There’s a hike across New Zealand’s oldest national park, Tongariro, that has gained legendary status among travellers. It’s bold and beautiful, no question about it, but it’s also a tough mother of a proposition – basically, a long, one-day, one-way trek across a volcanic plateau so harsh and spectacular that it doubled as Mordor in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films.
I’ll go for ‘best one-day trek in the world’ and fight anyone who disagrees
Everyone agrees this is an amazing hike, but there’s some doubt about exactly how amazing. The official website wavers between ‘best in New Zealand’ and ‘among the top 10 in the world’. Having done it, I’ll go for ‘best one-day trek in the world’ and fight anyone who disagrees (provided you’ve just completed it, say in the last 5 minutes. You’ll be in no fit state to argue, believe me).
Being outdoorsy and New Zealand, it’s all beautifully arranged. You stay two nights, in the nicest lodge at the park you can afford, and then get an operator to drop you off at the start of the track and pick you up at the other end.
It’s the 20 rugged kilometres in between that’s the killer – anything up to a 9-hour hike across one of the most extraordinary landscapes you’ll ever encounter. The names of places en route – ‘Blue Lake’, ‘Red Crater’, ‘Emerald Lakes’ – give you only the faintest glimmer of an idea of their otherworldly beauty.
Ancient lava flows, mineral-stained rocks and lakes of the deepest, richest hue
Ancient lava flows, corrugated, mineral-stained rocks and lakes of the deepest, richest hue – one follows the other, for hour after hour, as you wind up and across exposed ridges, crater edges and rock-strewn volcanic plateaux.
The walking is not easy – don’t be in any doubt about that. This is serious trekking country, with no water or facilities along the way, and the weather can change quickly. They even re-named the trek to hammer home the type of terrain this is – the Tongariro Crossing became the ‘Tongariro Alpine Crossing’, just in case you thought it was more in the way of a country stroll. Two summits – Ngaruhoe (2,287m) and Tongariro (1,967m) – are offered as side trips off the Crossing, but you need to add even more time to tackle one of these, and be prepared for steep, rough ascents and descents that scratch the skin and jar your joints.
Eventually – when your legs are just about to say ‘you know what, it’s been great and everything, but I think we’ll just fall over now’ – you stumble off the volcanoes and reach the car park, where your return transport awaits.
The first beer is the best drink that has ever been tasted in the entire history of beer drinking. And as the sun goes down later, over the spectacular volcanic cone behind you, that inner voice – the one that said about halfway through the hike, ‘I’m going to kill you. If this hike doesn’t kill you, I am actually going to kill you for making me do this hike’ – whispers,
“Brilliant, well done you. That’s the best thing we’ve ever done.”