We trudge across the arid crater, the cinnamon-brown land around us barren except for the occasional boulder. If it weren’t for the infrequent drone of a plane overhead and the steady line of hikers wending their way ahead of and behind us, it might be possible to imagine that we’re on Mars. We’re not quite that far away, but coming from the cold and snowy Northeastern United States, it’s a place that feels equally exotic to my husband and me. We are in the South Crater, part of the renowned Tongariro Crossing at Tongariro National Park in New Zealand.
The long line of fellow hikers is an unusual scene in a sparsely populated country offering a bounty of beautiful walking tracks. But it gives credence to the Tongariro Crossing’s reputation as the most scenic and popular day hike in New Zealand. The 17-kilometer track traverses the saddle between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, two of the park’s three active volcanic peaks. The Crossing can be done as part of a multi-day backpack called the Tongariro Northern Circuit, but most people do it as a one-way day hike, using one of many shuttle buses available for drop-off at the trailhead and pickup at the end.
The track starts by winding its way through the relatively flat Mangatepopo Valley, past the mildly fragrant tumbling Soda Springs, then up the steep remains of an old lava flow—sometimes called Devil’s Staircase for its jagged, challenging nature—to the flat expanse of the South Crater. Beyond the far rim of the South Crater lies the most amazing panorama of volcanic eye-candy imaginable. Standing on the ridge, to our right is the softly cylindrical cone of Mt. Nguaruhoe. Directly ahead is the Red Crater, a jagged remnant of scoria (oxidized magma) that resembles a huge pile of velvety cocoa. The inside of an eroded lava tube scores a large gray gash down the crater’s side.
Just down the slope from the Red Crater, three beautiful little lakes, colored turquoise by minerals leaching from the volcanic soil, dot the landscape like jewels. Around them, fumaroles quietly release rivulets of noxious steam into the air. In the distance a large, round, deep blue lake lies placidly in wait. And behind us, across the South Crater from Nguaruhoe, stands the more muted, jagged summit of Mt. Tongariro.
The power and beauty of the earth is unmistakable here. It is easy to see why the Maori, the native peoples of New Zealand, consider this a sacred spot. It is also easy to see how inhospitable this trek could be in rain, wind, and fog. We are fortunate to be here on a nearly cloudless day, affording amazing views of the surrounding mountains and valleys for miles in every direction.