travelling the seven parts of the world

Tongariro Crossing in Tongariro national park is said to be the best one day walk in the country, and it probably is. Tongariro Crossing takes you up the mountains into a beautiful flatland, past a red volcano creater and beautiful lakes, and some of the best alpine scenery in the world. On our Tongariro Crossing walk we also included a trip up Mt. Ngaurohoe. If you like Lord of the Rings you may remember this mountain, as this the real Mt. Doom, the same mountain Frodo had to climb and toss the ring into (this is the actual filming location). Climbing this mountain is a very difficult 2 to 4 hour side trip that is appropriately rated as very demanding, and it is.

First problem we came across was logistics. The info center in the village closes at 6PM and the last shop closes at 7PM, and the last spaces on the bus that can take you to the starting point for the walk and then pick you up from the end can be booked by 7:30 PM, so if you are there later than this point, you have practically wasted a day as you'll need to wait for your climb. We were very lucky as we arrived at about 5:55 PM, and just managed to squeeze enough info out of the guy at the info center while he was switching off the lights. Apparently, if you are doing the side trip up Mt Doom, you will need to be at the base of the mountain by 7:30 AM latest, but 6:00 AM would be better. The bus companies that can take you there also have a responsibility to take you back, but they make call emergency rescue instead of bothering themselves, so you really want to be down by the time the last bus leaves, which was 4:30 PM for us, but is as late as 6:00 PM for other companies.

Mt. Ngaurohoe itself is an incredible mountain, it is a cone shaped or classical volcano, the sort that kids would draw if you told them to draw a volcano.

Not only is it a magnificent sight but it is also New Zealand's third most active volcano (#1 is white island, and #2 is Mt. Ruapehu, which is just across the road from Mt Doom - its the larger mountain next to it, and erupted just last year), and this can be felt in every way. What's worse is that we knew this volcano erupts every 5 years, but we did not know when the last eruption was.

If you have any doubts about how steep it is, here is a picture:

On the day of the walk we woke up at 6:30 AM as difficult as this was (it is actually 7:30 PM in previous day in Latvia) and we were at the mountain by 7:15. The first thing you are greeted by is the incredible amount of other tourists looking to do this same walk - it is somewhat officially the best one day walk in New Zealand, and therefore attracts quite a crowd. This walk is also doable by any reasonably healthy person, so the crowd was quite diverse. Most of it was pretty slow, so we passed a lot of people and almost ended up being in front. First you walk through some very nice alpine meadows, and then there is a couple of hundred meter climb just to get to the base of the volcano. From there starts the walk up Mt Doom.

At the base you are greeted by the following sign:

Do note the date on the sign - 8th June 2006. That means they have been anticipating an eruption for 20 months, and the volcano is set to erupt only once every 5 years! This this was verrry much overdue.

This is the general plan on how we got up there:

First and foremost you have to note that there is no path leading up this mountain. The whole thing is just volcanic scree, which is slippery and causes rock slides. So the whole walk is really two steps up, one step down, and you always have to watch out, as there are some climbers above you who cause rocks to roll down the mountain side.

For the first part, at the base of the mountain, we had no choice and had to walk up the scree somehow. There was lots of zig-zagging that I haven't drawn on the picture. After that we moved left for the more solid lava field that was more difficult to climb but wasn't as slippery. Liene thought this wasn't such a good option, and you can see the place on the picture where she moved to the right to go up the scree. This didn't last too long, and I had to drop my bag and go out for a rescue mission to get her back to the lava field as the mountain got steeper in the spot and climbing up the scree was impossible, as you were slipping down faster than going up, and at the same time there was no really safe way to go down. After that we zig-zagged up the lava field to the top of the crater, half the time on all fours.

The crater itself is almost like two craters into one, so when you get to the top, you have to descend into the outer crater and then climb up to get to the middle one.

Was the volcano active? Hell yes. Sitting down on the ground in some spots made you stand up immediately as the ground was hot. The volcano itself was also letting off some stream, you can see me walking through it here:

It may be difficult to see from this picture, but this is actually smoke coming from the ground, and not a cloud. Here's a picture from farther away:

The top of the volcano offers some fantastic views of the surrounding landscape, Mt. Ruapehu and beautiful alpine lakes, a view that all by itself makes the climb worthwhile.

This is what the inside of the crater looks like:

This is what it looks like from the air (not my picture):

After that we had some lunch on the top and started making our way downhill. As you can see from the mountain plan, we went downhill the straight way - no zig-zagging, just straight down. This is achieved by finding the part in the scree that contains the smallest possible stones, you make a jump into the stones, and slide downwards along with them until you come to a stop and repeat the process.

There are obvious dangers to doing this:

1. You could easily twist an ankle;
2. You can start a rock slide that will not stop until you are at the bottom of the mountain, probably no longer in one piece;
3. You can get stuck if you come across rocks through which you can't go down, because there is no way to go back up;

We managed to get through there with just scratched ankles, which wasn't too bad. These are the real contents of my shoe once we got down:

And yes, that is just a regular shoe, we didn't have any hiking shoes as we didn't take the equipment with us. I wouldn't suggest to anyone to repeat that experience though, as it was quite uncomfortable in places, but is doable. Plus, if you have shoes that cover your ankles, jumping down the scree is far more comfortable.

After we had successfully climbed Mt Doom itself, we continued along with the Tongariro Crossing walk, which from there on took us 3 more hours. First you walk across a flat plain, and then climb the Red Crater, which is, appropriately, a crater that is completely red. From there you have a beautiful view of the surroundings, including the Emerald Lakes:

After that the walk goes down the crater and then back up to the blue lake, where we had some food.

From there you could see a magnificent view of Red Crater, with Mt Doom in the background:

In the above picture you can see how the pathway from the Red Crater down to Emerald Lakes goes just along the rim of the canyon.

After that we raced downhill, as our bus was waiting for us at 4:30 PM and according to all the signs, we're never gonna make it there on time. But make it we did. The whole walk took us 8 hours 45 mins, with the Mt Doom summit sidewalk taking 3h 45m, so we managed to walk the whole Tongariro crossing in just 5h, even though it is advertised as a 6h - 8h track. Not too bad, considering that we had no exercise beforehand.

After that we treated ourselves with a stay in Chateaux Tongariro, a luxury hotel at the base of Mt. Ruapehu (though "luxury" is a broad term in this part of the world):

I would suggest anyone who is in New Zealand to do Tongariro Crossing, it was one of the highlights, if not THE highlight, of the whole trip. The walk up Mt Doom is optional, the Tongariro Crossing itself can be done by virtually anyone, as indicated by quite a few old people who managed to get to the finish line just fine, and do it you must.