting sometime around the twelfth century with such force the tremors were felt as far away as China. No one knows if a volcano ever becomes truly extinct. I just hope I’m many miles away if the Taupo one comes back to life.
The path traverses the tussock in wide switchbacks, its surface of packed gravel hard and uncompromising, a tiny pale line through the dark of the forest below marking the end, still a few hours away. Shelves of rock, pushed from the earth over the millennia, angle above us and a cleared area marks the Ketetahi Springs where sulphurous steam turns the ground yellow. Information panels detail the latest eruption from 2012, when the Te Maari crater on Tongariro exploded, spewing ash and debris, throwing metre-wide boulders nearly two and a half km. One smashed through the roof of the Ketetahi Hut, by a miracle finding no one inside.
The sun reappears and the heat is unremitting, not a breath of the cooling wind we were covering our skin against a couple of hours ago, and low plants providing no shade. We’re grateful to reach the relative cool of the forest, even if it does mean the path becomes a series of punishing steps. For some it is truly a punishment and we pass a young woman hobbling in socks, her partner supporting her, carrying her boots in his other hand, her pack on his front. My feet are pulsing with pain and I wade into the fast flow of the Ketetahi Stream alongside us and deliberately let the water over the tops of my boots, immediately feeling the benefit of it, my feet feeling as though they shrink within my boots. But even here we are not free from danger – signs warning that the path of the stream is also the path of the lahar flow (a flood of volcanic mud, ash and rocks) from the most recent eruption.
Finally we round a corner and see the large shelter that marks the official end of the track, although we have another km to get to the car park. A woman peers behind us, whooping as a young boy we had earlier witnessed weeping in his father’s arms comes into view. The family gathers around him, congratulating him on the achievement.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a glorious walk through some of the most amazing countryside on the planet. But it’s also one of the most challenging, and one of the hardest days I, and many others, have ever had. I know my legs will feel this twenty km for a few days yet. Approach with caution and enjoy.