Dan Roberts is founder and Managing Editor at Travel Generation.Dan has spent the last 20 years working in the backpacking industry and travelling throughout the world including UK, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. ...Find out more!
Tongariro National Park in the centre of New Zealands North Island is one of the most mystical places you will ever visit. If New Zealand is to be scarred with the mantle of being the place of the amazing scenery in The Lord of The Rings Trilogy - then Tongariro National Park is the cornerstone of that honour.
I have been lucky enough over the years to have stayed in and around the national park on numerous occasions skiing, biking, relaxing and hiking. It is one of my favourite places in New Zealand and strangely enough its’ local town, the aptly named National Park, is one of those places forgotten by the main tourist track - a huge mistake by my reckoning and a great opportunity for those looking for something different.
Tongariro National Park was the first national park to be recognised in New Zealand and the fourth in the world. It is also a dual World Heritage area, a status which recognizes the park’s important Maori cultural and spiritual associations as well as its outstanding volcanic features. It is the three looming volcanoes rising from a very flat plateau that gives Tongariro National Park is awe inspiring landscape.
The most famous is probably (said Nara-hoe-e) for its staring role as Mt Doom. At around 2,500 years old it is the youngest of the three volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park and it epitmoises what every school boy volcano should look like with steep almost symetrical sides reaching up to a regularly puffing crater. Alongside Mt Ngaurhoe sits the enormous sprawling bulk of Mt Ruapeheu (said Roo-a-pay-who) which is not just a puffing giant but a regularly spewing angry mass - despite also being home to New Zealands two largest skifields. That’s right - these crazy kiwis built world class ski resorts on an active volcano. In the last 10 or so years there have been a number of times the ski resorts have had to close due to eruptions - and I heard a story of a hiker being trapped by a rock thrown from the crater only last year while sleeping in the safety of a hiking hut! Ruapeheu and Ngauruhoe are accompanied by the dormant Mt Tongariro which gives it’s name to the National Park.
The jagged volcanic rock formations and eerie barren landscapes are unmistakable as Mordors’ hissing wasteland. I simply love the feeling of desolation and detachment from the manic world you get from the region.
Maori legend has it that the three volcanoes were in fact joined by a fourth ‘brother’, Mt Taranaki, who fought with his siblings. The continual fighting and eruptions led them three brothers to banish Taranki to the coast where he sits brooding and looking out to sea only a few hundred kilometres away. Mt Taranaki (or Mt Egmont as it is also known) can be clearly seen from the skifields on a good day often with a thick carpet of cloud filling the flat void below you.
Getting to Tongariro National Park is really easy as it is virtually halfway between Auckland and Wellington (330km and 320km respectively). Most travellers will choose to stay in Taupo - skirting the National Park for only a glimpse as they travel along the very scenic Desert Road (the main north-south highway). For me however the opportunity to get off the beaten track exists in venturing across to New Zealands highest town - National Park itself.
One of the cool ways to get to National Park would be to take the train either to or from Wellington. I think that the trip down the lower half of the North Island is probably one of the least exciting in New Zealand and taking the rickety old main trunk line can make it quite exciting. The train is actual the main line from Auckland to Wellington - but personally I think that the top half of the North Island is better seen by road.
One of the things that amazed me about National Park is simply how much there is to do. Tongariro National Park is famous for one of the worlds highest rated one day hikes - the Tongariro Alpine Crossing; but there are simply lots and lots of walks within the region from challenging 3 or 4 day hikes right round the Park to simple afternoons up to places like Taranaki Falls.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing attracts hundreds of visitors per day to tackle the 8 to 9 hour day. As you expect the scenery is truly amazing and I can’t recommend it highly enough as a must-do quintessential New Zealand adventure. There are many operators in National Park village that will arrange transport to and from the start and finish of the crossing as well as a packed lunch!
National Park is a veritable for playground for mountain biking too. It boasts one of New Zealands ‘best’ tracks - the 42nd Traverse - named for its crossing of the 42nd parallel. This is a wicked uphill and bone shattering downhill that will take the average rider about half a day or so. There are a number of unbeatable tracks also such as the Fisher Track, which I highly rate.
National Park is very much a one horse town and although sleepy in summer it comes alive in the ski season. In both seasons the National Park tavern is a great traditional New Zealand country pub to have a beer or two too many. I stayed in a relatively new lodge called surprisingly ‘The Park‘. Purpose built, it is a modern property with a lovely warm alpine feeling and stunning views to Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. I am a big fan of the outdoor spa for soaking the bones after completing the Tongariro Crossing or an afternoons mountain biking. The Park caters for for all ranges of accommodation from backpackers to families and the huge friendly common space is a great place to relax for a few days and meet some fellow travellers.
Finally, the onsite Spiral Restaurant and Bar serves up massive meals at really affordable prices (that is if you don’t want to use one of the best communal kitchens I have even had the pleasure of cooking in). A highly rated place to stay!
For many visitors to New Zealand the Tongariro Crossing is a highlight of their trip and for good reason, but for those in the know, taking a little bit of extra time in the area and checking out the village of National Park is highly recommended as a place to both relax and play hard!