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After two lovely days gallivanting around Wellington, we picked up our car and headed north on Highway 1. Driving on the wrong opposite side of the road took some getting used to, but eventually Wes got the hang of it.
The roads were windy and steep—and unpaved for stretches at a time—and there were beautiful rolling hills and deep, dramatic valleys along every turn. We even saw sheep and horses running free along the roads! I spent the majority of the drive with my head and camera hanging out the window, but sometimes we just had to stop and take it all in.
Eventually we found our hostel for the night–the Plateau Lodge near National Park Village. We were in the area to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km hike that is often called one of the best day hikes in the world. Plateau has a shuttle service that does drop-offs and pick-ups at the trail for $30nzd/pp round-trip (pricey, eh?), so we took advantage of that. We were dropped off at the trail head around 8:30am. I didn’t pack for cold weather, so I was wearing two tank tops, two t-shirts and a top-layer rain coat. It was cold and the fog was thick.
The first mile or so of the trail consists of a relatively easy walk through grasslands. I’m sure it would be beautiful on a clear day, but visibility was low so we sort of rushed through the beginning.
There was a nice bit of trail along some streams and waterfalls, and the landscape was pretty impressive. About an hour or two into the hike, we hit the toughest part, which consisted of roughly ten million terribly steep steps up the side of a mountain. Just when I thought my thighs were going to give out, we climbed the last few steps and saw this:
Then we headed out onto a stretch of land that looked very much like what you’d expect Mars to look like, but with a bit of snow. (Side note: I said several times on the hike that I felt like we were in Mordor. Well, well. Guess where the Mordor scenes in LotR were filmed?)
This trail, even with the heavy fog and low visibility, consistently rewarded our hard-work. We covered a lot of very steep ground, but every time we got to the top, we’d get a view like this one:
From there, the trail led us along Red Crater and then Emerald Lakes.
Our original plan was to eat lunch at the lakes since it’s about mid-way through, but the smell of sulfur was too overwhelming and we had to head on. I’m so glad we did, too. Within half an hour, we were relaxing in a secluded area next to Blue Lake. The clouds parted and the sun was warm on our faces as we ate a lunch of French bread, fresh tomato, havarti cheese, salami, and kalamata olives. It was so quiet that my ears were ringing; because there aren’t any trees nearby, you can’t even hear leaves rustling in the wind—just silence. Oh, so nice! I ended up getting a bit of a nap in, too, before we hit the trail again.
The next stretch of trail lead us straight through the clouds as we found our way down the mountain. We had dew-drops on our eyelashes and in our hair, and we couldn’t see anything! Our lunch gave us a lot of energy so we practically ran down the steps most of the way. Eventually, my trusty foot gear (oh beloved Vasques!) failed me and it became almost impossible to run. I’m sure it has more to do with not wearing real shoes for several months (you are not to blame, trail runners!), but my feet were killing me! Faleasao doesn’t offer many walking trails, so I’m a bit out of practice. By trail’s end, my feet were blistered, my thighs were cramped, and I had a terrible sunburn, but it was worth every bit of it. The landscape in New Zealand is dramatic to say the least, and Tongariro Crossing gives you the opportunity to see several different aspects of it in less than 6 hours—from volcanic craters and fumaroles to snow-capped mountains and low grasslands, from waterfalls to woodland streams, it truly has it all.