I knew the 19km Tongariro Alpine Crossing was going to be a challenge, even though every Kiwi who mentioned it said, “Should be no problem if you’re up for a bit of exercise.” A BIT OF EXERCISE? A bit of exercise is walking from my bedroom to the kitchen for a super-sized bowl of Lucky Charms. Ten miles of epic alpine crossing is like, the most exercise I ever had at one go, so yeah, it’s not really a bit of exercise, is it?
Flying Kiwi leaders Carolyn and Holly gave us until 3 p.m. to finish the hike, which seemed like more than enough time considering we started at around 7 a.m. Carolyn was confident it wouldn’t take us that long to finish, after all, she’d once done it in about four hours. So… eight grueling hours later, I limped onto the bus about 30 seconds before the deadline. So what took so long?
The shuttle dropped us off at the car park (err, parking lot for my US readers) just as the sun was starting to peek over the volcanoes. It was butt cold outside, so I was quite satisfied with myself for finally buying a red fleece the day before. If I’m this good at preparing to hike, I’m going to kick Tongariro’s…
Though the first hour of the trek was relatively gentle, I spent the whole time muttering to myself about how much I really don’t like hiking. I like having hiked... but the actual act? Not my favorite. And, I don’t know why I expected our entire 29-person entourage to stick together, but I quickly realized that the rest of the group was intent on racing 19 km to the finish. Angie Away was not built for racing, ok? So I settled into my position at the back of the pack (with my sweet French cohort Caroline) and we began to play the longest edition of the celebrity name game of all time on any continent.
Part 2 – Soda Springs to South Crater
There was a sign just before the climb went from gentle to bonkers that said, and maybe I’m paraphrasing, “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s really hard. You are going to hate this, so you should probably just leave. You don’t even like hiking!” I am not even going to lie, I thought about turning around. But what kind of adventurer would I be if I bailed on a bit of exercise? (And who would pick me up at the car park? I didn’t have much choice but to go forward.)
We weren’t three minutes into tackling the next part of the hike before I was huffing and puffing like a 90-year-old asthmatic lifelong chain smoker. We should stop and take a picture, I’d wheeze, but half the time I didn’t even lift my camera to my face. I just needed a break to breathe. What a miserable, hideous climb! No wonder it’s called the Devil’s Staircase. My personal hell would have stair climbing, wouldn’t it?
Anyhow, we climbed and climbed and climbed, all the while playing the celebrity name game and referencing Hobbits and Mordor as much as possible through my desperate gasps for air. If not for Caroline, I would still be lying about 5 km from the parking lot, whining about how much I hate hiking. She was unfailingly cheerful.
So, for obvious reasons, there are no photos of me actually climbing the ghastly Devil’s Staircase or the just-as-heinous volcano stairs on the next portion. Just accept that I looked like Gollum for the majority of that time.
I would say we spent the better part of two hours climbing, with just a smidge of flat part in between to remind me that I was still on Earth and not heading straight for Hades. To my astonishment and disgust, people seemed to be running past me on the rock stairs. Honestly, who runs the Tongariro Crossing? (According to Wikipedia, mountain runners can complete the whole adventure in two hours. And just FYI, these are not people I want to be friends with.) At one point, I just plopped down on a rock with a loud, whiny OOOOOOH and a handful of people giggled as they effortlessly jaunted past me… smoking cigarettes and wearing flip-flops. (p.s. Do I have reverse body dysmorphic disorder or something? I fear I actually weight 950 lbs., but due to extra high self esteem, I can’t see it.)
Those first miles of the hike were simply exhausting (and demoralizing!) and there’s a 95 percent chance I am never hiking again. It has actually taken me a few weeks to get over the trauma and appreciate the beauty of what was to come on the next section…
Thank God we’re descending, I thought. The pain is over! But guess what? If you have fussy knees, the pain is never over! With three active volcanoes in the area, Tongariro’s terrain ranges from sold lava flows to loose minerals and rocks called tephra. I loaded up on ibuprofen the night before, the morning of and during the hike to try to combat any pain or swelling in my old lady knees, but 10 miles of stair climbing and steep descents on wobbly tephra outmatched Advil by a whole lot.
From the top of Red Crater down to Emerald Lakes, it was all I could do to remain upright. The soil was loose and filled with volcanic rocks of varying sizes, and combined with an incredibly steep grade, all you could do was bend your knees and slide on down a few feet at a time. And it was a long way down! By the time I reached the first lake, my knees were shaking and probably cursing the day they were assigned to Angie Away.
The rest of the Flying Kiwis had long since disappeared into the distance and I had rage-filled visions of them sitting in a hot tub drinking Champagne at the Ketetahi Car Park. Caroline and I gave up on trying to reunite with those crazy fast-walking athletic freaks and sat down for a leisurely lakeside lunch. Now that I could breathe again, I began to appreciate the beauty around me.
Part 5 – Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut
Once we ate and continued on past the Emerald Lakes, we turned around to see the morning’s hiking accomplishments displayed on an epic scale. Words aren’t enough to describe how absolutely brilliant this spot of Earth is. So maybe Tongariro was a good idea after all?
Then Caroline told me we still had halfway to go. With no rescue helicopters in sight, shaking knees and a waning interest in the celebrity name game, Caroline and I perservered.