Emerald lakes on the Tongariro Alpine crossing New Zealand (Rosino)

Is this STILL the world's best day walk?

Yes, providing you can ditch the crowds. So here’s TWO different ways to do New Zealand’s famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Sarah Baxter | Issue 120 | May 2011

I was alone on Mount Doom.

Well, almost. Stew huddled next to me under the tarp and, somewhere a touch further down the volcano, John was leading Doris steadily up the scree towards us.

So – to be precise – me, Stew, John and Doris were alone together on Mount Doom (actually, Red Crater): four sole souls braving the potential magmatic rancour of Tolkien-scaped Tongariro National Park.

You might think it detail too far to be told the identities of people you’ll likely never meet. But it’s not often you can personally introduce every walker simultaneously tramping the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

This 19km hike is the headline act of its namesake national park, which sits bang-central on New Zealand’s North Island – ‘bang’ being the right word for this geologically temperamental terrain. The popularity of the Crossing – often said to be the country’s, if not the world’s, best day walk – means platoons of trekkers march it every day: up to 700 in peak season.

They come for the variety: an astonishing mix of active volcanoes, lava flows and fumaroles, odd-coloured lakes and virgin bush, all crammed into seven or so hours of manageable walking. But because they come in such numbers, the Crossing’s world-beating status feels compromised; the congestion detrimental. Now, in order to get the maximum out of this fine tramp, you need to take a more leftfield approach – luckily, I had two up my GoreTex sleeve. And it was because of Leftfield Approach Number 1 that Stew, John, Doris and I had the place to ourselves: we were tackling the world’s greatest day walk at night.

Tongariro 1: Dark forces afoot

A 2am pick-up was cruel – only just past bedtime for most of the travellers sharing my motel in National Park, a village from the Ronseal school of nomenclature just outside Tongariro’s boundaries. Stew was chirpy; I was bleary, but grateful that the night was clement and clear – indeed, spectacularly so. As we set off along the trail our headtorches were a flimsy imitation of the innumerable stars that stippled the blackness – and occasionally shot across it with wish-fulfilling promise.

None of us knew much about all those constellations, but it didn’t really matter – while trying not to trip on rocks I couldn’t see, I applied a more creative join-the-dots approach to astronomy, making up my own star signs. There were plenty to chose from, to the extent that even without the moon (which had already set for the night) the celestial chorus emanated enough light to silhouette the park’s iconic profile.

Walking in the dark was wonderfully strange. Perhaps it should have been eerie, what with conical Mt Ngauruhoe and his volcanic chums looming over proceedings – these are the malevolent mountains that doubled as Mordor in The Lord Of The Rings films, after all. But actually it felt anything but. The stillness and silence were both calming and invigorating. And when you have to face a 378-step ascent, lovingly called the Devil’s Staircase, it’s probably better not to be able to see where you’re going.

Having conquered all those stairs (stripping off a few layers in the process), the next stage – the Mangatepopo Saddle – was a bit creepy in the dark. Although you don’t have to have a guide to walk the Crossing, the idea of traversing this flat expanse alone, where it would be easy to lose the waymarkers if the fog descended, was a frightening prospect. Wedged between Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, and bleak and featureless even by day, it feels utterly disconnected from the real world – which is perhaps why this whole area so easily substituted for Middle Earth.

Scrabbling up to the rim of Red Crater – just under halfway into the Crossing and the tricksiest section – only increased the feeling of weird. Topping out at 1,886m, here the rocks are Martian, the air sulphurous, the ground hot to the touch: a reminder of the bubbling belly beneath.

This is where Stew and I huddled beneath our groundsheet, to watch the subtle gradations of our own private sunrise, with a bit of underfloor heating. Soon joined by our two fellow loners, the four of us gazed on as the night lightened from navy to cobalt to Majorelle blue, turning yellowy along the horizon, rose-tinted above. The sun, when it appeared, dashed skyward. What had been shadowy ruffles and ridges below us were revealed in full geological splendour by the golden glow; the steam rising from the garish-green lakes rendered prismatic when hit by the dawn rays.

Doris was grinning. She’d been told the Crossing was great but disappointingly crowded; for her, any scenic losses incurred by tackling the trail at night were amply compensated for by the absolute lack of people – and a mesmeric sunrise. Even the fact that we were turning back from this point, retracing our steps (and passing, with smug pleasure, the masses just starting their hike), didn’t dent her smile.

