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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing – a test of physical and mental tenacity

We’d planned and prepared for this day for months in advance: tackling the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the most popular one day hike in New Zealand and a gruelling 6-8-hour trek over 19.4km, with 765m of elevation gain and 1125m of elevation loss, across moon-like landscapes, over an active volcano and through alpine meadows. No mean feat! We’d trained back in the UK by doing long walks, but nothing prepared us for what was probably, short of childbirth, the hardest physical challenge I’ve completed.

It was an early start for us: our alarm woke us at 6am and Bean8 & 9 and I dressed, breakfasted and crept out of the camper as best we could, trying desperately not to wake the others, and headed over to the 7am transfer bus. Bleary eyed and slightly anxious, we arrived at the start of the hike at 7:30am. After a quick safety briefing, we headed out, laden down with all manner of equipment, including multiple layers of clothing, 9 litres of water (which I carried like a pack horse!), a huge amount of food, sunscreen, cameras, a torch and a basic first aid kit. We each had a backpack; the Beans had light packs, but it quickly became apparent that there was no way Bean9 would manage the walk carrying any sort of backpack, so I took this from her and carried it on my front. She was extremely grateful for this and I think it strengthened her resolve to complete the challenge.

Bean9 looking a little worried at the start!

The first part of the hike to Soda Springs was supposed to take 1-1.5 hours and was graded as easy. Nevertheless, carrying 9 litres of water and with the prospect of what was to come, I found it far from easy, but we managed it in less than an hour and the weather was still nice and cool, so we decided to press on. The next section of the track to the South Crater, involved tackling the scarily steep Devil’s Staircase: there are no two ways about it, this was seriously tough going and required many breaks to get our breath back. The Beans seemed to find this much easier than me though and bounded up the mountainside fuelled by their sweet bags they’d selected during our last supermarket visit!

They seemed to be the only children doing the crossing on this day though and as such, they received no end of support from the hikers around us. We met so many lovely people who encouraged us all no end. To be honest, I’m not sure we’d have made it without them. My favourite was a couple who must have been in their 50s/early 60s and who were incredibly fit, chattering away to me as I huffed and puffed up the steep ascent alongside them, struggling to offer any words in return, so out of breath was I. I was nervous before starting the challenge with the two children on my own as I knew it was potentially dangerous (helpfully a man ahead of us in the supermarket queue the day before had cheerfully told the children that at least one person a year dies on the crossing – you’ve got to love the emotional intelligence of some people!), but I was incredibly reassured by the support of the strangers around us. I knew if we had a problem, a whole number of people would help us out and we’d be OK. So, finally I relaxed into the hike and started to enjoy the stunning scenery and views. Once up the Devil’s Staircase, we walked across a plateau to the South Crater. The Beans were full of beans at this point (!), marvelling at the moon-like landscape we were wandering through, likening it to a desert and exclaiming on just how much they were loving the walk.

At the South Crater

Which was lucky because the next section would really test their resolve: the hike up to the Red Crater. This section, although short in distance, was seriously tough, as it involved a climb along a steep and exposed ridge. The wind was ferocious. We all hunkered down and pulled on our coats struggling to do them up in the fierce weather. We started our climb, staying close to the ground so as not to get knocked off our feet, and very slowly and steadily ascended up the pass. This was without doubt the most terrifying part of the experience: I was extremely worried about one of them being swept over the side of the mountains and the conversation with the man in the supermarket came back to haunt me…

But eventually, after a serious amount of grit and determination, we made it to the top and once on the other side, were overwhelmed by the beauty of what it revealed: the deep red colour on the far crater wall to one side and on the other side, our first sight of the spectacular Emerald Lakes with the Blue Lake in the distance. It was breath taking. And although the last part of our walk had been hard, we’d all learned an important lesson in perseverance as well as just how quickly the weather conditions on a mountain can change. You can read about these things in a book, but there’s nothing like experiencing them first hand for laying that memory down forever into your brain.

So windy she has her eyes shut and check out the size of the sweet bag in her hand!

The next part of the walk down the mountainside towards the Emerald Lakes, was the most fun for the children. We were on a sheer scree slope and as I took one step down, my feet promptly fell underneath me, and I landed very hard on my bottom! It brought tears to my eyes, but I was determined not to let the Beans see or be concerned so I laughed it off. We then decided the only way to get down was to slide on our bums, which caused great hilarity with the Beans, who revelled in this opportunity. Once at the bottom, there was no going back really as there was not a chance we’d get back up that scree slope, so the only way was forwards past the colourful Emerald Lakes and on to the large Blue Lake in the distance.

We felt quite optimistic at this point having conquered what we thought was the hardest part of the crossing. Now, it should just be downhill all the way to the end. But we were wrong. Walking downhill for at least 7km, with such a great elevation loss (1125m), in the glaring sun with no shade apart from the very last section, was thoroughly exhausting and totally overwhelming. We had two options: hit it hard and just about make it for the 2:30pm bus or take it slow and wait at the bottom for the 4pm one. The kids wanted to go for the first option, so on we soldiered. Bean8 gulped down a huge amount of water at one point – far too much in one go – and promptly threw it all back up. I did start to get a little worried at this point, but he rallied, drank some more water slowly and persevered, bless his heart. None of us wanted to eat any of the mountain of food that I was carrying (we all felt a little too sick for that), but we were drinking, so at least the packs were getting a little lighter.

A very kind man offered to carry one of my packs, but I didn’t want to hold him up, so I declined (I did however feel extremely appreciative of his offer). Every step hurt at this point, but on we walked, until eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, we were within 1km of the end. The Beans picked up again at this point and pushed on to the end. As they passed the finish point, they got a round of applause from the hikers waiting there, which nearly brought me to tears! We’d made it. By 2pm, so 6.5 hours in total, which included 6 solid hours of walking and only 30mins of breaks.

Exhausted but so proud!

I was so unbelievably proud of my little Beans. Such a wonderful accomplishment and proof of their tenacity. Despite the adversity, we’d still count it as one of our favourite days in NZ. The beauty up there was out of this world. A day never to be forgotten.

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