Tongariro Northern Circuit – A New Zealand Great Walk!
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It is designed as a 4day/3night hike, or tramp as the New Zealanders call it. There are three accommodation huts spread out around the track which crosses a saddle between Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro, reaching a height of 1889 metres. The track, a 43.1 km loop, then descends and circumnavigates Mount Ngauruhoe through dramatic volcanic landscapes and glacial carved valleys, as well as alpine meadows and beech forest. The walk takes you past stunning emerald lakes, and visit historic sites.
This circuit includes the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which is said to be one of the best one day walks in New Zealand. I did the Alpine Crossing in 2014 and can attest to the fact it is an exhilarating walk…. as can the 1000’s of people that do the walk every year. In fact, I have never been on a walk before that has so many people doing it at the same time! It is very popular!
This year a friend and I decided to do the Northern Circuit. It was a last minute decision and as such we ended up only being able to book into one of the huts on the track. I was concerned about this and not sure what to do. After speaking to my father he suggested we start from Mangatepopo Carpark, which is where the Alpine Crossing day tramp begins. By doing this we would effectively be dividing the trek into two days. Could we do this? Were we prepared enough and were we physically fit enough? We decide yes and this is how the trek went for us…
I met Katrina – my trekking buddy in Taupo and then we drove to Whakapapa Village and took a room at the Whakapapa Holiday Park. We spent the evening packing our packs with the supplies we would need for two days on the track, and ensured we had enough warm clothes. You need layers of them! The weather on the track can change in a blink of an eye (more about the weather and what we packed below). After we carefully organised our packs, we braved the icy night air and walked to the Tussock Pub for a meal. We warmed up with a delicious burger and a glass of New Zealand red wine, and then returned to our cabin to realise we had to unpack our “carefully” packed backpacks to get our PJs… oops!
So we begin….
The next morning we woke at 5am with the plan of beginning the walk at 06:00. After a shower and a hot breakfast of oats we packed up the car and drove to the start of the Alpine Crossing. Once there we hit the track – it was already swarming with trampers – it was 07:00! Where did the time go? I’m not sure, but it did take us two hours from waking to be ready and tramping the track… we were an hour behind schedule!
It was a very cold morning, but as the sun came out we saw it was going to be a beautiful clear day… I just hoped it would stay that way. As we tramped along the glacier carved Mangetopopo Valley and along a small stream we noticed there was a lot of ice. We were well rugged up in our layers of clothing and in no rush to shed them.
At the bottom of a long climb called “The Devils Staircase” we took advantage of the toilets and shed one of our outer layers before the steep climb. Although steep, this part of the walk is a very well maintained track with steps. It is a long steep walk but the views are amazing! Once we were over this obstacle I told Katrina the worst was over…. then, as I looked across the South Crater, I saw the trampers heading up another ridge… “Oops sorry Katrina, I remember now we have another long climb… but then the worst is over.”
We climbed from South Crater up to Red Crater. This is a steep rough track. Freezing conditions can occur at any time, without warning, as you tramp in this area. It was on this climb three years ago that I felt the brunt of the fickle weather that these alpine mountains can throw at you. On that climb, three years ago, I left behind the lovely sunny day and entered a realm of near zero visibility and freezing winds.
On this day, however, the weather stayed perfect and we were able to see the amazing views around us! It really was quite magnificent. We passed the red crater and by now we were able to see the steaming fumeroles… the volcanic vents letting off steam and a pungent sulphurous aroma. Did I mention this area is an active volcano?
Just a little further on and the emerald lakes came into view. Next up there was a steep descent of scoria to traverse. It was not easy, especially with a heavy pack on. Three years ago I ran down the slope (not something I suggest you do, but it worked for me at the time), this time I walked slowly down the gravelly slope with the many other trampers, slipping, sliding and stumbling our way to the bottom. At one stage I ended up in a precarious position with one leg facing uphill and the other leg pointing downhill. It has been many years since I was able to do the splits! I was secretly impressed with my agility… and hid the pain well! LOL… We stopped at the bottom of the slope for lunch and after a half hour break we hefted our backpacks and began the next part of our journey.
Shortly after we left the Emerald Lakes we found a signpost pointing those doing the Northern Circuit to the right, across the bottom of the furtherest emerald lake. We were grateful to leave the mass of trampers behind and began this leg of the journey feeling refreshed and eager to move on.
As we passed the lowest emerald lake we found it was a perfect position to get another photographic aspect of this lake. From this track we could see how crystal clear the water was and that this lake had some form of aquatic growth.
It’s not getting any easier!
Not long after we left the lakes behind we felt the full brunt of another steep descent and it is here, I am sad to say, my traitorous body decided to remind me that I was no longer a “spring chicken”! It was an arduous climb down a rough scoria track along the Oturere Stream. With the heavy pack on my back, my knees felt every step and rebelled against each one with sharp pain.
After the steep descent into the Oturere Valley the track took us through an interesting landscape of large scoria boulders. On this perfectly clear day we enjoyed magnificent views that took in, not only the Kaimanawa ranges, Rangipo Desert and Mount Ngauruhue, but also gave a glimpse of a snow covered Mount Ruapehu.
We finally reached Oturere Hut and I will admit we did despair that we had another three hours of tramping before we would reach Waihohonu Hut where we would finally be able to end our day tramp! We soldiered on and focused on the fact that we had a bottle of red wine in our pack! YES! It was worth the extra kilo I was carrying! From Oturere Hut the undulating track led us over barren gravel fields before we descended into a valley and crossed a stream.
