Hoping to beat some of the crowds at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we arrived at the Ketetahi carpark in time for the 6:45am shuttle, one of the earliest ones running that day. The sky was gray with fog, and a light mist was drifting down in the crisp air. We couldn’t see even 20 feet in front of the shuttle, much less the mountains we were about to climb. “You might climb above the weather anyways,” our shuttle driver noted. “Plus, the weather here is impossible to predict, and it can change in the blink of an eye.” Praying he was right, we hopped out at the Mangatepopo carpark, joining many other small groups of trekkers all tying their shoes and bundling up before heading off. Even going on a day of dreadful weather and taking the earliest shuttle, we hadn’t managed to beat the crowd. Nonetheless, we set off into the fog, beginning the 19.4km (12 mile) trek, not fully comprehending what we were in for.
Ranked as the best one-day walk in New Zealand and one of the top 10 in the world, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing rises and falls along steep lava flows, making it a fairly strenuous activity. The first climb up to South Crater seemed to be never-ending, as we’d turn each corner almost positive we’d reached the top, only to be confronted by another steep incline. I love climbing mountains especially for the rewarding view, but this time I was greeted only by a white abyss of endless fog, robbing me of any sense of orientation.
Finally the steep rocky terrain flattened out into what seemed like a vast desert plateau. We had no way of knowing what actually lay in the surrounding fog, but we assumed it was the South Crater. Mist was still clinging to our fuzzy fleece jumpers as we hadn’t brought raincoats. “Well this is miserable. The only way it could possibly get worse is if it actually started to rain,” said Mom. As if on cue, a large raindrop splashed onto my nose. Uh oh. For the next few minutes, we tramped on in the rain, noticing some trekkers pull on raincoats, while others stopped and sheltered themselves, waiting for it to pass. It wasn’t a hard rain, but it was enough to make us wonder if we’d made the right decision by postponing our trek a day.
Luckily it didn’t last more than a few minutes, and suddenly it cleared, taking some of the fog with it. We noticed some blue sky as the sun peaked through, and we were amazed at how quickly the fog blew off. In less than a minute, the fog completely dissipated, leaving us with an amazing view of the South Crater, part of the climb we’d just completed, and some of the surrounding mountains including neighboring Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings). The rapid clearing of fog actually made it even more breathtaking, since we hadn’t grown accustomed to the views on the way up.
We finally reached the top, but unfortunately the fog moved back in, reducing visibility once again. The path changed on the decline, as the rocky terrain was replaced by inches of sooty volcanic ash. Unable to get a foothold on anything, I placed my heels first and began to slide down the gray ash, noticing everyone else doing the same. Despite the lack of view again, we started to laugh alongside our fellow trekkers when we realized what a funny scene we must be. Steam wafted out of vents in the ground below us, and we stopped to warm up our hands in the natural heat.
Once again, the fog started blowing away, and suddenly we could see a faint blue circle off to our right. A few more slides down the ash, and we reached Blue Lake, just as the last of the fog blew off it, giving us a clear view of the stunning cerulean blue water.
We continued to trek up, down, and around slopes of the volcanoes until we reached the Ketetahi Hut for a stunning view of Lake Taupo, Lake Rotoaira, tropical forests, rolling farmlands, and distant mountains. Thick plumes of smoke billowed from the side of the volcano we’d just come from.
We assumed the Ketetahi Hut must be close to the Ketetahi carpark, but it actually took another two hours to get all the way down. Despite our weary feet, it was a scenic descent with some great views of the mountains we’d just climbed – absolutely amazing looking up at how high we’d gone! Though we may not have had the best views the entire time, it was definitely still worth it. I’d love to go back and complete the Tongariro again in clear weather, but at end of the day the trek we completed was still extremely rewarding. It’s a tough climb that requires a full day and a moderate amount of fitness, but it’s an absolute must for anyone visiting New Zealand.
Have you done the Tongariro Crossing? What did you think?
As always, keep on livin’ pura vida ✌