The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of New Zealand’s great walks. At 19.4 kilometers (12 miles), the distance isn’t the killer, so much as the terrain. In 2007, alpine was added to the name by the Department of Conservation to warn flip-flop-wearing tourists of just how unforgiving the terrain can be.
Our adventure began in Wellington when Jess picked me up in the campervan. (Details soon!) Our first foray into the bush, we drove four hours north to Tongariro National Park where we turned down a remote gravel road and set up shop on the outskirts of nowhere.
After a night in the wild, we awoke the next morning and caught a shuttle to the start. Along with a bible belt football stadium’s worth of fellow hikers, we began the parade north from the Mangatepopo car park in pursuit of a thorough beating. The trail meandered through a valley without much elevation change before switchbacking up to the south crater – the point where sensible folks continued on while the masochists among us stared up at Mt Ngauruhoe like a gambler stares at four aces.
Three hour return trip to the summit, the sign read. I checked my phone. Despite our late start, we (I) was determined to climb it – so after a lunch of avocado and salami, we (I) began happily up the real-life mount doom while Jess questioned why she married me.
The higher we climbed, the steeper it got. Not to be outdone by the occasional frumpy chick passing us, Jess trudged along behind me without much conversation. A mix of sand and ash, the ground beneath us slipped with each step. I watched the sun move through the sky as we made our way to the top.
Three hours later and we reached the summit. A million mile view of Taranaki to the west, Raleigh to the east and Taupo to the north. Peering into the volcano exposed an otherworldly pit – black, red, doom, gloom … you could just see the lava spewing from it. We circled the rim, made the sketchy 45-minute decent and continued on.
Another couple kilometers and we came upon the emerald lakes.
Eight hours in, we stopped to pump water from a lake. Sip, sip, munch, munch and thus began our ultimate decent to the Ketetahi carpark. Steam billowing in the distance, we wound our way down the mountain, eventually passing the hut that was damaged from a 2012 eruption. The entire crossing smelled of danger, as signs everywhere warned of exposure, extreme temperatures, lack of drinking water, falling rocks and volcanic activity.
11 hours later and we crossed the finish line. Hot dog. Our headlamps ablaze, we returned to the campervan, both giddy to have finished and famished like the master cleanse. The side trip up mount doom put us around 14 miles. Hardest hike ever, second only to day three of my bachelor party in the Tetons. This was a stunner you guys. Wish you could have seen it!
As is customary on massive hikes, the last two hours were spent fantasizing about the feast ahead. I had scouted a few restaurants in advance, and was drooling at the thought of prime rib and one too many pints. But to our sheer horror, every restaurant in town was closed by the time we arrived, save for Burger King. So there we were, dirty and tired, pregaming wine in the back of a messy campervan, in the middle of New Zealand, about to drop $32 on some dogshit food.
It’s a brave new world and sometimes you’ve gotta be brave just to eat it.