Before the hordes: Tongariro

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the best known, and as a result, most walked of all tracks in New Zealand. The sort of place where BC (before COVID) you might have to wait in an hour long queue for a longdrop. Consequentially, it is also the sort of place I usually try and avoid. However, with the borders only freshly opened and the summer tourist season yet to start there was an opportunity to beat the crowds and see what all the fuss was about without having to queue for a loo. Enter the vagabond band of Wellington Outdoor Club punters and patrons — Mat, Zøh (aka Zoe), Hugh and Joey.

Plans were fluid, and sickness claimed a number of potential compatriots, right up until the minute we departed Wellington. Mat and Joey left Friday after work to make the most of the weekend whilst the rest of us had an easy drive up to Ohakune on Saturday. There was no rush, grey clag dominated the skies over the giant carrot. This didn’t stop the intrepid duet, who managed to make it out for a hutbagging mission in the morning to Lupton and Blyth huts on the southwestern slopes of Ruapehu. In the process Mat inadvertently sacrificed his new glasses to the mountain by trying to wear them whilst skinny dipping. It was the late afternoon when we were all united in Ohakune. Zøh had managed to secure her friends cosy bach for us to stay in, complete with a fire and bird’s nests artfully arranged throughout. We wiled the night away learning to distrust each other playing Crew and Saboteur, taking turns to cook sitting in front of the fire.

Kilometre 0

In the morning we opened the curtains to a beautiful bluebird day. We were on. Gear was packed into the cars and we hit the road, leaving one car at Ketetahi before driving back to Mangatepopo. An explosion of gear erupted from Mat’s hybrid and we set off across the harsh volcanic soil under the watchful eye of Pukekaikiore. The walk to Mangatepopo Hut was straightforward, and we completed the obligatory hut bag.

The first Mangatepopo Hut was a disused prison hut hauled to the site by horses in 1918 by the Ruapehu Ski Club. This was superseded by a second hut in 1927, which could be driven to and was often over full during the holidays. The current hut was built in 1974 and the road was drawn back to its current point to prevent vandalism.

Zøh was much amazed by the toilet signpost, which marked the locations of the many toilets of the trail just so walkers can ‘catch them all’.

We sped along the track next to Mangatepopo Stream, overtaking other walkers sporadically as we went. Snow clung to the summit of Ngaruhoe but was otherwise absent. Mat remarked that this would be a summer crossing in winter, our iceaxes and crampons feeling rather surplus to requirements. The jovial nature of our party cut through the otherwise desolate volcanic landscape. At one point we had an in-depth discussion of how tampons would be more useful than our crampons, resulting in Zøh pretending not to know us and the rest of us to reconsider our packing priorities. Sadly Joey forgot his tampons and had to settle for regular blister plasters when his feet were playing up.

Kilometre 4

A quick side trip took us to Soda Springs, which was about as exciting as when Night and Day has “stuffed sausage” as their Tuesday special. Mat did try and spice things up by accidently unfurling his PLB, but even this was neutralised before any real excitement.

From the springs we crossed lava flow that had snaked red hot from the cone of Ngaruhoe in the 70’s. Across the flow we began the ascent of the “Devil’s Staircase” — the 200m climb to the South Crater of Tongariro. Where once a rough track cut straight up the slope we were treated to a well-formed stair case curling around to the saddle. I say treated, Zøh might disagree, as she was given encouraging prods from behind to keep going. After only mild complaining we reached the muddy expanse of the South Crater, which stretches out for about a kilometre in all directions. Although the ridge up to Tongariro looked tempting we continued on, lest Zøh never talks to me again.

Kilometre 8

A cold wind whipped across the crater, leaving us to pull on whatever odd layers we had on hand. It took great care to cross the mud of the crater, one slip and you might never be able to get up (or recover your dignity).

After a quick look at the dirty looking South Crater lake we continued up the steep slope towards the Red Crater. Along the way Mat, Joey and I take the opportunity to climb up a big rock for shits and gigs. On reaching the top we discovered two things:

  1. Mat bears more than a passing resembelence to Gollum out of Lord of the Rings, and
  2. It was a significantly more difficult for me to climb down than up, on account of my camera bag (the others were more intelligent and just brought a photographer).

Kilometre 9

We successfully navigated the scoria slopes to reach the rim of the Red Crater. At the top we were met by the sight of a multitude of guided walkers, distinguishable by the orange safety helmets they all insisted on wearing. I took the opportunity to ask Zøh to stand on a rock for a photo. Nek minnut, the guide exclaims “DON’T STAND ON THAT ROCK! None of these rocks are stable, didn’t you hear me call out rock as I dislodged rocks to improve the safety of the route up here?”. ‘Damn it’ I though, this had been my best chance of getting rid of Zøh.

