Initially, we wanted to go up to the crater of Mount Ruapehu, the highest mountain on North Island. However, the clouds were down and we realised that this was a bit pointless. While we were wondering what to do instead we noticed a shuttle bus about to depart with walkers for the Tongariro Crossing. This was not something we had considered and this was the last shuttle bus of the day which was about to depart in five minutes with just two empty seats. A snap decision was made and we were on the bus! A good decision, since this was one of the great classic walks. We were, however, intending to be in Wellington that evening so time was not on our side.
Initially, the path took us up a valley, with duck boards occasionally to avoid the bogs. At the end of the valley, the path zig-zagged up through the boulders, with a sign warning us about what to do in the event of an eruption:-
Recently, Mount Tongariro did erupt, so it is important to be careful. After an hour of ascent, we reached what appeared to be a large flat crater. A group of people were descending the screes of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films). Toiling up the scree in thick mist seemed to be a bit pointless. At the far side of the crater, we turned left and followed a ridge to our first summit. We could have made a diversion to Mount Tongariro itself at this point, but unfortunately time was not on our side.
Instead we descended steeply down fine scree to a group of small sapphire blue tarns, set amongst startling red, black and brown rock formations. The sun had come out, and even Mount Ngauruhoe was now out of the clouds.
After pausing for lunch, we continued on up to another lower ridge line, beyond which lay a larger lake, which we passed to the left. The mist had now descended. Here we saw hundreds of piles of stones, not cairns, but piled just one stone on top of another to make a vertical column. The last four miles were almost entirely on duck boards. At one point the path passed by a steaming earthy bank. It was too hot to touch! At last we reached the bus to take us back to our starting point.
The walk was on good paths all the way and took us through some amazing volcanic scenery. The best way to do the walk would be to take it leisurely and savour the amazing scenery, but of the hundreds of people to do the 11 mile walk (3500' ascent), we were the last to start and almost the first to finish. It took us just under five hours!