Tongariro Alpine Crossing: The Hobby Hiker's Goliath
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is in the Tongariro National Park and about 3.5 hours drive from Whakatane. We had a house in Turangi for the weekend, which was a bonus, especially as we got home late on Saturday night after the walk. Our day started early (I was up by 5am) - we managed to leave the house just after 6am and made our way to the Ketetahi End car park.
We had booked a one way shuttle with Tongariro Crossing Shuttles, which cost $30 each. You can book a two way shuttle pick up, but we wanted the flexibility of taking our time, and in hindsight, was the best option for us (you’ll read about it later!). There is very limited parking at the Ketetahi End car park, so make sure to arrive 30 minutes before your shuttle is due.
There were four of us on this adventure: Myself, my friend Jem and another hiking buddy, as well Jem’s son, Joe, who was my road trip buddy from Whakatane.
Hobby Hiker's Tip: Being at altitude, you probably won't feel thirsty, but make sure to bring and drink plenty of water. I used a bladder, which is a water pouch that stayed in bag and had a tube for easy access.
Mangatepopo Road End
To Soda Springs
We set off at 8:40am from the Mangatepopo Road end - our group exuded equal amounts of excited and sleep deprived energy. The ground was fairly flat, and it was hard not to stop every few metres to take photos. The flora and terrain reminded me of the drive on Desert Road, and the various boardwalk sections were certainly picturesque. I loved how in the first hour, the sun would peek through the mountains and casting interesting shadows. Having been up for a few hours, it felt like the world was just waking up around us.
It wasn’t hard to see evidence of past volcanic activity in the area - it felt like I took a thousand photos of rocks, inspecting the different textures and fascinating colours. For a place that owes its beauty to the explosive power of past eruptions, there is a sereness in its nature that you have to experience in person.
The walk heads up the valley and follows the Mangatepopo Stream until you reach Soda Springs.
Hobby Hiker's Tip: Wear layers! The weather and temperature changes throughout the walk, so it's important to cover all seasons.
Soda Springs To South Crater
Morning tea was at Soda Springs because we knew that the Devil’s Staircase was next. At the foot of the ‘staircase’ we met Josh, the Filipino guy from Mindanao...OK he actually lives in Tauranga! I had seen him standing on the rock in this photo, so we asked him if he could take one of Jem and I. We were all smiles here, trying not to think too much on how to tackle one of the steepest inclines on the walk. Take your time here, unless you’re one of the few runners we saw along the way, then you just do you, while the rest of cry on the inside from the lactic burn.
The Devil’s Staircase is an ugly beast that won’t break you, but it can make you cry (I saved my tears for the other half of the walk, though there were times my legs felt like I was dragging dead logs through mud). It was at this stage I wished we brought the hiking poles! I was grateful for my One Planet hiking boots because I needed all the grip I could get! You can read about my boots and socks review at the end of this post.
About three quarters of the way up, I heard someone say we were almost at the top. Almost being a stretch by definition, because it seemed each corner revealed a never ending terrain of loose volcanic rock. Just keep going because the view at the ‘actual’ top will give you a great sense of accomplishment!
Hobby Hiker's Tip: You don't have to spend hundreds of dollars, but I would recommend in investing in decent hiking boots and socks. Try to break them in before a big hike, as you will discover tender and pressure points on your toes, feet and ankles.
South Crater To Red Crater
Your legs will get a bit of time to recover as you walk into the crater of a volcano. This section is pretty much just rock and tussock - yet once you remember that you’re actually in the crater of a volcano, that rock isn’t just your average anymore. It’s crater rock!
At the end of the flats is a short climb on an exposed ridge where we had lunch. The wind had picked up at this stage and we found shelter behind some rocks - it was lunch time! From here there are views of the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert and Kaimanawa Ranges.
We left the shelter of the rocks to climb a steep hill that will take you towards the Red Crater. The clouds that had followed us from the Devil’s Staircase now blanketed the ridge we just left. Behind me was a breathtaking view of Mt. Ngauruhoe’s peak playing hide-and-seek. It wasn’t an easy climb, and I was glad I don’t skip leg day!
Catch your breath, then keep heading up - you will soon reach the ‘summit’, which has views of the stunning and vibrant Red Crater.
Hobby Hiker's Tip: If like me and you are prone to cramps, make sure to plan for regular salt intake. Unfortunately for me , I forgot about the beef jerky in my bag. Rookie mistake!
Red Crater To Blue Lake
The descent from the Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes is where knee problems started. I dislocated my knee when I was 17, and it’s taken me a long time to ensure my knee would be fit enough for this hike. Whoever said downhill is easy wasn’t talking about the loose scoria underfoot! Again, the hiking poles we left at the house would have come in handy in this section.
By the time I stood at the edge of the Emerald Lakes, my knee already had a steady throbbing, which meant there was mild swelling underneath my thermals. There was nowhere to whip them off to apply the anti-flam from my First-Aid kit. As the walk down to the lakes took longer than expect, we didn’t stop too long here.
Blue Lake To Ketetahi Shelter To Car Park
My friend, Andrew, told me about this part of the hike. He said that unless you really wanted to do the full alpine crossing, this section could be described as a little bit boring. I get it now, the terrain in the last 10km is a just one massive downward spiral, similar to a long afternoon Sunday stroll in the backcountry.
Due to my knee issues, I literally hobbled the last ten kilometres. There were sections where the pain got so bad that I seriously considered calling for a helicopter - who am I kidding, we didn’t even have phone coverage! Not having hiking poles to help me hobble along, we improvised with a marker post, which was unfortunately made of metal. Despite my handicap, we did manage to crack a variety of Gandalf-related jokes along the way.
The steady clunk of the marker pole stayed with us until someone in our group managed to find a more suitable walking stick. It was at this stage that we felt we made the right call to have a car at the Ketetahi car park because there was no way I would have hobbled back in time to catch the last shuttle!
It was pitch black by the time we made it back to the car park. There was a lone car with its lights on, and the driver waved at us to make sure we had a ride home. Most hikers take 6-8 hours to do the walk, and we did it in ten. An early start and a late finish, and despite hobbling part of the way, I’m still glad to tick this off my list! Big shout out to my hiking homies who kept me going - thanks for the memories.
Why it's important to invest in good hiking boots and socks
I'm a self-confessed hobby hiker, and since I'm heading to Peru in 09.2018, it made sense to invest in good-quality gear. For this trip, I bought One Planet hiking boots and Bridgedale socks from Whakatane Great Outdoors. Lucky for me, Andrew Ross at WGO is also a trained mountain guide who gave me the run-down on how a boot should fit, and of course, the different price-points. With my small feet (UK women's size 5!) and a budget of $200, I decided to go with One Planet. Did you know they're made so that you don't need to break them in and can be worn straight from the box? I still do recommend wearing them in before you go so you can identity your tender spots and adjust your laces to suit. The Bridgedale socks (made in Ireland, just like Andrew) are about the same price-point as Icebreaker. No not cheap but guess what...no blisters either, even after an epic ten hour stroll through Mordor.