Updated: May 6, 2020
This summer I completed the Tongariro Crossing for the second time in my life. This track is part of one of the ten Great Walks of New Zealand. My first hike took place 12 years ago and back then the weather was bad: fog and wind prevented us from enjoying the views of the amazing fluorescent lakes. This time we were blessed with a clear blue sky and temperatures of 29° C!
People around the world believe that Tongariro Crossing is one of the most stunning one-day tracks on the planet. However, the track is challenging, and I am writing this article to give recommendations that will make hiking through Tongariro Crossing safe and truly unforgettable in a positive way.
· The length is 19.5 km (my pedometer showed we walked 25 km).
· Walking takes 6-9 hours depending on your speed and the weather. We walked for 8.5 hours lingering an hour at the lakes along the way.
· Your starting point at Mangatepopo car park is 1,100 meters above sea level after which you climb to the Red Crater area at 1,886 meters. Finally, there is a long descent to the Ketetahi car park which is 800 meters above sea level.
· The track officially starts at Mangatepopo and ends at Ketetahi because this is the easiest way to go.
· You may only leave a car at the Mangatepopo car park for up to 4 hours, after which the wheels may be clamped. Please, use the shuttles.
· All sightseeing buses and shuttles must be licensed by the Department of Conservation and are carefully checked by park rangers.
· This is a mountain hike so the weather can be changeable and greatly affect the hike. There can be sunshine and 18° C in Taupo, meanwhile, there is only 5° C on the Tongariro Crossing, rain with snow and wind up to 40 km/h.
· There are no sources of water or food on the track. You will drink and eat only what you bring with you, so take plenty of high energy snacks.
· There are several toilets with toilet paper along the way.
· The track is well marked in general, so it is difficult to get lost.
· The trail runs through the bare mountains, there is nowhere to hide from the sun and rain, so dress accordingly. However, there are three huts on the track where you can wait out any severe weather.
· There is almost no mobile or Internet connection on the track.
· According to official statistics, rescuers evacuate an average of two people per week from the track. These people were not adequately prepared and did not complete the track for various reasons. About once a year a person dies on the track. Most often deaths occur in the Red Crater area from hypothermia or from a fall from a height.
The track is divided into the following segments:
1) Mangatepopo to Soda Springs - an easy hike on an almost flat surface for up to 1.5 hours. At the end of this segment is the point of no return, and you must decide whether you are going uphill or turning back. Take a moment to recheck the weather as well as your own physical and emotional condition then make a sensible decision.
2) Soda Springs to the South Crater - a heavy climb up the mountain known as the Devils’ Staircase. When I did the Tongariro Crossing in December 2007 there were no steps. I had to clamber over huge stones, while struggling to keep a visual bearing on the flags ahead. Today the Devil's Staircase is a long steep wooden staircase, a climb which takes up to 1.5 hours.
3) South Crater to Red Crater. This segment starts easy and fun (you can lie in the snow or throw snowballs) but finishes with a difficult climb on scree (small loose stones). However, the Red Crater is the main viewpoint over the three “Martian” lakes, which have incredible colours! Allow at least 1 hour and the majority of your passion around these lakes.
4) Red Crater to Blue lake. This descent is along more scree with cliffs on both sides and is a dubious pleasure. Be extremely careful! Walking sticks come in handy on this segment more than anywhere else on the track. You will want to stop often on the way down to take pictures of the stunning beauty of the lakes, but this is very inconvenient on the scree. Your motto should be "Caution!". When you reach the lakes, you may be tempted to swim, but you must not enter the water under any circumstances because these waters are “tapu” - sacred to the Māori. Usually hiking through this segment takes 30 minutes but we spent an hour and a half here because we wanted to enjoy the beauty of the lakes.
5) Blue lake to Ketetahi Shelter. More descent while Lake Rotoira, which is located far beyond Tongariro Crossing, expands on the horizon. In general, walking is easy and pleasant if you consider the view and forget about your accumulated fatigue. This segment takes about 1 hour.
6) Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi parking - the path curls with wide loops down the mountain. Our trip took place in hot weather and the road led to the west into the sun. Our faces burnt, we were hot, and the descent wound endlessly through stones covered with tussock and moss. At this point, I ran out of water! Finally, we entered a forest with flowing streams, but unfortunately, the water was undrinkable. This segment takes advanced hikers 2 hours, but we walked about three and at the end I could barely feel my legs. When the forest finished, we saw a gravel road and a crowd of happy people who had completed the track ahead of us. They had used the shuttle and were resting in the shade waiting for their return ride. We had our own vehicle so were not able to join the happy crowd but had to continue walking another kilometre to the car park. And that leads us on to the topic of transport.
How to get to the Tongariro Crossing?
If you are travelling New Zealand by car, it is best to stay in Taupo, Turangi, Ohakune, National Park town or Whakapapa a day before the Crossing. I advise you to book a shuttle from Ketetahi to Mangatepopo at Tongariro Expeditions in advance. Then on the morning of your hike drive to Ketetahi and park your car there, then catch the pre-booked shuttle to the start point in Mangatepopo. Once on the track, you can walk back towards your car at your own pace.
In Ketetahi you may park a car for free on the side of the road or pay $10 NZD for a day secure parking. We preferred to pay as the roadside seemed unsafe to us.
Parking at the beginning of the trail at Mangatepopo makes sense only if you are not going to complete the whole track because parking here is available only for 4 hours.
If you travel New Zealand by bus you can book a return shuttle from the villages of Whakapapa, National Park or Ohakune but in this case, you will need to adapt the pace of your crossing so you arrive in time to catch the return shuttle.
What to bring:
1. Convenient easy backpack
2. Two or three litres of water (depending on air temperature)
3. Thermos with hot tea/cocoa/coffee (in cold weather)
4. Lunch to taste. Do not forget fruit and chocolate / high energy snacks.
5. Hiking poles (optional)
6. Sunscreen (in all weather)
7. Hand sanitizer
8. First-aid kit
What to wear:
1. Comfortable (not new!) trekking shoes and socks (I saw two men walking barefoot on the track but this is excessive heroism)
2. Shorts/breeches/leggings depending on the weather
3. T-shirt or better a shirt with long sleeves
4. Waterproof/warm jacket
5. Headgear. I recommend a wide-brimmed hat or Arab shawl.
I do not recommend going to the track:
1. Those who do not exercise regularly at least twice a week
2. People with any leg or back injuries
3. People who suffer from a respiratory disease or obesity
4. Parents with children under 10 years old (consider the abilities of your child)
5. Anyone that is not confident in their abilities or simply does not like hiking
· It is better to hike the Tongariro Crossing in sunny weather, otherwise you will not see the lakes in all their glory.
· Hike this difficult track in a group of at least two people. If your group is big it will be more convenient to split into pairs.
· Do not leave your partner! Anything can happen along the way. Stay together!
· Be sure to warn your relatives or friends that you are hiking the Tongariro Crossing and when they should expect you back.
· Be prepared to cancel your trip if there is a sudden change in weather. Even if this is your only chance in life to hike the Tongariro Crossing, it is better to miss the chance than lose your life.
I wish you an unforgettable trip!