Tongariro Crossing: Stunning but…

On our trip back north we included five nights in Ohakune in the hope that we might strike at least one day where the weather allowed us to undertake the Tongariro Crossing. Being the end of March, and mid-week, we also thought that the number of people on the crossing may be lighter.

Ngaruahoe gave us a brief peek of the summit as we headed towards our first climb up the western side of the mountains. The surrounding landscape left us is little doubt as to who would win if it decided to ‘belch’ as we shuffled past.

Day 1 was forecast to be too wet for an eight hour trek through the mountains. Day 2 also looked marginal, day 3 had heavy rain predicted and day four was another marginal but possible day. However, weather forecasting in New Zealand beyond one day is basically impossible.

What did we expect? The weather has been the ‘story of the trip’. As to the crowds we had heard about on The Crossing,  Ohakune pedestrian traffic gave us the distinct impression that they had all left town.

So, day 2 looked to be the best of a poor list of options. The forecast was for partly cloudy weather with showers developing later in the day but importantly, with mild temperatures and little wind. Ruth gave the expedition a tentative ‘thumbs-up’ after I told her that I would be the pack-horse. All she had to do was get to the other end.

The cloud was ever-present during the day and lowered as we descended the northern slope. It made it hard to see the areas of  volcanic activity as we had wandered past them. We could certainly smell them.

Rather than chance our arm with parking on the mountain, we decided to bus from Ohakune. This meant a 7:00am pick-up but from our front door.

Blue sky and a perfect view of Mt Ruapehu greeted us as we boarded the bus but by arrival at the start point for the 19.4km walk, Mounts Tongariro and Ngaruahoe were wrapped in cloud and there was a very chilling ‘breeze’ blasting down the valley between the two mountains.

There are always those who go out of their way to be ‘different’. Top: Breakfast in style on a lava flow. Below: These pajama clad people were taking selfies with a drone – in South Crater.


We later spotted one of them ‘chilling’ crater side.

The cheery bus driver gave us our pre-walk briefing:

  • “If you are not at the collection point by 4:30pm we will not wait and you will be charged if we need to come back.
  • This is an active volcanic zone, the volcano’s are just having a rest at the moment but could erupt at any time.
  • If Ruapehu erupts don’t worry, you are too far away to be in danger, just enjoy the spectacle. If Ngaruahoe erupts, get off the mountain as soon as you can, if you are still alive. If Tongariro erupts, we won’t bother coming to collect you.
  • You won’t get lost, just join the queue of people at the end of the bus stop and follow them.
  • If you need to use a toilet, good luck on reaching the other end on time.”
    When the cloud lifted we were treated to some stunning volcanic landscapes as we descended along the edge of Red Crater (top). The steaming area called Emerald lakes below us (below).


Ohakune was obviously not ‘the canary in the mine’ when it came to determining likely crowds on the mountain. At first we thought that we had been dropped at an All Blacks rugby test match venue but flailing walking poles, selfie sticks and back packs suggested we were at the start of the walk. Sign posts soon confirmed this, “Multiple Volcanic Hazards” “Stop! – are you fit enough? do you have the correct gear and clothing?”

The descent off Red Crater
Ruth starts her descent, the rocks were warm to touch.
It was good to have the poles.

The bus had moved on before we could change our mind and return to Ohakune so we joined the ‘sherpa line’ that was heading into the clouds.

We never really lost the crowds and for long sections of the journey where the track was not suitable for overtaking,  stopping to take pictures of the interesting fauna was not an option, you just had to ‘go with the flow’.

The weather was marginal. Ngaruahoe grudgingly appeared as we headed up the valley to our first climb up to the South Crater but by the time we hit the huge flat expanse of the crater all the mountain summits were surrounded by cloud. Our second climb was to Red Crater on Tongariro and we were in swirling cloud at around 6,000ft (1850m). Every now and then it would briefly lift to give us a glimpse of what we were missing.

South Crater was a vast basin. Ngaruahoe on the left was now obscured by cloud.
Red Crater is still active and very dramatic
The range of colours around Red Crater were stunning.
Central Crater is another vast basin to the north of Red Crater

As we started the steep descent down the loose (and warm) scoria, the cloud suddenly lifted and gave us some majestic views of this still active crater and the Emerald Lakes. We have driven past Tongariro on many occasions but never realised the number and size of the many craters on this mountain alone.

By the time we started the long descent down the northern slope the cloud was again rolling in and this made it difficult to see the Te Maari crater which erupted in 2012. We could see the steam billowing from it but it tended to merge with the surrounding cloud.

Passing along a steaming section of track on the descent off central crater

As with all of our long walks (DDO’s) the last part is always the longest. The many steps and steepness of some of the climbs and descents had tested many of our muscles but we took comfort from the rest of the mob, most much younger than us, who all looked to be more than a little weary. Today (the dat after) is definitely a rest day.

On many sections of the track it became a single-file shuffle. These three photos were taken as we climbed up Red Crater


The final ‘push’ up to 1,850m. Note the couple in front of Ruth. We suspected it was their honeymoon – they were wearing street shoes & clothes, nicely polished shoes but terrible for the terrain.

The walk is stunning but the crowds and the need for speed do significantly detract from the experience. But then, if something is that good, it is always going to come with a crowd. There has to be a limit and I suspect the Tongariro Crossing is probably operating well outside what is good for both the area and the visitors.

A photo of some of the hardy plants – this was snapped at speed.






  1. We never got the chance to do this epic hike when we visited New Zealand. So now we know what we missed – amazing, but possibly fleeting scenery; a pace that has to be adhered to; lots of other hikers for company. Looks like a memorable trek!


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