New Zealand: Trekkers Paradise-Tongariro National Park
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most popular treks in New Zealand, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly. In fact weather changes are so sudden and dangerous that there’s a strict control of who goes in and out and when. It also requires at least an average physical condition and about four days of your time. This said if Tongariro doesn’t suit your fancy there are several other great to enjoy that are shorter.
Getting there is quite easy along the well paved roads. You will probably arrive from Taupo, bordering the eastern bank of the North Island’s (and country’s) largest lake. At 660 km sq this lake is in fact the crater of a huge volcano; simply imagining what the eruption must have been like makes one shiver.
Many travel guides recommend you stop at one of the nearby DOC Visitor Centers. The one in Turangi is set right besides a river and lake, and is a good place where to spend the night before heading to the park the following day. It’s imperative you plan ahead your trek, and thus asking for weather forecasts, current trek conditions and different trekking options is advisible. Turangi is also famous for fly fishing, and while there we spent some time looking at the few aficionados that were perched on the rocks- none of them ever caught a single rainbow trout, a species that was introduced in the lake and is now abundant. If you feel like becomming an expert in this sport or simply want to give it a try there are many clubs and organizations that will help you.
The best hikes to the park begin along its western side, and this is where you should head to. You’ll be driving along HWY 47 if comming from the north or HWY 4 if you do so from the south . If comming from the north I recommend one of the passengers keeps an eye out the left windows of the car as there are excellent views of the area and are well worth pulling over for a picture or two.
If you’re not planning on doing the 4 day trek but would like at least to go for a walk I highly recommend the option we chose: the 5 hour (17 km) round trip hike to the Tama Lakes. You will certainly get tired, enjoy spectacular views of Mt Tongariro and contemplate the stunning lakes. To do this make your way up Mangatepopo Road early in the morning and continue all the way to where the visitor center and hotels are located- it is here you can leave your car in any of the free parkings. You can ask for a free map of the area and then simply follow the well marked paths. There is a loop for this option; I recommend you see the Taranaki Falls from beneath first and from above on the way back.
It will probably be windy no matter what time of the year you go in, and chances are you will see snow as well. Walking at a quick pace will let you stay warm, and you will reach your destination sooner; it would be a pity if you walked too slowly and the weather changed enough to make you have to return, not having a chance to see the lakes. Make sure you have plenty of water and a snack with you to replinish your energy.
Despite walking quickly and thinking we were going to accomplish the trek in less time than expected it took us just over 5 hours to see it all, with a 15 minute break at the lakes included. You will see several hikers along the way, so don’t worry if you think you can get lost.
Once back in the car you can drive further up the road to where Whakapapa Ski Area is. You would expect the views from up there to be amazing, but the truth is that they are nicer along the way. We pulled our camper van over and enjoyed our meal on the curb, and also filmed a bit.
Whether you’re a natural born hiker or not Tongariro National Park should certainly be part of you New Zealand route. Make sure you bring your camera, and even if the weather doesn’t let you take any breathing fresh air in the mountains of New Zealand is a wonderful experience by itself. So get your hiking gear and make your way to Tongariro!