8 things I learned on my solo Tongariro crossing
The Tongariro crossing is regarded as one of the greatest single day treks in New Zealand if not the world, so it seemed only fitting that before I head off for adventures around the world that I complete one at home while I am there.
I was not supposed to be doing this walk by myself. Initially I had assembled an expedition party consisting of myself and two good friends (a couple) that I have known for a number of years. This day was carefully selected to fit in with work schedules and my impending departure. There was going to be only one shot at this, if the weather didn’t work out there was no chance for a do over.
The night before the big day I received a fated txt. “So fucking sorry dude, I completely forgot my dad is coming to stay for his birthday this weekend, it was booked months ago but forgot”. What could I say, with that said simple txt accompanied with an animated gif (Rachel from friends holding up a sign saying sorry), my hopes of completing the crossing were dashed.
Or were they, after googling a few images of the walk I decided I wasn’t going to give it up that easily. A little more “research” revealed that making the crossing solo was not as dangerous as it sounds. So long as someone knows you are going, you are adequately provisioned, attired and of moderate fitness.
Next problem; Not only had I lost my posse, but I was supposed to be staying at their Bach so I also had to find new accommodation. I managed to find a cheap off-season ski lodge just near the starting point that provided a cooked breakfast & packed lunch, provided verified transport (they’ll call search and rescue if you don’t show up) and they had a hot tub for recovering weary bones. Tick, tick and fucking tick, game on.
So everything set I packed all my belongings into my car (I would not be returning to Wellington before I head off for good) and drove the four hours through to national park. So here is a list of 8 observations made during my trek:
1. This walk is not exactly a secret
I had visions of walking in Sir Edmund Hillary’s footsteps, charting unknown territory in the unforgiving New Zealand wilderness. If the going gets tough perhaps fashion a snare out of an iPhone cable and cook my dinner on an overheating Samsung battery. These thoughts were quickly dispelled when we turned off the main road onto the dirt service road and promptly got stuck in a traffic jam of buses delivering their own cohort of would-be adventurers.
If the going gets tough perhaps fashion a snare out of an iPhone cable and cook my dinner on an overheating Samsung battery
The initial stages of the walk were so busy it felt more like being in a mall than a bush walk. This had the tiring effect of not wanting to stop for fear of being overtaken by the slow walkers already left in my wake.
Before setting out I had a remote fear of being forced to drink my own pee after being lost for days, in reality I had a larger problem finding enough quiet time to sneak off to relieve myself unobserved. Thankfully as the walk stretched on the crowds thinned out.
2. Every photo is a selfie
This may seem a tad obvious but when you are Nigel no-mates, if you want a photo featuring not just the scenery (ie with me in it) then you need to be comfortable being ‘that selfie guy’ (ahem, Simon). I have discovered that I am terrible at taking these, not helped by a crack on the forward facing camera on my phone. So it’s not without immense internal conflict and no small amount of self dread I have actually purchased a ‘selfie stick’ (sorry Irene). This is partly so I can take decent photos of me in crazy locations but also for another project that I’ll share in the coming month.
3. When you think you are almost at the top, you’re not
I lost count of the number of times I rounded a corner and saw a procession of people ambling up the trail to a point that, to my relief was the summit and would all be downhill from then on. Only to have my dreams crushed when reaching the summit to find another procession of people ambling to an even higher peak.
4. When you think that you are almost at the end, you’re not
I had been prior warned about the fact that the last segment of the trip can drag on a bit. This turned out to be a bit of an understatement, with fatigue setting in and my feet feeling like lumps of luncheon sausage, the trail twisted and turned and stretched out endlessly in front of me. In what can only be described as a very pretty form of psychological torture.
5. Walking sticks are not just silly looking
My father, having hung up his tramping boots for good after his crack at the Tongariro crossing a year prior, kindly offered me two extendable walking sticks to use on my trek. I accepted with mixed feelings, on one hand you look like a bit of a twit, on the other hand you also look like a seasoned trail warrior and that you might actually know what you are doing.
I regretted my decision to take them from the start, not even extending or using them and not able to fit them in my pack. That is right up until we came to the downhill. Just over the summit, circling the red crater the hard packed trail gave way to very steep, very loose scree, with the odd larger rock to ensure any fall would likely result in injury. Even the most sure footed of us were reduced to a slow, shaky shuffle bearing an uncanny resemblance to a bunch of brain hunting zombies.
Even the most sure footed of us were reduced to a slow, shaky shuffle bearing an uncanny resemblance to a bunch of brain hunting zombies.
It was here that I could streak down with the help of my nerdy walking sticks. Still sliding and scrambling but able to steady myself with the two sticks.
6. New Zealand is stupid pretty but very much volcanically active
The vistas on this walk can’t be overstated, the photos don’t really do it justice (through no fault of the photographer of course). But you are confronted with constant reminders that New Zealand is a geologically young country and it is still undergoing growing pains. Walking amongst cooled lava flows, active steam vents and through a Lahar zone (volcanic mudslides) perhaps the most worrying indication of the regions instability was a fresh four meter crater next to the track with a sign stating “please keep out, this area is being preserved for further investigation into recent volcanic events”.
7. Walkie talkers irritate me
When I’m out walking nothing irritates me more than a group of (more often than not) woman power walking and constantly chatting, I can’t help but listen to their conversation. Usually I just let them past but given how busy the track was I was reluctant to give up my positions. But when I put my headphones on to listen to music the ladies glare at me as if to say I’m doing nature wrong.
8. I love alpine New Zealand
I grew up frequenting the central plateau each ski season, the area holds a special place for me. I love the stark barren beauty of the region, specifically the distinct transition of the landscape as the altitude increases. The vegetation changes from dense impenetrable native bush, thinning out to golden tussock plains which give way to wind-swept grasses, mosses and mountain flowers, even those finally succumbing to the barren almost other worldly landscape above 2000m where only a hardly few plants survive.
This was an awesome experience that I am so glad that I managed to fit it and can highly recommend. Given the popularity of the region I wouldn’t be surprised if the Department of Conservation starts imposing access restrictions to ensure the long term future of the area. If you are looking to do this, whilst it can pass for a little rustic I can highly recommend the team at Pipers Lodge