Travel memories #1: Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand

View looking back at Red Crater with Mount Ngauruhoe in the background (photo © Tim Liew)


Tongariro Alpine Crossing, on New Zealand’s North Island.


11th March 2005.


Commonly ranked as the best one-day walk in New Zealand – and one of the top ten anywhere in the world – the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a spectacular 18.5-kilometre walk across volcanic and alpine terrain in the Tongariro National Park, a designated World Heritage site. The route traverses the multi-cratered active volcano Mount Tongariro, passing the base of Mount Ngauruhoe, which fans of the Lord of the Rings films will recognise as Mount Doom.

Despite its popularity, breathtaking views and deserved reputation, only 65,000 people complete the crossing every year. It is not for the faint of heart or those on a tight tour itinerary, but it is certainly well within the compass of anyone who is moderately fit and suitably prepared for conditions which can vary from blazing hot to hypothermia-inducing on the same day. Typically taking between five and seven hours to complete, it is well worth a day of anyone’s time.


We tackled Tongariro about a week into a whirlwind 17-day trip to New Zealand in which we raced from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island taking in the wonders of this most diverse of countries.

It was a particularly well-timed holiday for me, as I was already on a long wind-down after my entire team at the BBC had been made redundant just three weeks before. That decision had cheered me no end, as I was already job-hunting anyway (and subsequently lined up my next job within three weeks of returning). As a result, I was either going to the gym or taking long walks in the Chilterns four days a week, and was as light and fit as I have ever been. (Not that strolling up and down a few hills really prepares you for a leg-burning climb which starts at around 900 metres above sea level and peaks at nearly 1,900 metres!)

There had been a huge amount of anticipation leading up to the day itself. Both Heather and I had made some effort to prepare ourselves physically. And, knowing that conditions in the early autumn could often be hazardous, we had allowed ourselves a two-day window to attempt the crossing. So when our first booking had to be cancelled because of predicted winds in excess of 90kph, there was a very real danger that we would be unable to do the walk at all. Fortunately, the forecast was deemed safe enough – just – on our second and final day, and we were allowed to join maybe 150 others at the start at Mangatepopo.

After a gentle first hour gently rising through the Mangatepopo valley, the serious climbing begins with a 200-metre near vertical scramble up what is fittingly termed the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ and then, after walking across the flat of South Crater, a tricky ascent along an exposed ridge of ancient lava flow.

The Devil's Staircase. In reality it's even steeper than it looks

This section of the walk is seared into my memory – and my legs. By the time we had reached the top of the Devil’s Staircase, every muscle in the lower half of my body was screaming with the burning sensation of lactic acid.

And the walk up the ridge was little better. While not treacherous, it was steep, narrow, slippery and exposed enough to warrant care in perfect conditions – and we were doing it while being buffeted by a freezing 50-60kph wind that made us thankful we were wearing several layers of clothing.

To top it all off, we were enveloped in thick clouds which reduced visibility to as little as 10-20 metres. I could hear other walkers not far ahead of us on the track, but not see them at all. Scenery? What scenery? What little we could see looked more like the surface of the moon.

No, we're not on the moon

I was just starting to question why we were bothering with this when, in the space of no more than a couple of dozen paces, we suddenly broke out of the cloud and were greeted by the most amazing close-up view of Red Crater, Mount Ngauruhoe and, coming into view just a few steps later, the Emerald Lakes, which are surrounded by plumes of sulphurous steam.

Red Crater. Can you see where the volcano erupted?
Emerald Lakes. The colour comes from mineral leaching out of the surrounding rock

The sense of achievement and wonder at completing the climb – the peak overlooking Red Crater is at 1,886 metres, more than 500m higher than the summit of Ben Nevis (the highest point in the UK) – was quite something. And it was somehow made better for the fact that we had been denied any kind of view for the previous hour, only for this vista of spectacular views to be revealed with a flourish. I could have sat there all day, looking across at the Tongariro and Ngauruhoe peaks, gazing down at Emerald Lakes, or just staring slack-jawed at the destructive power so evident in the scarred Red Crater just a couple of hundred metres away.

In truth, I can remember little about the descent through a gorgeous and subtly changing alpine valley other than the fact I was tired, thirsty and conscious that we were among the slowest walkers on the day and had a bus to catch. But my one abiding memory was a brief period of perhaps five minutes when there were no other walkers either in sight or in earshot. We stopped for a moment and realised that all around us was complete silence – no birds, no rustling of leaves, no human sounds. It was the first – and perhaps only – time in our lives that we have truly been alone in the world.

It was a moment that will live with me forever. Whenever I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed by my day-to-day life, this is the one moment I bring to the front of my mind to centre myself again. I have seen many great, awe-inspiring sights in the world, but this is my favourite travel experience ever. And that’s why it is my travel memory number one.

Enjoying a well-deserved glass of wine at the end of a long day

Link: Tongariro Alpine Crossing website, Wikipedia