The Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand is widely considered to be one of the best day hikes in the country, and maybe even anywhere in the world.
Well, I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of that claim. Though I spent nearly three years living, working, and traveling in New Zealand, I never actually did the Tongariro Crossing — and it wasn’t because I never got the chance.
Let’s start at the beginning.
I’ve previously talked about how my first few days in New Zealand were kind of a whirlwind. That wasn’t a lie, but it also wasn’t the whole truth. Far from being contained to just a few days, that “whirlwind” went on for more like a month.
I hadn’t even fully kicked my jet-lag before I (rather impulsively) purchased a bus pass with Stray and set off from Auckland, immersed in a figurative cloud of fog. It wasn’t only the time or the seasonal changes warping my sense of reality — I’d never done anything like this before.
Sure, I’d traveled before, even internationally; but I’d never stayed in a hostel, or gone abroad on my own. I didn’t own proper walking shoes or any kind of waterproof clothing. I’d even forgotten to pack a towel, and had to buy one from the first shop I could find — which was an outdoor supply store selling quick-drying microfiber cloths for 40NZD.
I was in just a little over my head.
Luckily, New Zealand is kind of the perfect place to be in over your head, as a white English-speaking Westerner, anyway. There are loads of other backpackers and plenty of people willing to lend a hand (or give you advice, solicited or not). I may have been lost, but I was pretty sure I would find my way. Eventually.
So, I climbed on the bus, watched the country roll by through the window, and waited for things to Start Happening.
Which, of course, was my first problem.
This combination of uncertainty and faith that things would “work themselves out” created a sort of pendulum situation, with hesitancy on one end and impulsiveness on the other. Some days, I’d do the first thing that popped into my head. Other days, I’d hang back so long, the chance would be gone when and if I ever made a decision.
In the meantime, I made my way across New Zealand’s North Island. I dug a hole at Hot Water Beach, took surfing lessons in Raglan, hiked to waterfalls and hot springs in Taupo. I took my time, played it step by step; I took a new bus when there was a seat available, and hung around for a few extra days when there wasn’t. I tried not to spend too much money, but I wasn’t all that sure what I was saving it for.
Shortly after Taupo, I arrived at Tongariro National Park: New Zealand’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990. Despite these accolades, this was the first time I’d ever heard of it. It was also the first time I’d heard of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing — a famed 19.4 kilometer trek through the park, which takes you up steep climbs to sweet views and volcanic terrains.
Our bus stopped overnight in the national park, giving anyone aboard the option to do the hike that very day if they so wished. Naturally, most of the others on the bus — many of whom had come to New Zealand to explore the wilderness it was famous for — couldn’t wait. They had their waterproof jackets zipped, their hiking boots laced, their mandated liters of water tucked snugly into their daypacks. They were ready to roll.
I was definitely not.
I don’t just mean physically — although that’s certainly true. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done a walk of this length or difficulty (maybe never), and I didn’t have appropriate footwear or clothing. (Both are actually required to do the Crossing, so I would have had to buy or rent the necessary equipment that day.)
The bigger problem was my lack of mental preparation. There are some things I simply have to anticipate ahead of time. A 19 kilometer hike might be no big for some people, but it’s a rather large undertaking for me, and that means I need time to psyche myself up accordingly. 10 minutes beforehand was not going to cut it.
Before you tell me I should have just “pushed myself” or “taken the chance”: that’s not what this was (or is) about. In Queenstown, I decided to bungy jump about 20 minutes before leaving for the jump site; I bought a plane ticket to New Zealand without knowing anyone there; a few years later, I left my job and my work visa behind to travel Australia with a guy I’d been seeing for just a few months. We all have limits. Sometimes, it’s important to push them; sometimes it’s necessary to respect them.
For me, this day was one of the latter, and I knew it straight away.
So 90% of the folks on my bus went off to do the hike, and the rest of us checked into our hostel. Some of them took naps, wrote postcards, cracked open a beer; I took a long, solo walk through the grassy fields nearby, enjoying the sun and photographing the towering mountains with little cloud hats.
As I meandered along the meadow, I felt a kind of calm I almost certainly wouldn’t have been experiencing had I been in the midst of the Crossing. Even when the walkers returned, dirty and sweaty and smiling, raving about the views, declaring their imminent sore muscles “worth it” without question, I felt good about my decision. My certainty was only cemented by their discussion of the track’s difficulty and references to spots like “the Devil’s Staircase.” (I mean…)
In the back of my mind, I entertained the idea of coming back to Tongariro at some point and completing the Crossing. After all, I was still only in the first month of a year-long visa; I had so much time.
You probably know how this ends. One year turned into two, which turned into three; but alas, I never did make it back to Tongariro National Park. Now, every time I hear this walk mentioned, or see photos of it in a blog post, I feel a little pang. It’s hard to know that something was, quite literally, right in front of you and you turned it down — even if you’re sure it was the right call.
I can’t say I don’t regret it, but I’m not sure I’d do it any differently if I had the chance to rewind time. (It’s kind of annoying, actually.)
So here we are. I guess at this point, there’s only one thing to do: go back to New Zealand and hike the god damn Tongariro Crossing. I don’t actually have any plans to do so at this current time, but well, it’s in writing now. That’s gotta count for something.
P.S. Are you wondering why tf I went to New Zealand if it wasn’t to go trekking through the great outdoors? Well, to be honest, I probably spent most of my time in NZ making lattes for incredibly rude people and/or going bar-hopping in Queenstown. But I did manage to fit a few (slightly shorter) hikes in here and there. You can find some of my personal non-hiker favorites in this post.