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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.

In the winter, the mountain is like a scene out of Narnia - sweeping panoramas of snowy moonscapes and cotton-wool clouds, glistening beneath the rising sun. From Red Crater, the highest point at 6,188 ft, the world below fades from view; no cityscapes on the horizon, no whirring groan of highways. But while the landscape was beautiful to the eye, it was somewhat deadlier under foot. On the sheer slopes the snow had frozen into ice. With no crampons or ice picks, we plowed ahead with bruised knees and stubborn determination. As the ascent steepened, a feeble chain hung on an 80-degree slope. Clinging on to it, my legs slipped from beneath me on the ice, my body slamming into the rock face, dangling like bait on a line. At another point, the sheer decent down the volcanic crater was so icy it was impossible to walk, so unabashed I settled on sliding down on my arse. Dignified? No. Safe? Definitely not. Fun? Hell yes.

But its beauty obscures a more sinister tale. In 2015, a German backpacker slid fifty meters down the icy slope near the summit and had to be rescued by air ambulance. And as recently as March 2016, a hiker died attempting to make the crossing. Thankfully, I only discovered this when I was safely back on street level.

Kiwis are the friendliest people I've met in all of my experience globetrotting. From a stranger’s outstretched hand as I slid down an icy descent, to words of encouragement hurled down snow verges - it was a refreshing change from that archetypal British reserve.

I struggled up Tongariro in a battered pair of walking boots, but my friend made the audacious decision to attempt the climb in her Nikes. While she spent the majority of her time horizontal, the kindness of kiwis was out in full force. A couple of seasoned hikers maneuvered her up the slopes, imparting a pearl of wisdom: a pair of socks over your shoes increases grip and saved my friend’s rear from likely hyperthermia.

But ultimately, the gain outweighed the pain. Walking through an active volcanic crater in the snow is an otherworldly experience. Nestled in the hollow of the mountain are the Emerald Lakes, azure blue water crystalized under a lens of ice. Throwing rocks onto the frozen surface we heard them resound, echoing across the snow planes like a timpani. The landscape was a kaleidoscope, in constant flux. From ice and snow we descended into alpine woods, sweeping forested panoramas and mud tracks. We fell through all four seasons on the Tongariro Crossing.


Serene woodland walk it was not, but sometimes the unexpected adventures are the best ones.

Shona is the winner of The National Student's Student Travel Writer 2015 competition and is travelling in New Zealand with STA Travel.

The winner's prize in the Student Travel Writer 2016 competition is a 12-day trip to Cambodia with Tripwire and Tru Travels . For more information and to enter click here

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