Tongariro Alpine Crossing

•This is a guest post by Sarah Johnson of about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Hi! I’m Sarah, a 30-something traveler from Kansas City. I traveled throughout my childhood and spent several semesters abroad in University before pursuing a graduate degree in Scotland. I always knew I wanted to see the world at large but could never figure out how to do it. In 2012, after a failed relationship, job hunt, and miserable few years back in KC, I left to work on a small expedition cruise ship. I traveled from Alaska to Panama, seeing humpback whales, bears, sharks, and sea lions along the way. I spent my vacations travelling to places like Scotland, Svalbard, and New Zealand/Australia. In 2015, I quit in order to relocate to NZ on a Working Holiday Visa. So far, it’s been quite an adventure and I look forward to what 2016 brings me!

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing begins along a leisurely walk through the Mangatepopo Valley. This valley is believed to have been formed during the last ice age and partially filled in with volcanic rubble. Man-made steps alternate with volcanic paths and boardwalks. Streams gurgled under my feet. Lava flows dot the landscape and vegetation is sparse: only hardy plants like lichen and moss can survive in this harsh environment.

Beginning the Hike – Soda Springs

About an hour in, I arrived at Soda Springs. There, I contemplated leaving the path to detour to the waterfall, but I judged myself short on time if I wanted to spend a significant amount of time at my real destination.
The Devil’s Staircase started and I think I stopped fifteen times in the hour-long Stairmaster. I wasn’t the only one either.

Crashing below Mt. Doom

At the top, I dropped my pack to the ground with a crash and took my shoes off. I was beginning to feel blisters, and that worried me. A guardian angel, in the form of another hiker, offered me some hikers wool, which I gratefully ticked around my heels before sliding on a dry pair of socks. This hiker – an American woman named Katie – and her partner, Michael, joined me for the next little bit.
South Crater lies at the top of the Devil’s Staircase, which must be what walking on the moon looks like. Golden brown rocks are scattered across the crater and Mt. Ngauruhoe looms above like a menacing sentinel.

We climbed out of the crater to a thin ridge. Here, the wind whipped around and I pulled my windbreaker and wool hat out of my pack. The next uphill was tough. The ridge is narrow and the wind was strong. Massive volcanic rocks surrounded me and some kind soul had attached a metal chain to a portion of the trail. I got stuck here, trapped behind some really slow, unfit walkers. The line of hikers trailed out behind me as I waited for a good spot to pass. This was the problem with the hike: up to five hundred people hiking meant wait times along thin bits of trail.

Reaching the edge of the Red Crater

I finally passed them and my fellow fast hikers and I reached the edge of the Red Crater and the path to the summit of Tongariro.
After about fifteen minutes of resting our weary feet, we shouldered our packs and headed off toward the downhill slope. As I stepped gingerly down, the ground slid under me. It was the screen, and the fifty other people trying to walk downhill, moving. There was a little outcropping and people were lining up to get a picture here: of course, I would too. Katie and Michael kept going – I knew I’d see them again – and I waited my turn for a solo picture on the edge of the rock overlooking the emerald lakes.

Remember that girl who said social media wasn’t all its cracked up to be? Yeah. there were ten people in line, and the rock is situated in a way that makes it appear you are alone at the edge of a volcano. In reality… not so much!

One More Crater to Cross

The Emerald Lakes are the lakes that appear in almost every brochure for the North Island: they’re iconic and lovely. Minerals leached from the surrounding rocks give them their brilliant blue color, a sharp contrast to the golden, red, and black rocks nearby. They’re also extremely sulfuric and unfit for drinking.

I left the emerald lakes behind as I also left behind hundreds of people sitting in the sun. My walk across the Central Crater was simple, solo, and quiet. I climbed to the edge of Tapu Lake, the Blue Lake – a sacred Maori spot – and Katie and Michael. We said our goodbyes here; they shouldered their huge packs and turned back for the turnoff to their hut for the night, another three-hour walk. I went the other way: toward the Ketetahi hut and the final four hours of my hike.

The last half of the hike is a vastly different environment from the beginning: the trail winds around the slopes of Mt Tongariro, the vegetation slowly grows, and the views across Lake Taupo become more pronounced. I reached the Ketetahi hut around 1:30 and unwrapped my last bit of sandwich.  I took my shoes off here too; my feet were again feeling blistery and I wanted to dry out my socks. An older man sat next to me. He’d been behind me on the trail, his hiking poles clip-clopping in my ears.  Later, we would strike up a conversation for the last hour of the hike.

The Last Hour

I had thought we were done with the uphills, but as I came around the bend from the downhill past the Ketetahi hut, I saw that the trail stepped down, only to cross a small, rushing stream and begin to step back up again. Sixty-three steps down, sixty-three steps up.

I forgot to check the sign times when I left Ketetahi so I asked the first person I saw: a Swedish couple. He spoke excellent English, she spoke none. He and I walked along for maybe half an hour talking about everything from American politics to American TV shows to the Eurozone. She stayed about five feet behind us.
My hiking pole-clip clopping friend had passed me, but as I rounded the bend into the shaded alpine forest, he was sitting on a bench. Somewhere along here, we started walking side by side. He was in Taupo because his daughter was participating in the half-Ironman the next day. We talked about tramping – my next hike, his next one, ones I’ve heard about and want to do, etc.

End of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Soon we came to a large sign that advised we were entering a lahar area. Lahars are volcanic mudflows and they can happen suddenly and at any time during an eruption (if you’ve ever seen that volcano movie with Dennis Quaid, you’ve seen a lahar) so they advise you to listen and not enter the area if there are noises from higher on the hill. We chuckled to ourselves and kept walking. The trail winds through a flat plain and the trees are now birch and pine. The brush is softer here, not the prickly, hardy plants from the other side. All too soon, we rounded the bend and almost tripped over the hundred or so hikers who were lazily laying on the grass awaiting their rides.

We said our goodbyes there, two strangers returning to the normality of real-life after experiencing a grueling, day-long, at times treacherous, hike.

For the full story of Sarah’s New Zealand Adventure, visit

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