Travel experiences

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: a step into Mordor

Wind, fog, and volcanic ash

We arrive in Taupo on a night bus from Rotorua and get 3 hours of sleep before embarking early in the morning on a self-guided hike: Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. The Maori guy at the reception is kind enough to let us stay in the lobby and wait half-asleep for the bus. 

Taupo is famous for trout and we ask where we can try it. The fish is protected and it’s not offered at restaurants, however, the guy says that he could have arranged something for us via local fishermen. Unfortunately, we have to skip the fish this time.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19.4 km long one-way hiking trail on New Zealand’s North Island. The hike goes through an area where Mordor was filmed in The Lord of the Rings. It’s part of the multi-day hike Tongariro Northern Circuit and includes its most stunning scenery. We are in Aotearoa for 3 weeks and don’t have time to do the longer hike so we choose the day trip. The volcanic terrain and the nearby breathing active volcano Mount Tongariro promise an 8-hour long adventure. Moreover, E. has a birthday, and what a better gift to a fan of The Lord of the Rings.

It’s foggy and windy. The bus driver tells us that it was sunny and warm just a few days earlier. Oh well, we can’t have it all. At the beginning of the track, a warning sign advises hikers to reconsider and turn back. We take the risk and continue. 

Flat at first, the terrain quickly becomes steep. The landscape is ever-changing – we pass by waterfalls, snowy valleys, and volcanic craters. Devil’s Staircase, a very narrow ascend to the highest point, the summit of Red Crater, is a winding stretch of lava flows. The wind is strong and I barely stand on my feet trying not to fall into the abyss to the right. My partner in crime grabs my hand and helps me tackle the final meters to the hike’s highlight –  Emerald and Blue Lakes. Formed by geothermal activity, the lakes glow in striking green and blue. 

The descend is not easier: we have to slide down a nearly vertical wall of volcanic ash. ‘You’ve made it up here, now you must find a way to get down’, I think to myself. Everybody around us struggles, some hikers slide on their bottoms, another crawl. Back on a flat surface, we find a frozen little bird in the snowy field.


Steam vents, sulfur smell, and game of light

After the snow, wind, and fog, the other side of the trail seems like cut out from a different world: the sky mirrors itself in Lake Taupo, the sun peaks through the clouds and splashes gold. Steam vents and sulfur smell remind us that we are still in a geothermal area.  As we come closer to the end of the trail, the view changes and slowly loses its dramatic beauty.

Tired but happy, we jump on the bus and head back to Taupo.



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