We might have missed out on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing altogether had Alex and Lucy not described their experiences when they completed the trek. When we read that one of the volcanoes that we might walk past, Mount Ngauruhoe, was used as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings we were both adamant that we would do the trek. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is described as the best one day walk in all of the New Zealand and as we had spent two weeks in the countryside of the South Island this proved also to be an attractive claim. We were not to be disappointed. The track is approximately 19 km long and it took us about 7 hours to complete it. We passed over varied and spectacular volcanic terrain, in the presence of active volcanoes.
We started off at the carpark at Mangatepopo Roadend, and made our way up the Mangatepopo Valley. Starting at a gentle gradient the main track climbs alongside a stream and around the edges of old lava flows. The porous surface of new lava, its blacker colour absorbing much of the sun's heat, is a harsh environment. There was then a steep climb from the valley to Mangatepopo Saddle between Mount's Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. It is possible for the fit and enthusiastic to climb Mount Ngauruhoe at this point, but we were advised against it due to the wintery weather which necessitated ice axes and crampons to complete the ascent.
The crossing continued along a poled route across South Crater to a narrow ridge leading up Red Crater from where you can get views of Mt Tongariro. It was late autumn so the ridge was covered in ice and one false step would have sent us plummeting to certain death on the rocks below. Earlier we'd seen some Japanese tourists starting the trek in converse trainers, we were worried for their safety on this rigorous climb. You can smell the sulphur, evidence that Red Crater is still active. From here a side trip can be taken along a poled route leading to the summit of Mount Tongariro (2 hours return), but again we didn't bother as we were keen not to miss our pick up from the end of the track.
From the summit of Red Crater (1886 metres), the highest point on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the track descends down to three water filled explosion craters called the Emerald Lakes. Their brilliant greenish colour is caused by minerals which have leached from the adjoining thermal area. On the descent the track has lots of loose stones and gravel on the surface which was Gemma's favourite part of the trek as she screed down the mountain. We continued over Central Crater to Blue Lake, formed in an old volcanic lava vent, it is a freshwater lake up to 16 metres deep. From Blue Lake the track sidles around the flanks of North Crater. From here the track continues down through tussock slopes to the forest bushline.
At the end of the crossing we flopped down on the floor exhausted , we had a good hour long wait for our guide to pick us up, but we didn't mind as it was an ideal amount of time to recover our breathe and feel human again!