Great Walk :: Tongariro Northern Circuit

Great Walk :: Tongariro Northern Circuit

January 24, 2018

START: Whakapapa @ 0445
FINISH: Whakapapa @ 2135
DISTANCE: 43 + 5 km

Hitching up from Taupo yesterday wasn’t too difficult. Never waited more than 5 minutes for a pick up, though I did chose to walk a fair bit out of town to get to a prime spot to kick off the series of four rides that ultimately brought me to the backpacker hostel at Whakapapa Holiday Park. I managed to mess myself up a bit by staying in one car about 15 k's beyond my turn. Ended up taking a bypass road with an older Maori couple, literally the only car going that way, to avoid backtracking all the way to Turangi. On the sparsely-traveled bypass, we had to drive through a treacherous wet crossing where a culvert was totally blocked, diverting flood water and sending large debris across the road as if it were a full-on river. I imagine that section is going to be totally washed out by the time the water subsides. Gnarly, unpredictable weather and huge, steep catch basins can make any stream impassable. One of the challenges of tramping - and apparently driving - in this beautiful country.

I arrived and retrieved my key from the after hours box, then went over to the backpacker lodge where I found one other person. Jason is a nice guy who also happens to be a Tech alum from Atlanta. Funny we should meet for the first time way out here on the opposite side of the world from our mutual home. We chatted for a while before calling it a night. I had a crazy early wake up call this morning and still needed to prep my gear last night before crawling into bed.

My alarm buzzed at 0400 and I quickly (and quietly) packed up and snuck out. I hit the trail by 0500 under a clear sky filled with brilliant stars. It was brisk this morning, and I walked swiftly to generate some extra body heat while I waited for the sun to rise. Within 30 minutes, I was immersed in a thick, wet fog and couldn’t see 3 meters ahead of me. I walked along like that for an hour hoping it wasn’t a sign of the day to come. It wasn’t, thankfully. In fact, I could say it was too clear. (Never satisfied.) I’ve heard folks say that mountains make their own weather, which usually seems to be a reference to great weather low and storms up high. Today it was quite the opposite- we were above the thick cloud cover with only clear blue skies overhead for much of the day.

When I merged with the Tongariro Crossing track near Mangatepope Hut, there were already dozens of hikers ahead of me. They’d been dropped by shuttle to do this relatively short, though definitely gem-studded, leg of the full circuit. It’s an absurdly popular day hike, and shuttles seem to run endlessly throughout the day. I passed dozens of folks as we climbed to the South Crater. Once there, we were standing at the base of Tolkien’s Mt. Doom. The side trail wasn’t marked, so I ended up cutting cross country and kicking steps the whole way up the steep, loose Northeast face. (Turns out the trail actually follows the Northwest ridge. Oops.) It was a relentless slog that took a few hours. I’d kick two steps, slide back one, kick two more, slide back another, rest, and repeat. My legs were thrashed, and I was totally knackered when I finally topped out. I spent over an hour up there exploring the crater rim, taking in the 360* views, and having lunch. I was grateful to find the summit trail for the descent, of which I made fairly quick work.

By the time I got back down, The Crossing was totally packed with trampers. It was like an endless line of ants marching by ones and twos, stopping unpredictably in the middle of the trail, and generally acting a fool. Normally I would’ve been annoyed, but I had just climbed Mt. Doom, and I knew that very few hikers were doing the circuit, so I’d be alone again before too long. But not before sharing the Emerald Lakes overlook with hordes of people. I decided to skip Mt. Tongariro because Ngauruhoe had taken longer than I’d anticipated, and to skip Blue Lake because I was over the crowd. I hadn’t carried enough water from Mangatepope, so I treated water from the exit stream at Emerald Lakes, then kept on keeping on. It was quickly getting late in the day. The rest of the hike was beautiful, but the epic section is decidedly The Crossing, and I’d recommend it to anyone despite the crowds.

It was hot today, maybe 32* centigrade, and exposed. I got pretty burned on my calves, quads, wrists, and the back of neck. Pretty rookie move, not reapplying sunscreen, but it’s a true classic for me. Bring on the skin cancer. I took a 30 minute food, water, shade, and shoes off break at Oturere Hut. It was total bliss. All I wanted to do was lie down, but I had over 20 k's to go and fewer than five hours of daylight to work with. Had to get to it. The sun was finally getting a little lower in the sky and the terrain generally eased. I wouldn’t say I was cruisin’, because I kept stopping to snap photos. I couldn’t help myself. I mean, when will I ever be back there?

As the clouds rolled in and the sun was nearly set, I figured I was done with the “beauty breaks,” but then I got some incredible snaps of the sun setting behind a veil of thin, wispy clouds. It was a brilliant, dramatic red. I’ll never forget it. Seems there’s always another photo to take. Managed to make it to Taranaki Falls, the only other side trip besides Mt. Doom that I’d planned and actually taken, just as twilight waned. That’s especially exciting because it means I can sleep in tomorrow rather than running back up to snap some photos of the falls.

It was after 2130 when I finally finished. Ufta, long dang day. (Sandy Suunto says I took over 65,000 steps today!) Due to its proximity to the track, I’d used the holiday park as a natural staging point. (The Trailhead is literally just across the street.) Stoked I decided to splurge on the extra night. I really like the quaint, comfortable, reasonably priced accommodations, and I finished later than I’d planned, so I’m excited to collapse on a bed with no hassle. In this moment, I’m just sitting on the couch in the common room trying to will myself to shower when all I really wanna do is sleep. So. Tired.