My forehead rattled violently against the cool pane of the scratched and dusty bus window. I stared blankly out at the passing landscape in silence. Ominous-looking storm clouds clung to the distant mountains, occasional breaks illuminating the volcanic ash on the ground. I rummaged through my bag for the twentieth time that morning, checking off all the items I’d need for the day ahead of me — three bottles of water, Vegemite sandwiches, cereal bars and dozens of bags of dried fruit. A t-shirt, shorts, jumper and anorak — all of which I’d insisted I wouldn’t need were shoved begrudgingly to the bottom of my bag. I’d been warned that the weather could, and often does, change within seconds out here and that I’d need a full — and heavy — bag on my back in order to be fully prepared. I leaned back against my seat with a sigh and began contemplating the challenge that lay ahead of me.
The Tongariro Crossing.
25 kilometres long.
1800 metres high.
A walk that passes over active volcanoes.
A walk that is said to be New Zealand’s best one day hike.
… And I was absolutely certain it was going to be my worst.
My worries of shattered limbs and freak snowstorms, of being blown into pits of lava and collapsing from exhaustion were thankfully interrupted by the crunch of gravel as we pulled up to the start of the track. Our driver briefly outlined what to expect from our hike today, as well as what to be prepared for.
The mere mention of rescue helicopters and something called The Devil’s Staircase did nothing to calm my nerves.
With a cheery wave from Dave and a strained grimace from me, we jumped off the bus and began walking. Or, in my case, half-staggering and half-limping.
I took a deep breath.
This was it.
This was everything I’d spent the past six months working towards, this was the reason for the brand new, barely used hiking boots attached to my feet. My whole outfit, in fact, was brand new and barely worn, from my itchy woollen hiking socks to my Merino Wool t-shirt. I’d even been coerced into buying a ridiculously dorky anorak, despite my protestations that I would never in a million years ever choose to wear it.
All of this gear, all of this training, all for this moment.
The first section of the walk, from the carpark to Soda Springs, is supposedly the easiest part of the track. The path is mostly flat with a boardwalk covering much of the uneven or damp areas. Our driver had given us a guideline of 60-90 minutes to get to Soda Springs — and then joked about how the 90 minute mark was a guideline for children and the elderly.
Within five minutes of walking at Dave’s much-too-fast pace, I was sweating, out of breath and with a stitch in my side.
“Um… guys?” I panted. “Can we just, maybe, slow down a little bit? I’m struggling to keep up.”
It was at this point that I started to wonder if I’d overestimated my abilities. Aside from a brief warm-up hike in Paihia, I was going to be quadrupling the furthest distance I had ever walked — and I was going to be doing it on steep, uneven terrain.
Oh, and did I mention that I fell over and injured my ankle a few days before the walk?
After falling on my ankle in Mount Maunganui, I’d spent the past five days confined to my bedroom, ankle raised, occasionally leaving to stagger around outside. I’d yet to tell Dave how much pain I was in so was happy when he let me rest without comment. With not much movement, I’d managed to reach the point where I was able to walk at my normal pace without feeling any pain unless I put my foot at a dodgy angle or touched my ankle.
That’s totally fine for a 25 kilometre hike, right?
I wasn’t anywhere near healed but being so desperate to complete the hike, I forced myself to remain quiet and insisted that I was fine to walk it.
I was now starting to worry that I’d made a huge mistake.
Every muscle in my body was telling me to stop walking, several times I opened my mouth to announce I was giving up and heading back but somehow I found it in me to continue on. Far earlier than I would have liked, I found myself at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase, where I’d now be climbing 300 metres in altitude..
It looked brutal.
I’ve spent many years attempting to convince people that while I’m terrible at walking on flat ground, when it comes to uphill walking, I’m fast and fit and ready for anything.
The Devil’s Staircase was there to show me just how wrong I could be.
After being told repeatedly that it’s extremely rare to have an amazing day of weather on the track, I secretly wasn’t surprised when the last of the cloud burnt off, leaving us with clear blue skies for the rest of the day. Our entire time in New Zealand so far had been full of incredible weather and not a single drop of rain — something which Dave constantly reminded me never happens.
While I’d much rather be hiking in sunshine than in rain, when it came to steep, uphill climbing, I realised that the latter would have probably made the walk far easier.
This entire section was incredibly steep, with hardly anywhere to rest. After five minutes my calves felt like they were on fire, my knees were buckling and my ankle trembling. I was only 10% of the way there.
For the best part of an hour, I whimpered, groaned and cried as I stumbled vaguely upwards, the walk leaving me drained and dehydrated. Theres no denying that the views on the way up were stunning, which made for the perfect excuse for me to stop every 20 seconds to take another photo.
But, Dave! I haven’t taken a photo from this angle!
Finally I defeated the Devil’s Staircase, bursting into tears when we reached South Crater — the only flat section of the entire hike.
We were almost there.
After struggling to climb the Devil’s Staircase, the ascent to Red Crater looked incredibly easy — just an quick ten minute walk and then we’d be at the highest point of the track. Simple.
