New Zealand 10: Taupo / Tongariro

The Intercity bus left Wellington at 7:45am and arrived in Taupo, just outside the ISITE, at 2pm, 20 minutes later than scheduled. I walked for about 20 minutes to Haka Lodge; my accommodation for 2 nights at $26 NZD per night, already significantly cheaper than the South Island. I was devastated to discover on arrival that the shuttle buses to Tongariro Alpine Crossing (NZ’s top rated day walk) had been cancelled for the next 2 days due to severe weather warnings. Even if you hired a car or hitchhiked to the start point you would still need to get a shuttle back as it’s a one-way track, plus if they have cancelled shuttles due to the weather then I guess you should probably take it as a sign not to do the walk anyway; apparently people have actually been BLOWN OFF the mountains due to the force of the wind. 


Anyway, I had already booked a bus from Taupo to Rotorua on the morning after my second night AND I had booked white water rafting for that afternoon, which meant I couldn’t stay in Taupo any longer than I’d planned to and would therefore miss out on doing the walk; the reason most people come to Taupo in the first place as here, or Tauranga, is the best base for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. However after speaking to people who had done the walk and thinking about it whilst taking myself off to explore Taupo, I made a couple of phone calls and managed to move my white water rafting in Rotorua back a day and book myself on a return shuttle bus to Tongariro Crossing on the morning of checking out of Haka Lodge – aka the morning I was supposed to be getting a bus to Rotorua. I would lose the $12 NZD I paid for my bus as Nakedbus do not offer refunds/changes to a booking and would need to also figure out how on earth I would get from Taupo to Rotorua the evening after the walk (I wasn’t about to book yet another bus I might not be able to make, if anything went wrong) but I decided to worry about that later. One of the easier things about travelling alone is being able to change your plans if you want to or make the decision to take that hit cost-wise; I know I know, I am terrible at making decisions but once I do there’s no having to worry about whether someone else will want the same. You can just do it.

Before the Tongariro walk, however, I spent the afternoon walking over to Spa Park and taking the Huka Falls Walkway to, you guessed it, Huka Falls. The signs advise the walk is an hour each way but I found it to be more like 40 minutes, although if you factor in the time spent gawping at the gushing bright blue falls and wandering to the various lookout points then I guess an hour is about right.


On my return I stopped by the bridge where the lake in Spa Park has natural thermal baths; the spot right by the bridge is packed with tourists so, as advised by the Haka Lodge receptionist, I veered right and walked slightly upstream to a thermal spring that only had a few people in it. I stripped down to bikini and stepped in, shock running from the tip of my toe to the hairs on my head at how hot the water was. It was cleansing to immerse my body in the water and the sensations were similar to that of a sauna and steam room combined, but I could only handle it for about 10 minutes before I was feeling faint and gasping for water.


I stopped by the PAKnSAVE on my walk home to grab some dinner and a couple of ciders; I can’t remember the brand name (helpful) but I was swayed by the Watermelon & Cucumber one after loving Rekordlig’s Watermelon & Strawberry and knowing how much I love cucumber (both as a staple food item and as an ingredient in my G&T) plus I decided to pick up the Apple & Ginger one too as I told myself it would be good for me after catching a cold from Claire (“you mean you STOLE it”; Friends reference for those who care. Claire will), so it was entirely for medicinal purposes. They were both, however, pretty disappointing and had absolutely zero taste of cider. Yeah, yeah, I know, what did I expect, blah, blah, blah. But I spent the evening chatting to my hostel dorm mates until around midnight so it wasn’t all bad, eh.

The following morning I walked back towards the ISITE to visit the Taupo Museum ($5 NZD for adults whereas kids get in free – damn kids). It’s quite a small museum only on the one floor, but I was really engaged in the Taupoetry room, scribbling out a poem based on one of the images up on display and reading those written by other visitors, also inspired.


My other favourite part was the little caravan filled with decor and artefacts from donkeys ago (I didn’t actually read when, but I’m guessing 1920-30), which was really quaint and appealing to sit in. It made me want to live in something like that with only amenities from that time. There was also some artwork and carvings of Maori culture, which I still feel I know far too little about, and it was interesting to know why they mainly settled in the areas of Taupo and Rotorua; they used the water from geysers and natural thermal springs to cook, bathe and wash clothes.


I then walked along Taupo Lake, probably barely scratching the Great Lake Walkway of 2.5 hours each way, before veering off and walking into the Botanical Gardens. These gardens are slightly different in that there is a road that loops round at the top of the hill and then various gardens and walks that you can then do off of the main road, with numerous car parks dotted around.


I walked the road loop and veered off for a couple of the walks (getting lost in one as the signage wasn’t all that, but seizing the adventure and just rolling with it) as well as stopping at a couple of the lookout spots, which offered pretty impressive views of Lake Taupo and beyond. 


