I have had a very active March.
No sooner had I returned from my motorcycle adventure around the South Island than I found myself in the car with Sugar heading for National Park. We were hoping to do the Tongariro Crossing, in fact we had been thinking about it for over a year.
We arrived at the Chateau around 11.00pm and were tucked up in bed anticipating an early wakeup call to get the 7.00am shuttle that would take us to the start of the track.
Saturday morning arrived, crisp and clear, with a light breeze. I knew the track was popular but wasn’t prepared for the hoardes of people getting off buses and out of cars and 4WD’s at the end of the Mangatepopo Road.
Sugar and I headed off. The brochure said the track was ‘challenging’. It wasn’t lying. The first part of the track crossed a volcanic plateau to the first toilet stop at Soda Springs. Then it was a steep climb up the Devil’s Staircase – aptly named. Very steep with magnificent views all the way to Mount Taranaki on the West Coast of the North Island.
We’d been walking in shade for over an hour. Every few hundred metres the track would be bathed in sunlight and we would find other trampers resting there to warm up.
At the top of the Devil’s Staircase the track levels off and enters this surreal landscape known as the South Crater. I swear this was where NASA filmed the lunar landing.
The whole while the slopes of Ngauruhoe loomed over the track. There is a side track that trampers can take which adds 2.0 hours to the journey – it takes you to the top of Ngauruhoe, and is not for the faint hearted or for those suffering from vertigo. It’s considered ‘very challenging’. I could see why. The hike up takes 1.5 hours – the scramble down takes 30 minutes. We stayed on the main track.
The climb up to the Red Crater, an area of anatomical-looking fissures and what looked like recent volcanic activity, was slippery and required sure-footedness. There was ice under the volcanic gravel. But the view at the top of this steep section was spectacular and allowed a great vantage point down to the three small blue-green crater lakes. At one point steam rose up and the ground was warm to the touch.
We stopped for a while near the Emerald Lakes. The whole area swarmed with other trampers. There was no need to be concerned about being left behind. I reckon 80-100 people were with us at that point with more arriving every few minutes.
Further on the Blue Lake gave us an opportunity to have lunch and there was more room to spread out and be more ‘alone’. The track headed north from this point towards and down to the Ketetahi Hut, the first toilet stop since Soda Stream nearly 4.5 hours before.
From Ketetahi Hut the walk down was excrutiating, for me at least. I hate going downhill and this was incessant, and almost boring. It put tremendous strain on my long legs until by the time I emerged at the Ketetahi Carpark and pick-up point I was a hobbling cripple.
It took me days to recover – not in the sense of exhaustion but just in the pain in my legs. This is one of the most popular tramps in New Zealand. In summer months when the weather is good up to 800 people a day do the walk. That’s double what some tramping tracks do in a year!
On a side note: we stayed at the Chateau. It was an experience to say the least. Don’t expect good food – the restaurant does a great breakfast but the dinner was overblown cordon-bleu crap, and inedible. Sugar couldn’t eat her entree, and only ate half her main. I was too exhausted to complain about my lamb chop swimming in some creamy muck – I didn’t eat much of it, and my soup was luke warm.
And they charge $5 for a flat white.
But the Crossing is more than worth the price of a bad meal. Another wonderful domestic tourism experience.