Tongariro National Park is located on the central plateau of New Zealand’s North Island, and it contains three of the four highest mountains on the island – Ruapehu (2797 metres) Ngarahoe (2291 metres) and Tongariro (1968 metres). It covers 34 miles from Taupo in the north to Ohakune in the south, and is the only place in the North Island to have permanent snow.
The land which comprises the heart of the Park was first associated with the people of the Ngati Tuwharetoa (A Maori tribe). They claimed it by right of exploration reaching back to the arrival of one of the first great canoes, Te Arawa, from the legendary Maori homeland of Hawaiki. The land was discovered by Ngatoro-i-rangi, the high priest from that canoe and the peaks of the mountains became sacred (or tapu) to the tribe.
With the arrival of European settlers in the nineteenth century, issues around land ownership started to arise throughout the country, and there were several rival claims to the central North Island. These came from settlers who wished to farm, those who wished to log and also other Maori tribes. Fearful of losing the land, and especially the mana (honour/prestige) of their tapu mountains, the Ngati Tuwharetoa decided that the best way to preserve them was to make them an area of importance to the nation as a whole. Therefore, on 23 September 1887, Te Heuheu Tukino IV, paramount chief of the Ngati Tuwharetoa, gifted the mountain tops to the New Zealand nation, with the words:
"Behold, beyond are the fires of these mountains and the lands we have held in trust for you. Take them in your care and cherish them. They are your heritage and the heritage of your children."
The park was later extended through government purchase of surrounding lands.
This made Tongariro National Park only the fourth National Park to be established in the world, and the first to be gifted by an indigenous people. It was also the first property to be inscribed on the World Heritage list under the revised cultural criteria describing cultural landscapes.
The region is intensely volcanic, and there are several peaks within it which are still active. There were several eruptions from Ruapehu in the mid 1990s sending up huge plumes, consisting mostly of ash and steam, although several large chunks of rock were also thrown out.
The Park is one of the primary tourist attractions on the North Island. The Whakapapa ski-fields at Ruapehu are included in the National Park, as is the volcano’s crater lake, and visitors can take scenic flights over the craters. There are many walking tracks within the area including the Tongariro Crossing which is considered by many to be the best one-day walk in New Zealand. At peak season, up to 1000 people do the walk per day, and the crossing also makes up the running section of the Tongariro Classic, one of the country’s four premier multi-sport events.
Vegetation in the region is sparse, mostly scrub and introduced heathers, and the route which passes the other side of the mountains between Waioru and Taupo is called, with accuracy, The Desert Road.
The area is well worth a visit, if you are ever in the country.
Information largely culled from the NZ Department of Conservation site at http://www.learnz.org.nz/2k/tongariro/index.htm