I was similarly gurning, but then I’d had the best of both worlds – I’d already completed the Crossing: Leftfield Approach Number 2…

Tongariro 2: Maori mountains

Two days earlier, Ngahuia Tahau had led me across the whole of the Crossing by daylight, for a more illuminating experience – both visually and culturally. Ngahuia runs pureORA Walks, the only local Maori operator leading trips here; her strolls are peppered not only with trail mix and fine views, but plenty of storytelling too. In this way I hoped to detract from the crowds, and get a different slant on the landscape.

Before we made it out of the car park she’d filled me in on the mountains. There were originally seven volcanoes in the centre of North Island: six of them boys, all chasing the affections of Pihanga, the lone lady. One night, after a particularly fiery, rock-flinging fight for Pihanga’s heart, Tongariro emerged victorious. Putauaki, in a huff, stormed off towards the Bay of Plenty; Tauhara headed north too, but only got as far as Taupo because he couldn’t bear to be parted from Pihanga entirely. Taranaki went west, sobbing all the way, his tears filling his trail to form the Whanganui River. Tongariro’s brothers, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, stayed put in familial solidarity; today they form the park’s unmistakable profile.

Ngahuia and I set off to meet these alpha-male mountains – but we were not alone. It was a beautiful blue-sky day, the kind that brings trampers out in force – from the be-backpacked old hands to the inappropriately plimsolled. We joined the chain-gang, a multicoloured thread weaving along the rocky trail, across the boardwalk and up those 378 stairs (more sweaty and intimidating in the light).

The landscape was startling, but the sheer number of people ambling through it seemed unbefitting to its gravitas. All was well on this fine sunny morning, but those peaks – with rage in their bellies – could turn hostile in an instant. Still, you couldn’t deny the quality of the walk, which took us past the hardy plants of the park’s lower reaches, up to a lunar netherworld, and between Ngauruhoe and Tongariro itself.

“That’s my mountain,” Ngahuia stated proudly, gesticulating to the latter. She is from Tuwharetoa, the iwi (tribe) local to Tongariro, and considers herself an ancestor of the volcano. Her status also means she’s the only guide able to lead people over a stretch of the Crossing that traverses private Maori land – effectively, her land – and to the generally off-limits Ketetahi Springs.

Having climbed up Red Crater, scree-slipped down past the incongruously colourful (and sulphur-stinky) Emerald and Blue Lakes, and rounded North Crater, we bounded down to the springs. Despite Ngahuia’s repeated assurances, it felt naughty leaving the trampers on the Crossing to bunk over tussock grass to the tapu (sacred site).

It was nice to be solo, though – just us and the hot, black stream and its steaming mouth. This, so Ngahuia told me, is the hiss of two fire demons. When chief Ngatoroirangi set off to climb Tongariro to claim it for his people, he near perished from the cold until his sisters delivered spirits from Hawaiki (the legendary homeland of the Maori) to warm him – and here they remain.

These fumaroles and mud pools are believed to have medicinal properties and are especially effective in treating skin diseases. We didn’t test this theory, instead rock-hopping along the demons’ stream, over pink, yellow and paprika-splattered stones, to rejoin the Crossing’s throng – which felt like emerging from behind the bikesheds after a cheeky tryst. It was all downhill now, the landscape softening from exposed extraterrestrial rockforms to the shady greens of totara trees and crown ferns as we neared the end of the trail.

All the way, Ngahuia told me stories: of how the All Blacks’ famous haka originates from this area (and is not a scary war dance at all); of how god of the forest, Tane Mahuta, separated his parents to create the earth and the sky; and how modern Maori are coping with the 21st century: “Many hold a grudge, and there are ongoing land disputes which can lead to bickering within tribes.”

At the end, my head was abuzz: with unpronounceable Maori names, ancient folklore, volcanic geology. But this information overload meant my daytime dalliance with the mountains hadn’t just been a mass yomp through majestic scenery. I’d been joined by the spirits of the land’s forebears, a somehow more intimate encounter with the Crossing.

After my time in Tongariro I was shattered, having tackled one great walk, two ways. And what of that title: Best day walk? Best night walk? I think both are safe for now.

Top tip: start early – or late

Don’t fancy a 1.30am alarm call? Start the Crossing after 10am – most walkers begin at 8am; by delaying you’ll miss the crowds. Just leave yourself enough time to finish!

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