Lessons Learnt Hiking New Zealand's Tongariro Crossing
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I embarked on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the same way you might walk into a patio door, or a pothole - completely unawares. I am not a particularly daring person. I double-check the sell by date on the milk; I look three times before crossing a road. I’ve never felt the inclination to throw myself out of a plane or bungee jump over a canyon. I’m far more at ease with my feet on the ground and a mug of tea close to hand. But when I jetted off to New Zealand’s North Island for The National Student, I was determined to step away from the kettle, strap on some balls and venture gingerly out into the unknown. And sure enough, on the Tongariro Crossing, my comfort zone became a distant spec on the horizon. The Tongariro National Park is the oldest national park in New Zealand. It’s one of a select few locations in the world to boast dual world heritage status, recognized both for its natural and cultural significance. Thumb through tourist brochures and guidebooks and you’ll find the Tongariro Alpine Crossing emblazoned in emphatic typeface, exalted as one of the country’s most popular day hikes. At a distance of 12 miles, it passes over the active volcano of Mount Tongariro, and along the eastern base of Mount Ngauruhoe, climbing a total of 3,698 ft. It’s a well-trodden path, undertaken by some 60,000 odd people a year. In the winter months, the crossing is usually restricted to guided parties. And even then, 50% of the time the mountain is closed due to perilous conditions. Yet, against all odds, we arrived on a rare June day in which it was open to unguided hikers. As I signed my name on the acceptance form, head still fogged with jet leg, I imagined an idyllic walk through the woods, skipping through the New Zealand wilderness in slow motion, nothing too arduous. As we drove toward the park, I had the niggling feeling I’d got the wrong end of the stick. Perhaps it was the ominous silhouette of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom of Lord of the Rings), or the crumpled map in my hands, outlining the route up the reassuringly named Devil’s Staircase… Drawing up to the crossing at eight in the morning, the sun just rising over the snow-capped peaks, our driver hastily dispatched forms throughout the bus. What's this for? I asked, bleary-eyed. Oh we need emergency contact details in case you don't make it off the mountain by four. I furrowed my brow. For mountain rescue? She nodded, but usually it's too late by then, she added with a smile. Well don’t sugar coat it. Healthy and safety in New Zealand is somewhat of a casual affair in comparison to the UK. While we have tight-lipped officials, overzealous fencing and glaring warning signs, New Zealand has the odd notice dotted about that amounts to a shrugged 'if you try to climb the mountain and you’re not fit enough, it's on you mate'. No British hand holding or authoritarian bulletins.
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