On a Wednesday morning in March I began my eight-hour trek across lava and ash in the land of Mordor New Zealand’s oldest national park—Tongariro. This area is part of the Taupo Volcanic Field, and in the park there are three main volcanoes: Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe (pronounced nar-uh-ho-ee), and Mt Tongariro.
The geology of this area is really cool and relatively young. The volcanoes are composite, formed by layers of ash and lava flows. The last eruption from Mt Tongariro was in August of 2012 and was only a gas and steam eruption, and when Ngauruhoe last erupted in 1977 she threw bombs and ash up to 3km away. The name Ngauruhoe actually means “throwing hot rocks.” Not a fact you want to know before climbing up to her crater, let me tell you. Nightmares on nightmares on nightmares the night before my hike.
It was a wee bit chilly when we started out in the morning, but it wasn’t really that cold. I had on a long-sleeved shirt and a fleece and I was fine, if not a bit too warm. All the guidebooks advise you to bring wool hats, gloves and several layers, but for summertime in this area that all is not necessary. If anything you can just tough out the cold for an hour and then after the sun comes up you’re fine. I also didn’t have hiking boots—did the whole thing in my Nike running shoes and that was no problem at all. You also don’t even need a map because there are literally thousands of people also tramping on the Crossing and the path is well marked, unlike quite a few other tracks I’ve been on in New Zealand. DO bring sunscreen, a rain jacket and lunch!
By New Zealand standards, I would say that most of the Tongariro Crossing is fairly easy except for a small bit in the middle when you climb up to Red Crater and then back down to the Emerald Lakes. If you’re feeling adventurous you can add on side-trips to the summits of Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, but you have to make sure to make it to your end transport on time!
Ngauruhoe was the volcano known as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings films, so obviously I had to climb it. If you notice in the movies, Frodo and Sam keep stumbling and struggling to climb up the mountain, and truth be told, the volcano is actually that difficult to climb. You’re basically climbing up a steep slope of unconsolidated ash and small lava rocks and for every three steps forward you sink two steps back down slope.
It took just over two hours for us to climb to the 2291m summit, where we stopped for a quick lunch break. The views from the top were absolutely spectacular and made the horrible trek up. Plus, now I can say that I’ve climbed Mt Doom!
As we descended from the top the clouds swarmed in around us, which made our way down kind of eerie as we couldn’t see where we were going! And of course, going down on the unconsolidated lava rock and ash was much easier but still very dangerous. Lots of people kicking up big rocks and causing rock avalanches. I cannot believe that they even let people climb up this volcano! This would not be a thing in the states.
Back at the bottom, we only had four hours to complete the rest of the track so that my hiking buddy could get back to her shuttle in time. Along the rest of the route we passed the Red Crater, the Emerald Lakes, and Blue Lake.
Alongside the path during the last 2 hours down to Ketetahi car park there were still clear remnants of the last eruption, such as this crater from a volcanic bomb impact!
By the end of the day I was exhausted but the thrill and excitement lingered on. This was the perfect LotR and geology nerd’s paradise!