When pedaling for a while, your buttocks beg for something else. Tramping one of the most famous Great Walks in New Zealand seemed a pretty good deal. Early that morning in a pink caravan, our temporary base camp for a small week, we got up before dusk as we had a long day ahead of us! Driving towards the sunrise nearby the trailhead at Mangarepopo, we approached slowly the aged crusty leftovers of the once freshly flowing lava. The trail is located within the boundaries of the Tongariro National Park situated in the central area of the North Island. The active Mount Tongariro is a colorful volcanic massif with lots of vents, fumaroles, eroded lava streams and stunning explosion craters filled now with mineral-treated water.
Being two cyclists having their life outside for a year, we’re heavily geared up and made the choice not carrying hiking boots. By listening to the locals, reading brochures and websites, we knew that we didn’t have the appropriate footwear. We had good walking sandals and decided they should be suitable for the job. The other options were worn-out cycling sandals or flip-flops. The choice was easy. The sky was blue and our bellies were breakfast-full, so a perfect day for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The summits of this thermal-active area are often covered by clouds, reducing the possibility of wonderful scenic views in this land of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. The one-day Alpine Crossing is part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of the Great Walks.
The Great Walks is a collection of beautiful tramping tracks throughout New Zealand, managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC). Not only the DOC offers a wide array of fantastic tracks, they also preserve the environmental fragile beauty of New Zealand. Check their decent website if you’re planning to go ‘into the wild’ in New Zealand (www.doc.govt.nz). It’s a perfect option to start off. On the one hand, it’s really practical when a selection of walking tracks is made as you can easily find a nice well-maintained track. On the other hand, quite some people think likewise. Partly as a result of that, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing encounters a whole flock of people every single day and on any bright summer day it can receive heavy visitor pressure. Another advantage of these popular described tracks for the people who like less human activity is, that outside those busy trails, hikes of personal ‘Great Walks’ are easily created and the crowd can be avoided.
After passing the last restrooms, we started to ascend more seriously towards a young vent of Tongariro, the Ngauruhoe. We removed a layer of clothing as the first drops of sweat were gathering on our foreheads. The sky was big and perfect blue this early (we could see Mount Taranaki, another active volcano, about 130 kilometers away!), meaning also that the night before had been probably very cold. Gaining altitude, the wind strengthened and soon it became much, much colder than at the beginning of the crossing. We were really shivering! We had to put the extra layer back on and even more. Where the track was not hand-made, the frosty rocks were very slippery underneath our sandals. ‘Old’ ice mixed with loose volcanic rocks made it quite tricky to reach the rim of the Red Crater. We had to use our hands for safety as we didn’t have walking sticks. No need of ice axes and crampons to walk up, but surely decent boots and perhaps sticks are a necessity.
Nevertheless, the palette of colors is unique and delicately nuanced. Seen from heaven, the Red Crater and its surroundings must look even more magnificent! Dark reds and hot browns seemed freshly powdered with yellows and whites. All this printed on dark volcanic cocoa. In other ‘down under’ words: awesome! The track went steep down on loose volcanic rocks towards the Emerald Lakes. The content of these few lakes is just brilliant blue. We sat down on a rock to have a small lunch and the only thing we could do was just watch. Let our eyes glide along the blue painted shores. And of course, the other thing we enjoyed was finding the best frames for shooting photos. You don’t have to be Peter Jackson to be aware of this earthy magnificent beauty. We did fill our memory card here for our own trilogy! A bit further we passed the Blue Lake and were rewarded by scenic views of the Red Crater sitting before Mount Ngauruhoe. In the other direction, we could have a peek of the big lakes of Rotoaira and Taupo. Soon, tussock grass and small bushes appeared on the volcanic ground, which later changed to a native small tree-forest covering the naturally polluted stream from the Ketetahi Springs all the way down to the carpark. The Ketetahi carpark defined the end of this stunning hike. A very scenic walking day as a rest day in our year of cycling part of the world. I have to say that we felt our muscles days after the walk. It was a nice reminder of a splendid tramp!