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Tongariro Crossing with a Warning of Snow

Tongariro National Park is an adventurer’s playground – a prehistoric landscape of active volcanoes, craters littered with lava bombs and stunning emerald lakes. There are few places in the world where scenes like these are so accessible to anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. The area is certainly unique within the myriad of stunning places we are lucky enough to enjoy in New Zealand.

To call the area “volcanically active” is like saying boxing is a contact sport. Less than a decade ago Mount Tongariro was tossing boulders weighing several tonnes over two kilometres away from the fissure during the Te Maari eruption. Alongside the track at its northern end is a 4-metre-wide crater where one of those steaming monsters landed. Sobering to realise we were walking right through the main impact zone of the eruption, with the still steaming fissures within sniffing distance of the track.

Snow, 50km/hr winds, and an expected temperature of -4 at midday was not what we were hoping for during our visit in mid-November, so we packed extra clothes and food. But when we set out the weather was surprisingly calm. The mighty Ngauruhoe stood darkly silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky. We weren’t fooled.

Sure enough, as we reached the Devil’s Staircase the wind had picked up, the temperature was plummeting, and the wispy cloud was creeping its way up the Mangetepopo valley towards us. By the time we had reached the South Crater we were engulfed in mist and had donned gloves, beanies, and jackets. The South Crater has that unearthly feel to it with its black sand, sparse vegetation and scattering of lava bombs, and the rolling mists made the flat landscape look even more unreal.

As we neared the outer rim of the crater the mists started to clear, and hints of blue sky appeared. The crater floor looked like a series of steaming fumaroles as the remnants of the cloud were blown away. Just stunning.

We began the traverse up the rim of the crater to the highest point at 1886 metres, the breeze becoming a bitingly cold wind that made eyes water and killed off any conversation. The wind carried away the remaining cloud, and as we reached the more sheltered parts of the track, we were treated to a clear view over the Red Crater into the Oturere valley and across to the Kaimanawa Forest Park.

Behind us Ngauruhoe’s massive conical cone was splashed with a variety of red, crimson and blacks, with a fumarole steaming at it crest, hinting at its lurking power.

Just as you think you have enjoyed it all, the descent brings the Blue and Emerald Lakes in view. Rimmed with orange and reds, the lakes quickly descend into emerald and then a deep blue. Yet again, small vents of steam added to the aura of the place.

This is a wonderful area of New Zealand and one we could make our way to time and time again, knowing each experience would be different and memorable in some other way.

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