New Zealand’s highly developed network of national parks owes much to Te Heu Heu Tukino IV, the Tuwharetoa chief who, in the Pakeha land-grabbing climate of the late nineteenth century, recognized that the only chance his people had of keeping their sacred lands intact was to donate them to the nation – on condition that they could not be settled or spoiled. His 1887 gift formed the core of the country’s first major public reserve, Tongariro National Park, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 due to its unique landscape and cultural significance (see The Maori mountain legends). In the north a small, outlying section of the park centres on Mount Pihanga and the tiny Lake Rotopounamu, but most visitors head straight for the main body of the park, dominated by the three great volcanoes which rise starkly from the desolate plateau: the broad-shouldered ski mountain, Ruapehu (2797m); its squatter sibling, Tongariro (1968m); and, wedged between them, the conical Ngauruhoe (2287m).
Within the boundaries of the park is some of the North Island’s most striking scenery – a beautiful mixture of semi-arid plains, steaming fumaroles, crystal-clear lakes and streams, virgin rainforest and an abundance of ice and snow. The more forbidding volcanic areas were used as locations for Mordor and Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. All of this forms the backdrop to two supremely rewarding tramps, the one-day Tongariro Alpine Crossing and the three- to four-day Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The undulating plateau to the west of the volcanoes is vegetated by bushland and golden tussock, while on the eastern side the rain shadow of the mountains produces the Rangipo Desert. Although this is not a true desert, it is still an impressively bleak and barren landscape, smothered by a thick layer of volcanic ash from the 186 AD Taupo eruption. Mount Ruapehu frequently bursts into life (most recently 1995, 1996 and 2007), occasionally emptying its crater lake down the side of the mountain in muddy deluges known as lahars. In 2011 Mount Ruapehu’s Volcanic Alert Level was elevated to level 1 (signs of volcanic unrest), but at the time of writing it was not affecting visitors. Keep tabs on its status with DOC and the local i-SITE office.
The northern approach to the region is through Turangi, which – though it lacks the mountain feel of the service town of National Park and the alpine Whakapapa Village, 1200m up on the flanks of Ruapehu – makes a good base both for the Tongariro tramps and for rafting and fishing the Tongariro River. The southern gateway is Ohakune, a more aesthetically pleasing place than National Park but distinctly comatose outside the ski season. Heading south, the Army Museum at Waiouru marks the southern limit of the Volcanic Plateau, which tails off into the pastoral lower half of the region set around the agricultural town of Taihape, home to the North Island’s highest bungy jump.
Pretty much everyone comes to the park either to ski or to tramp, staying in one of the small towns dotted around the base of the mountains. Note that this region is over 600m above sea level, so even in the height of summer you’ll need warm clothing.