12/15 The Tongiriro Crossing

Tongiriro Car Park to Whakapapa Holiday Park

27 k, 9 bonus k

It’s 1:37 am. I am wide awake. The stars are so bright they are practically humming above us- it’s the first time I’ve seen the Milky Way in this country.

There is an alarm set to sing at 2:00; coffee is prepped to light, breakfast will be granola bars as we hike, which is planned to be by 3:00 am.

When the alarm goes off, I am excited for the day. Everyone else must be as well, because we are all packed, caffeinated, and hiking with ten minutes to spare. We file through the forest, each following our own headlamp beam, stars winking through the gaps in the boughs above us. It’s a climb from the start, and will be for the first 11 kilometers. There are a lot of stairs and switchbacks, and we parallel a stream routed into a wooden chute that bounds the trail. A little ways up, we reach a sign- ‘Lahar Danger Zone- no stopping 1700 meters.’ Well that sounds exciting. We make it across un-Lahared, and then I stop to strip off layers. Even at 3:30, I am down to skirt and bamboo shirt, and still slightly sweating. I start to worry that 3 liters of water won’t be near enough once we are exposed to the sun up high.

We climb and climb and suddenly, pop out above tree line. It is startling, since the headlamps have only revealed the small circle of trail for our next footstep, and we all switch off the lights so we can stare at the unveiled sky in wonder. The stars are immaculate; a meteor streaks across the sky, then another. The volcanoes around us border the spectacle above with mysterious black silhouettes. The white steam pluming from the overheated vents reflects a ghostly glow from the starlight. It feels like we are walking through a spell.

Above the humidity and warm stillness of the trees, the temperature plummets. Clothes start getting layered back on, and I feel newly secure in my water allotment. Now that the stars are glowing and there is nothing shading the light, a few in the group leave the red light option on, but headlamps are no longer necessary. I switch mine off completely and lag to create space. The path almost glows, and the strange shapes of the brush and the mountains slowly gain texture as my eyes adjust. Vapor billows up off the ridges and out of deep rocky folds, and the moon, a thin crescent the color of high quality butter, rises over one flank. Occasionally I notice another streak in the sky as a star shoots or a meteor burns up, depending on one’s inclination towards idealism or realism.

Prana and I speed up as we notice the sky starting to lighten; we want to be at the hut for sunrise and don’t want to miss it. Some rocks are not as flat as my brain perceives them to be in the low light, and I sprawl hard on the sharp lava stones of the trail. My hand and knee sting, but no serious damage. The wind blows harder as we climb stairs onto a more exposed ridge and finally arrive at the hut as orange and pink seeps into the portion of eastern sky visible around the end of the ridge. Damn it is cold! Prana peeks inside- four people asleep. The hut used to be a reservation-based spot to camp, but was damaged in a 2012 earthquake. It doesn’t look that damaged to me, but I wonder if the sleepers stayed warm. The porch is lovely and expansive, even if it is freezing; it will do fine for a sunrise viewing. I guess we won’t be able to technically see the sun rise, but the realization is not as disappointing as it sounds; the magic is in the gradual revelation of the landscape spread out below us.

Lakes covered in dense fog fill the gaps between dramatic peaks and parallel ridges; all coalesce from the shadows, and then tinge pink in the golden morning light.

We take a few pictures, then pull out our stoves to get some hot brews going. Round two on the hot coffee for Prana and I (hedonism!). I shiver violently while wearing every single piece of clothing in my pack, including rain gear, waiting for the water to heat up. Mario lets out a yelp and there is a split second where I believe the porch is on fire-oh shit- before understanding that he hadn’t taken the silver pot cozy off the silver pot before setting it on the live burner. The dying flames that I thought were licking through the porch are just the remnant puddles of plastic and chemicals cremating themselves. A giddy, sleep deprived giggle ripples through the group. “I knew it should have been a different color than the pot!” laments Mario. The sky brightens and the edges crease, the colors start to discern themselves, and we stamp and shuffle and warm our hands on hot cups, still shivering. Mike the Scot steps out of the cabin, also shivering. “Good morning.”

Most of the sunrise show over, we pack up quickly and hope the hiking will warm us. The path snakes up the ridge, which appears to be mostly mud frosted with tiny, hardy ground cover plants. It’s striking in its austerity, though, and quite a refreshing diversion from the tree tunnels and farmlands. We climb and climb at a gentle grade on a wide tread. When we top the rise, we look across a huge flat expanse of what can only be the surface of another planet. Mind boggling! The trail contours the edge of Blue Lake, structured similarly to Crater Lake in Oregon, although much smaller in scale. On the opposite side of the giant flat field, which is in fact the central crater of Mt Tongiriro, is Red Crater, a beautifully complex and recently active mouth.

The trail leads across the central crater floor and climbs up the side of Red Crater. Snuggled at the base of Red Crater are the Emerald Lakes, an alluring set of otherworldly gems.

