Travel Diary: Tongariro Alpine Crossing, NZ

A hastily planned trip to New Zealand to visit the in-laws shortly before Christmas 2010, turned out to be the vacation of a lifetime for me. A photo-holic like me can really go crazy with the camera in a country with such natural beauty as NZ. And indeed that’s exactly what happened. The highlight of the entire trip though was the 20 km alpine trek across volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park. We started the trek around 10 a.m and by the time we completed it about 8.5 hours later i had a pair of extremely sore legs, an experience unlike any other in my life and most importantly… some of the most gorgeous landscape photography i had ever undertaken, that had me exhilarated to the core. Here i attempt to virtually take you on that Alpine Crossing Trek… through my pictures. Click the pictures to see them in full screen (1280 px) size

The first view

And thus began the adventure. We drove from Auckland the afternoon previous to the trek. 5 hours later as we neared the national park, this was our first view of Mount Ruapehu, one of the 3 volcanoes that make up the Tongariro National Park. Believe it or not, two of these volcanoes are amongst the most active in the world. Ruapehu last erupted in 1995 and again in 1996 in a spectacular fashion it is said. Notice how there are still patches of snow on the mountain despite our visit being during the peak-summer months. During winter all three volcanoes are heavily blanketed by snow.

3 in golden light

By the time we entered the national park, we were about 1 hour away from sundown. We stopped by the wayside to ask directions to one of the numerous camp-sites in the park. The plan was to pitch our tents and spend a night under the stars. While the others enquired, i shot this quick panorama that shows all three of the volcanoes bathed in gorgeous light from the golden hour. The one to the extreme right is Mount Ruapehu. The one just to the left of the tree is Ngauruhoe and the last one (barely visible) is Tongariro.

the stream

After camping overnight, breakfast the next morning was a delightful experience at the edge of this forest stream, barely 50 metres from the campsite. The water, originating in the melting snow was ice-cold and refreshing as was the scent of pine in the air.

trek begins

An hour later, the trek had begun. Since some of us were first time trekkers, we decided against a round-trip trek (40+ kms) and instead organized for a car to pick us up at the end of the 20km crossing. This panorama was shot on the trail approx 10 minutes into the trek. The park authorities warn strictly against leaving the marked trail since the entire region is not only seismically active but is also a nature preserve


Devils Climb

Looking back, roughly 45 minutes into the climb and only about a fourth of the way. The depth in this picture fails to bring out the other dimensions such as height. But we were already quite high up by this time. The distinct changes visible in the colours of the landscape are due to successive eruptions. You can see the pyroclastic flows (lava) which could be anywhere between 50 to 150 years old (that’s quite recent in geological terms) and hence blacker than the rest of the landscape

The plains

At the end of the Devils climb and to the relief of the trekkers, is a large and extremely flat plateau. The 180 degree panorama taken bang at the centre of the plateau shows both, the incoming and onward traffic of trekkers. But for those who thought the climbing was over, there were still plenty of extremely demanding surprises in store

Cowboy on the Plains

Before long the plains turned to steep climbs once again. This was one rest-spot reached after a further climb of approximately 30 minutes. So gorgeous was the landscape here that you can’t help but to take a minute to look out and marvel at the beauty of nature and the art created by the earth itself

The Vent

And finally after a treacherous climb of another 30 minutes over slippery gravel paths with a steep fall on one side, you reach the summit of the Tongariro.. the highest point you will touch on the Alpine crossing. No matter what is said about the view here, it will be inadequate to describe it. What you see here is the main Volcanic vent of the Tongariro. This is where the lava comes gushing out during an eruption. The many colours are due to the heavy presence of various iron oxides and other minerals in the rocks and soil here. The feeling of adventure and accomplishment upon being there is nothing short of surreal. The ground below your feet is hot enough for you to feel it through the soles of your shoes, while all around you are micro-cracks in the mountain surface through which a steady stream of steam can be seen rising into the atmosphere. It’s almost other-worldly.. as if you are on a different planet alltogether.

Summit Pano

A Panorama of the descent side from the Summit of the Tongariro. Once you manage to get your eyes of the surreal view of the Volcanic Vent and look to the other side, this is the view that greets you. Does anything more really have to be said?

Emerald Pools

The 150 metre descent from the Tongariro summit to the first base point was the most challenging and nerve-wracking part of the trek. Full gravel, supper slippery path with steep falls on either side. I slipped and fell more than a few times on this path… and prayed a lot. Thankfully i got through it with just a few scrapes and scratches and my camera escaped unscathed. At the base point were these gorgeous emerald pools. They may look pretty, but they smelt rotten. And the reason… both the colour and the odour could be attributed to the heavy presence of Sulphur and other dissolved minerals and metals in the water.

looking back on tongariro

Look back about 200 metres on, and you see the peak of the Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu covered in patches of snow

Pyroclastic flow

And then before the final descent there is a bit of a climb again. Here in the foreground you see what is perhaps the freshest pyroclastic flow (black) from the latest eruption some 35 years ago.


As the final escent begins, you are greeted by this view of a number of lakes. Unfortunately no one could help me with info on the lake you see clearly in the foreground. However the lake you see in the distance (beyond the mountains) is Lake Taupo, one of the great freshwater lakes of New Zealand.    Edit: Thanks to a comment on this post, i now know that the lake in the foreground is Lake Rotoaira. Thank You Virtual Oceania.

Forest Stream

The final descent is the easiest part of the trek with well made paths and stress-free walking. However as a newbie to trekking, so fatigued are you by this point that all you can think of is reaching the end. The descent ends in a forest and fools many into thinking the end of the trek is near. However the winding path through the forest seems to go on and on and on. This gushing stream is one of the many serene spots you come across as you eagerly look forward to reaching the exit spot. 10 minutes from here you are welcomed by the joyous sight of the exit arch and the car-park. Congratulations… you are now part of the relatively miniscule percentage of people in the world who have experienced the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Hope you enjoyed this virtual journey!