The Tongariro Alpine Crossing- A Volcano Story

Rob McKenna had clearly chosen to visit New Zealand just as we arrived on the North Island. The miserable bastard wanted to make us miserable bastards too. It was working. We awoke wet, unrested, and irritated after a night of torrential rain in Taupō. Our only consolation was knowing the people in cheap tents were certainly worse off than we were, and of course that we would be staying in a nice dry hotel room for the next two nights. Life could be worse. After a pot of coffee, we shoved our wet tent, sleeping bag, blanket, clothes, basically our whole sodden lives, into plastic bags and chucked it all into the boot of the car. Not so sad to see Taupō in the rear view mirror, we made for Ohakune (it means no worries). Or is that Hakuna Matata? The problem with the North Island is you never really know, and even if you do, you’re almost certainly pronouncing it wrong.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a definite bucket list item for anyone travelling New Zealand, and the quaint little town of Hokey Pokey (or whatever it’s called) was to be our base for this adventure. Perhaps the bucket list item that excited me the most, I was really looking forward to conquering the volcano. Emerald lakes, blue lakes, red craters, what’s not to be excited about? A 24 hour period is all the weather would let up for (Thanks Rob!) and our only hope in the foreseeable future to even attempt the hike. For the previous two days the rain and wind had stopped the shuttles from operating and the two days to follow had already been written off as well. In short, it was now or never.

As our 5am alarm sounded we somehow managed to peel ourselves out of the warmth of a comfortable bed. No easy task if you’ve been sleeping in a tent and getting rained on most nights. Downing the obligatory pot of coffee and a bit of breakfast, we packed our lunch, and readied ourselves for the cold world that awaited. The temperature at the crater was going to reach a chilly high of -1°C, so we layered accordingly. The shuttle pulled up and to my utter bewilderment our tickets were not in my possession. I rushed back to our room and grabbed my wallet where I very distinctly remembered placing them. Upon arrival back at the bus however it seemed I was still two tickets short. Embarrassed, I pleaded with the driver to give me two more minutes, which she graciously granted and I rushed off once more to our room. Grabbing bags and emptying their contents, the room began looking as if it had been burgled. With a stroke of genius I reached into the pocket of my jeans from the day before and grabbed two bits of paper. Racing out the door I made it about half way to the bus and realized I hadn’t actually checked if these were in fact the tickets. Standing once again in front of the driver, I handed over the pieces of paper and with great relief she accepted them. With an apologetic look on my face I shamefully took my seat among the other 30 passengers avoiding eye contact with any of them. The bus rumbled to a start and off we went.

An hour later we arrived at the starting point of our trek. As we looked out, clouds covered the top of the volcano, but the sun occasionally made an appearance, and we were hopeful. It was still early after all and the sun could come out and clear it all away at any moment. We started the 19.4km along a well formed flat path. Less than one kilometre in and we had already begun shedding layers (a good sign). As we walked on we met two older Australian blokes who were brothers and had owned a bach (that’s the kiwi term for a holiday home) nearby for the last eighteen years. In all that time however, they had never done the crossing. This is quite astonishing really because it’s the biggest attraction in the area! Chatting as we walked, they set the pace. Grey haired, probably in their 50’s, and yet we were struggling to keep up. I think they were possibly trying to set some sort of record time. We began climbing up and up, until we were in the thick of the clouds. Passing every group who started before us, we were making great time. As one of the blokes looked at his map (who the hell needs a map?) it was determined we must be near the white crater. The track came level and a vast, flat area shrouded in wet, white cloud was before us. One more look at the map, and wouldn’t you know it, we were in the white crater.

Tongariro Crossing

We walked through the crater, not so much as stopping to take a photo. Reaching the other side, the track continued up. So up we went. As soon as we reached the top and crested the peak, the cloud cover thickened even more. I assume at this point in the hike most people have spectacular views of the emerald lakes. However I wouldn’t know because much like our Fiordland adventure up Gertrude’s Saddle, we couldn’t see a thing. For the second time on our trip we had climbed to a world class spot, and for the second time we had a splendid view of white cloud. Feeling a bit disappointed, we followed the track down to the emerald lakes, slipping and sliding our way through the fine volcanic rock. The view further down it must be said was slightly more attractive. At the very least, we could now confirm the existence of the lakes. We had planned on lunching here, but our clothes were being soaked through by the water in the clouds. It was as if we were being rained on, except instead of the rain coming to us, we had saved it the trouble and come to it.
We took a few photos in an obligatory sort of way then went in search of somewhere out of the clouds for a break and some lunch.  “Where’s the red crater?” I asked Amy. “We passed it a while ago” she replied, and then added “We couldn’t see it anyway”.  “Ah”, I said. Feeling a bit more dejected I carried on. Descending out of reach of the clouds the views started clearing. Lake Taupo was now visible off in the distance, and hot pools on the volcanic slopes emitted steam high into the air. Not the view we had come for, but it was pleasant to have something besides clouds to look at. We made great time from then on, with just a quick stop for lunch. The barren landscape took on a different look at the lower altitudes and turned from barren volcano to dense bush.

At the 19.4km mark we had reached the pickup point. A trek that takes on average between 6-8 hours had taken us less than 4 ½. The shuttle still wasn’t coming for another 2 ½ hours and we passed the time dreaming about the hot tub awaiting us back at the hotel.  After an excruciatingly long wait our chariot whisked us away and sometime later dropped us back at our accommodation. Faster than quick change artists we switched into swimsuits and made a dash for the hot tubs. Sliding down into the warmth, all was right in the world.

It hadn’t been the experience we dreamed of. There were hardly any views, it was cold, it was wet, but at the end of the day we still did it (and in record time!). Two days either side and the track would have been closed, leaving one giant item on our bucket list left unticked. The experience has left us longing for another go. Someday we will get those stunning views we’ve heard so much about. Maybe not this trip, but sometime in the future we will be back for the views we were promised.  For now though, you win this round Rob McKenna.

Tongariro Crossing


  1. sorry you didn’t get to really see what you wanted to see but you were there and did make the climb…lovethe story about the tickets, you’re so cute…maybe someday the two of you will go back… love you

  2. Oh by the way I forgot to mention the two men in their 50’s, you made them sound so old….50 is NOT old….wait when you get there you’ll see.. 😉
    still love ya…..

  3. Oh by the way I forgot to mention the two men in their 50’s, you made them sound so old….50 is NOT old….wait when you get there you’ll see.. 😉
    still love ya…..

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