By this time my right knee was almost useless and we still had some way to go. We reached a beech-clad valley, which we had been told was not far from our destination. It was at this stage that young, super-fit “Hansel and Gretel” came skipping past… ok, they weren’t skipping but they both looked so fresh you’d have thought a car had just dropped them off 100 metres down the track. They disappeared into the distance and we finally reached the bottom of the valley. Now we had to climb to the top of a ridge. We had to carefully pick our way over tree roots which, with a knee that doesn’t want to bend, was not easy! At the top of the ridge we saw Waihohonu Hut… but it looked so far away… we were devastated!
I didn’t regret carrying the red wine!
We finally made it too the hut and gratefully dropped our packs to the ground. We found a bed, cleaned ourselves up a bit and went to cook ourselves some dinner. A dehydrated chicken curry and rice was the perfect thing to accompany our wine. As we drank our wine and nibbled at our food I am sure both Katrina and I were feeling every muscle in our bodies as well as some new ones we did not previously know existed!
The next day dawned on another perfect blue sky. I was up early to get some photos of the sunrise, after which, with our blistered toes encased in blister pads we began our final leg of the journey. The start was slow as we let our bodies warm into the day’s coming activities and, as our aches fell away, I felt I would be able to push on to complete the circuit. However, soon after my hopes were dashed when my darn knee began pulsing with pain again.
Know when to admit defeat!
After talking with a lovely family who had stayed at the same hut with us, I finally relented and gave up my stubborn attitude. It was agreed that Paul would give us a lift to the car, thereby cutting our walk short by three hours. We definitely would not have made it to the car before dark on foot! Take home message – know when to admit defeat!
The walk from Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village passes the Old Waihohonu Hut which was built in 1905. I dumped my pack with Katrina and walked down the track to get a look at this piece of history. From there the track gradually climbs up to the Tama Saddle. We once again dumped our packs and did a side walk to have a look at lower Lake Tama. It was a spectacular view.
We continued on with our aching bodies and blistered feet, all the while stopping to add even more blister pads…. did I mention I had to borrow someone else’s hiking boots because all my hiking gear is back on the boat in Thailand? Walking in borrowed boots is not something I will do again!
The end is in sight….
The last hour actually went reasonably quickly as the path was wider and we chatted away. Before we knew it we had reached Whakapapa Village. We had even passed the turn off to Taranaki Falls unawares. Now it was time for a hot shower, a fresh change of clothes, to pick up the car and then head to the pub.
My verdict about the Tongariro Northern Circuit
I loved it. It was unfortunate that we were not able to break the walk into 3 or 4 days and, in hindsight, although Katrina and I are reasonably fit, with no training before hand, it was difficult to do such long days on the rough terrain. The landscape and views were amazing, the hut we stayed in was very comfortable and we met many lovely people along the way. I am already planning my next long hike… so my damn body better hold out a little longer!
- National park and track are both free to use.
- Cost for hut/person/night – $32 (under 17 years free)
- Cost for campsite/person/night – $14 (under 17 years free)
- Must book in advance
- Click here for the Northern Circuit Brochure and here for Tongariro Northern Circuit Track Guide
- Click here for more information from the Department of Conservation
- Carry warm clothes even if the weather looks like it is going to be perfect. It gets very cold at the higher altitudes.
- You will need to carry all of your food in to the park and all of your rubbish out.
- Be Prepared! Click here for Important Safety Information.
- Check the weather… Weather patterns in New Zealand can be highly unpredictable, and rain and snow can fall at any time of the year.
What to take
- You must take warm clothes – the weather can become freezing even in the middle of summer – use wool, polypropylene, and/or fleece base layers.
- Don’t forget warm hat and gloves
- Sunglasses, sunhat and sunscreen – the sun can come out and can be hot when it does.
- Food for all the meals you will need on the track. Choose lightweight pre-packed dehydrated meals such as “Back Country Cuisine”. We also had high energy snacks such as fruit and nut mix, nut bars and chocolate. We had cup-o-soup to heat when we finally arrived at the hut…. and I must say it was delicious!. Breakfast we took oat sachets which we cooked up with a handful of nuts and cranberries. Lunches included flavoured tuna in sachets with flat bread (we really liked the flatbread idea – so easy to transport).
- Water – there is rain-water at the huts which you can drink once you have boiled it for three minutes or used an antibacterial tablet. I phoned ahead to make sure there was adequate water in the tanks before we did the tramp.
- Sleeping bag
- Cooking gear and eating utensils
- Cooking stoves are only at the huts in the peak season (off peak you will need to take your own)
- First aid kit
- Survival kit
- Matches or lighter in waterproof container
- Toiletries, including toilet paper
- Torch/flashlight and spare batteries
- Rubbish bag
Tongariro National Park – Fun Facts
- It is the oldest National Park in New Zealand and the 4th oldest in the world.
- It was established in 1887.
- It was the first national park in the world to be gifted by a country’s indigenous people, on 23 September 1887.
- It has grown over the years from 2,640 hectares to its present size of 79,596 hectares.
- Approximately one million people visit Tongariro National Park each year.
- Tongariro National Park is centred around three active volcanoes – Mt Tongariro 1967 m / Mt Ngauruhoe 2287 m / Mt Ruapehu 2797 m.
- The Te Maari craters on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro erupted on 6 August 2012 and 21 November 2012.
- Traditionally Ngauruhoe has erupted at least every nine years, although the last eruption was in 1975.
- Mount Tongariro’s active Red Crater last emitted ash in 1926.
- Mount Ruapehu is the highest point in the North Island.
- Mount Ruapehu’s last eruption was 25 September 2007. Prior to that there were large eruptions in 1995 and in 1996.
- Mount Ruapehu’s eight named glaciers are the only ones in the North Island.
Thank you to Paul Simmons for the lift back to our car… and to Sandy Simmons, Kate Gunn and their wonderful herd of offspring for their awesome company and friendship.
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