One of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Tongariro Northern Circuit leads you into the jaws of the North Island’s most active volcanic landscape. The path passes through stunning mountain scenery dominated by 3 active volcanoes, Tongariro, Raupehu (the highest mountain in the North Island) and Ngauruhoe - the legendary Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings – welcome to Orc country!
We set off from Whakapapa village, a ski centre during the winter, but in summer bustling with trampers, day trippers and backpackers. We carried everything with us for our 4 days in the hills, so the packs started out a little heavy with enough food for the trip.
Perfect weather for the start of our trek, the cone of Ngauruhoe our destination
Mount Ruapehu dominates the skyline, the chateau at Whakapapa in the right of the picture
The track climbed gently above the village, undulating through moss ridden forests, weaving in and out of narrow gorges and streams. The narrow path was heavily eroded through the soft ash-laden soil. We passed charred trees preserved in this soil, remnants of the forests once here, destroyed during the super volcano eruption of Taupo in 26,500 years ago. This enormous eruption reshaped this part of the North Island and lead to the creation of the 616 square kilometre Lake Taupo to the north, New Zealand’s largest lake, which is effectively a huge caldera.
The weather was clear, blue skies and a hot sun that burnt anything that wasn’t covered up or creamed. Despite the popularity of the trail we met only one other walker on that first day until we reached our quarters for the night at the Mangatepopo hut. It was a cosy affair with three small dorms, a tiny kitchen with three gas burners, a few small tables and a large veranda to bathe in the evening sunshine.
23 people squeezed into the hut that night with another 10 camping outside. We opted for an early night and early start the next morning as the next section of the walk is known as the Tongariro crossing, the most popular single day walk in New Zealand with over 1000 people a day attempting it during peak season i.e. right now.
The hut can just be seen nestled under the ridge leading to the summit of Tongariro
A great view of Ngauruhoe's cinder cone from the hut
We were up at 5.30am and away just after 6am. The track here is well maintained and weaves through and over lava fields under the shadow of Mount Doom. We were one of the first few on the track as we left the scant vegetation behind and the ascent steepened up to the saddle between Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. After the saddle we crossed the south crater floor, an endless white basin half hidden in the clouds. The weather was poor, visibility of around 100 metres and winds gusting over 40mph. But the forecast was good, so we continued upwards and left the main track, twisting and turning along a basalt and scoria ridge to the summit of Tongariro lost in the clag.
We retraced our steps to the main path and now joined the catching crowds passing the red crater, when all of a sudden the clouds began to break and strange vistas began to unravel before our eyes. Ngauruhoe loomed over us, the red crater spewed its steam, the yellow crater stared back at us, its sulphur crystals glinting in the sun and the emerald lakes shimmered like cats eyes on the plateau below us.
We descended the cinder scree run to the dazzling lakes, steam drifting from smaller vents around its shores which were fringed with vibrant oranges and reds.
Here we left the crowds to complete their crossing and headed east toward the Oturere Hut. Pumice crunched and squeaked under foot like freshly fallen snow as we flowed down the lava fields and over the remnants of pyroclastic flows.
South Crater in the clag
Central Crater with Blue Lake beyond
The Emerald Lakes
The clouds on Ngauruhoe look like smoke - maybe we should speed up
Looking back the way we've come through the lava fields
The hut was even smaller than the night before, but we had first pick of a bed in the smaller room. We found a waterfall a few hundred yards from the hut hidden in its little gorge and we stripped and showered away the ash that clung to our skin under the freezing spring fed torrent.
The Oturere hut with Ruapehu in the background
Our shower for the evening
We had a lazy start the next morning and after a breakfast of noodles washed down with coffee we cruised our short third day. The route continued east following the dried up rivulets through the ash desert, crossing huge lava ridges, which eventually plummeted down into the valley beyond.
Down in the valley pockets of forest have survived the bombardment from the 12 Tongariro vents nearby. Their cool interiors, moss and lichen rich, provided a refreshing refuge from the scorching sun.
The Waihohonu hut is only a few years old and a palace compared to our previous two nights. We bathed in the nearby spring, which flowed from a small cave opening at a rather chilly 3 degrees. We also went duck spotting for the very rare Blue Duck or Whio, with Amanda the hut warden. She became very giddy at the sight of it, as it was only the second sighting of one in that area. It is a rare duck, holding territories on fast flowing mountain rivers. We met a new friend at the hut, Julia a tailor from Germany, who had once done a language course in Llandudno and lived in Chester for a few months – small world!!
We reach the vegetation again
Its a tad chilly this bath
Sarah putting on a brave face
Our final day we cruised back to Whakapapa through ancient lava flows now covered in heather and grasses. The heather was introduced by a former Ranger of the Tongariro National Park, to encourage grouse and pheasant for shooting. Unfortunately this invasive plant out competes many native species of grasses and shrub and is now managed intensively by the Department of Conservation to minimise its spread.
We visited the old Waihohonu hut, one of the first built in the park, used by the victorian hikers and skiers. Their graffiti still remains, adorning walls doors and beds. Carvings have ben produced by those trapped in the hut by bad weather and a collection of old photos and artefacts dating back through to the 19th century are on display, including good old Oxo and Coleman’s mustard. It was a fantastic little time capsule of the Tongariro visitors over the past 150 years.
Crossing the saddle between Ruapehu, with its snow covered peaks, and Ngauruhoe we completed our circuit of Mount Doom, its perfect cinder cone had dominated the four days.
The old Waihohonu hut
Graffiti dating back to the early 1900s
I think the emergency food rations haven't been updated for a while
Uh oh - last sweety!
Back at Whakapapa we celebrated our trek with a well deserved pint or two with Julia. The following day was intended as a rest day, so we climbed Mount Ruapehu, which wasn’t much of a break at 2797m! However, we decided to cheat a little and took a chair lift to 2000m. There are no marked tracks to its summit so we followed a line of best fit and scrambled to an obvious ridge line which we followed to the crater rim and had our lunch in the sun dappled snows of the summit.
Sarah's first chairlift
The crater summit of Ruapehu
Looking back at our route of the Northern Circuit
Resting those weary pins with our new friend Julia