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The non-hiker’s guide to the Tongariro Crossing

PHOTO: The view of Mt. Ngauruhoe from just above Red Crater. Ngauruhoe is one of three active volcanos in Tongariro National Park.

by Bobbi Lee Hitchon, USA

I grab onto a rock and my feet slip down black and brown gravel.

A cloud of smoke forms behind me. Though I’m already gasping for air, the sight of Mt. Ngauruhoe takes my breath away even more.

Sprouting up from a desert-like scene, the active volcano stands tall amongst clear blue skies. I’m currently climbing up, past Red Crater, opposite the mountain. Unlike the previous incline-heavy part of this great walk, the current battle doesn’t have much of a trail. In fact, if there weren’t other people ahead of me, I’m not too sure I would have taken this route. There are no steps, no gridded paths, just random rocks, loose gravel and an edge that I’ve teetered on a few times.

Sneakers were a bad choice

Regardless of the struggle, I carry on and eventually reach the top. Waiting there are my three friends, taking a break next to a sign that pretty much marks the halfway point for the Tongariro Crossing, three hours and ten minutes to walk back to where we started, Mangatepopo Hut, and three hours and 25 minutes to reach the walk’s end. Ketetahi Hut.

Just on the other side of us is the Blue Lake and three Emerald Lakes. It’s quite a sight, a crater filled with calm blue waters and three small teal lakes, all amongst desert and ash. Not many people get to this point in New Zealand, especially not non-hikers like me, but it’s worth the effort and actually quite accessible by people of all ages, shapes and sizes.  Tongariro National Park is a must see in New Zealand. The country is known for its great walks and stunning sights, but this walk tops the charts.

Starting at Mangatepopo Car Park and ending at Ketetahi Car Park, the walk is approximately 20 kms long and takes an average of seven hours to complete. Walks like this are not for the light-hearted, but I found that though the walk will be harder for some, almost anyone can take on this walk with the right mindset and foresight.

Pack and dress smart

Proper preparation for the Tongariro Crossing will make it much more comfortable. There are a few essentials that people should wear and bring along.

Be prepared for all temperatures on the walk. It may be warm at the starting point, but weather changes quickly at Tongariro National Park and temperatures are always slightly cooler at high altitudes. For this reason, it’s important to layer. wear a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, but pack pants, a long sleeve t-shirt, scarf, rain-proof hoodie and hat. You may not need all these items depending on what time of year you visit, but bring anything you could need.

Bring along a comfortable backpack with all the essentials, but pack light besides that. On top of clothing, you’ll need to bring the following:

• water-at least 2 liters

• food-some sort of lunch and a few light snacks

• a mobile phone- just in case something does happen

• a camera-you’ll be kicking yourself if you forget this,

• proper footwear-hiking boots are best, but at least sneakers

• sunscreen- there is no shade on this walk and seven hours is a long time to be out in the strong New Zealand sun

• and a map-the route is pretty easy to follow, but maps can be purchased at Whakapapa Visitor Centre.

This may feel like a lot to carry at the start of the day, but your bag will lighten up throughout the day.

Just breath

People in or out of shape may struggle with breathing at various points on this walk. A large portion of the walk is on an incline. This challenge is made even harder by the fact that the air is thinner at higher altitudes.

Oxygen deprivation is not an issue on the walk, but you may notice shortness of breath at certain heights a lot more often than you would at ground level. Do not feel bad about stopping. Go at your own pace and catch your breath whenever you need to.

Stick to the route

While the Tongariro Crossing is well-traveled and pathways have been cut out for most of the walk, it’s still possible and very dangerous to get lost. Due to the walk’s popularity, most days you’ll find you’re almost never alone. Thousands of people around the world walk the Tongariro Crossing each year, so on busy days just follow the crowd. On days with bad weather, following the route will be more difficult, so bring a map.

Think about getting back to your car

This walk starts and finishes at different points. Those who follow the track all the way through must plan transportation back to their car. Quite a few companies offer shuttles in Tongariro, which cost about $25 per person, per ride. People can also coordinate with other hikers and place one car at each point.

Another option is to complete half of the walk and turn around. For some, this takes away the principle of completing the Tongariro Crossing, but you’ll get to see all the best spots and doing the walk this way is just as long and physically demanding. Those starting at Mangatepopo should walk to the Blue Lake and return. From Ketetahi, people should walk to Mount Ngaurohoe and return.

Watch the weather and leave early

Weather has a huge impact on walking the Tongariro Crossing. The area can be very foggy at times, making it not even possible to see mountains when standing next to them. Some still walk under these conditions. You need to be honest with yourself about whether the walk is worth all the work if the weather is poor.

Your best bet is to wait for a clear day. It makes the walk a lot more enjoyable. Tongariro has its own weather forecast to check when planning a trip.

Once you pick out a day to walk Tongariro, plan to leave early. Since this walk is so long, it’s important to consider how much sunlight will be available on the day you plan to walk. There are no lights along the trail and lots of rocks, so you could easily fall and get hurt walking this route in the dark. In the summer months, people can easily get away with leaving at noon, but on most days it be ideal to leave by 9 or 10am.

PHOTO: Three hikers start the Tongariro Crossing from Mangatepopo Car Park.


Bobbi Lee Hitchon can be found regularly on her blog Heels and Wheels. She started the blog in Australia two years ago and has been documenting her work holiday experience in New Zealand this past year.


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