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Monday, 30 April 2007

Tongariro: A Volcanic Wonderland in New Zealand

Written by Ellen Vliet Cohen
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volcanoWe 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.


lakeThe edge of the Red Crater represents the pinnacle—literally and figuratively—of the Tongariro Crossing. In a graphical representation of elevations along the length of the walk, the spot where we are standing, at 1886 meters, resembles the point of a pencil. From here, it’s a slip, a slide, a glissade and a prayer for the knees, as we rapidly descend the slope of loose gravel to the three lakes (called Emerald Lakes even though they appear more turquoise colored on a sunny day). Many people choose to stop near the lakes for a lunch or snack break, if they can manage to stay upwind of the sulfur smells.

One more brief climb up the slight slope of the Central Crater to the Blue Lake, and then the rest of the trip is downhill. However, the terrain and the views that remain are by no means a denouement. Rounding the bend on the way down to Ketetahi Hut, we are treated to a splendid view of Lake Taupo - the largest lake in the southern hemisphere: a caldera formed from a giant volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. The smaller lakes Rotoaira and Rotopounamu are also in view.

Just past the hut rise the misty fumes of Ketatahi Hot springs, emerging from the ground as if from the belly of Mt. Tongariro. The hot springs are owned by a private trust and are considered sacred to the Maori, so soaking in them is off limits to hikers. Even so, we can sense the spirituality of the place as we make our way past the wisps of steam rising from the earth.

The final part of the track meanders through native bush along a bubbling creek bed. The shade trees and running water are a welcome respite after a long, hot day of walking. We emerge from the bush to a field littered with tired but contented hikers awaiting their respective shuttle bus rides home. Being among a crowd of other hikers in no way detracts from our feeling that we have discovered and explored an extremely special place.

Tongariro National Park is worth visiting even if you aren’t fit for The Crossing – a 17-kilometer hike with more than 3,000 feet of total elevation gain. New Zealand’s first national park, Tongariro was donated to the government in 1887 by a Maori tribal king, Te HeuHeu Tukino IV, who wanted to protect this special place from contention among other Maori tribes as well as from mindless development by pakehas (white people). It has since been designated a United Nations heritage site for both its cultural and spiritual significance and its natural beauty.


Legend has it that an ancient Maori high priest, climbing to the top of one of the peaks at Tongariro, was dismayed to be caught in a snowstorm and prayed to Hawaiki, the traditional Polynesian homeland of the Maori, for warmth. The response was a volcanic burst of fire from under the ground. The volcanoes at Tongariro are part of what is now known as the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” which cuts a swath across the North Island of New Zealand and includes the popular tourist destination of Rotorua.

Mt. Ruapehu is the third volcano at Tongariro, and it’s tallest at 2797 meters. It has two ski fields, making it heavily visited in winter as well as summer. Scientists monitor Ruapehu carefully, given that it is the most recently active peak on the North Island. Two significant eruptions happened at Ruapehu in 1995 and 1996. And, a mere three weeks after our visit, the crater lake at the top of Ruapehu burst through the loosely packed volcanic rubble that formed its walls. The result was a massive quantity of mud and water, called a lahar, flowing like a river of wet concrete down its eastern slope. Fortunately, due to an early warning system, no one was harmed.volcano

If you plan a multi-day visit to Tongariro, the park offers many shorter day hikes to beautiful waterfalls and panoramic views. The Silica Rapids walk follows a cascading stream that has been colored by deposits of aluminum silicate leaching out of the mineral-rich volcanic soil. The streambed at the top of the rapids looks almost surreal, as if someone had dumped a huge vat of creamy yellow kitchen paint into the water. Lake Rotopounamu is another special place, nestled in the side of Mt. Pihanga and surrounded by a verdant ring of old native bush.

Lodging is available both within and outside of the park. We stayed at a backpacker hostel in National Park, a quiet little village to the west of the park’s border that seems to exist primarily to accommodate the hordes of people who come from all over the world to visit the volcanoes. Within the park, a cluster of accommodations at Whakapapa Village is used mainly in winter by people who come to ski the slopes of Mt. Ruapehu. Higher-class lodging is available at the Grand Chateau at the base of Ruapehu. Or, you can stay nearby in Ohakune or Raetihi, outside the southern tip of the park.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation’s web site: http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/PlaceProfile.aspx?id=38487 contains information about Tongariro National Park. Numerous other web sites advertise area lodging and Tongariro Crossing tours. Lord of the Rings fans would be interested to know that Nguaruhoe was featured as Mount Doom in the movie trilogy. Several tour operators offer Lord of the Rings tours which include Tongariro.

Text ©Ellen Vliet Cohen

Photos ©Russ Cohen and Ellen Vliet Cohen

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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