Tongariro Northern Circuit: Three Days on A Great Walk, Day One

New Zealand, you have me hooked. Though I’ve been having fun, this past month wasn’t entirely convincing – what with your vast, suffocating rainforests and constant dampness. Not to mention all the winding gravel roads that, while quaint at first, cost me two busted tires and a lot of road fatigue. I was feeling tired, lonely, and deprived of the awe inspiring mountains of Colorado.

You took my uncertainty as a challenge, and you rose above and beyond the call of duty.

My experience on the Tongariro Northern Circuit: Day One

Having traveled south from Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula, then through Waitomo for a job interview, I found myself in the city of Taupo – a bustling oasis in the middle of endless wilderness. Taupo is located on the northern side of a lake of the same name, is known for free random hots springs, and has a multitude of adventures, from kayaking to rock climbing. I stopped for a few nights at a rare free campground by the Waikato River called Reid’s Farm.

Disappointed after losing a promising job opportunity to timing issues, I spent the weekend listless – wasting hours in the Taupo library on free Wifi, or reading to forget my woes in Grandpa Jimmy, my best and only friend. I had accepted my fate as a lonely vagabond, and was well on my way to cutting off civilization entirely, when a fantastic couple (Averie and Sydney) I had met from Seattle informed me they were planning to hike the Tongariro Northern Circuit and asked if I was nearby. What luck! The great walk was just south of Lake Taupo, only about an hour drive away.

Averie and Sydney, the wanderingest couple I know
Averie and Sydney, the wanderingest couple I know

I drove down and met them the next morning (Tuesday October 20th), having restocked my food supply and washed my weekend vagabond clothing.

The weather did not look great. The best time to complete the crossing (the highest point of the circuit) was that day, likerightnow, so we didn’t have much time to plan. We threw together our packs, mentally prepared for the worst, and set off.

Our idea was to start from Mangatepopo and travel clockwise over three days, hoping to hit the worst of the weather on a relatively easy section of trail. We kept my van at the Whakapapa Visitor Center and drove Averie and Sydney’s rented car to the Mangatepopo parking lot.

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Map of Tongariro National Park. The circular track is the Northern Circuit.

The first section of the hike is incredibly flat and easy. The three of us stopped several times to de-layer, having over-prepared due to warnings of gale force wind and rain. The day was gorgeous but chill, with white puffy cumulus clouds passing quickly overhead, the sun playing a frustrating game of hide and seek. As we hiked, we caught up with a middle-aged man from Denmark, who had flown down to surprise his 25 year old daughter for her birthday and was exploring the country while she celebrated with friends. We continued on, but he hiked with us on and off as we arrived at, and slowly ascended, the Devil’s Staircase. It wasn’t the worst staircase I’ve been on (that title goes to The Incline in Manitou Springs, CO), but with the wind constantly stealing what little warmth my exertion was producing, it was a continuous battle between needing to rest and wanting push upward and onward to stay warm.

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At least our destination was fairly obvious

After the Devil’s Staircase, the path levels off and travels through a flat valley with Mt Tongariro to the North and Mt Ngauruhoe to the South. The views here are astonishing. Massive peaks and sharp drop-offs make for a stark and intense landscape, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since leaving home. On a summer day, when the peaks aren’t covered in snow, it would’ve been on my list to summit at least one of the impressive mountains surrounding us.

Looking back across the valley, Mt Nguaruhoe to the left

At the far side of the valley, we said goodbye to our new friend, who had come as far as he felt comfortable, and prepared ourselves for the windiest, most difficult section of the trail: the ascent to the top of Red Crater. Up until now, the path was either packed down and well maintained, or was flat enough that it didn’t matter. Here it was neither. Rising up about 600 feet, the path is steep and consists of loose gravel and a substance akin to sand. For a good portion, there is a chain drilled into the rock on your right, as a means to ensure you don’t slide to your death on the left. I was very thankful for how sturdy the chain was.

After what felt like ages, we finally hit the highest point of the trip!

The landscape made me positively giddy. Hard to believe I was despondent in a campground a mere two days before.

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Right; how Red Crater got its name, Left; the highest point of the trip

The next few hours felt like walking on air compared to the first two. We passed the Emerald Lakes, which truly live up to their name with jewel-like color, and continued down into the sparse, scrubby valley below toward the Oturere Hut.

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The pristine, still icy Emerald Lakes

The wind had died down almost immediately after passing over Red Crater. Since it was coming from the West, the crossing blocked the worst of it once over to the East. Sydney, Averie, and I took the rest of the day to enjoy ourselves and meander our way toward that night’s hut. We had four or five hours until dark and were over halfway through the estimated five hours it takes to complete the section, so we stopped along the way to scrutinize the scrubby plants, play with crazy light pumice stones, and, consequently, longingly discuss the wonders of hummus and if it would be possible to bring on the trail without refrigeration.

Exhibit A
Exhibit A

Having lost track of time, we eventually came over a rise in the land and spotted the hut in the distance. Spontaneous dance broke out at the thought of taking off our packs and, I think more importantly, our shoes. The next ten minutes were a determined march downward until we reached the tiny Oturere Hut and settled in for the night.

Hut Number 1

The Oturere Hut was a cramped but welcoming space. It includes a main room, which consists of a small four top table, a sink with decent counter space, and about 12 bunks to the right, and two side rooms with enough bunks to fit five people each.

We just happened to arrive at the hut on the night the rangers were restocking and training the baby rangers, so it was packed and quite jovial. As the night waned on, we chatted by candlelight with the rangers, learned how to find south using the Southern Cross, and eventually settled in for a good sleep to prepare to continue the walk in the morning.

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Goodnight, My Love
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