Tales from the Tongariro Crossing

Department of Conservation —  04/05/2015

By Amelia Willis, Taupō Partnerships Ranger

Team building for staff from the DOC Taupō office this year was a trip over the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – the most popular day walk in the country and right in our backyard.

Deb Atkinson, Tash Hayward and Karl Schroeder on the Tongariro Crossing.

Taupō office staff, Deb, Tash and Karl, all smiles on the Tongariro Crossing

For most of the office it was a chance to re-visit a favourite, but it was a first time experience for a few of the group.

“Thunderbirds are go!” was the call the day before, and the weather even looked good the morning of. But of course, as we all know – and try to convey to unprepared tourists all the time – the weather in an alpine environment is unpredictable; the rain set in just as we began to climb the “Devil’s Staircase”.

The cloud and the cold (and a few grumpy moods) meant we couldn’t enjoy either the views or the knowledge imparted by Dr Harry Keys, our expert guide for the day. Nevertheless at South Crater, the call was made to continue.

Guide Harry Keys explaining features of the Tongariro Crossing in front of Blue Lake.

Tash listening to our guide Harry at Blue Lake

Slightly soggy, and spirits a little dampened, we made it to the top just as the cloud parted and the sun shone over Red Crater – illuminating its magnificent colours and more importantly lifting the mood of the group!

Fantastic views, lunch and a few lollies meant from there on in it was all smiles and laughter.

Red Crater seen from the north.

The brilliant colour of Red Crater, seen from the north

Memorable moments for me include dismantling cairns (piles of rocks – or “graffiti” according to Harry); Ray Bond and John Carman running Bear Grylls style down the scree slope to the Emerald Lakes; and the brilliant effort put in by Jo de Lange who completed the crossing for the first time. Well done!

Harry and other DOC staff dismantling a cairn (rock pike) on the Tongariro Crossing.

Dismantling a massive cairn (rock pile) at the top of Red Crater

It really is another world up there, and even with a bit of bad weather, you can see exactly why so many people from all over the world have it on their bucket list.

The spectacular features of Red Crater, Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake; not to mention superb lava flows and the more recent destruction from the active Te Maari Crater.

Steam coming out of the he North West crater.

The newest volcanic feature in the park – the North West crater, part of the Te Maari complex

Having our own guide was a big draw for many of us and, once the rain cleared, we were actually happy to stop and listen!

Harry brought the mountains alive with stories of both ancient and recent eruptions. Particularly interesting, for a group of DOC staff, were the unique management issues faced by DOC i.e. what to do when a volcano erupts on the most popular day walk in the country.

Jo De Lange on the Tongariro Crossing in front of the Emerald Lakes.

A joyful Jo De Lange, first time on the crossing having conquered the toughest part

The light system put in after the Te Maari eruptions of 2012 is just one of those management tools. Harry tested each of the five signs as we came to them – giving a few tourists on the track a bit of a surprise when the lights started flashing red!

Harry Keys testing the red flashing light before entering the high volcanic risk zone.

Testing the red flashing light before entering the high volcanic risk zone

We also had Rangers Sally Jackson and Toby O’Hara from the Tongariro team with us, so we got to hear about the issues they face every day.

This year’s busiest day saw over 4,000 people pass the track counter. It’s a huge task to balance that number of visitors, and their impact, on both natural and cultural features of the crossing.

Sally collected two bags of rubbish as we went, so clearly visitors are still failing to take on the “leave no trace” message.

Even with the rubbish, we were all incredibly impressed with the track and facilities. Post busy summer season the track is still in great condition and the toilets were not unpleasant. We even came across Hut Ranger Boyd Goodwin actually working on the track – the perfect moment for a discussion on track management.

DOC Ranger Boyd Goodwin at work on the Tongariro Crossing track.

DOC Ranger Boyd Goodwin at work on the track

It really makes you appreciate the work that is involved in ensuring we can all explore New Zealand’s special places.

A big thank you to everyone who made the day possible and memorable and, if the Tongariro Alpine Crossing isn’t on your bucket list – add it today!

8 responses to Tales from the Tongariro Crossing


    Looks awesome!
    We are prepared to do the crossing on the 29th of May!
    May the weather be with us!
    Thank for the preview!


    awesome article thanks!

    Natasha Hayward 04/05/2015 at 6:52 pm

    Fantastic day out learning and spending quality time with colleagues ! Great account of the day Millie. Thanks all for a memorable day.

    Anna McKnight 04/05/2015 at 4:21 pm

    The stories of managing the impacts of high visitor use of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing are almost up there with the volcanic stories. It’s not all about the views.


    I’ve been to Tongariro three times and every time I’ve been unable to see the tops of the mountains for the low cloud. This means I am yet to do this hike. I am curious why the rock piles need to be demolished?

      Amelia Willis 05/05/2015 at 9:13 am

      Historically cairns have been used as navigational guides, or as memorials – however it seems to be the fashion recently for people to build them to mark their passage through an area. In many places around New Zealand and the world, this has resulted in an excess of rock piles, distracting from the original purpose. More importantly leaving a pile of rocks behind conflicts directly with the Leave No Trace ethic, which advocates for leaving the outdoors undisturbed and in its natural condition. This is especially important to consider on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is part of the Tongariro National Park dual World Heritage area.

    Deb Atkinson 04/05/2015 at 11:36 am

    O for Awesome! Great trip, great people, thank god the sun came out! 🙂