Notes from North Island: Part Three – Tongariro Northern Circuit

New Zealand has 9 “great walks” and before we arrived here we had booked to do two of them – Routeburn and Tongariro Northern Circuit. We would tackle our first in Tongariro during our first week in NZ.

The Tongariro Northern Circuit and Alpine Crossing are stunning hikes marching straight through lava fields and up, over and around three volcanoes. It is not surprising that the whole area is protected as a national park (NZ’s first) as well as being a World Heritage centre.

The route we had planned to take over Mt. Tongariro was the anticlockwise Northern circuit beginning at Whakapapa and stoping at Oturere and Mangatepopo camp sites. Usually this route is hiked in 3 to 4 days and we were hoping to keep it to 3 days.

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We began our first day around 11 am planning to be at our first stop by 7 pm that evening. We had been warned that it would rain but as the sun beat down on us during the first hour we were happy to enjoy the rays. We walked through scrubby desert like plants on a walkway built to aid hiking and prevent erosion. It was easy hiking and we made good progress on the flat. Unfortunately our luck didn’t last all afternoon and by 1 pm we were walking through fairly rough weather. Rain becoming hail as well as wind must have pushed us to move even faster because when the first hut at Waihohonu came into sight at 3 pm we were very happy to see that we were an hour ahead of our schedule.

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After a brief rest we moved on to our second section of the day. We hiked up and over a ridge and across the desert like lava field ever higher on our way to Oturere. Like the morning before we enjoyed the sun for a little while as we tramped through the beech forest and over the gravel field. And then as we made our final ascent of the day the heavens opened. It was quite a foreboding sight – a volcano to our left, black craggy rocks ahead and a dark sky overhead. After reaching the top I was just about convinced we’d misread the location of our camp site when the hut appeared, small and hidden to the right. We were home for the night.

After a warmer night than I expected we packed up the tent and started out about 8 am. Today would be summit day and we wanted to get started before the weather turned so we had good conditions at the top. We had a lovely hike across the lava beds and began ascending towards the emerald lakes fairly quickly. I particularly enjoyed the “dragon tail” look of the ridges we climbed up and over as we made our way up. Before we knew it we were reaching our highest point for the day. Pushing up against the fine particles of lava and rock was hard and it took a little while for us to rise up to see the red crater of Tongariro. When we did we were happy to make it with no cloud or fog to obscure our view and so spent quite time some looking around and enjoying the vista.

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Then we began the hike down. The hike down the volcano again had spectacular view of Mt. Ngauruhoe ahead of us. The thin pathway and the idea that you could see where you were going but not the end had a fantastical, exciting feel. Yet we were not alone as we started down. Large numbers of people were on their way up (and hoping we’d tell them it was downhill soon) and we quickly realised that the Alpine crossing route was a hugely popular tramp.

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After walking past Mt. Ngauruhoe and down some fairly gruelling steps the landscape changed back to scrubby plants again indicating that we were on the home straight. Nice wooden walkways like the ones we’d experienced the day before helped us pick up the pace again as we past streams and scrubs. It was not long before the Mangatepopo hut and campsite appeared ahead of us.

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After a lunch stop and chat with another early arriver we decided that we’d prefer to complete the hike that day than stayover. We’d hiked for about 5 hours and had about 3 hours back to the van but as it was only just after noon we decided we had ample time to make it. We set off out across the tundra looking out to the horizon for signs of Whakapapa. Hoping for the walkways we were now used to it was somewhat of an annoyance to find our last 3 hours would be going up and down navigating small streambeds and dried mud ridges. It certainly wasn’t an easy hike and when the bright white of the Bayview Chateau hotel was seen in the distance I was only to happy to proclaim this hike was done. Sadly I was somewhat over enthusiastic as we ended up walking for nearly an hour after that first sighting of the end. And with rain for the last 20 minutes I am convinced that Mt. Tongariro wanted us to remember where we were! Never the less we made it back to the van by 4 pm and started off to our next adventure….

NZ stats…

Kiwis: 0
Volcanoes: 3
Blisters: 2 each

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