A view over Blue Lake and a section of Mount Ruapehu, taken from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing // © 2014 Tourism NZ
We hiked east along a path through the low shrubs and lava rock of New Zealand’s Mangatepopo Valley, hoping the clouds would clear over “Mount Doom.”
Wreathed in a patch of fleecy white, this active, 7,500-foot volcano is officially known as Mount Ngauruhoe, a Maori name that can be translated as “throwing hot stones.” However, it is the mountain’s surprisingly symmetrical shape — like that of an inverted ice cream cone — that helped it land the role of Mount Doom in Sir Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films.
During this last visit to New Zealand, I had joined an excursion with Adrift Outdoor Guided Adventures on the 12-mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which travels through the country’s first national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“It’s a quintessential, iconic New Zealand experience,” said Kate Lawry, a destination specialist for Down Under Answers. “I’ve never had anybody do it and then tell me later that they wished they hadn’t.”
Ngauruhoe was certainly the star of the moment, especially when the late morning sun baked away the final wisps of clouds. A bonus of the seven-hour walk across the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the view of the national park’s two other active volcanoes: Mount Tongariro and Mount Ruapehu.
“Most of the walks around New Zealand are stunning forest walks with beautiful waterfalls, lakes and rivers,” said Stewart Barclay, director of Adrift Outdoor Guided Adventures. “But this is a mountain peak walk, beginning in a subalpine environment that then goes over a volcano.”
The volcano actually went off twice in the second half of 2012, incidents that Barclay called, with a laugh, “quite a little marketing eruption.” Now, hikers can see the vents pouring out steam, the massive scar on the ridge that blew out with the eruption and the rocks that were blasted across the landscape.
For Elizabeth Mulwa, a travel agent for American Express, the recent eruptions only added to the appeal of her first Tongariro Alpine Crossing experience last November.
“On the second half, you felt a little more vulnerable,” she said. “That definitely added a sense of adventure to it, and I thought, ‘Anything could happen while I’m on this side.’”
The first 90 minutes of the walk, traveling through Mangatepopo Valley, was relatively flat. But, the climbing began in earnest shortly after, as we ascended more than 1,100 feet to the flat expanse of South Crater and the base of Ngauruhoe, where the ambitious can continue up a divergent and even steeper trail to Ngauruhoe’s summit.
Most Adrift clients skip the trek up to the peak, continuing instead across South Crater before climbing again up to Red Crater, the highest point of Tongariro Alpine Crossing, then descending to Emerald Lakes, a collection of basins.
Adrift also rents a range of alpine hiking essentials — everything from thermal undergarments to hiking boots — allowing travelers to visit New Zealand without packing all that gear in their suitcases.
“People can literally turn up in their underwear,” Barclay said. “We provide absolutely everything.”