April 4, 2014. I took the walk of a lifetime today. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island is said to be New Zealand’s best one-day walk. I must say I had serious misgivings about taking on this adventure. Even though I am reasonably fit for my age, what I had read made me think that its length and nature might be beyond my capacity. Besides, a couple of days ago in Auckland Bay, I walked with our friend Pam up the slope of an extinct volcano on the island of Rangitoto. It was a much shorter walk than todays, yet it still left me sweaty and depleted.
Mentally, I gave myself an out by thinking I could walk part way and return to the start. The practical problem with this plan is that the start of the crossing is twenty kilometers from where we are staying with no regular bus service. Hikers make arrangements with a local company called ROAM to transport them to the starting point and pick them up at the end. When I told the head driver my intentions, he explained that the toughest part of the walk is the first four hours and that if I went that far I might as well do the whole journey. Besides, if I turned back earlier, I would have no way of getting back to the cottage. In view of these circumstances, I would do the whole walk.
On the bus to the starting point there were twelve of us. As we rode, we had to write personal information on a form, including our names, country of origin, mobile number, and age. I was the last to add my information, and as I looked over what others had written, I realized I was nine years older than the next oldest hiker. Most were in their 20s and 30s; all except me and one Brit were from northern European countries, predominantly from Germany and Austria.
So, at 8:30 I began to walk. It was easy going at first, mildly up hill along a well-marked path. We were blessed with good weather; the morning was cool with alternating sun and clouds. This clear weather would continue all day, giving us great views of the otherworldly landscape we passed through.
This part of New Zealand is rightly called the Volcanic Plateau. Our Alpine Crossing took us through an active volcanic zone. We climbed to South Crater and then to the trail’s highpoint at Red Crater, 800 meters in all, roughly 2,500 feet.
Some of our most spectacular views included crater lakes, one of which was bright green and smelled of sulfur. Hot gasses seeped from vents along the way. Signs warned us of the possibility of an eruption. Towards the end of our passage a large plume of gas escaped skywards. Mostly, the slopes of these volcanic peaks were black; however, at places they contained other colors, reds predominantly, and sometimes greens and yellows. Neither trees nor bushes grow there. Our views were stark. Across this desolate landscape we could see a long way in the clear air. Below and above us, the colors of distant hikers’ clothes and backpacks stood out sharply against the dark backgrounds.
The trail we followed is extremely well maintained. In some places there are boardwalks covered with a heavy wire mesh for better traction. Some of the climbs are a series of steps made by lumber set horizontally and backfilled with dirt and ash. I walked up and down several hundreds of these stairs in the course of the day. There were times, however, when we just had to scramble up and down rocky slopes, some of which were quite steep. Previous trekking experience had taught me the value of hiking poles; thankfully I had a pair with me today, bought a couple days earlier in Auckland.
Many of us were doing this crossing, at least a couple hundred and perhaps more. It was hard to tell since our column was strung out a long distance over a vast landscape. Time and again I would be walking with the same men and women, and I would step aside to let the younger and speedier ones pass me. Most of them were clearly young and fit. There were a few older types, too. I walked beside one white-whiskered veteran for a while who appeared more aged than I. He was a Brit from the English Midlands and spoke with a strong accent. He was dressed in short pants with gaiters around his bony shanks and claimed to be 86, which astonished me. He could have been, though; he walked slowly and referred to the rest of us as “young whippersnappers,” comically so in my case.
During the climbing stages I stopped frequently to catch my breath and gird myself for the next ascent. Fortunately, in the cool air I didn’t perspire as much as I would have under other conditions. I had dressed in layers, wearing a warm jacket on top, one that I’ve carried since the beginning of this voyage and not worn until now. It and the sweater beneath came off so that for much of the day I wore only a long-sleeved shirt with an undershirt beneath.
I didn’t have a proper trekking backpack, only the one I carry on city walks. I had stuffed it with one-and-a-half liters of water, my camera, and some snacks. Most of my stops were in order to take photos. I kept my rest breaks short because I didn’t know what lay ahead and didn’t want to miss my ride back to the cottage where Kay and I were staying. The last pickup was to be at 5 p.m.
The length of the crossing is 19.4 kilometers. This may not sound like much, but I’m glad it wasn’t any longer. The last six kilometers were mildly downhill, and by that time I was really tired. The final stage passed through a wooded area where the sun was mostly obscured by overhanging trees. Underfoot the ground was moist. At one point there was a sign by a dry stream bed, warning that the next 700 meters was a dangerous Lahar Zone. At the time I didn’t know the meaning of “lahar,” but the sign said that if I heard a loud noise coming from upstream, I was to run fast. In my condition at that moment, running was out of the question, so I trusted that whatever the danger was, it wouldn’t occur during my passage. Later, I learned that a lahar is “a destructive mud flow on the slope of a volcano.”
At last, I came out of the woods and into a car park where a couple dozen tired hikers were waiting to be picked up. There were buses around but not the one that would carry me back to a warm shower, a change of clothes, and a drink. I couldn’t wait to remove my hiking boots. As it was, I sat on a step and felt proud that I would be catching the 4 p.m. bus, not the first but not the last. Completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was a personal challenge that I had met. That alone would have been reward enough. Yet, there had been so much more to the day. I had had been uncommonly close to some fearful natural phenomena. To feel so close to the titanic forces that exist below the earth and that have shaped the islands that are New Zealand was an awesome experience.
Postscript: While I was taking my walk of a lifetime, Kay was having a breakthrough of her own back at the village where we are staying. For years she has been reluctant to take photographs, and it was only today that she learned to us her iPad as a camera and enjoy it. She posted her first photos on Facebook and received favorable comments. This is first day in a long time that she was left entirely to her own devices in a very beautiful natural environment. She loved it.