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Introducing Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park (797 sq km) lies in the heart of the North Island. Its major landmarks are three active volcanoes – Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. These form the southern end of a chain that extends northwest through the heart of the North Island, past Taupo and Rotorua, to finally reach Whakaari/White Island. The volcanic nature of the region is responsible for Tongariro’s hot springs, boiling mud pools, fumaroles and craters.

Geologically speaking, the Tongariro volcanoes are relatively young. Both Ruapehu and Tongariro are less than 300,000 years old. They were shaped by a mixture of eruptions and glacial action, especially in the last Ice Age. At one time, glaciers extended down Ruapehu to below 1300m, leaving polished rock far below their present snouts.

Mt Ruapehu, at 2797m, is the highest mountain in the North Island. It is also one of the world’s most active volcanoes. One eruption began in March 1945 and continued for almost a year, spreading lava over Crater Lake and sending huge dark clouds of ash as far away as Wellington. No wonder, then, that the mountain's name translates as 'pit of sound'.

Ruapehu rumbled in 1969 and 1973, but its worst disaster was on Christmas Eve 1953, when a crater lake lip collapsed. An enormous lahar swept down the mountainside, taking everything in its path, including a railway bridge. Moments later a crowded train plunged into the river, killing 151 people; it was one of NZ’s worst tragedies.

Ruapehu hasn’t let up, with significant eruptions occurring with suspicious frequency. In 2007 a primary school teacher had a lucky shave when a rock was propelled through the roof of a trampers' shelter, crushing his leg.

Ongoing rumbles are reminders that these volcanoes in the area are very much in the land of the living. The last major event was in 2012 when Mt Tongariro – the northernmost and lowest peak in the park (1967m) – gave a couple of good blasts from its northern craters, causing a nine-month partial closure of the famous Alpine Crossing track. (To see video of recent eruptions, visit www.doc.govt.nz/eruption.)

Northeast of Ruapehu is Mt Ngauruhoe, at 2287m, the youngest of the three volcanoes. Its first eruptions are thought to have occurred 2500 years ago. Until 1975 Ngauruhoe had erupted at least every nine years, including a 1954 eruption that lasted 11 months and disgorged six million cubic metres of lava. In contrast to the others, which have multiple vents, Ngauruhoe is a conical, single-vent volcano with perfectly symmetrical slopes – which is the reason that it was chosen to star as Mt Doom in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.

Tongariro was NZ’s first national park, established in 1887. The previous year, in the aftermath of the New Zealand Wars (Land Wars), the Native Land Court met to determine the ownership of the land around Tongariro. Ngati Tuwharetoa chief Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino IV pleaded passionately for the area to be left intact, mindful of Pakeha eyeing it up for grazing. ‘If our mountains of Tongariro are included in the blocks passed through the court in the ordinary way,' said the chief, 'what will become of them? They will be cut up and sold, a piece going to one Pakeha and a piece to another.’

In 1887 chief Horonuku ensured the land’s everlasting preservation when he presented the area to the Crown for the purpose of a national park, the first in NZ and only the fourth in the world. With incredible vision for a man of his time, the chief realised that Tongariro’s value lay in its priceless beauty and heritage, not as another sheep paddock.

Development of the national park was slow, and it was only after the main trunk railroad reached the region in 1909 that visitors arrived in significant numbers. Development mushroomed in the 1950s and 1960s as roads were sealed, tracks cut and more huts built.

Today the park is the most popular in NZ, receiving around 200,00 visitors per annum. Many visitors come to ski – Ruapehu's snowfields being the only legitimate ski area north of Wellington – but more people arrive each summer to tramp up, down and around the mountains. The park can get busy, most noticeably on the popular day walks, but most visitors consider this a small price to pay for the chance to experience its magic.

The most popular tramps in the park are the Alpine Crossing and Northern Circuit, but there are plenty more besides. These range from short ambles, to excellent day walks such as the Whakapapa Valley and Tama Lakes tracks, both of which begin from the National Park Visitor Centre at Whakapapa. There are also various challenging routes that should only be attempted by the fit, experienced and well equipped. One of these is the Round the Mountain Track, a remote 71km, four- to six-day tramp, circuiting Mt Ruapehu.