The Tongariro Crossing: A world of its own

by Jason Burgess

Where the earth meets the sky: Mount Ngauruhoe under heavy cloud above Oturere Valley.

Jason Burgess

Where the earth meets the sky: Mount Ngauruhoe under heavy cloud above Oturere Valley.

From high above the Rangipo Desert on the lunar-like eastern flank of Tongariro National Park, the giant energy-carrying pylons that tower over State Highway 1 look no bigger than Transformer toys. The volcanic summits of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, snow long gone, brood under a veil of cloud. Sporadic sunbursts on the track ahead transform ochre and grey scoria into pools of mauve and yellow. There is no sound other than our footsteps.

This is day three on the Tongariro Northern Circuit walk. Having spent the morning of our second day among the bustle of Tongariro Crossing day trippers, we now feel like the only people on the planet. This primordial terrain lies at the southern end of a 2500-kilometre-long chain of volcanoes spanning the fault line where the Pacific Plate subducts under the Indo-Australian Plate. The term ‘active’ is an understatement. Looking back, I can trace our passage by the steady plumes of volcanic steam floating from a ridge line above the Emerald Lakes. Since the 2012 eruptions the rocks up there have remained warm to the touch.

Mountain safety is paramount to the Department of Conservation rangers who man the three back-country huts. Each night lodgers receive a briefing before their passes are checked. Last night at Oturere hut, the understated Boyd began his with, “If you hear a tsunami warning, you’re pretty safe. But if you see or hear a cloud of ash, rock and toxic gases rushing towards you, this would be a good time to get out of the way. Don’t run away; move to the side of it. If it’s lava though, head for higher ground.” (Contd.)



The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. To fully appreciate the environment, the suggested walking time is four days/three nights but those with limited time and a good level of fitness can do the 43 kilometres in as little as two days/one night.

A scenic section of the Tongariro Crossing walk forms part of the Northern Circuit trail. While the Crossing still lives up to its reputation as the best one-day walk in New Zealand, the experience can be something of a trampers’ rush hour. Apparently on Waitangi Day this year 4000 walkers were recorded on the track so expect company, especially over Tongariro’s saddle.

Walking season is October to April. Hut accommodation costs $32 per adult per night; bookings essential. For information and bookings, phone 0800 694 732 or visit greatwalks.co.nz

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 – NZ Life & Leisure

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