The Tongariro Crossing is one of the most popular and celebrated walks in New Zealand and has been given the title of the country’s best one day hike. The views of the volcanic landscape are breathtaking and draw thousands of people to the 19.4km track. But is it for everyone? As a fairly unfit person, that’s what I wanted to find out.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to exercise. I play a lot of sport and can sometimes be found at the gym (almost an equal number of times as I can be found at the takeaway next door) so I’d normally say that my fitness is that of an above average human, but the idea of walking up hills is a big no from me. I don’t know why, but I can happily run after a ball or on a treadmill for hours (ok, minutes), but put me on a hill and I really struggle.
The Crossing was something I really wanted to do in New Zealand so I set out to find some blog posts about other people’s experiences to see if I could do it and could not find a negative word about the trek. I even found a lot of stuff about people doing it with their kids and grandparents All confident in my ability to walk that walk, I headed off, and this is what I found.
The first struggle of the day was waking up at 5am. The shuttles from Taupo to the crossing usually leave around 5.30am. Yay. After a short bus nap, we were ready to walk! The first hour or so went pretty quickly. The barren landscape was strangely beautiful and the beginning of the track was pretty flat and easy. “I’m gonna ace this,” I was thinking to myself, standing in the shadow of Mt Doom (real name Mt Ngauruhoe). LOL. The first clue to what was coming was a sign asking you assess your physical fitness and to turn back if you don’t think you’re up to it. As a woman, tired from the flat walk, slumped over the sign, I thought that I was of course fit enough. I’m a 21 year old athlete.
The following hour was possibly the hardest hour of my life. Consistent, steep uphill paths and steps stretched ahead. 2 minute breaks, broken up by 30 seconds of walking became the norm. It was pretty much hell (hence the name, the Devil’s Staircase). The only positive though was the guilt free eating that occurred every few minutes. The view from the top was worth it though. Or at least, time has numbed the pain so it seems worth it. A huge volcanic crater waits for you, the perfect place to stop for a longer break for even more food.
The next step is to decide whether or not you want to climb Mt Doom. It takes around 2 extra hours, is incredibly steep and is made entirely from crumbling gravel. So for me it was a no. But my boyfriend went up while I sat at the bottom, you guessed it, eating. He raced up and down, which made me feel pretty bad about myself, but I appreciated not being made to wait for too long. During my snack break, I heard a tour guide tell her group that there were no more stairs, so we were pretty excited to plod on.
The guide did not lie. But she was not entirely truthful either as on the other side on the ridge I was sat on was another steep hill. No steps, no. Just a big steep hill. The path to the summit. After another hour of hell (maybe, I lost all sense of time), we arrived at the top. The summit of the Crossing. The iconic view. Over the other side of the summit were the Emerald Lakes. The reason most people visit Tongariro in the first place. They didn’t disappoint. It’s weird how quickly your mood can change from ‘this place is hell on Earth’ to ‘this is the most beautiful pace in the world, I love it here’.
We were maybe 4 hours in at this point. 4 hours spent wishing for a bit of down to go with all of the up. Well my wishes were granted. The road to the lakes was basically a vertical gravel slide. It was more like skiing than walking. People were hitting the deck wherever you looked, which would’ve been pretty funny if you weren’t incredibly aware of how easy it would be for that to be you.
Recommendation: Go down sideways. Most valuable advice I’ve ever been given.
Honestly, once you’re at the lakes, the hard part is finally over. The rest is about endurance. We took about 6.5 hours to finish the Crossing is you take off the Mt Doom time. The last 3 hours involve a winding path through fields and forest. Not particularly challenging, if you hadn’t already been walking for hours. It all blurred into one after a while. The last hour added exactly nothing to my experience. We spent the whole time thinking we were there, only to find another stretch of path leading deeper into the trees. So close but so far.
But hey, I did it! I made it to the end, quicker that average, and didn’t break any bones or die in the process. I think I’m gonna put that in the success column.
Can You Do the Crossing?
Well, can you walk 19.4km and be on your feet for 8hrs? Only you can really answer that. What I can tell you is, the amount of tourists that do the crossing, and the solely positive reviews I’ve seen, gave me the impression that it would be pretty easy. It isn’t.
THIS WALK IS HARD
I’m not trying to put you off, in fact, I think it’s a great challenge and well worth doing. I think it’s possible for anyone to complete but you have to be realistic. As I said, I’m no stranger to sport and exercise, but I really struggled. Don’t expect to have a nice time doing the trek if you don’t have an active background. If you’re of a lower fitness level, maybe do a little training beforehand. It’ll definitely make a difference and make the whole experience a lot more enjoyable. You can break as much as you like, so anyone can get there with a little will power!
The crossing joins Mangatepopo in the Ruapehu region to Ketetahi Hot Springs and can be walked in either direction. The most popular is from Mangatepopo to Keteahi. Mangatepopo sits at a higher altitude so this route involves less steep climbing. It also lets you climb Mt Doom closer to the start of the trek while you’re still feeling fresh.
One bonus of the Keteahi route is that you get the boring bush walk out of the way first, emerging from the greenery into the volcanic landscape. I think overall though, it’s better to go with the crowds. It’s so busy, the walk is basically like a trail of ants, and the paths are narrow in places. You don’t want to be walking against the flow.
Because it is a crossing and not a loop, you’ll have to arrange shuttles. Book Me sometimes has good deals if you book far enough in advance, but you can usually book through your hostel.
Whether or not you should climb Mt Doom is a big question, mainly for younger climbers. Our shuttle driver asked who’d be going to the summit and most of the adults looked blankly while Mt Doom is a hot topic in hostel dorms. From the photos I’ve seen, the surrounding view is pretty similar to that of the crossing. The only bonus is the crater. A guide was telling me that it’s horrible to get up and even worse to get down. The only reason people seem to go up is because of the Lord of the Rings connection. For me, that’s not a good enough reason, but for many it is. It’s recommended that only extremely fit people attempt it so keep that in mind.
There is another optional mountain, Mt Tongariro, which is supposed to be a much easier walk and a nicer view. I would’ve loved to go up this but you realistically only get to do one, and Lord of the Rings won with the rest of the group.
What to Take
- Water: There’s no fresh water up there so you need to take at least 1.5 litres per person.
- Food: I did a lot of eating up there but remember, you have to carry everything. I took a small pizza and 3 sandwiches as well as a large bar of chocolate and didn’t eat it all. Pete, on the other hand, had read that you need an extra 2000 calories doing the trek so brought at least 9 sandwiches as well as other snacks. He did not need 9 sandwiches.
- Layers: I’m pretty sure I was both the hottest and coldest I’ve ever been on this walk. Dress accordingly.
- Sun Cream: You’re outside in New Zealand, therefore you need sun cream.
- Walking Boots: Don’t be that idiot in Converse sliding down the hill on their arse.
- Phone: 1. In case of emergency 2. We didn’t take a big camera because of the weight so our phones were incredibly useful. Also good for music in the last few, dull hours.
Have you done the Tongariro Crossing? Tell me about your experience below!