New Zealand Photography Workshops tutor Shaun Barnett is an avid tramper, with a strong interest in the history of our wild areas. Growing up nearby, Shaun has spent many weeks at Tongariro National Park and learnt a lot about our first national park. He shares some of his knowledge about the park – one of only three World Heritage landscapes in New Zealand.
The Importance of Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park is important on a global scale, recognised by its dual cultural and natural World Heritage status. Not only does the park contain some of the most active composite volcanoes in the world, but much of the flora and fauna is endemic to New Zealand too. The mountains have long been sacred to local iwi, Ngati Tuwahretoa and Ngati Rangi, who view the mountains as their ancestors.
When it was created in 1887, Tongariro became the world’s fourth national park. The circumstances of its creation are fascinating, and reflect the deep cultural ties Maori have with the volcanoes. Ngati Tuwharetoa chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV was concerned for the future of this sacred area, and feared that Pakeha settlers would eventually divide up the area for farming and other uses. He sought advice from a trusted Pakeha friend, who advised that by gifting the mountains to the New Zealand government, he could perhaps ensure their protection for all people, for all time. While the decision was not without controversy and pain for local iwi, Te Heuheu’s decision to stop the relentless spread of pastoralism into the mountains, and laid the groundwork for establishing the country’s first national park. The concept was so new that it was not until 1895 that the appropriate legislation was in place to officially create the new park.
Since then, Tongariro has become a treasured place for outdoor recreation, with tens of thousands of trampers, skiers and climbers visiting the mountains every year. The park has played a crucial role in the development of all three pursuits in New Zealand, especially after the area became accessible with the opening of the Main Trunk railway in 1908. Development of skiing in the park accelerated after the Second World War, with two commercial fields and one club ski field established. They remain the most important and popular ski-fields in the North Island.
Despite the activity that occurs on its lower flanks, the heights of Mt Ruapehu offer an alpine wilderness with its spectacular crater lake and several high summits. The mountain is the highest volcano in New Zealand, and the highest peak in the North Island, a summit not only of importance to mountaineers, but a distinctive landmark visible from many parts of the central plateau.
Trampers enjoy several multi-day tracks in the park, including the Tongariro Northern Circuit, and world renown Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is one of the most popular walks anywhere on the planet. A number of well-maintained huts offer accommodation and shelter on these tracks, but the park also has two ‘wilderness areas’ – sectors left deliberately wild and undeveloped. And there are also a myriad of shorter walks – ideal for photographers wanting to hone their skills.