the first national park established in New Zealand, Tongariro is also one of the oldest national parks in the world. the first parcel of land was set aside in 1887 under the protection of the paramount Maori chief in the area (Te Heuheu Tukino IV, also known as Horonuku) in order to protect sacred Maori land from being sold to European settlers. his family descended from the earliest settlers of Aotearoa (New Zealand), and identified with Ngatoroirangi, the man who navigated the vessel that brought the first people to the island and (according to myth) brought fire to Tongariro. once the land was under his protection, Horonuku gifted the land back to the state for preservation as a national park. while the initial parcel was considered too small to establish a proper national park (with the example of Yellowstone as comparison), subsequent government actions set aside larger and larger parcels of land for that purpose. in 1894, Parliament passed the Tongariro National Park Act, which comprised some 252 square kilometers (not all of which they had yet acquired). several updates to the Act over the 20th century brought the park to its current size encompassing nearly 800 square kilometers.
the three main peaks located in the park – Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu – are tapu to the local Maori and development would have destroyed the mana of the sites. the Maori still have territorial rights over the mountains and when the Te Maari crater on Tongariro erupted in 2012, they declared a protective restriction (rahui) over the area to protect both the mana of the site and to ensure the safety of trampers moving through the area. because of its importance to Maori culture and its natural characteristics, the national park was designated a dual (cultural-natural) World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, after previously receiving status for natural heritage in 1990.
although technically established in 1894, it took some decades before transportation caught up enough to bring significant numbers of people to visit the park. the first permanent park ranger began working in 1931, two years after the completion of Chateau Tongariro at the ski resort of Whakapapa. a road to Whakapapa was completed in the 1920s, making the journey much easier than the previous overland trek by horseback or foot. according to our lodge hosts, the park is far more popular for skiing during the winter than for tramping or biking in the summer.
until 2007 the track from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi was known as the “Tongariro Crossing.” however, the difficulty of the terrain and changeability of the weather found many trampers unprepared and the name was changed to include “Alpine” to better convey the reality of the track. we felt well-prepared setting out on the hike – both physically and in relation to gear – and I was still surprised by how much the climate changed on our hike – the limited visibility, bitter the wind and biting the precipitation through the South Crater, up the saddle beside the Red Crater, and past Blue Lake. not all trampers were as well prepared for the trek as we and the view from the trailhead might not prepare you for what was in store. moreover, in addition to the weather-related dangers were legitimate (though distant) volcanic risks. all three peaks in the park have been active in the last century with Te Maari in 2012 the most recent. when we stopped for lunch at the Ketetahi Hut, you could see active vents on the side of the mountain and the damage done by debris during the 2012 eruption. fortunately, that eruption occurred near midnight in August so the hut was not in use, but it remains closed to through-hikers due to its location in the active volcanic zone. in spite of the danger (volcanic and otherwise) some 80,000 people undertake the hike each year, with numbers growing.