Recently, I spent 4 days hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit Tramp, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks which circles the Ngauruhoe volcano. I split this trek into 4 days, staying 3 nights in the Magatepopo, Ketetahi, and Waihohonu huts which are setup along the way.
On my first visit to New Zealand 11 years ago, I did the Tongariro Crossing as a day hike, but there were heavy clouds and very low visibility so I couldn’t see much during that hike. The crossing day hike covers the most strenuous and scenic section the route I took this year. Since I could not see the sights the first time through, I made sure to schedule the trek into this trip.
Day 1: Whatapapa to Mangatepopo HutThe first day I started at the Whatapapa Visitor center where it was safe to park the car. Then I hiked 10km to the Mangatepopo Hut. The trail had been eroded heavily in several places, creating some small canyons which I had to take my backpack off to climb up or down the steps. Otherwise, this relatively short hike was uneventful with heavily overcast sky. I arrived at the Mangatepopo Hut a little too early around noon. I probably could have skipped this first day’s hike as many people do and taken the shuttle to the Mangatepopo car park, which is the drop-off point for the crossing day hike thirty minutes below the hut.
The only clear view I saw of Mt Ruapehu
The volunteer hut warden arrived shortly after me for the start of his 5-day stint at the hut. He was a young guy from Boston. He explained the wardens come out for 3 months and are given board and food allowance. They man the hut for 5 days, and then get 2 days off before rotating to another hut in the park. The hut provided for aprox 28 hikers mattresses, running water (from collected rainwater) which was fit to drink, and self-igniting gas stoves, and there was room for more people to camp outside.
Although this first day’s hike itself was mostly unremarkable, the afternoon proved to give a good example of the New Zealand tramp experience as the night’s hut inhabitants streamed in and began to visit with each other around the tables for a few hours until bedtime. First, three Kiwi families arrived with kids running round screaming, but the parents quickly contained them to the other smaller bunkroom so the rest of us could have some peace at night. Another New Zealander was leading a group of teenage students on a trek and was only too eager to give me all the recommendations for the must-do side trips on the rest of the trek. (The students fortunately camped outside the hut). An Australian, the only one this night following my tramping schedule for the rest of the trek, arrived. He was taking 3 months to do all of New Zealand’s great walks. He couldn’t get over the fact that the hut warden’s Boston accent was not a Canadian accent. There were several Germans, one of whom had managed to acquire an Irish accent while working with Irishmen during his stay in New Zealand. The whole evening most people who came in kept assuming he was Irish.
Around midnight after everyone had gone to bed, some late arrivals violated the hut etiquette waking everyone by slamming doors, talking in regular voice, and shining their headlamps in everyone’s face as they searched for the empty bunks. Then they fired off an alarm at 5am and made a lot of noise as they left early, without paying for a hut stay. One of the New Zealanders visitors notified the hut warden after he got up a couple hours later, who radioed to the other huts to be on the lookout for those guys.
Day 2: The Tongariro Crossing to Ketetahi HutThis was to be the most strenuous and scenic day with lots of elevation change (684M/2244ft ascent, 426M/1397ft descent) and was included in the route taken by the day hikers. In a way, this was the culmination of the last 8 months of training hikes around the U.S. which were taken to return me to the physical condition to allowing me to do a hike like this. I started the day hoping I was not attempting more than I was capable of.
The sky was completely overcast with low hanging clouds, but the clouds cleared 10 minutes after I began hiking and so I had to stop to take off my jacket as the sun was making me sweat profusely. Shuttle buses had dropped of several hundred day hikers who proceeded along the trail. With my heavier pack (and physical condition) keeping me slow, I had to step aside frequently to let faster groups of people pass.
The first time I was here doing the day hike years before, the trail was in a very different state. Very little of it had been maintained and much of it had eroded into deep rocky channels which complicated walking along it. Much of the ascent involved a little rock climbing up the heavily eroded channels. Large queues of people formed as those in front had to slowly and carefully pick the best path up the rocky hills. In the 11 years since that previous visit, the park had built boardwalks and stairs over much of the complicated terrain allowing it to better handle the crowds, and making it a little easier to traverse.
The first few kilometers to Soda Springs ran up a valley floor. A fair sized section of this was boardwalked. At the springs was the start of the major climb of the day to South crater. I pretended not to notice the sign warning of dire consequences for people proceeding up the strenuous climb who were not in excellent health or physical shape, and began the climb rising more than 300 meters over the next kilometer. At the start of the climb was the only toilet between the two huts, so I passed most of the people who had just passed me and I got to step aside for them again as they passed later during the climb.
I could see clouds below being blown up the valley towards me. When the clouds reached me, the visibility dropped to nothing and the temperature seemed to drop 20 or 30 degrees (Farenheight) for a few minutes until the cloud blew past.
