Hiking to Mecca: A day on New Zealand's Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Guest blogger Candace Rose Rardon describes her unwarranted fear of the crowds on New Zealand's magnificent Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
In the coolness of the early morning air, our bus pulls into the parking lot. We unload, stumbling from the steps still half-asleep. Our driver, who’d blasted radio pop tunes on the drive from Taupo, writes my name down on a sheet of paper and hands me a waterproof coat, proper hiking boots, and a backpack. I breathe in deeply, steeling myself with a here-goes-nothing resolve, forcing back the nerves.
But it isn't the crossing itself that I’m worried about. It’s the crowds.
Although I’m about to cover nearly twenty kilometres in a day--that’s twelve miles of sub-alpine terrain known for high winds and sudden drops in temperature--the thing I fear the most about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, located near the centre of New Zealand’s North Island, is having this experience overwhelmed by masses of tourists. Recent counts have estimated as many as a thousand hikers complete the crossing on peak days during the summer season. Rated as one of the best one-day hikes in the world, it’s little wonder Tongariro is so popular. And given that Taupo--from where most of the shuttles to the track depart--is only three and a half hours south of Auckland, it’s also extremely accessible for international visitors.
And so I set out, boots tied, jacket zipped. The first kilometre feels like a walk through the clouds, a damp layer of mist settling over the landscape like a shawl. The gravel path is lined with sprigs of purple heather and winds through softly undulating hills, a scene that looks almost British. But the bottlenecking on the track is worse than at the start of a marathon--or, having never run one myself, how I imagine it to be. I’m suddenly an angry driver in rush hour, weaving in and out of slower moving cars, cursing quietly under my breath.
The haze thickens in the Red Crater and although I know the crowds haven’t somehow disappeared, they are no longer visible. Neither is anything else. Lost in the isolation of the fog, it’s just me and a few feet of rocky soil. It’s only at the other side of the ridge that the clouds give way and the land opens up. For the first time I get a glimpse of the actual crater itself. I am suddenly struck by the absolute expansiveness of it all, feeling how explorers must have as they surveyed uncharted territory.
From the Red Crater to Blue Lake, I marvel at how otherworldly the scenery is, that which is so often described as lunar. There is a total lack of plant life and sulphur steams from the surface of eerily electric blue lakes. Everything is loose scree and rocks, striated cliffs and deep valleys with the summit of volcanic Mount Ngauruhoe in the distance. Soon, however, tussock appears by the path and the hills lose their threatening edge. The crossing grows idyllic--the height is still there, but the cliffs are calmed by the golden, grassy waves and a blue sky that has magically broken through the cloud cover.
The last two or three kilometres could be found anywhere in New Zealand as I am suddenly walking through a tropical forest, the leafy palms of kanuka trees overhead and streams bubbling happily next to me. I even find myself embracing the crowds as well, every couple, every family, every gaggle of friends on a weekend hiking break. As we near the end of our descent from the clouds, making our final steps towards the parking lot, there’s almost a camaraderie about us, a sense of having been through it all together.
It isn't just that because of them I never lost the path and risked a slow and painful death of hypothermia. It’s that I begin to think of the crossing as a pilgrimage. If the typical traveler in New Zealand views nature as a religion--which, considering the natural beauty of the country, many indeed do--then the Tongariro Crossing, with its astounding diversity of landscapes, could almost be seen as Mecca. And when I look at it that way, I realise the crowds aren't something to fight against, they’re something to become a part of.
We’re all there for the same reason: we’ve all come for the view.
Want to make your own pilgrimage to Tongariro and enjoy that amazing view too? Visit our website for the latest deals on flights to Auckland or speak to one of our consultants on 0208 045 4186. Catch more of Candace on twitter @candacerardon.