The track winds through a ‘moonscape’ of bizarre lava sculptures and up onto the shoulder of a towering volcanic cone, draped with a skirt of shifting cinders. Onward it goes, past red cliffs, active geothermal areas, silent emerald and blue lakes, snaking across the crater floor and descending to hot springs and native bush.
The Tongariro Crossing takes 6-8 hours and has often been described as ‘the best one day walk in the world’ for its marvellous variety of landscapes. The track is just one of the attractions of the Tongariro National Park, which was gifted to the government by Maori in 1887. It became New Zealand’s first national park. The presence of Whakapapa and Turoa ski-fields makes it the country’s most popular park.
Tongariro lies in the heart of the North Island’s Volcanic Plateau. Mt Ruapehu, at 2,797 metres, dominates the landscape and is still very active; the last eruption being in 1996. It was filmed as ‘Mt Doom’ in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Nearby Mt Ngauruhoe periodically emits a cloud of steam and the lower, heavily eroded Mt Tongariro is dormant.
The name Tongariro is derived from the Maori words ‘tonga’ meaning ‘south wind’ and ‘riro’, ‘carried away.’ The national park is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Area because of its scenic and cultural values. On a clear day the three very different volcanoes are a remarkable sight, particularly when viewed from S.H.1 between Turangi and Waiouru – the ‘Desert Road.’
Walking and tramping opportunities abound. The Northern Circuit, a New Zealand Great Walk, traverses a varied landscape of lava flows, semi-arid plains, virgin rainforest, crystal clear lakes and golden tussock. The Ruapehu Crater Lake climb starts at Iwikau Village and takes around seven hours return. Experience is required. The Silica Rapids Track passes interesting alpine features. Tama Lakes and Taranaki Falls tracks are moderate tramps to the west of Whakapapa Village.
If variety is the spice of life then Tongariro Plateau is as hot as it gets. Weird geothermal features pop up around every corner here and surprise you. The mountain scenery is breathtaking and it doesn’t take much physical effort to get amongst it. There are even chairlifts at Whakapapa and Turoa ski fields to save your legs.