Kate and I continued our travels further south on the North Island and stopped in Tongariro National Park for two days. Tongariro, established in 1887, is New Zealand’s oldest national park and was the world’s fourth national park. The park encompasses the high volcanic plateau of the North Island and contains 3 out of 4 of the North Island’s tallest peaks: Mount Ruapehu (2,797 meters), Mount Ngauruhoe (2,287 meters), and Mount Tongariro (1,978 meters) – all active volcanoes. Due to the sacred status of these peaks for the Maori combined with the parks incredible natural assets, Tongariro has been designated both a cultural and natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Kate and I took a drive up Mount Ruapehu in the evening to one of it’s alpine villages to get views of the park. Ruapehu is the North Island’s tallest peak and has several ski areas around the mountain. It is also one of the most active volcanoes in the world with major eruptions happening about every 50 years – the last major episode in the mid-1990’s. Ruapehu was also the cause of one of New Zealand’s worst disasters in 1953 when a lahar flowed down the mountain and wiped out a train bridge seconds before an express train arrived, sending 151 people to their deaths.
The next day, Kate and I woke before dawn to hike the famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 20 kilometer trek through the volcanic heart of the park. We had perfect weather for the crossing with crystal clear skies and warm temperatures. As the sky became light, we were lucky enough to be able to see Mount Taranaki in the far west of the North Island. The first part of the track brought us up the lower slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe, which, for you Lord of the Rings’ dorks, was used as Mount Doom (with a whole lot of CGI, of course) in Peter Jackson’s films.
Since this is a very active volcanic zone (the last eruption was in 2012), there is a warning system along the trail to notify people of imminent volcanic activity (see photo below).
After passing Ngauruhoe, we climbed the Red Crater and began to understand why over 60,000 people a year come here to hike this track. The views and colors were truly surreal – you get a bit of an idea from the photos, but to see it (and smell it) in person is a whole different experience. Seeing the colors of the Emerald Lakes alone is worth the climb.
There were steaming vents along the track from the Red Crater onward and when we dropped into the Central Crater we entered the Volcanic Hazard Zone. Climbing out of the Central Crater, we passed Blue Lake, a massive lake occupying a crater on the flanks of Mount Tongariro. After dropping elevation towards the north we passed huge steaming fumaroles of the Te Maari Crater, the site of the most recent eruptions in 2012. The area around the vents are part a large exclusion zone on the volcano – areas where public access is forbidden. The 2012 eruption sent debris through the roof of the nearby Ketatahi Hut (no one was injured) and temporarily closed the Tongariro Crossing.
This was the major highlight of the trip for Kate and I so far and we would both do it again in a heartbeat. This area is definitely a must visit for anyone traveling in New Zealand.