The morning sun lights up the bushes by the road and turns them golden when a rattling bus balances on a narrow gravel road. The driver directs points at the steam pillar rising from the side of the volcano ahead of us. Letting some steam out is completely normal for the volcano. If it stops, it is time to be concerned. “Hopefully it won’t happen when you are up there tramping.”
New Zealand is a paradise for outdoorsy people. The famous Great Walks are indeed great, but also very popular. To protect the nature, the number of visitors allowed on trails is controlled. You cannot put up a tent in the first lovely spot you find: you can only stay in official camping areas and huts. Those have very few spots and during the summer season, they have to be booked almost a year in advance!
Luckily, some Great Walks do not require an overnight stay and they can be fitted into more spontaneous travel plan. Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park in the North Island is an ideal one day walk. The easiest way to catch the trail is to take a bus from Turangi to Mangatepopo. During the summer season, you can book a seat through the local hostels and camping areas. During the low-season, you might have to ask around to get a lift.
Despite the name, the trail has very little to do with the Alps. The descent, before the path reaches the treeline, has something similar with the walking trails in the Alps, but the name actually comes from the alpine climate: exposed terrain and rapid weather changes. Most of the time, Tongariro Alpine Crossing is more likely to resemble Moon or Middle Earth. Perhaps Mount Ngauruhoe aka Mount Doom has something to do with it. It stands right there next to the trail, rising high and watching the hikers go by.
The trail crosses the flat bottom of the South Crater, climbs up on loose gravel and passes the Red Crater, which reminds of the power of the volcano. Bright turquoise Emerald lakes glimmer in the middle of the dry landscape. The water is inviting but the sharp smell of sulphur prompts to keep moving.
The trail is popular and the path forces people to walk in a loose line. However, there is room for all sorts or trekkers and everyone can walk at their own pace. Each hiker is their own judge, if you don’t think you are fit enough, don’t go. And even if you are fit, the sun and the heat might hit you. There were some exhausted visitors struggling to walk down after getting a sunstroke. On another day, the temperatures might drop to below zero and rain make the terrain difficult. Enough water, food, clothing, and experience will keep you on the path.
19.4 kilometres go by quickly when the view is so great. In the end of the day, every single hiker is tired, happy and covered in dust.