Of everything I've wanted to do in New Zealand, walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC) has been at the top. Considered one of the best day walks in the country - if not the world - the hike is a steady climb between the peaks of one of New Zealand's most spectacular, unique environments: the volcanic slopes and craters of Mount Tongariro, and it's young, infantile and more volatile vent, Ngaurahoe (pronounced nara-ho-ee).
The recent weeks have been blighted with heavy rain and overcast skies, atypical of the summers this country is used to, so when my day off correlated with Amy's, and the promise of clear and fine conditions, we had little hesitation in deciding what we were going to do with ourselves.
Everyone I'd spoken to about the TAC recommended starting as early as possible, so we booked our campsite and shuttle, and made the three hour drive down to Tongariro National Park the evening before, past rolling fairytale hills and the vast blue waters of Lake Taupo. We spent the night at the Discovery Lodge, a site with an uninterrupted view of the massif, and further south to the grand peaks and ski fields of Mount Ruapehu.
Discovery lodge offered the earliest shuttle service available at 5:45am, though we decided the 6:15am start sounded a little less painful. The staff at the lodge made sure everyone was heading up with the necessary kit, gave helpful advice on pacing ourselves, before dropping us off at the beginning of the track for 6:30am in the morning mist. Within a few kilometres, the landscape began to change from the familiar heath and bracken moorland of the lower slopes, to strange, flat expanses of dark rock - old lava flows that had oozed during Mount Ngaurahoe's creation. Approaching the Mangateopopo Hut at the base of the ascent of the Devil's Staircase, the sun began to illuminate and clear the mist around us, and the imposing grand silhouette of Ngaurahoe began to emerge from the haze.
Before long, the sun had burned through the mist, giving us a completely clear conditions to start the ascent to the crossing itself. The climb up the Devil's Staircase itself was relatively easy, with steps built into the face of the scree, and we made it to the Mangateopopo Saddle before 9am. The Saddle sits between the rugged ridges and craters of Mount Tongariro and the perfectly conical textbook volcano of Ngaurahoe. A small sign advised walkers that the most recent major eruption of Ngaurahoe was just forty years ago, and what to do in the hopeless case of an eruption - run, basically, in the opposite direction to flying rocks. Far off in the distance, the snow-capped peak of Taranaki (Mount Egmont) poked out from above the clouds almost a hundred miles away, crystal clear against the blue of the sky.
As we'd made such good time, we decided to make the traverse to the craggy summit of Mount Tongariro. The temptation to ascend Ngaurahoe was definitely there, but the scree climb to the summit is infamously loose and dangerous during summer, so it is something I decided I would leave for next time and a winter ascent! The poled route over to the summit of Mount Tongariro was quite easy going and we managed to make it well short of the advised time, despite a biting wind picking up along the ridge of South Crater. The additional climb proved well worth the effort though, as Ruapehu became visible in the south, providing an unforgettable, majestic vista across the North Island's volcanic heart.
As we made our way back to the TAC track, the encouragement for an early start became justified: the pathway along the South Crater looked like a column of ants marching across the moonscape. Moving fast to beat the throngs of tourists, we clambered back down to the edge of the Red Crater, an ominous, somehow fearsome feature of deep red rock and dust, with fumeroles steaming from its surface. The landscape looked martian as we made our way around its edge, and down the scree to the equally surreal Emerald Lakes.
If the Red Crater is the dark, formidable side of this volcano, then the Emerald lakes are at the other end of the spectrum. The three pools of mineral-rich water glow with incandescent colours creating a beautiful other-worldly effect. The rock around them steams with geothermal activity, a reminder that this volcano is very much alive, breathing sulphurous breath from lungs deep within the rock.
By 11:30, we had begun the descent; a long, winding path of countless steps through fragile alpine scrub with beautiful views across to lake Rotoaira and the mighty Lake Taupo. The sacred Maori site of Ketetahi hot springs blasted clouds of steam to our left as we worked our way down to the valley floor, and after a few long hours of trudging through scrub and bush, we made it back to the car park and our shuttle bus tired and happy, completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in a respectable 7 and a quarter hours!
The day was a truly incredible one, and Tongariro is a very special place. Be warned though, we saw it in the best conditions possible but they can soon turn. We saw far too many people up there in trainers, shorts and t-shirt, some without even food or water with them. At almost 2000m high, the crossing is definitely alpine and should not be taken lightly, as weather conditions can change at a moment's notice. Make sure you're prepared for anything!
We ended the day with a well-earned meal beside Lake Taupo: an amazing rack of lamb complemented by the stunning view of our day's conquests at the far shore.