If you’ve read the last few blog posts you’ll know that my decision to go skydiving on Friday was made about an hour before I leapt from the plane. My Saturday afternoon session of ‘Tractor Talk’ with Richard Steele was totally spontaneous as well. And until Saturday I hadn’t planned to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on Sunday morning. I was under the impression the 19.4 km hike over the top of several active volcanoes was just one of many activities that we could chose from on Sunday. It wasn’t until Saturday that I learned 36 of the 40 Strays were planning to hike, and of the three people other than myself who had yet to buy in, two had actually done the walk on a previous trip. “Okay, I’m in,” I said with a sigh.
We were standing around the barbecue on Saturday evening when someone said, “Okay, who’s really looking forward to tomorrow?” A few hands went up. Most of us just stood there and fidgeted. Some of the people who were quickest to raise their hands were just as quick to recant when they saw the extent of the trepidation.
About half of the Strays didn’t have at least one piece of the equipment that rangers stipulate you must have. Not possessing footwear more substantial than a pair of flip-flops wasn’t an excuse to stay on the bus though. The company that Stray hired to take us to the start point and pick us up at the end point just happened to have a selection of hiking boots, daypacks and rain jackets that one cant rent for $5 apiece.
Most of us hit the hay around 11 on Saturday. While we were settling in for six or seven hours of sleep in the south cabins at Blue Duck Station, a newly arrived busload of Strays were getting the party started over in the north cabins, just as we had the night before. Falling asleep with Ed Sheeran playing softly in the background is one thing, but Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne at 100 decibels is another matter and the extended version of “Wiggle” at 200 decibels was the last straw. A messenger was sent to the other camp to explain that we had to be up in a few hours and the concert had to end NOW! For the first time in my life, I felt some empathy for my childhood neighbour, Ida Tindall, who would toss rotten tomatoes over the fence when she thought us “awful kids” were having too much fun in the Mr. Turtle pool.
Until 8:00 a.m. on Sunday I had never tried hash-brown patties on a bacon and egg sandwich. It probably shouldn’t become a habit but it was damn good – and who’s counting calories when you’re walking 19.4 km to your next meal?
The first hour of the hike was by far the easiest. Many of us made it to the 4km mark in about 45 minutes. Some people even mused aloud about possibly finishing in under four hours rather than the 7-8 hours that we had been told it would take. Silly people! The boardwalk ends at the 4km mark.
For a while I walked with another Stray, 19-year-old Jan. He had his first blister after 1km and and soon decided that it was easier to go barefoot. He eventually had to put his boots back on when we came to a 5km section of jagged rock. By the time we finished his Achilles tendons looked like strips of raw bacon. Thankfully my hiking boots were properly worn in and I had no issues whatsoever.
The Togariro Alpine Crossing is advertised as being 19.4 km but I suspect it’s more like 25 km. We started from the Mangatepopo Carpark at an elevation of 1,120m (3,670 ft), climbed to the Red Crater at 1,886m (6,188 ft) and then descended to Ketetahi Hot Springs at 760m (2,490 ft).
Calculating the vertical climb isn’t as simple as it sounds as the route is hardly a straight line up and back down again. There are many places where you climb 100 steps, descend 80 steps, and wind up with a net gain of 20 steps.
Taking photos was the last thing on my mind as I ascended Devil’s Staircase so I cannot show you exactly what it looked like. However, if you took the above photo, tilted it on its side and added loose gravel, large boulders and a sheer drop, you’d get a rough approximation.
The middle section was arguably the toughest. This is up for debate as some people handle the ascents better than the descents but for me, climbing was rough and going downhill was at times even enjoyable! It wasn’t as much fun as running downhill on sand dunes, as I did in Peru, but the loose gravel was both challenging and fun when you could come down ‘slalom’ style.
There doesn’t seem to be any concern that thousands of trekkers are rearranging the natural landscape, particularly the loose gravel and shards of volcanic rock. I suppose that’s a moot point when Mother Nature will undoubtedly blow the whole thing to smithereens one of these days.
Mount Tongariro first erupted 275,000 years ago. There are 12 active vents, the most active having erupted more than 70 times since 1839. The last eruption was on November 21, 2012.
After climbing the mountain and hiking through two different craters you circle a pair of Emerald Lakes, follow the trail along the edge of the Blue Lake, and then begin the long and winding descent. The last two hours are a gradual hike down the northern side of the volcano and eventually through lush forest to the Ketetahi Hot Spings.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is billed as a day hike of ‘moderate’ difficulty and suitable for anyone with basic fitness. I’m not sure what ‘basic fitness’ means but I can tell you that I did it in 6 hours and 29 minutes, I beat a number of people who appeared to be in better shape, and I felt better at the end than I did at the start. The sense of accomplishment was exhilarating. I’m so glad I was ‘guilted’ into doing it. Thanks, Postie!