Tag Archives: Tongariro

TONGARIRO CROSSING – the world’s greatest one day hike?

Mt Doom (Ngauruhoe) on a good day.

‘This Red Crater is a spectacular volcanic gash, deep red like your rain jacket, with soil as black as…that beanie. The Emerald Lakes below us are an amazing blue-green, um, like Chris’s eyes.’ Our guide Stewart is painting us a word picture of the highlights of New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park. He has to. We’re perched on the edge of a chasm beyond which the world seems to end. There is no view, only thick mist, with a fierce wind driving freezing rain horizontally into our faces.

Tongariro, in the middle of the North Island, was the location chosen by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to represent Mordor, which you may remember as a very bad place, the Dark Lord Sauron’s HQ. Its volcano Mt Ngauruhoe became the sinister Mt Doom. The terrain is harsh and unforgiving, the weather unreliable, but the scenery is quite literally fantastic.

The Kiwis advertise the famous Tongariro Crossing, the hike across the park’s northern end as the greatest one-day tramp in New Zealand, if not the world. So it’s popular. Any fine summer’s day the crowds of backpackers erupt out of shuttle buses with names like Volcanic Adventures to swarm over the track.

But we won’t see many of them today. I’m with a tour group guided by Stewart and Chris from Adrift Outdoors, who have devised cunning ways of seeing the best of the area while avoiding the crowds. Stewart guides walks starting in the dark to catch the sunrise, winter expeditions with crampons and ice-axes, as well as today’s planned adventure, an ‘off track’ loop taking us to the summit of Mt Tongariro itself, and across a part of the park where few people go.

The Tongariro team

There are just six of us in our party – outdoor enthusiasts Asa and Lennart from Sweden, fresh from climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, Sophie from Ohakune village down the road who has never walked here, our two guides and me. Before we leave, Stewart checks we have adequate clothing and footwear, and lends gear to anyone who didn’t realise that these mountains can suddenly turn very cold indeed.

But at 10am the rain is holding off, so we start walking. We’re in no hurry, and best of all, we’re alone; the backpacker hordes left earlier. The track begins gently, climbing slowly up the Mangatepopo Valley, through button grass and the heather introduced to the area by a misguided Scotsman who hoped to establish a grouse shooting business. Heather is pretty enough in its place, but it has become a noxious weed here.

Setting off - Mr Ngauruhoe in the mist

Through the gathering clouds we can just make out the imposing outlines of the perfect snow-capped cone that is Mt Nguaruhoe towering in front of us and the ragged escarpment of Mt Tongariro on the left.

At Soda Springs, a waterfall at the end of the valley, we pause briefly at the last toilet for 12km. Most of this route is devoid even of convenient trees; that Dark Lord Sauron certainly knows how to cause maximum discomfort.

From here the steep stuff starts, up the Devil’s Staircase between jagged outcrops. The track is well-made and easy to follow, and we can catch our breath as Stewart and Chris point out geological features, including some uncomfortably recent lava flows. Ngauruhoe is an active volcano, ten years overdue for an eruption, but with luck today won’t be the day.

The mist closes in as we emerge on the South Crater, but we can see enough of this extraordinary moonscape; a broad, flat desert, dotted with loose rocks. The further we go, the weirder the landscape becomes. Slipping and sliding on the scoria we scramble up to the lip of the Red Crater. Legs and lungs are feeling it now.

After Stewart’s valiant word-picture description of the invisible crater (‘you should have been here last week’) we branch off the main track and head toward the summit of Mt Tongariro. As we do, the rain stops, the wind dies and the mist lifts, allowing tantalising glimpses of Lake Taupo in the distance.

It’s not a hard climb, though we’re now a creditable 800metres above our starting point. As we bump down off the summit and pick our way across open ground, between rocks and tussock grass, the sky suddenly clears, giving us spectacular views across to Mt Ngauruhoe and snow-capped Mt Ruapehu.

After six hours of walking, my creaky legs take a battering on the short steep descent back to the Mangatepopo Stream, but Stewart has a beer waiting for us at the car park and any pain is soon forgotten.

So is it the greatest one-day walk in the world? If you want a moderate physical challenge, extraordinarily varied scenery and spectacular volcanic terrain, I certainly can’t think of a better one. Never mind that we missed some views today – the weather conditions added a touch of magic, and made us all the more appreciative when they improved.

