TAC 101: How To Tackle New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing

By: Tania Gaffey

There's an alpine jaunt here in the South Pacific that you may well know of, if you love mountains.

I'm referring to the increasingly popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing, perfectly placed within the tousled tussocks and scoria flats of our North Island's Central Plateau, between Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.

It is, by my definition, an adventure to New Zealand's very empyrean reaches.  Scores of people - visitors, and of course our very own home-made, home-grown locals - flock to Tongariro National Park to begin theirs, year-round.

I was here during the last days of our most recent springtime, so there were a few end-of-season smatterings of snow around the place.  For the most part though, there were the usual signs of summer's pending arrival in the brand new alpine buds and the brilliant sunshine.

Whenever I ‘adventure’, like most people I have my ‘go-to’ gear preferences.  Certainly, if we’re talking ‘The Crossing’, my Ahnu Sugarpine boots assisted me infinitely in getting along all 19+ kilometers.  It's been suggested to me that I may need a fairly wide boot due to the width/shape of my foot, but these fit me perfectly (I'm one of those girls who splits Chuck Taylor's on the side/s).

Starting at the Mangatepopo end means that I'm essentially eased into everything, and my first hour is spent admiring the landscape surrounds at the bases of Mounts Ngauruhoe and ‘Pukekaikiore’ (translates to ‘rat food mountain’ - seriously, in honour of an historic Maori battle over territory).

Delicious as this is, it's actually all a bit of a ruse.  I figure this out after passing ancient and suitably breathtaking lava flows, and then meeting the appropriately-named: ‘Devil's Staircase’.

‘The Staircase’ goes up-and-over said lava - enough to tighten those thighs and render one the ‘other’, more oxygen-deprived style of ‘breathless’.

Like all hard-fought victories this is totally worth it, and it's here that the world virtually opens up to provide a wide-lens-style view of everything, en-masse.

The fact that I can see the ‘South Crater’ (a muddy lake at the base of Mount Ngauruhoe) is my cue that I am about to get personal with some serious scoria – aka, ‘The Chain’.

For part of it I have a heavy-duty chain for company; in another portion, a sidelined steel cable.  The rest is up to me to negotiate alone, hands-and-knees at the ready.

I won't lie: the terms “steep” and “difficult” don't even begin to describe the terrain.  In the moment, both sets of calves, thighs, and lungs were all screaming at me in unison; that wasn't pretty.  But I do get up, and the reward is being able to stand on the edge of the ‘Red Crater’ knowing that there’s just a little 5 minute hill-climb to the Crossing's summit.

A fairly intense scree descent down the other side of the slope gets me to the ‘Emerald Lakes’ (and later, the spectacular ‘Blue Lake’), and thereafter, the home-stretch.

Finishing is still a ways off, and the fact that it's a windy downhill with 500+ steps punctuating certainly makes it appear lengthy.  But this truly is unparalleled in the realm of ‘scenic routes’ - trust me.

One last thing: it pays to remember the volcanic, otherworldly nature of this living-breathing landscape, so packing a camera is an absolute must for this trip.  Personally, I always have several in my pack: my trusty old ‘point-and-shoot’, my GoPro Hero4 Silver (these have truly revolutionized the selfie-groufie game, right?), and my smartphone, in case I run the other camera batteries flat.