The Tongariro National Park is one of only 20 sites worldwide with dual natural and cultural Heritage status. In 1990 the park was given recognition as a natural site of outstanding universal value because of the unique nature of the volcanoes in the area.
The volcanoes of Tongariro National Park are recognised for the frequency of eruptions, their highly explosive nature and the high density of active vents. Another outstanding feature is the unusual interplay of volcanic and glacial processes on Mt Ruapehu. The Crater Lake is one of only two of its type in the world, where the interaction of Andestic magma with the glacial melt water gives rise to spectacularly violent eruptions.
In 1993 Tongariro National Park became the first property in the world to be inscribed on the World Heritage List under the revised cultural criteria describing cultural landscapes. Until that time recognition was generally given only to sites than included outstanding buildings or structures.
The new criteria encompass sites where the spiritual and cultural values of the landscape to indigenous inhabitants are of universal value. The mountains at the heart of Tongariro National Park have cultural and religious significance for the Maori people and symbolise the spiritual links between this community and the environment.
In 1887 Te Heuheu Tukino IV (Horonuku), then the paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, gifted the sacred peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and part of Ruapehu, to the people of New Zealand. This prevented the land being divided up and preserved the mana (prestige...) of the Tuwharetoa people.
The original deed of gift made an area of 2640 ha consisting of three small circles around the main peaks. Over the years that followed, large-scale purchases of land were made by the Crown, so that when the Tongariro National Park Act was passed in 1894 its area had increased to some 25,000 ha. A survey report in 1904 recommended that the area should be more than doubled, and today the Park's boundaries enclose over 79,000 ha.
For tangata whenua (people of the land), the mountains are a vital part of their history. Their whakapapa (genealogy) and legends are venerated accordingly.
Ko Tongariro te maunga Tongariro is the mountain
Ko Taupo te moana Taupo is the lake
Ko Ngati Tuwharetoa te tangata Ngati Tuwharetoa are the people
Ko Te Heuheu te tangata Te Heuheu is the man
It is said that their ancestor, Ngatoro-i-rangi (the navigator and tohunga of the waka Arawa) was close to death after exploring this mountainous region. He called out to his sisters from his pacific homeland, Hawaiiki, to send him fire. The fire came but its passage left a trail of volcanic vents, from Tongatapu, through Whakaari (White Island), Rotorua and Tokaanu, before reaching Ngatoro-i-rangi on the slopes of Tongariro.
The three andesitic volcanoes at the heart of the park, the mountains Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, form the southern limits of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Volcanic activity in the zone started about 2 million years ago and continues today. Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe are two of the most active composite volcanoes in the world. In 1995 and again in 1996 Ruapehu erupted in spectacular fashion, sending clouds of ash and steam skyward and mantling the surrounding snow fields and forest with a thick film of ash.
A land of strong contrasts
You can see chaotic, barren lava flows, winter snowfields, hot springs and active craters side by side. Its plants vary considerably, from alpine herbs and flowers to thick swathes of tussocks and flax, from the hardy, low-growing shrubs of the Rangipo gravel-field to dense beech forests.
It is a harsh environment for plants; poor pumice soils and volcanic activity slows the development of diverse forests, yet there are some pockets of magnificent podocarp forest. They survived the eruption of Lake Taupo (1800 years ago) because they were sheltered on southwest slopes of Ruapehu.
Tongariro is home to many amazing native creatures including New Zealand's only native mammals, the short and long tailed bats. Birds you might see during daylight include North Island robins, fantails, tomtits, kereru (native pigeon) and tui; maybe even the rarer kakariki (parakeet), kaka or karearea (falcon). Smaller, but no less interesting are the numerous insects that live in the park.