The Swedes enthusiastically declare it ‘the best day we’ve had in New Zealand’. Sophie (‘I’m not a walker’) intends to do it again some time. So do I.

The writer was a guest of Visit Ruapehu.


Getting there: In summer months, trains run daily from Auckland to National Park and Okahune for NZD99. Many shuttle bus services are available to the ends of the track.

Staying there: The Powderhorn Chateau in Okahune has rooms from NZD195.

Further Information:

One day guided Tongariro walks with Adrift Outdoors cost NZD195 including transport, lunch and equipment. See www.adriftnz.co.nz.

November to May is the normal tramping season. In winter the walk is for experienced, well-equipped alpinists only. At any time, a reasonable level of fitness is needed to enjoy the walk rather than just endure it.

For other activities and accommodation, see www.visitruapehu.co.nz

www.doc.govt.nz has information, map and safety advice on the Tongariro Crossing. Guidebook: Tramping in New Zealand Jim DuFresne pub. Lonely Planet.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Hiking, New Zealand, Travel

WALKING WITH KIWIS – a week on the Shaky Isles

Wednesday 9/12/09

My final adventure for this trip was just outside Auckland in the Waitakere Ranges. Only a half hour drive out of town – spectacular forest with some mighty kauri trees, nikau palms, plenty of birds and beautiful black sand beaches including Karekare, the beach featured in Jane Campion’s film The Piano.

Saturday 5/12/09 – Monday 7/12/09
What a truly brilliant excursion is the three-day canoe trip down the Whanganui River! “Chuck an empty canoe in the river here and it will make it to the finish”, said our guide Dave. “It’s just the people in it that complicate things.” He was right, really. We rookies did our best to paddle in straight lines, but most of the time just relaxing and letting the river take us downstream was enough.

We passed through fabulous forest, gorgeous gorges, gentle water with the odd stretch of rapids to keep us from getting totally complacent. Add to that good company – from Denmark, New Zealand, Scotland, Canada and Australia.

This is the one New Zealand “Great Walk” that everyone can do sitting down.

Friday 4/12/09

The weather forecast was bad and the weather itself no better, so the dawn walk up Mt Tongariro was called off. The dawn event would have required getting up at 1.30am to start hiking at a ridiculous 2.30am. So I was happy to sleep in, eat a big breakfast in the Powderhorn Chateau in the ski village Ohakune, then drive out to start the walk in the mist and drizzle around 10am. This meant missing the crowds of backpackers who usually turn the crossing into a parade.

Just six of us formed the party, led by Adrift Outdoors director Stewart and guide Chris. It not an easy walk, though anyone who puts in the effort is going to survive it if they’re careful and well equipped. Stewart made sure that we were.

The view of Mt Ngaruhoe, which starred as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was non-existent, and Stewart had to valiantly paint us a word picture of the (normally stunning) Red Crater and Emerald Lakes as we peered into impenetrable mist and driving rain.

To further take the road less travelled, Stewart led us off the main path, up Mt Tongariro, then down “off-track”, picking our way between the rocks to make a 7-hour loop back to our starting point. Weather improved as the day wore on, but this is a great walk in any conditions.

Thursday 3/12/09

The Naked Bus from Auckland to Rotorua wasn’t quite as exciting as it sounds. Driver Craig remained fully clothed for the entire four hour trip and I for one was pretty pleased about that. He was a big boy for his height.

Rotorua, hotspot of geothermal tourism and centre of Maori culture, was in the middle of a power blackout when I arrived. Toilets in the tourist information office were in pitch darkness. I could only guess that I was doing the right thing in the right place, with sound alone as my guide. Until a gentleman next to me switched on his mobile phone and suddenly there was light.

It was all good practice for tomorrow’s adventure, hiking up Mt Tongariro in the dark (start time 2am) so as to get to the summit for breakfast at dawn. I’ve been sent an equipment checklist which includes many layers of warm clothing and a headlamp, with no mention made of sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats. The rain seems to have cleared for the moment, and the predicted thunderstorms have held off, so maybe the adventure will be on.

