Tongariro Crossing?

 

 

After conflicting reports, David Whitley takes on the Tongariro Crossing (well, half of it) on New Zealand’s North Island.

 


“The Tongariro Crossing is for pussies”, I had been told elsewhere in New Zealand. “If you want to spend your day in a queue of people walking across a mountain, then great. But it’s really not that much of a challenge.”

 


The Tongariro Crossing is the big boy, sat high on the pedestal waiting to be shot at. It has long been one of New Zealand’s prescribed must-dos, and this status means it attracts both flak and tens of thousands of people wanting to take it on every year.

 


When half of it is closed due to volcanic activity – as is currently the case – there must be a temptation to file it in the overrated basket and skip it.

 


It’s when you get to the south crater that you realise succumbing to that temptation would have been a terrible mistake. Yes, you’ve hardly got it to yourself and, yes, the severity of the uphill grind to get there is vastly overstated. But my word, the scene is magnificent.

 


The South Crater is a vast flat, dust-blown field. A white track, created by footfall crosses the centre of it, and tufts of hardy grass manage to poke through an otherwise totally barren landscape. It looks like the sort of giant amphitheatre that would be used for some ultra-bloodthirsty Colosseum-style entertainment by an evil galactic emperor in a sci-fi film.

 


To the left, Mount Tongariro slowly climbs towards its summit. To the right, Ngauruhoe soars upwards, the perfect volcanic cone. It’s merely a vent of Tongariro, but it is higher. Small figures can be seen on its slopes, attempting to crawl up the brutal scree at a 45 degree angle. It’s a dangerous undertaking – rocks regularly tumble down into the would-be climbers’ path.

 


The figures are humans, but I half expect them to be Hobbits. Ngauruhoe doubled as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films. Peter Jackson and co had to do surprisingly little to make it look so deadly and forbidding.

 


The rest of Mordor comes into view as we climb along the ridge that leads out of South Crater. Over to the west is the Oturere Valley, a black and bumpy place formed by centuries of spilling lava.

 


Mordor is not the goal, though – the Red Crater summit is. And the views from there are so remarkable that I want to yabber about them to everyone I’ve ever met, whilst simultaneously weeping and drooling. Behind, the iron oxide stains the Red Crater a deep crimson. A sweep round brings into view Ngaurohoe, and Tongariro’s summit. But it’s the no-go zone ahead that’s the cherry on top. Inside the stark central crater, the Emerald Lakes dazzle with seemingly impossible intensity – the blue and green colours alarmingly vivid.

 


Beyond, looking deceptively close, but an hour’s walk away, is the Blue Lake. And behind it is the reason we can go no further. A white cloud rises above the water. It’s the Te Maari crater, which erupted twice in 2012 and is now being carefully monitored as it continues to let off steam.

 


It’s a reminder of where this landscape of lava flows, rusty orange rivers and bleak, rocky plains came from. And it’s a reminder that it has not finished changing.

 


We have to turn back. It’s not yet safe to make the full crossing. But despite occasionally having to wait for other people to go past or get out of the way of your photo, and despite not being the grand physical endurance test some people build it up to be, there are few places on earth that can compare. It’s not a walk into the unknown and it’s not a walk into solitude, but it’s a walk into something truly special.

 


Disclosure: David went on the Tongariro Crossing as a guest of Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures and Destination Great Lake Taupo. He stayed in Taupo as a guest of YHA Taupo.

by David Whitley

 

 

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NZ walk in a day

 

David Whitley climbs volcanoes, checks out ancient Maori sites and crosses from the west coast to the east coast in a map geek’s dream day 

No-one is going to claim that the lagoon at Onehunga is the prettiest sight in New Zealand. The parkland around it makes it a pleasant place to walk dogs, but it’s what’s behind that counts. Manukau Harbour, the second largest in New Zealand, leads out to the Tasman Sea. It’s the west coast, and my plan is to walk to the east coast.

There aren’t many countries that you can walk across in a day, but New Zealand’s odd shape means it is one of them. Auckland is built on an isthmus between two large natural harbours, and the 16km Coast to Coast walkway connects them. Ironically, it runs pretty much south to north – a kink in the landmass means the east and west coasts temporarily turn 90 degrees before resuming conventional positions.

But the Coast to Coast Walkway isn’t just about childish box-ticking for map geeks – it also strings together a series of key sites that offer a different perspective on Auckland than the one you’d get staying downtown.

The route trundles past quaint wooden houses in Onehunga before arriving at One Tree Hill, which is something of a beloved landmark for Aucklanders and has been for centuries. Long before Europeans arrived, the hill was known to the Maori as Maungakiekie – and it was the biggest pa (or fortified village) in what is now the Auckland area. Of the 60 pa found around the isthmus, more than half have been destroyed or severely damaged – mostly through quarrying. What makes Maungakiekie so special is that the defensive terracing on the hillsides and inside the craters is clearly evident. The same goes for the pits used for storing kumara (sweet potato) during the winter. It’s not just a park – it’s an archaeological site as well.

Oh, yes. It’s also a farm. Bizarrely for an urban park, sheep and cows can be found ambling around the hillsides, making it feel more like a country estate than a big city’s green lung. This is largely thanks to Sir John Logan Campbell, who bequeathed adjoining Cornwall Park to the nation in 1901. This turned the hill – a public reserve since 1848 – into a giant green space.

Once past the guard sheep, it’s worth huffing and puffing up to the top. It’s only 183m high, but it feels taller than that. Manukau Harbour quickly comes into view, but once at the top in the shadow of the obelisk dedicated to Logan Campbell, the rest of the city comes into view too. The Skytower of central Auckland is the obvious point to fix upon, but the east coast is there too – the laid-back beachside suburb of Devonport, the craggy volcanic Rangitoto Island and the other islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

Closer in, however, are a couple of other green protrudences that look suspiciously like One Tree Hill. That’s because they were formed in the same way. The most remarkable thing about Auckland’s geography isn’t that it has two harbours, over 50 islands and spans both the east and west coasts – it’s that it’s built on a field of volcanoes. At the latest count, there are 55 volcanic cones within the greater Auckland area, and One Tree Hill offers the best illustration. All the houses heading down to Onehunga and Manukau Harbour are built on the lava field spewed out by an eruption thousands of years ago.

The second volcanic cone on the trail is Mt Eden, a perennial favourite with tour buses which drive up for the views. Walkers go for the steeper route up, which if you tackle it with a determined charge, isn’t all that arduous.

It’s 196m tall, but that’s more than enough to take in views that are arguably even better than those from One Tree Hill. To the west, the thick green hills of the Waitakere Ranges roll out, and the Coromandel Peninsula can be seen out over the water to the north-east.

Again, evidence of Maori terracing and fortifications is present. It stirs a fascination in New Zealand’s indigenous population that goes beyond the usual hakas and cultural performances. Luckily, the best place to learn more is also on the route.

The road from Mt Eden eventually leads to the Auckland Domain, a massive park on the cusp of the city centre. Amongst the cricket pitches, art installations and giant, showy trees is the Auckland Museum. The collection inside is a real hodge-podge of subjects, but it’s the Maori section that’s genuinely excellent – they’ve somehow managed to get meeting houses and war canoes inside, while the information on Maori history and culture is useful too.

After a good few hours of walking – at least four hours need to be set aside, and that’s if you tackle it without detours or lunch breaks – the path eventually leads to the flashier trailhead. Waitemata Harbour is the harbour people think about when they talk about Auckland. It’s the one at the bottom of the city centre. And, more importantly for me, it’s the one on the east coast. Mission accomplished.

 

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