New Zealand: Plant-Powered Tramping*

January 29th, 2012 · Lisa · Travel · Comments
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been named one of the world’s best walks. Each year, thousands of hikers pull themselves over the devil’s staircase, across the black vistas covered in lava bombs toward the sulphur-scented emerald lakes. It sounds like something out of a fantasy film, doesn’t it?

Peter Jackson thought so too. The dramatic volcanic terrain provided the backdrop for Mordor in the Lord of the Rings films (or so I’ve been told – I’ve yet to see any of them). Although my pull to this place had nothing to do with its cinematic fame, many of the trampers do come to climb their own Mt. Doom.

I have climbed volcanoes in Italy and Ecuador and couldn’t resist the option to see the epic beauty of New Zealand’s active peaks. The Tongariro crossing is a challenging route but since it is easily tackled in a day I could fit it into my packed visit. Once I had prioritized the crossing on my must-see list I started investigating accommodations and a tour provider who could get me to the trail.

After the usual internet searching I found the Tongariro Crossing Freedom Package offered by the Adventure Lodge and Motel. I decided to pick a package that would take care of everything I needed once I arrived at National Park. After months of travel and with little planning time left I needed to find someone else who knew the location and conditions. I got on the phone to Lorraine right away to see if she could take care of me.

As soon as I found out they had space, I asked if they would be willing to make all the meals vegan. Lorraine said they often accommodate vegans and other dietary specifications like gluten-free and nut-free eaters. I was relieved when she reviewed the ingredients that I avoid. When she started to describe meals with vegan sausages and kebabs I was sold. I paid for the package and booked my train ticket.

The day before my trek I caught the train from Wellington. Along the seven hour route I took in the rolling hills and lush countryside of New Zealand. As I approached my station the volcanoes made their presence known.

I booked the budget accommodation at the lodge, willing to share a quad room over my two-night stay. As soon as I arrived I got comfortable in my little bed and was relieved by the clean, cozy atmosphere at the lodge. Because I’m a very lucky lady, I ended up with the room to myself – so I spread out and slept well.

The next morning I pulled on my hiking boots and my day pack and went down to the dining room tempted by the scents of a warm breakfast prepared on the grill. I ate toast, baked beans, hashbrowns and vegan sausage for a hearty start to the day. I was well fueled and ready to climb.

Our excited group packed into the van – you could feel the anticipation in the air. We drove up to the Mengatepopo car park, said good bye to Lorraine and hit the trail.

We were blessed with the most brilliant blue skies on the morning of our climb. The wind was calm and the sun was shining. The conditions were perfect to ensure a wonderful day of walking.

I started across the path with the volcanic peaks looming ahead.
The first section of the climb is a slow and steady incline. It built up my confidence for what lay ahead.

Soon our drop off point was just a dot in the distance. The ascent up the devils staircase was tough but I put my head down and pushed ahead. I’m far too stubborn to stop on a tough section unless I use the excuse of capturing that perfect picture (which I did often).

Most of the route is well marked by colour poles but at points you have to clamour around boulders and rocks to stay on track.

A few hours in I was standing beside Mt. Ngauruhoe. Some of the trampers on the trail decided to take on this peak. Without climbing poles and proper shoes I decided to admire it from the path.


At the base of the south crater I decided to summit Mt. Tongariro. It was just an additional 3 km climb and promised 360? views of the national park. Along the route to the peak I caught glimpses of the emerald lakes and blue lake to the south.

Looking back, I could admire the terrain I’d covered in three and half hours of walking.
Sitting on a big boulder at the top of Tongariro I paused in awe of the glorious views.

The changing terrain constantly has you questioning “Where in the world am I”. Answer:  “Awesome New Zealand!”

Once I descended from the top of Mt. Tongariro I crested over the south crater trail to be treated to views of the red crater.

Continuing along the route the emerald lakes glistened below. The colour comes from the rich sulphur content of the volcanic soil and steam vents.

This is the kind of view that makes you rub your eyes to make sure it’s real.

The slippery skrim is difficult to stroll down. I was able to perfect the heel-toe rhythm required and really enjoyed the ski-like technique. It was a great break for my calves after all the climbing.

Looking back across the trail, dotted by hikers, I felt a swell of pride for what I had overcome.
Just after noon I found a comfortable spot for a snack.

The blue lake doesn’t have the sulphuric aroma of the emerald lake, making it a better place to enjoy some nourishment (without the nausea).

Along the trail I ate a sandwich (I had requested peanut butter), two apples, two snack bars and plenty of water. I still had enough food leftover for lunch the next day. Lorraine and Ron took such good care of me!

One of the most amazing surprises of my trek was meeting two people from the Toronto area on the trail in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. Andrew (pictured above) went to the same university as I did and lives in Guelph (an hour outside of Toronto and home to most of my family members). Andrew and I hiked most of the day together, along with Mike from Holland. We chatted about favourite spots in Guelph, India and New Zealand as we traversed the challenging trail.

With the craters behind us we continued along the path with views of Lake Taupo in the distance.

The terrain changed around each corner. After the black volcanic ash, you start to see areas where small plants are thriving in the mineral-rich soil.

Soon the trail is completely enveloped in lush forest with streams rushing alongside. The last hour and a half of the descent is on this covered trail through the trees. It is such a stark contrast to the climb. After the first four kilometers in the forest I started to feel like the twists and turns, staircases and ramps may never end. But then I turned a corner and walked right into the Ketetahi car park. There I sat in the sunshine, resting my legs and waiting for my ride to arrive.
Once I was back at the lodge, I stepped into a hot shower, changed into some very comfortable clothes and waited for the smells of dinner to reach my room.
At 6:30 I joined a group of hungry climbers for some much needed nourishment.

I was given two grilled veggie kebabs and helped myself to the array of salads on the buffet table. Most of the options were vegan. When you’ve done a 22.5 km hike a big plate of hot food tastes so fabulous!

For dessert Ron presented me with this vegan (and gluten-free) apple rhubarb cake. I enjoyed every sweet bite.

Lorraine gave out our certificates and t-shirts to prove we had conquered the crossing. Given the glorious weather we enjoyed it hardly felt like the adventurous accomplishment that others have endured. But, I’ll take the t-shirt anyway.

The next morning I ate a continental breakfast of fruit and toast at the lodge and headed on my way to catch the train back to Auckland. Sitting again on the red seat of the Overlander, watching the volcanoes disappear in the distance I felt a huge swell of joy in my heart. What a beautiful world we share.

If you know any vegans interested in the Tongariro crossing I strongly recommend staying at the Adventure Lodge and Motel. They understand what vegan means and will work hard to ensure you’re well fed and happy.

I don’t know how many of you can make it to New Zealand to try this trail but I know we can all find ways in our own neighbours to bask in the beauty of our world.

xo VeganLisa

Thank you to the couple from Boston who shared their shots of the emerald lakes and red crater when my camera over exposed all of mine. Thank you to Andrew and Mike whose pace kept me moving. Thank you to Lorraine and Ron who took such great care of me over the two days I spent at the National Park. 

*In New Zealand tramping is equivalent to the way north americans use the term hiking.

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