New Zealand weather reports could really be the same every day : ‘We don’t have a clue what the weather will be like tomorrow. It will probably rain, but maybe it won’t.’
After Tongariro it’s straight up to the Whanganui River, a wifi-free zone, so probably can’t post news till Monday. But stay tuned…

Wednesday 2/12/09

Here I am, the Grim Reaper of Auckland, or maybe one of those Star Wars guys, in New Zealand for a week or so, with a series of death-defying experiences planned, highlights of which should be (1) Hiking up volcanic Mt Tongariro, starting in the dark at some ridiculous hour, so as to be on the summit for dawn (2) Canoeing down the reputedly lovely Whanganui River (3) active adventures, details to be confirmed, which can be done as a day excursion from Auckland.

Weather forecast: Same as today – wet and dismal, as is typical for this little country which unwisely sticks its mountains up into unbroken westerly winds, tickling the tummy of every passing cloud and causing it to wet itself. If it turns really nasty, some of the above activities may be cancelled and we’ll have to play inside instead.

However, to start with some good news…

I found what seemed to be a good deal on a flight, picking up the tail end of an Emirates flight from Dubai to Auckland via Sydney. AUD420 including taxes – not bad.

To that I added a bus fare (NZD35 – ‘cheap as chups’) to my first destination, Rotorua. Air New Zealand must have hacked into my online activity, because no sooner had I committed to Emirates plus bus than Air NZ announced a direct Sydney-Rotorua flight for AUD199. As the Kiwis would say – “Bugger!”

However, EK412 turned out to be a near empty Airbus380. I had three seats at the back of economy, with good leg room, power supply for the laptop, acceptable omelette and fruit salad and wide screen TV showing a wide selection of movies. I bet they didn’t screen Azwaj Te’shoun on that direct flight to Rotorua. I watched Julie and Julia instead, but it was nice to know those Arabic movies were there.

More good news: the currency exchange rate.
Normally people can track my movements around the world by following the international currency exchanges. When the Euro skyrockets, it means I’m heading to Europe soon. British pound at record levels? That’s because I’ve just booked London accommodation and haven’t paid for it yet. Any rise in the value of the Aussie dollar means I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

But this time I’ve had a win. The poor little Kiwi dollar hasn’t fared too well during the GFC, while the Australia has enjoyed an economic miracle (being the first country after the meltdown to raise interest rates and all that) So at time of writing the Kiwi dollar is hovering around 80 Australian cents.

I’d read about controversy over the Whitcoulls’ Santa, who’s graced the corner of his Auckland city building every Yuletide since 19…, well he’d been there a long time and become an institution. This year he’s been given a new face, because the one he’s worn all those years was considered a bit creepy. Here’s the new one. You be the judge, but it’s a worry if the old one was creepier than this.

More tomorrow, when I’ll be riding the curiously named ‘Naked Bus’ to Rotorua. Note to self: keep camera handy, you never know.


Filed under Budget travel, New Zealand, Travel

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – New Zealand’s top hikes

Mt Ngauruhoe

When it comes to playing outside, those Kiwis punch well above their weight. They’ve done a brilliant job of turning their country into an open-air gym, and when the skiing season ends around October, there is what Kiwis call ‘tramping’.

In New Zealand anyone with limbs in reasonable working order can enjoy some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. So assuming you have a few days and some excess energy, which tramp is for you?

Nine routes are officially designated ‘Great Walks’ by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The tracks and huts are kept in better condition than those on other routes, and in peak periods booking systems allow hikers to reserve accommodation. DOC huts are an affordable and comfortable alternative to carrying a tent or paying serious money for a luxury lodge.

NZ9 08 025Tongariro Northern Circuit. 41km, 3-4 days, 3 DOC huts.

Is there anywhere on the planet quite like this amazing volcanic moonscape in the centre of the North Island? The Tongariro Crossing is regarded by many as the best one-day walk in the country, and in the high season you’ll share it with dozens of others who pour out of backpacker shuttle buses. They’re there for good reason. Barely a blade of grass grows along the track past Mt Tongariro and the pile of volcanic scoria that is Mt Ngauruhoe. Sulphurous smoke oozes out of cracks and the colours of the Red Crater, Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes are extraordinary.

Three or four days walking will take you away from the backpacker hordes, on a circuit past the active volcano Mt Ruapehu, and through areas of lovely forests and streams.

Where: Central North Island
Closest towns: Whakapapa Village or Turangi.

NZ11 08 062Lake Waikaremoana Track – 46km, 3-4 days, 5 DOC huts

Driving on unsealed roads to reach this remote lake, and remembering its name when asking directions, may be harder than doing the walk itself, an easy loop with only a few lumps to clamber up. But you’ll certainly feel you’ve got away from the crowds, and seen some of the most spectacular old growth forest on the North Island. It’s apparently a great fishing spot too, though I’m no expert there.