The next day was Tongariro Alpine Crossing day so an early wake up of 5:45am to be picked up by the Tongariro Expeditions shuttle coach at 6:30am. I should point out that the cost is absurd; $65 NZD return from Taupo and $35/45 NZD return from Tauranga (plus, y’know, the $12 NZD for the bus I wasn’t going to make, which I wasn’t at ALL resentful about) is pretty expensive for a “free” hike and is clearly how they make their money from you. But I wouldn’t want to drive at that time of the morning before a gruelling hike, and I certainly wouldn’t want to drive back after with jelly legs. So off we went at 6:30 and arrived at the carpark around 8:15am, which was later than scheduled and it was already pretty busy; clearly with the last 2 days having been cancelled, everyone had finally been let loose!

I commenced the track at around 8:20am as the bright sun was already beaming down and casting the mountains ahead of us in shadow. The Crossing track in Tongariro National Park starts at Mangatepopo and ends 19.4km later at Ketetahi carpark. Although it’s only 19.4km (although I’m not sure actually if that includes the two return summits that are optional and veer off the track for 1.5/2.5 hours respectively) a lot of it is uphill, as in almost climbing uphill, and the downhill was at times so steep it took a lot of time and strength to get down safely. Plus, for most of it, you are exposed to the elements, whether that be wind, rain or glaring sun as it is completely out in the open without any protection, so they advise it takes 7-8 hours to complete (which I believe includes one of the optional summit walks).


The walk from Mangatepopo to Soda Springs takes approximately an hour and is a mixture of flat and uphill. Just before soda springs are the last toilets until close to the end so I queued for 10 minutes here to be safe; they are vault toilets, though, with no paper provided so bring your own tissues and sanitiser! The walk from Soda Springs to South Crater takes another hour (you pass the turn off for Mt Ngaururhoe Summit just before South Crater, a return route that is extremely difficult and adds 2.5 hours to your trek) and is mainly uphill so it’s pretty exhausting. Plus you then walk down and across the crate to the base of Red Carter Ridge before having another steep uphill for 15/20 minutes so it’s pretty intense on the legs at this point, especially with the sun beating down on you.



There is a section of flat just before you reach the peak of Red Crater Ridge, which is the highest point of the trek, where you can veer off to complete the return Mt Tongariro Summit walk that they say adds an extra 1.5 hours to your time, although I think I completed it just within the hour. This is an up-and-down track that gradually inclines as you go and has some quite slippery ascents due to the grave and felt demanding on my legs after over 2 hours of uphill climb. But then “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music popped into my head and remained there for a couple of hours, giving me the motivation and momentum I needed as I thought about Maria and the Von Trapp family; if they could escape Nazi Austria by climbing over the mountains with their belongings then I could damn well do this!

Mt Tongariro Summit to the right (with the people on it)

Besides, the panoramic view of the national park as you make your trek is absolutely stunning and the view from the summit, of mighty Mt Tongariro and a Glacier taking centre stage, was well worth it. Plus this was one of my favourite sections to walk because fewer people take this track so it was far less busy and much more peaceful than the other, main parts of the track. 



Back to where I started at 11:45am I then finished the climb up to the summit of Red Crater Ridge and was blown away by the views of the Emerald Lakes below me. And then I saw how steep the descent was, how unsteady the ground was with a mixture of gravel and layers of dirt, and how everyone was seriously struggling to get down the other side. Women were grasping onto their male partners for support, groups of girls were circled together and shimmying down…honestly, I almost laughed at how dramatic everyone looked until I attempted it myself.


I’m unsure how long it took me to pigeon-walk/slide/ski down, but it took a lot of strength in my knees and a lot of balance (which, in general, I do not have) to steady my way down; I even slipped at one point and my heart went in my mouth right before I managed to catch myself. It’s a little bit smelly the closer you get to the Lakes (must be something to do with being in the central Crater and maybe some geysers, as I saw smoke coming from some of the rocks) but still a pretty decent view as you pass, with the turquoise/emerald water shimmering in the sun.


I then walked another 20 minutes with a short, steep climb to reach the Blue Lake, which is vast and wide and bright blue, and after this point your scenery changes and you no longer have to walk an intense uphill climb. First you walk around the side of a mountain, which had mist/steam surrounding it on this day, before you follow the Rotopaunga Valley down to Ketetahi.


I was advised this walk, broken up with Ketetahi shelter and toilets, would take 3 hours but I think I managed it in just over 2, arriving at the end point at 2:15pm and therefore just under 6 hours after I started. I did stop for 10 minutes a few times but in all honesty I mainly just kept walking as I know that when I stop my legs ache and I find it hard to start again, but quite a number of other people made it in time for the 2:30pm shuttle bus back.


Part of me was hoping it would be 7-8 hours as I haven’t done a hike that long before and I definitely came close to a total of 6 hours of hiking already at Abel Tasman with Claire. However this was so much more demanding fitness-wise and so much more intense with absolutely no escape from the elements that I felt it really pushed me physically and I’m thrilled to have completed it. Plus the route itself and the views you are gifted with make it so special. I can definitely see why it has been rated as New Zealand’s top day walk and among the top 10 single-day treks in the world. You must do it.

I made it back to Haka Lodge at 4pm, which was just enough time to wash, change, grab my bags and re-sort them, plus book the 5:30pm Intercity bus to Rotorua and actually manage to show up for this one!



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