I find it hard to express in words the beauty of the Tongariro Northern Circuit – one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks (premier tracks that pass through diverse and spectacular scenery). The hues present during the 4 day hike are out of this world – vivid blue lakes, black volcanic soil, red and brown rock, green flora, blue skies, white clouds and puffs of steam, and a plethora of shades of pretty alpine flowers.
Driving into New Zealand’s oldest National Park we were faced with less than desirable weather – wind and rain hit us and we were questioning actually going ahead with the tramp (hike) at all. Well… how pleased we are now that we are tenacious characters and didn’t wimp out. It was an absolutely spectacular walk. Here’s a run down of our time in this dramatic and (active!) volcanic landscape…
Day 1 – 5.3 miles – Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo camp
The weather was on our side and after we’d set off, fully laden with all our camping equipment, food, clothing etc., the rain ceased and we could actually see the mountains we were approaching. Off came the waterproof jackets and out came the sun caps. Passing over a landscape carved by ancient steam beds and lava flows, with spectacular Mount Ngauruhoe (or ‘Mount Doom’ from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films) to our right, we were entranced already by the beauty of the area… the best was still yet to come!
Each evening the ranger of the hut/campsite gives a talk – usually with a little history/Maori legend, health and safety issues, important track advise, and the weather forecast – our favourite being from the Mangatepopo hut ranger, Marcel. He managed to put a comical edge to his talk by including gruesome war yarns and commenting on how doomed we all are if any of the three volcanoes decide to erupt while we are in the park… one of them is actually well overdue an eruption.
Day 2 – 8 miles – Mangatepopo camp to Oturere camp
The clouds and haze had parted when we woke up, so we could see Mount Taranaki all the way out to the west. Today we joined the hoards of day walkers on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I have completed the 12 mile hike on a previous trip to New Zealand, and remembered being in awe at the beauty of it, but this time I was more than happy to be doing the full northern circuit and leaving the crowds behind after the red crater.
Day 2 was the most physical, as the path ascends ‘the devils staircase’, up and over a steep ridge with dramatic scenery on all sides – Mount Ngauruhoe with its black, brown and red rock (it looks like the volcano is bleeding), the expansive red crater with vents billowing white sulfur-smelling steam, snow-capped Mount Ruapehu towering 2,797m high in the distance, the stunning Emerald Lakes below, and the vast, desolate landscape of “Mordor” (the Oturere Valley) in the distance, which is where we headed after parting from the masses. My memory of the scree slope descending to the Emerald Lakes from the highest point of the track was a bad one… I was terrified last time, and took an age to get down the steep narrow path. This time however, I will go as far as to say I enjoyed it! Perhaps I just had the right technique this time – heel first – or maybe I just appreciated that you sank into it rather than slipping over it like you do on Mount Taranaki.
We eventually arrived at our campsite for the night, which was in a beautiful location with, again, stunning views, and this time with a waterfall/pools to take a dip in. The water was glacial, meaning it was extremely cold, but gosh it was so refreshing after that sweat-inducing walk in the glorious sunshine.
During the night Dave and I had the pleasure of witnessing the milky way. The sky was incredibly beautiful.
Day 3 – 4.7 miles – Oturere camp to Waihohonu camp
We were blessed with another glorious day, and another fantastic part of the great walk. The unique environment leaves you speechless at times. We really felt like we were in J.R.R. Tolkein territory, with orcs or hobbits about to jump out at us from behind one of the erratic volcanic boulders or lava flow remnants. We were in our element. Completely.
After leaving the desolation, we climbed steeply through a beech-forested valley and found our campsite for the last night. Amazing. It was the best yet. We camped amongst the forest, right next to a gorgeous stream, in our own little piece of paradise. Obviously a freshen-up was needed after all the strenuous activity, so we had a dip in the rather chilly stream. Clothes were not needed, being so far from the other campers. Ahhh, refreshing and liberating!
We joined the hut-users in the “palace” known as Waihohonu hut (it’s new and pretty large compared to the others) for the hut talk in the evening. The ranger was the bearer of bad news on the weather front. Unfortunately it was going to turn grim…
Our New Years Eve celebration consisted of us climbing into our tent at 9.30pm. We know how to party!
Day 4 – 8.9 miles – Waihohonu camp to Whakapapa Village
Well, Sally the ranger wasn’t wrong – the weather had definitely taken a turn for the worst. We got up early to try and avoid walking too much in the afternoon/evening, when it was supposed to rain the most, but it didn’t really matter, we were face-forward into the wind and driving rain for the whole 8.9 miles (about 5.5 hours). Fun!
We were cold, quite wet despite waterproof clothing, and very thankful to arrive back into Whakapapa village to check-in to the holiday park. We felt like we were in heaven being able to utilise the drying room, get hot showers, drink tea, eat chocolate and sit in the warm camp kitchen. We were even given a homemade paella to eat by a lovely Kiwi lady.
I honestly feel like we sometimes need to do these things, like long hikes with limited supplies and luxuries, to remind us just how lucky most of us really are and to re-balance our appreciation of the outdoors and, well, life.
Next stop… the south island!