On Saturday, I picked up a rental car in downtown Auckland and was able to immediately get on a freeway driving on the left side of the road. There was a fair amount of traffic on the highway as I drove south, until I had passed the final large town of Hamilton. From Hamilton, I drove to the town of Taupo and stopped on the edge of town to look across enormous Lake Taupo where I could see the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park in the distance. From there, I drove on very rural two lane roads to the National Park village at Tongariro where I stayed for three nights in a nice hostel with my own room. I had a gourmet dinner in a restaurant in an old train station on the edge of the village.
On Sunday, I hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which had a crowd of hikers but was spectacular nevertheless. The shuttle from the hostel dropped me at the Mangatopop trailhead early in the morning, and the driver told me that he would pick me up at either 3:00 pm or 5:00 pm at the Ketetahi trailhead after a twelve mile hike. I began by hiking up the Mangatepopo Stream basin below a high saddle in front of me. The soil and rocks in the basin were volcanic and very dark colored. It was overcast and there were low clouds on top of the saddle, so I only had glimpses of the high, active volcano, Mount Ngaurohoe, above the saddle. Once I climbed up onto the saddle, I could see imposing 7,300 feet tall Mount Nguarohoe, which had served as Mount Doom in the filming of the Lord of the Rings. On top of the saddle, I came to a sign for a route up the volcano, so I decided to add a steep climb of Nguarohoe to my hike. The terrain on the side of the volcano alternated between soft, volcanic soil and rugged, hard lava. It was a slow and difficult climb. The view down to the next volcano, Mount Tongariro, was clear, but views beyond the park were to the tops of clouds that covered the surrounding the countryside. After admiring the views and the interior of the crater, I found that the fastest way down the mountain was on a line of soft soil. I could bury my heels, and using my poles, I almost skied down on the soft landslide I was creating. I got to the bottom quickly.
From the bottom, I crossed the level South Crater and had a shorter steep climb onto the Mangatepopo saddle, which is an outlier ridge of Mount Tongariro. I followed the ridge beside the beautiful Red Crater, and descended into the Central Crater. I passed the three Emerald Lakes, each with its own unique pattern and shade of green. There were fumaroles around the lake that smoked and smelled of sulpher. After crossing the Central Crater, I climbed again to a ridge above the beautiful Blue Lake. From Blue Lake, we descended through beautiful, open terrain toward the north where we could see Lake Otamangakau and enormous Lake Taupo in the distance beyond. From the trail, we could see and smell the smoke pouring from the Te Mari crater. After a long descent, I arrived at the Ketetahi Trailhead in time for the 5:00 shuttle. I had never hiked in such beautiful volcanic terrain, and it was certainly one of the best day hikes in the world.