The offending rock

I’m glad the guide had our interests at heart when he was dislodging rocks down onto us when we were climbing up. Turning our back on the guide, we regrouped and decided that hanger levels were dangerously high. Imminent eruption was prevented by producing peanut butter sammies from my pack, and we plonked our selves down for a spot of lunch.

It’s all a matter of perspective

After lunch Mat took the opportunity to christen his virgin iceaxe in a small patch of ice off the side of the track. We decided with the weather being so good it would be a same not to trek up toward the summit of Tongariro. The marked route had been removed, but the way forward was more than evident.

The ridgeline of Tongariro offered some of the best views of the entire crossing, with Ngaruhoe standing proudly on the far side of the Red Crater, whilst Rotopaunga and Rotopounamu glistened like jewels across the Central Crater.

Danger: loose rocks

Kilometre 11

Steam radiated off the warming igneus rock as we neared the summit of Tongariro. Although steam obscured our view to the west we felt blessed to have such excellent weather for our trip.

According to stories of Ngati Tuwharetoa Ngatoroirangi of the Arawa waka once climbed Tongariro, claiming all the lands he could see from the excellent vantage point. However, on the way to the top he was hit by a savage southerly wind and was almost chilled to death. In his desperation he called to his ancestoral spirits and to his sisters Kuiwai and Haungaroato to send warmth to revive him. They answered, sending fire underground to the summit of Tongariro. The name Tongariro commemorates the cold wind that almost killed Ngatoroirangi. The summit is considered tapu (sacred) and should not be stood upon.

Joey gave us a serenade on his bone flute as we sat below the summit. Then came an obligatory photo with the iceaxes before we beat a hasty retreat away from the incoming cloud.

Kilometre 13

Our way back down to the Red Crater was straightforward and soon we were standing on the highest point of the crossing, looking down at Rotopounamu (Emerald Lakes).

The smell of rancid sulphur filled our nostrils as we descended the loose scoria to the Central Crater. The vista was magnificent, there is a reason this part of the crossing clogs many Insta feeds! From Rotopounamu we left the Red Crater and Ngaruhoe behind, climbing up a small incline to Rotopaunga.

The back pack

Kilometre 15

We stopped to admire one of the many historic spots where longdrops once stood.

Crossing the rim of the Central Crater we were greeted with a view of the crater of Te maari and the lakes Rotoaira and Taupō. By this stage the novelty of the crossing was wearing thin. Mat, Hugh and I opened the taps and started steaming down the hill the Ketetahi hotsprings. We figured Zøh and Jøh would catch up.

The track hung stubbornly to the side of the northern cone of Tongariro, despite the mountain’s best efforts to dislodge it. The track wove in an infuriatingly compliant zig-zag, meaning our decent was never more than a couple of degrees, and the next ‘zag was only ever 10 or so metres down hill.

Kilometre 18

We waited in the old woodshed of the now defunct Ketetahi Hut for Zøh and Joey. The hut was removed following the 2012 eruption of Te Maari, which left a few sizable holes in the roof! Steam rose dramatically from the Ketetahi springs, which sit on Māori land excluded from Tongariro National Park.

Kilometre 19.5

We were once again waiting for the docile duo and my hands were getting seriously cold. Luckily the track crossed a stream fed by the hot springs, and I enjoyed submerging my frozen digits into water the temperature of tepid bath water.

The track continued on down the tussock slops of Tongariro, our brains more attune to thoughts of dinner than the path in front of us. Eventually we dropped into the bush which made for a nice change of scenary.

Kilometre 23

I decide to ignore the obvious blockage of part of the track, leaving Mat and Hugh to foolhardily jump across the raging Mangatipua. Ensnarled by bushlawyer and faced with a track that was very clearly under water I wondered if I had made a dumb decision. This was confirmed after a jumping between manuka trees to come face to face with a bemused Hugh and Mat who had followed the track proper.

Kilometre 24.5

Somewhat weary we emerged out into the Ketetahi carpark. The car was there and so was our favourite guide. We set up away from him in the sun to wait for the stragglers. Not content on the advice he had given up until this point, he decided on Zøh’s arrival that he needed to mansplain that her boots were three sizes too big for her. We didn’t stick around to hear more.

The Tongariro Crossing is a walk of outstanding beauty, for sure. Because of this it suffers under the weight of its own popularity. I enjoyed the crossing because of the wild and quiet nature of it. DOC has some big challenges ahead if they wish to give that experience to every walker. And don’t even get me started on the lack of snow in August!

Kilometre 124

Note to self, all the shops in Taihape are closed on Sunday night.



Tramper with something to say about tramps (of the walking variety).

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Sam Harrison

Tramper with something to say about tramps (of the walking variety).