Where: Central North Island
Closest town: Wairoa

NZ11 08 051

Queen Charlotte Track 71km, 3-5 days, 6 DOC campsites and a number of lodges.

The Queen Charlotte is not exactly a wilderness walk, since it passes through attractive farmland as well as forest, but it has the advantage of great flexibility if you don’t have the time or inclination to walk the whole route. Highlights are the great views of Queen Charlotte Sound on one side and Kenepuru Sound on the other.
Access is from Picton by ferry or water taxi, so day walks on the track are easily organised. By arrangement, water taxis will also take your gear to the following night’s lodge or campsite, so wussy trampers need only carry daypacks. The track can be walked year round, but is most popular in the summer.

Where: Northern tip of South Island – the Marlborough region

Closest town: Picton

Routeburn Track 32km, 2-3 days, 4 DOC huts.

The Routeburn can be done as a guided walk staying in commercial huts, with showers, food and wine available, but it is also well served with DOC huts. It’s a spectacular and relatively easy alpine trek (consequently very popular), and can be combined with two more days on the slightly tougher, less well-maintained and less busy Caples Track or Greenstone Track to make a loop walk.

Where: Mount Aspiring National Park, central South Island
Closest towns: Queenstown and the lovely village of Glenorchy on the end of Lake Wakatipu.

Kepler Track 60km, 3-4 days, 3 DOC huts.

The Kepler Track in Fiordland was opened to take some pressure off the very popular Milford and Routeburn Tracks. The track being relatively new is in excellent condition, and the alpine scenery is brilliant. The tramp begins with a solid 850metre climb from Te Anau to the Luxmore Hut, but after that the walking is comfortable, and the descent into the forest by Iris Burn Hut is particularly beautiful. We did it during a light snowfall and the effect was magical. Probably my favourite of the Great Walks.

Where: Fiordland, south of the South Island

Closest town: Te Anau. The route is a circuit beginning and ending in the town itself.

Abel Tasman Track 52km, 3 days, 4 DOC huts

Walking the coastal Abel Tasman Track is not too demanding, and the route offers beaches and a range of accommodation from camping to up-market lodges. If you want to combine a day of sea kayaking with a couple of days walking, this can be arranged. Another two days of (harder) walking will take you over the higher Inland Track to make a loop with the Abel Tasman.

The track can be walked year round, but is crowded during school holidays in January. Best times are probably February-May.

Where: Northern coast of South Island
Closest town: Nelson

Mitre Peak, Milford SoundMilford Track 53km 4 days No camping permitted. 3 DOC huts for independent walkers, and separate huts for guided groups.

Number one on many trampers’ list of New Zealand hikes is the famous Milford Track, though I confess it’s one Great Walk I’ve never done.  I’m sure it’s beautiful, and others speak highly of it, but I’ve been slightly deterred by its very popularity. Advance bookings are essential, which means no flexibility in case of bad weather, though guided tours with up-market huts are also available for those who want more creature comforts in the evenings.

Where: Fiordland South Island
Closest town: Te Anau.


Hikers using DOC huts need to bring their own food and sleeping bags, but the huts offer gas stoves and bunks. There are toilets and cold water, but generally no showers. Arrangements are pretty communal, but that can be a plus. You meet nice people, all in high spirits and excited about what they are doing.

Buy hut passes on-line (website address below) or at DOC visitor centres in towns before beginning your walk. Costs are different for each route, and are cheaper in the low season, but are between $12- $45NZ (about $10-$35) per person per night.

Safety and weather

The weather, particularly in the alpine areas, can turn nasty at any time of year. Good footwear and wet-weather gear are essential, and a bit of physical condition will help to make your tramp a pleasure rather than an ordeal.

When to walk

In the winter, the alpine routes (Tongariro, Routeburn, Kepler and Milford Tracks) can turn into serious mountaineering adventures, suitable only for very experienced and well-equipped parties. Best times to walk are October to May.

Days required

In good weather, fit trampers can do the walks in fewer days than those given above, but what’s the hurry?

ReadTramping in New Zealand Jim Dufresne, Lonely Planet Publications
Website: www.doc.govt.nz (search site for “Great Walks”) gives information on all walks and operates an accommodation booking service.

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Hiking, New Zealand, Travel