This morning we thought that bad luck had followed us again. We left the hotel only slightly later than we wanted and we headed out toward the Tongariro Crossing. (For those who don’t know, this is where Mordor and Mount Doom were filmed in LoTR.) Partway to the National Park we realized that we were low on gas and that our friends from last night had suggested that we take another route. We decided to backtrack and take their suggestion. We followed their instructions to the word, only to find that they had led us astray. There was no access at the route that they had sent us to (an extra hour plus of driving). We drove back to Ohakune and went to the Isite for assistance. They looked at us like we were crazy when we told them what we wanted to do. (Apparently, normal people head out by 7 am and it was now after 9 am.) We decided that we were just going to beast it up the mountains and try to make it down on less than 7 hours. We had been advised that it takes most people between 7 and 8 hours, although the sign at the site suggests allocating 6 hours and 20 minutes. The woman booked a shuttle to return us to the start of the trail at 5 pm and we headed off to the starting point with a 10 am departure in mind.
From that point on, our luck completely changed. We drove through overcast, foggy weather until we hit the edge of the national park. Then the sun started to shine and it was blue skies. I kid you not, there was a line of clouds surrounding the park, but none inside. I tried to capture it on camera, but it looks fake. Lindsay described it as a moat of clouds. Very strange. We arrived before 10 am and headed out on our day long tramp. The trail runs up one of the mountains, Ngauruhoe (the largest peak on the North Island, I believe, and Mount Doom), then across towards Tongariro. You climb up, then walk between the two mountains (unfortunately the summits weren’t open because it is too early), and down the other side. Along the way, you see the South Crater, Red Crater and the Emerald Lake.
When we started off the landscape was so strange (and it never really got more normal). The volcanoes had created rounded rock formations in black and rust color. There were also brooks and flat scrub lands. The variation throughout the entire trek was unbelievable.
It was warmer than we expected, we had been advised to bring a lot of clothing. This wasn’t really a problem until we got the Devil’s Staircase. I’m not going to lie, it was rough, but not nearly as bad as I had expected. The track is marked as challenging and we assumed we would have a very hard time with it. However, I didn’t find it as demanding as “challenging” seems to warrant.
We made it up (and up and up) until we reached the South Crater. It was entirely snow covered. It was extremely difficult to walk across in sneakers and we both had wet feet by the end. The snow was melting, which didn’t help the ease of travel. It wasn’t too cold though and Lindsay was wearing at t-shirt and shorts.
We added and removed layers regularly to accommodate the changes in environment and altitude. Once we got across the lake we had to climb up a steep and icy incline. This was probably the most difficult part of the trek. It was melting and slippery, as well as the distracting cold wind. We made it to the top and looked down on the Red Crater. It was hard to comprehend. The color was similar to the cliffs in Colorado/Utah.
From there, we hiked up more to the highest point on the trail. We were able to see the Emerald Lake from our vantage point.
It was at this point that my favorite part began. I am a fairly cautious person in my normal life, but during the descent I tapped into some kind of latent, fearless inner child, Parkour loving energy that I had been suppressing. I ran and slid down the mountain, probably a few hundred feet. I felt completely in control of my actions and my body; it was probably one of the most freeing moments of my life. I allowed my momentum to take me and I never tripped or fell once. It was amazing to see so many others struggling when I passed with such ease. Guides told their groups to move over and allow me to pass as I hurtled down the mountain. I would climb the Tongariro Crossing again, if only to run down one more time. I think I experienced complete joy during those moments. At the bottom, I enjoyed the views of the Emerald Lake (and tried to ignore the sulphur smell) while waiting for Lindsay to make her way down.
We continued on across another completely snow covered portion of the trail and up a snowy, slippery incline. We began to realize that while we still had a great deal of energy, everyone around us seemed to be flagging. We were about halfway done, but the hardest was behind us, and we had only been hiking for three hours. We agreed that we had to complete the entire trek in less than five hours. This meant that we couldn’t have anymore sunscreen, water or picture taking breaks. We started to jog the descent, using rocks to leverage us faster and leaping from one to the next. I surprised one girl with a particularly high bound and she told her friends that I was a leprechaun. (I’m not sure if this is a compliment, but I was having the time of my life and I didn’t care.) We ran up and down stairs and across winding paths down the mountain. We ended up in a rainforest area with hundreds of stairs. We had stopped jogging and our muscles were beginning to seize up, but we had to meet our goal.
By the end, it was both emotionally and physically draining to continue, but we completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in 4 hours and 56 minutes. I am so proud of this accomplishment. Not only did I see some of the most breathtaking views that I have ever seen, but I embraced my inner child and completely enjoyed the ride. This tramp, like so many other things that I have experienced in my month in New Zealand, has changed my life. I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity. (Okay, emotional moment over.)
Lindsay and I completely owned the trek, but that meant that we were over two hours early for our shuttle ride back to our car. Yet our luck came through again and Lindsay got us an earlier ride back. We arrived back to the start by 3:30 pm and headed out toward Taupo. On the way, we stopped for ice cream to reward ourselves (Lindsay also surprised me with dark chocolate as a present for completing the trek). I had panna cotta flavored and Lindsay got a affogato. They were both amazing. We drove into Taupo shortly after and were stunned by the beauty of the city. (Particularly when compared to New Zealand’s most beautiful town, Feilding. Feilding has become the butt of so many jokes during our road trip.) We made our way to a free (and packed) campsite not far out of town and have made our home near a river for the night. Tomorrow we are planning to explore Taupo and do a bit of relaxing after our physically demanding day today. On Saturday, we are heading to Waitomo to visit the glow worm caves!