The Tongariro Crossing

by David on December 14, 2009

Tongariro 101 (640x480)

Due to the volume of pictures, this is part one of a two-part post.

Reputed as the finest one-day hike in New Zealand, the Tongariro crossing is a winding, nineteen-kilometre trail through a constantly changing landscape. Formed by massive volcanic eruptions, much of the area has such a sinister look that it was used to represent the evil realm of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies.

The day I spent doing the crossing was by far the most enriching and memorable experience of my whole trip up to this point. I can’t describe what it felt like to walk through this landscape. It was like another world.

The hike’s most conspicuous peak is Mount Ngauruhoe, which starred as Mount Doom in the movies, though they had to add most of the circling dragons and giant reptile eye in post-production. Still, it is an intimidating sight in person, and its ominous silhouette was the first thing we saw when we got off the bus.

Tongariro 002 (640x480)Tongariro 008 (640x480)

The Sun, you’ll notice, is unusually bright.  Everywhere in New Zealand, sunshine is extremely bright and intense, even when it’s cold. They have the highest rate of skin cancer in the world.

Not in particularly good shape, and having been warned about the perilous “Devil’s Staircase” segment of the trail, I set out with some slight uneasiness. I knew I could finish, I just wondered if the experience would become torturous by the end of it.

Still, I marched through the easy first five kilometers as though nothing could stop me. My doubts were outshined by the inescapable beauty of the place. I’d never see anything like it, at least not since Samwise was dragging the hapless Frodo through a similar desolate wasteland.

On the boardwalk. Definitely the easiest section of the track.

On the boardwalk. Definitely the easiest section of the track.

Tongariro 012 (640x480)Tongariro 020 (640x480)

Mt. Ngaurahoe, or Mt. Doom

Mt. Ngauruhoe, or Mt. Doom

The Devil’s Staircase was, to my surprise, actually a staircase. Dozens of flights of wooden stairs had been built right into the mountain side, separated by undulating stretches of gravel. From a distance it looked rather easy, but it was indeed diabolical.

Tongariro 042 (480x640)

Tongariro 054 (640x480)

Tongariro 055 (640x480)Tongariro 051 (640x480)

The track leading up to the base of the Devil's Staircase

The track leading up to the base of the Devil's Staircase

The stairs were endless, and the stretches between them were uphill as well. I stopped to rest many times. This was the first point where I began to meet oncoming people who had turned back.

When we reached the top, we were greeted with the option of an even steeper and longer climb up Mount Doom itself:

Tongariro 065 (640x480)

Mt. Doom. Luckily I had no cursed rings to dispose of.

Mt. Doom. Luckily I had no cursed rings to dispose of.

Tongariro 067 (640x480)
I declined.

The next section was wonderfully easy: a mile or so walk across the table-flat floor of the main crater.

Tongariro 074 (640x480)

The main crater

The plateau

The plateau

The ridge of Mt Tongariro. Can you spot the four hikers?

The ridge of Mt Tongariro. Can you spot the four hikers?

Looking back at the main crater, after crossing it.

Looking back at the main crater, after crossing it.

As I walked across it I pondered the scale of the eruption it would have taken to blast a mile-wide hole in the earth.

After the main crater was another short climb up to the ridge. Instantly the still, hot air turned into blasting cold, and everyone raced to put their jackets on. I lingered for a bit and took some more pictures of Mordor. By that altitude, the vegetation had disappeared, and were it not for the brilliant Sun it would have looked mightily evil. Poor Mr Frodo.

At the Tongariro ridge, looking out over Mordor

At the Tongariro ridge, looking out over Mordor

Tongariro 096 (480x640)

Tongariro 083 (640x480)

From there, it was only a 30-minute scramble up to a landing, which I thought for a brief, satisfying moment was the summit, before noticing the real summit:

The final push to the summit

The final push to the summit

On my way up, a blood red crater (dubbed imaginatively, “Red Crater”) came into view. Down its centre ran a five-hundred-foot gash that could easily have been the gates to Hell for all I knew. Once again I pondered the earthly forces it would have taken to blast it open. Suddenly afraid of being sucked inside, I backed away from the edge and continued the ridge.

Red Crater

Red Crater

Tongariro 114 (640x480)

The mouth of Hell?

The mouth of Hell?

Minutes later I reached the summit, and was stunned by what I saw…

To be continued in part 2. (Coming very soon)

{ 3 trackbacks }

The Tongariro Crossing, Part 2 — David Goes Kiwi
December 16, 2009 at 5:01 am
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing | He Ruiming
October 23, 2013 at 7:09 am
Walks – Wanderlust by Sonal Keyal
August 28, 2016 at 7:01 pm


Erin December 15, 2009 at 12:21 pm

A magnificent landscape. I can see why they would film there. It is large, old as time itself and interesting even without the traces of ancient civilizations. So interesting.

