(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 17.)
Serious tramping has never appealed to me. The thought of having to endure a night trapped in a crowded hut with infuriatingly cheerful trampers wearing hand-knitted jerseys, munching scroggin and enjoying group singalongs makes my blood run cold.
But a one-day tramp … now that’s a different story. And so it was that my two daughters and I recently tackled what has been described as one of the finest one-day walks in the world: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
We booked into a backpackers’ lodge at National Park, which also provided transport to the start of the walk and a pickup at the end, and at 7.15am on a Saturday morning we set out.
When I say “we”, I mean us and several hundred others. A veritable convoy of buses and vans ferried walkers up the dusty Mangatepopo road to the start of the 19 km track.
For those thinking of undertaking this trip, here’s Tip No 1: if you like to experience your alpine rambling in solitude, forget about the Tongariro Crossing. Alternatively, do it midweek when the pressure is off. The crowd was such that at the first toilet stop, about one hour into the walk, there was a long queue outside the two dunnies. I suppose all that breakfast coffee has to go somewhere.
As we began the first long ascent above the headwaters of the Mangatepopo Stream, the sight of hundreds of trampers strung out down the track in single file struck me as resembling the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet. But as the day progressed and the gradient took its toll, what began as an unbroken procession gradually broke up and spread out.
Now here’s Tip No 2: when they describe the Tongariro Crossing as one of the world’s finest one-day walks, they are using that word “walk” rather loosely. It’s not a leisurely stroll through a gentle, neatly groomed landscape. It’s an alpine tramp that requires a greater degree of fitness than you might assume from reading the official information.
Much of the track is unformed, in places climbing steeply over rough terrain. About halfway up the ascent toward the Mangatepopo Saddle, which lies between Mounts Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, we passed a middle-aged man who appeared to have had little idea what he was letting himself in for. He was gasping for breath and looked distressed. I’d be very surprised if he completed the climb, let alone the entire walk. (In case you’re thinking we did an Everest and callously left him to die, there were family members with him.)
From the highest point of the track (1886 metres) there’s a steep descent down a narrow ridge that many walkers negotiated very gingerly. Once past that point, however, the terrain becomes gentler as the track crosses the Central Crater, passes the Blue Lake and winds around the flank of Mt Tongariro to the Ketetahi Springs before dropping into the shelter of beech forest. But even in the latter part of the walk the ground is rough in places and care has to be taken.
The payback for all this is, of course, the dramatic volcanic landscape – if you can see it. On the day we did the walk, the sky was bright and sunny to the west but cloud hung stubbornly over Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and neighbouring Ruapehu.
Much of the time visibility was down to a couple of hundred metres, but periodically the swirling mists would magically clear and we would find ourselves gazing at the summit of Ngauruhoe or down into the forbidding Red Crater, where wisps of sulphurous steam rising from fissures in the rock reminded us that this area is still volcanically active.
Here’s Tip No 3: no matter what the weather is like off the mountain, prepare for the worst. The day of our trip dawned bright and clear, but knowing how quickly the conditions could change in that alpine environment, we dressed for cold weather. I was glad we did, because a bitter wind was blowing.
An experienced tramper friend had told me how ill-prepared many people were for the Crossing, so I was pleased to note that most of our fellow walkers seemed well equipped. It was only toward the end that we struck a party heading the opposite way that included a teenage girl in T-shirt, shorts and bare feet – and no backpack. We could only hope one of her companions was carrying spare clothing and proper footwear, but you never know.
Now here’s something else that pleased me. All too often the people you encounter in places like the Tongariro Crossing are overwhelmingly foreign tourists. It seems they value our scenery more than we do. But on this day, though we heard several foreign languages, the majority of our fellow trampers were New Zealanders. That’s as it should be.
Our time for the walk was at the lower end of the 6-8 hours the Department of Conservation suggests people should allow. At the end, we waited in glorious sunshine for the bus to take us back to National Park. We were a bit stiff, but it was nothing that a soak in the hot pool at Tokaanu later in the afternoon wouldn’t fix.
In the evening, we enjoyed beers, burgers and fries at the pub adjacent to our accommodation. Now that beats scroggin and billy tea.