(last night's hut is a tiny spec on the far end of the valley)
There were several ultra runners who came running by as I climbed. I would keep seeing these guys multiple times as they went back and forth, taking every available side trail. Later someone explained this was part of some sort of sponsored event and these guys were getting paid if they stuck through until the end.
This big climb seemed to take forever, and the weight of my backpack forced me to stop and rest several times before reaching the lip of the South crater. I stopped at the top of the lip to eat lunch and ran into the hut warden from the previous night who had come up to ascend Ngauruhoe (a side trail which left from this point for 1.5 hours up followed by a 20 minute run down) in between his warden duties.
I continued down into the South crater. After crossing the South crater, there is another steep climb up to the Red Crater. The weather was clear so this gave some good views. Separately, I happened to run into two of the German’s from the previous night’s hut while admiring the crater. One had managed to climb Mt Ngauruhoe and run down its scree slopes. At the red crater we climbed to the highest point of the day and then took a steep decent to the Emerald lakes on a scree filled slope. I had to take this descent slowly due to the weight of the backpack.
Then there was the central crater to cross before another climb up to the craters’ lip and then a decent for an hour and a half to the Ketetahi Hut. Eventually, the view opened up so that I could see Lake Rotoaria and Lake Taupo.
Looking back across the Central Crater up to the Red Crater
Lake Rotoaira & Lake Taupo
Many of the day hikers were stopping at the Ketetahi hut for a break. This late in the afternoon most needed to be running down the mountain to reach the car park before their shuttles departed. Instead, several groups at different times were lounging around on the hut’s deck for extended breaks. Most of these late hikers had taken the side trips to either the Ngauruhoe or Tongariro summits, but did not really have time for those excursions. I heard more than once someone announcing they were texting the bus company to tell them to hold the bus while they took their time, as if the busses and dozens of other passengers would not mind waiting an extra hour or two for them. I was thankful most of these late hikers did not seem to be Americans promoting the stereotype.
The volunteer hut warden this night was an American who works as a seasonal National Park Ranger in the U.S., and came to New Zealand while his park in the U.S. reduced staff for the winter. In the hut, I bunked near an American couple who went to the same university as me and had origins in the Appalachians near where I grew up. A group of New Zealanders arrived late to share our bunk room after hiking up from the Ketetahi car park two hours below. They said there were a bunch of people at the car park who missed their shuttles and were trying to bum a ride off anyone with a vehicle to any nearby town with bus service.
Day 3: Ketetahi Hut to Waihohonu HutThis day’s hike began by backtracking on the route of the previous day back up the mountain to the Emerald lakes. I covered this section mostly in the rain, but then the clouds began to clear as I approached the view looking back up on the red crater.
At this point it was 10:00am and a man with a German accent who was not exactly dressed for trail running stopped to inform me he just ran here from Whatapapa (covering most of the route of my first 2 days) in under 4 hours, but he explained he “didn’t run very much.” He was trying to decide if he wanted to continue to do the whole circle (as in my 4-day route), or go back the way he came. I pointed out that since the clouds were lifting, that if he went back the way he came he would get to see some sights that he couldn’t see on the way up due to the poor visibility. He concluded it would be risky for him to make the longer circle in one day since he wasn’t prepared and went back the same route to enjoy the sights.
I continued down the hill from the Blue Lake across the central crater to the Emerald Lakes where today’s route separated from yesterday’s trail. The trail took a steep descent into the land of Mordor, or at least where some of the Mordor scenes from the Lord of the Rings were apparently filmed. Once I turned off from the Emerald Lakes, I left the section of well-groomed trail. I had to take the steep descent slowly and carefully since it was full of loose rock and my backpack left me with awkward weight I had to be careful to control.
Once on the valley floor, It took a couple of hours for me to cross this volcanic landscape over to the Oturere Hut, where I took advantage of the toilet facilities before continuing three more hours to the Waihohonu Hut. Despite the fact that this region gets a lot of rain, most of this section was very exposed desert-like volcanic rock. But eventually I crossed into one valley and had 30 minutes hike through a rainforest that had managed to survive the volcanic activity before climbing up and then down one final hill to the hut. This hut was newer than the other two, and twice as large.
Suprise forrest in the middle of a volcanic desert
After claiming my bunk in the hut and dropping my pack, I walked down to the nearby creek to rinse and soak my feet in the cool water. As I was getting ready to leave, a group of French speakers (one each from France, Belgium, and Quebec) who were hanging out downstream called over to me and invited me to share in their appetizer trey of carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and cheese blocks with a dressing of oil and pepper. Each were traveling independently on extended trips while stopping along the way to work at restaurants, which is where they met. 30 minutes into our conversation they confessed their reason for inviting me over was to practice their English. They had a bet going that the first one to lapse into French would have extra cooking duties. I think the girl from Quebec lost.