Warrior Mountains: the Tongariro Crossing

They say pain is temporary; art is forever. Whoever coined this phrase must have just completed the Tongariro Crossing.

I grew up hearing the legend of the Warrior Mountains from my grandfather, so a chance to walk in their midst was well overdue. It was a bright late summer's day, warm with a clear blue sky as we hurtled down SH1, the trees beginning to show their autumn colours.


Our first mountain to meet is Ruapehu. It is a steady drive up to the Chateau Tongariro but becomes a lot harder to Whakapapa. Ruapehu, snowless in summer, is magnificent. The sealed road twists and turns through rock and yellow moss spreading out in a landscape huge in scale, while the twisted and tortured folds of rock that is a naked Ruapehu rears up beside you.

At Whakapapa we ride the ski lift to the highest point in New Zealand, the Knoll Ridge Cafe. It doesn't matter how many times I ride ski lifts or cross mesh floors on swing bridges, or – the worst – helicopters with the doors taken off, the same feelings of vertigo kick in. The upside is the views. At 1600 metres you are literally on top of the North Island.

The crossing

With one mountain behind us, we drive into the Tongariro Crossing car park. I counted three large tour coaches, six motorhomes and around 20 vehicles, mostly vans and cars. At least if the mountains grumbled we would have company.

With backpacks loaded with water bottles and chocolate bars we were off, energetic and full of high spirits joking about the signs we passed in the car park: 'In the event of an eruption please leave the area immediately'.

"I'd ring a taxi or maybe look for a white stallion…"

"I'd just sit there and cry…"

Tongariro _7

The first hour was leisurely as small bushes and flax thinned out and boardwalks took over protecting the delicate ground covered in moss and broken rock of every colour imaginable.

Then, all of a sudden it got serious. Just past a group of round-shaped toilets we were standing at the bottom of a series of stairs that disappeared into the mist above. This was the Devil's Staircase and, from what I had read, was a major undertaking. Up it went, moving from side to side.

At about halfway there was a seat made from rock-filled wire netting. I plonked down. Oh to be 20 years younger! When I eventually reached the top an hour later, a large group of trampers was resting up in an area with signs pointing in every direction.

From here the landscapes were truly epic in nature bringing to life the stories I was told as a boy. The scale and size of them were otherworldly. You had to stop often to take it all in. From the signs you enter this huge amphitheatre of yellowish brown earth ringed by high cliffs.

Through the middle you could see a well-trodden path with the trampers on it, getting smaller in size as they reached the other end against a high rock wall.

"Another Devil's Staircase bro," quipped my friend with a slight smile.

Thankfully he was wrong. Weaving between large rock outcroppings, the path slowly snaked up the flank of Tongariro. I finally staggered to the top, to a sight spread out before me that I will never forget: three small lakes, one coloured a deep lime green and a larger one in the distance beyond another light brown amphitheatre where I could see tiny people making their way across the plain far below.

Surreal, epic and legendary are the only words I can use to describe the scene before me. And as the photographer in me kicked, my tired legs were forgotten for a while.

At the mid-point, we had to return to our vehicle. My young friend walked on ahead. When I finally reached the car, he was fast asleep on the backseat. Yet, despite sore legs that took a couple of days to recover, I wouldn't have missed this walk for anything.

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