David December 16, 2009 at 2:50 am

I would like to see the LOTR trilogy again, to see if I could spot the parallels between Middle Earth and NZ. The landscape is very distinctive; it was a perfect setting for a fantasy tale.

Delias Hozzlethorn. December 15, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Just throwing this out there, you should fly back to thailand and meet me there, so I don’t have to do the double flight.

David December 16, 2009 at 2:52 am

Sorry, I’m not going to do that. Spend the night in Hong Kong!

Lisis December 15, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Brilliant!!! I love this post! The pics, the commentary, the Lord of the Rings-ness about it, everything. I felt like I was coming along for the ride… in your backpack apparently, ’cause I’m not very tired. Holy Moly! What an amazing place! I can’t believe you left us hanging, you rascal! 😉

David December 16, 2009 at 2:52 am

Ok I’m getting to work on part two right now…

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) December 15, 2009 at 3:51 pm


like walking through a coral reef minus colour. what is the wildlife like? small and scurrying? spiky plants? any flowers?

methinks the last pic The Gates of Creation~ very fertile those lava soils.

David December 16, 2009 at 2:54 am

One amazing thing about it is that there is absolutely no animal life up there. Not even birds, until you get back down into the forest. There are only flies.

Beyond a certain elevation there is no vegetation either. On the other side (in part two) there is a lot more life.

Brenda December 16, 2009 at 1:26 pm

I’m afraid I would have had to turn back at that first sign. Whew! I’m out of breath just imagining it. Gives new meaning to the phrase ‘breath-taking view’, doesn’t it? Can’t wait to see what stunned you. NZ is certainly a country of contrasts.

charles January 13, 2010 at 4:28 pm

dude that looks amazing. i can’t believe i missed that while i was there. definitely will have to return there for this.

Laura June 3, 2010 at 11:28 am

Wow! So that’s what the Tongariro Crossing views look like on a nice day! How stunning. I was with a field study abroad trip, and we headed there in late April. There were clouds looming above, but we hiked it anyway. What a bad idea for us, we had to climb to the summit in 50mph winds and the rain was going sideways at speeds that felt like little needles hitting my face; it was too late to turn back. The final push to the summit was so incredibly steep that I was afraid I was going to get blown over the side with those winds. that’s what I saw climbing up Devil’s Staircase and thought, ‘oh, it’s just a cloud. just some mist and that’s it.’ hah. the view was awful, it was so hard to even see the wooden poles. the main crater

I can’t believe I wasn’t able to see Emerald Lakes! What a stunning view. And how lucky it was for you to have such a beautiful day for that hike!

Patricia Bidart September 28, 2010 at 2:12 pm


The mouth of hell??
That’s not what I see!!

A trip to South America not on your list??? You cant even begin to imagine the beauty you’d experience… a feast for the eyes & soul.

Suchintana September 16, 2011 at 4:22 am

WOWWWWWW………That is So amazing , I would love to go out there some time ^^ Thank you so much for your sharing.

Tricia January 5, 2012 at 10:09 pm

I loved reading your take on the walk. My husband and I just completed it a few days ago (legs are still feeling it) and at nearly 52 I think I should have done it about 30 years ago! It wasn’t a clear day though so was great seeing your photos, though the mist and clouds did clear at time to get a glimpse of the beauty and ferocity of it all. My knees and toes especially felt it at the end of the walk, with that downhill decline and those steps going on forever!!!!! Part of me would like to do it again, for the views, but I’m not sure if the knees are up to it, and would certainly want to do a bit more training before attempting it again (especially up and down hills and stairs) if I were to do so. Certainly glad that I can say I did it though …

Anne March 19, 2012 at 2:23 pm

I agree Tricia… at 53, was a challenging walk made even more challenging by the weather we encountered the day we went… rain, clouds, fog, and incredible WIND up top! We saw the Red Crater and Emerald Lakes but Mt Doom was totally hidden in the clouds… like it didn’t even exist. I would like to see what we missed but not convinced I’ll ever do it again. Nice to see David’s pictures.. look different from mine for sure!

C. Baker March 27, 2013 at 12:51 am

Woooooowwiiii! Most impressive, Dave. Superb photography! For a moment i thought i definitely would include Tangariro in my NZ itinerary this september – if i could turn the clock 30 yrs back, that is. For now, it’s best that i stay contented with what you have posted for us all to share. Thanks so much Dave. Can’t wait to see the rest in part 2.

Libby March 27, 2014 at 5:55 am

Having walked the whole trail at age 58 I can attest to the sore knees! But it was definitely one of the things to tick off my bucket list and well worth the effort. Amazing I spent so many years skiing on Mt Ruapehu (right next door) and had never taken the time to walk the crossing. Just amazing landscape and looking at your photos they are all so similar to mine, it was uncanny. Glad I completed the whole trail before the mountain erupted and closed the trail for some time. You certainly know that you are in a very foreign environment. Great photos and story David. Great to see you promoting NZ. Certainly a great place to live.

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