We woke up at 4:50am to start our day hiking “one of the best day hikes in the world”: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing. After an hour drive from our lakeside Airbnb in Taupo, we arrived at the car park at 6:50am to find that we were far from the first ones there. We parked at the end of the track and prepared to take the shuttle we had booked a few days earlier to take us to the start of the hike.
The crossing transverses active volcanic zones, so we had to familiarize ourselves with the EDS, eruption detection system, on the mountain. In the case of an eruption: Run. Away from the explosion. Don’t stop in a valley. Cover your head with your pack. Luckily, we didn’t have to employ any of these, but it added an extra element of excitement to our journey. Tongariro last erupted in 2012, around midnight when there were no hikers present, sending a layer of ash 5cm thick onto local highways.
The trek began, as most often do, innocuously. A well-laid, flat trail led the way but it wouldn’t last for long. An hour into the hike, we began the Devil’s Walkway, known as an ascent that just never ends. It was a great challenge and at the top, we got a perfect view of Mount Ngauruhoe, more famously known as Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings, which last erupted in 1975.
From here, we had one more tough ascent up to the Red Crater, a spectacular formation of igneous rock and old lava flows. This is where we ate lunch, perched safely on the ridge, overlooking the crater below. Once we had continued hiking and looked back, we said, “we ate there?!” – it looked perilously close to an enormous cliff’s edge.
We left the Red Crater and knew we were in for the highlight of the Tongariro Crossing: the Emerald Lakes. Formed by explosion craters near the summit of Mount Tongariro, their colors are partly caused by dissolved minerals, washed down from the thermal area of nearby Red Crater. They were, of course, more incredible in person than any pictures we’ve seen. The descent from the Red Crater was a unique hiking experience: we found ourselves in deep gray gravel and sand up to our ankles in places. It was tough to get used to it, and we saw plenty of people struggle and fall, but we began to treat it as we would snow and had a pretty easy time getting down. I guess last year’s snowpocalypse winter in Boston gave us an advantage.
At the base of the Emerald Lakes we hung around for awhile and enjoyed the scenery. We were curious about the temperature, so we ventured down to the edge of one of the lakes. There were vents everywhere letting out steam from below; so, would it be hot like the springs we had just experienced in Rotorua? Nope. Cold. Beautiful and glistening, but cold.
After the Emerald Lakes, we had one more noteworthy sight after a short, flat trek across an old lava field: The Blue Lake. Huge and gorgeous. We also saw some French friends here that we made a few days before at a waterfall in Waitomo. Surely not the last time that will happen as we have six more weeks in New Zealand and a lot of people tend to take the same routes.
After the Blue Lake, the rest of the hike was 9km downhill – pretty unrelenting. We had a great view over Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo in the distance as we tramped, but it was a long, somewhat boring hike back to the car. The last hour or so was in forest, though – a welcome change after being completely exposed in bright sunlight since we began at 8:00am. We returned to the car 6 1/2 hours after we started – a shorter hike than we expected – but truly exhausted.
We decided to hit the road immediately after ripping off our boots and found a nearby campervan park at the edge of Lake Rotoaira with a sign that read: “Picnickers Welcome”. We enjoyed the rest of our snacks and cooled our tired, angry feet in the chilly water while black swans quietly honked at us.
After enjoying some local beers (radlers are the best for after hikes) on our deck, we both passed out at 8:00pm, sunlight still streaming through our window, dreaming of the day’s hike and wondering “was that really real? Did we hike across volcanoes, at the foot of Mount Doom?” The crazy thing is: yes. I can’t think of a better way to spend the day than a challenging hike in new terrain, with a picnic and beers at the end, and an early summer bedtime before sunset.