The climb up around the side of Red Crater is a loose silt slide that is a bit of 1 step forward, 3/4 step back dance. The views in every direction are spectacular, the angles over the lakes changing their shapes, and rows of steaming and pluming ridges becoming exposed in the distance. Topping the side of the Red Crater, one can look down into the depths of the abyss. It was mind-scrambling. “There was a Swedish couple that disappeared last year off this walk. They were never seen again,” Prana says in a low voice to me. The sensation of sliding in the silty-gravel rim and then tumbling in overtakes me. Yikes. We are now up on the highest level, the South Crater of Mount Tongiriro. From here we are able to get on the summit ridge to the peak of Tongiriro, which I had mistakenly thought was the starkly symmetrical cinder cone; the cone was in fact Mount Ngaurahoe. Summiting Tongariro did give us amazing views of Ngaurahoe, the peak who played Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. We pass several phalanxes of jagged gendarmes, and some smooth sandstone-like shields.

As we reach the summit, the clouds descend, cloaking the views in a constantly shifting, cold mist.

We start to shiver, and reverse a few steps to a wind-sheltered place to have lunch. Well, first lunch, considering it is not even 9:00 am. I packed my sleeping bag on top for just this occasion; Prana and I eat PB & Honey wraps while cuddled underneath, watching the mist blow in and blow out, conceal and reveal, shroud and divulge. It is hypnotic.

Not only is the break lovely for the sake of taking a break, but it allows quite a few people to pass by. So many reports of the crossing we had heard warned of the difficulty of walking against the flow of crossers, describing it as if we would have to shoulder our way against the flow, force our way between them. The mist clears and we can see an ant parade of walkers filling the pathway. While there are lots of people, yes, the path is also absurdly wide, and once we pack up and return to the main crossing trail, it is not anything like what we have been led to anticipate. Descending Tongariro, the clouds clear completely from the top of Ngaurahoe for the first time.

I wish I had the desire to climb this one too, but, much as I dig to search for it, it isn’t in there today. I can see the climb would be 2,000 feet up the ashy grit that slides out from under you at almost the speed you ascend it, a bit like going up a one-third mile high down-escalator; the notes advise a three hour round trip for the fit and enthusiastic. Pair that with almost guaranteed lack of views from today’s clouds, and it goes on the ‘next time’ list. It’s enough to simply be up here among these enchanting giants today.

We finish crossing the high plateau of the craters of Tongiriro and begin the long descent down the back side. Most of this face is made up of lava flows and the subsequent rocks from the previous centuries; it is a bleaker, barren face compared to the other side. After dumping 1000 feet of elevation, we stop for second lunch (elevensies!) at the appropriate time, and peel off the outer layer of rain gear for the first time today. Ventilating relief! The tiredness in my body and fog in my brain are not congruent with the early time of day on my watch. What a magical day so far! There was so much packed into it, it feels eleven days long.

We spread out on the boardwalks that lead gently away from the lava fields. The strange succulents and shrubs return to dot the dark pumicey earth.

Eventually the boardwalks end at a sign pointing to Whakapapa Village. The other branch leads to the much closer conventional end of the crossing, where most of the hordes undoubtedly started. The sign to Whakapapa notes ‘9km/3 hrs – May Take Longer In Bad Weather’. We all mock-resignedly observe it has nothing to do with bad weather: if the TA has chosen to go that way, the track is the type that will simply take longer. Prana amends the sign.

The track indeed slowly degrades from a fairly traveled tread to a half pipe cut into slippery clay. I am immeasurably grateful that we are not slogging through this in any kind of wet weather- I can see how it would become intolerable. But the walking is not that terrible, and I almost enjoy it, as I find the type of footwork reminiscent of shallow canyon walking. (I will be embarrassed to admit this to others in the group in the future days, as all others denounce this section with vehemence.) The thing I find most unpleasant about this stretch is the tyrannical heat. I cannot even reconcile that shivering uncontrollably with painful hands was only hours ago in this same day.

Prana is waiting for me at the last short turnoff to the Holiday Park where we are basically required to stay tonight. For once I don’t mind as much, as it has been 15 days since our last showers. I had spotted this junction in the map, though, and already decided to take the long way around to the Holiday Park so that I could swing past Taranaki Falls. Prana knows of this plan, but I suspect he hopes I’ve changed it. I reassure him I am perfectly happy to go on my own and meet up later, and he decides to join me. He is a bit worn from the day and not convinced the extra mileage will be worth it, and we walk slowly along the gorgeous creek, winding through groves of a beautiful white-barked tree I haven’t seen before and don’t know how to identify. There are several charming little drops and cascades where the creek has carved the bed into lovely fluted shapes. Taranaki Falls itself is not disappointing.

The loop climbs to the top of the falls and crosses treeless bogs with long ranging views.

I am pleased to have finished the day by ambling along this quiet path, sharing a few words and a companionable silence with Prana. We close the loop and walk the few blocks to the holiday park, where the staff are friendly, and the other 4 of our crew have saved us a tent spot next to them. We celebrate the day with a pair of mint ice cream bars and a hot hot shower- the best shower on the trail so far, hands down. Scrubbed clean and brain-tired, we all turn in as soon as dinner is consumed.

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