The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is said to be the best one-day hike in New Zealand and the route is walked by thousands of visitors each year. But, in the mid-19th century, it was uncharted territory for new settlers. The first man to climb Mount Tongariro, and only the second European to penetrate so far inland, was 24-year-old John Carne Bidwill. This is a (heavily) edited version of his detailed account.
March 3rd, 1839 – When I arose in the morning, I was astonished to see the mountains around covered with snow, except the cone, which was visible from its base to the apex, and appeared quite close. The natives said the mountain had been making a noise in the night, which, at the time, I thought was only fancy : there seemed to be a little steam rising from the top, but the quantity was not sufficient to obscure the view. I set off immediately after breakfast, with only two natives, as all the others were afraid to go any nearer to the much dreaded place; nor could I persuade the two who did set off with me to go within a mile of the base of the cone.
As I was toiling over a very steep hill, I heard a noise which caused me to look up, and saw that the mountain was in a state of eruption : a thick column of black smoke rose up for some distance, and then spread out like a mushroom ….. the noise, which was very loud, and not unlike that of the safety-valve of a steam-engine, lasted about half an hour, and then ceased, after two or three sudden interuptions. I could see no fire, nor do I believe there was any, or that the eruption was anything more than hot water and steam.
“Steam holes” on Mount Tongariro.
The cone is entirely composed of loose cinders, and I was heartily tired of the exertion before I reached the top. Had it not been for the idea of standing where no man ever stood before, I should certainly have given up the undertaking.
One man and his dog repeat Bidwill’s achievement. c.1880s.
After I had ascended about two-thirds of the way, I got into what appeared a water-course, the solid rock of which….was much easier to climb than the loose dust and ashes I had hitherto scrambled over. It was lucky for me another eruption did not take place while I was in it, or I should have been infallibly boiled to death, as I afterwards found that it led to the lowest part of the crater, and from indubitable proofs that a stream of hot mud and water had been running there during the time I saw the smoke from the top.
The crater was the most terrific abyss I ever looked into or imagined. The rocks overhung it on all sides, and it was not possible to see above ten yards into it from the quantity of steam which it was continually discharging.
Tongariro’s summit crater with the cone of Ngauruhoe in the background and snow-capped Ruapehu beyond that.
I did not stay at the top so long as I could have wished because I heard a strange noise coming out of the crater, which I thought betokened another eruption. I saw several lakes and rivers, and the [surrounding] country appeared about half covered with wood, which I should not have thought had I not gone to this place.
I had not above five minutes to see any part of the country, as I was enveloped in clouds almost as soon as I got up to the top. As I did not wish to see an eruption near enough to be either boiled or steamed to death, I made the best of my way down….. I was half frozen before I reached the ravine, and thoroughly drenched by the mist; so that I was very glad when I found the place where I had left the natives and the fire. I got back to the tent about seven in the evening.
‘Rambles in New Zealand’, J.C. Bidwill, 1841. Reprint by Capper Press, 1974.
Photographs by Burton Brothers in the 1880s from the Te Papa Collection.
Note : Tongariro is better behaved today and, like its neighbours, is closely monitored by all kinds of scientific instruments. They can’t even sigh without their minders noticing. There are shorter walks available in the park if you don’t feel up to the Alpine Crossing.