I’m sure it would have been simple had the track not suddenly turned into a huge pile of loose gravel and rocks. I found attempting to scramble up this slope to be even more challenging than climbing the sand dunes in the Sahara Desert, often feeling like I was taking one step forwards and 400 back. As I struggled to keep my balance as I clambered over the rocks, I became all too aware of just how easy it would be to stumble the wrong way and fall to my death.
Seeing dozens of people freaking out and sliding down the hill on their butts let me know that it would be even worse on the way down. I couldn’t let myself worry about that now — I just needed to make it to the top without dying.
With flailing arms, stumbling feet and a high-pitched shriek, I summoned the last of my remaining energy and elegantly propelled myself upwards, sending rocks flying and Daves ducking.
And then, amazingly, I had reached the highest point.
I had made it.
I’d been so intimidated by just the thought of hiking the Tongariro Crossing that I’d refused to do any research on the walk beforehand. I hadn’t even looked at any photos. I was already terrified of what could possibly be lying in store for me and definitely didn’t need to read or see anything that could put me off.
I’m sort of glad I didn’t know what to expect as it made the view from the top all the more special. Before starting the hike, I saw the Tongariro Crossing as some kind of crazy physical challenge, an incredibly tough hike that was probably going to make me feel like I was dying — I hadn’t given a single thought as to what the scenery might look like.
It was because of this that the views from the top absolutely blew my mind — I spent the entire time feeling like I was on another planet!
When I finally gave in and allowed my legs to give way and sat down to eat some lunch, I began to realise just how drained of energy I was. My legs were trembling, my ankle was throbbing and I was absolutely soaked in sweat.
I really didn’t need reminding that I was only half-way through the hike.
Due to an eruption of Mount Tongariro in November last year, this was far as we could go. Whereas you’d usually pass the Emerald Lakes and continue walking to the end of the track, we’d be turning around and heading back the way we’d come.
Dave decided he hadn’t had enough torture yet and trudged off to summit Mount Tongariro, while I slowly plodded, slipped and slid my way back down through the dangerous, loose rocks, arranging to meet him in a couple of hours at the base of Mount Doom.
I’m fairly certain they weren’t at all surprised when they stumbled upon a napping Lauren half-way down.
Napping at the base of Mount Ngauruhoe. More comfortable than it looks!
By this point, I could tell that Dave was feeling frustrated with my slow pace and constant stumbling, and he soon raced off ahead in an attempt to catch the bus that would be leaving from the car park in an hour’s time. I knew it would be ridiculous for me to even attempt getting all the way down in an hour.
I was in a lot of pain.
I was happy and grateful that my ankle had managed to hold out for the hardest part of the hike but now that I was nearing the end I was beginning to struggle. Descending back down the Devil’s Staircase was the hardest part and had my face arranged in a permanent grimace. Having to put all my weight on my ankle while trying to avoid the rocks and uneven ground didn’t add up to a particularly enjoyable experience.
I forced myself to remain silent slowly found myself falling into trance-like state, keeping a steady rhythm of steps and breaths. With my new-found focus, I soon found the pain of my ankle fading and the speed of my walk increasing. Dave sped up to match my pace and we were soon overtaking hikers every few seconds as we bounded down the side of the mountain.
Celebrating with a high five once we reached Soda Springs, I happened to check the time and realised we still had half an hour until the bus left. With adrenaline coursing through my veins, I suddenly felt hugely confident that we’d be able to make it back in time. I was long past feeling pain at this point and soldiered on next to Dave, picking up speed until we were practically power walking along the boardwalk.
I don’t know what happened to me.
I’d walked around 15 kilometres over steep, rocky ground and here I was, practically racing Dave to catch the bus. I was barely out of breath, my ankle had stopped throbbing, the pain in my side had passed. I was even able to hold a conversation.
Despite my incredible burst of energy, we still didn’t make it back in time.
Staggering, limping and just about ready to collapse, Dave and I arrived at the car park a few minutes after the bus had pulled away. With two hours to wait until the next one, it was time to start my recovery. Lying out in the sunshine, I nursed my injuries, massaging my feet and knees and chattering incessantly about my unbelievable transformation into a hiker. I was astounded at how I’d managed to completely block out any pain I was feeling, that I had been able to jog alongside Dave for the best part of an hour and not even get out of breath.
I had never been able to jog for more than around 10 minutes before this.
Of course, the downside to my new-found fitness levels was that I’d never again be able to use my lack of fitness as an excuse for getting out of walking anywhere with Dave…
Hiking the Tongariro Crossing was absolutely my favourite activity from my two months I spent in New Zealand. I’d never seen a landscape so ridiculously stunning and it’ll certainly be hard to top it in the future. It was the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever put my body through — I still can’t believe I managed to triple the furthest distance I had ever walked, all while having an injured ankle.
Two years ago, before I’d started travelling, there was no way I’d ever have considered doing something like this, let alone enjoy it. I despised exercise and I was so, so unfit — in fact, when I first met Dave I used to get extremely out of breath just walking up the one flight of stairs to his apartment! Before I left home, I used to sit and wonder about all the different ways that travel would change me — would it change me at all? Would I become more confident and less accident-prone?
I never in a million years expected my travels to transform me into a hiker.