Having done many hikes in South Africa, I always tended to measure the difficulty rating (extremity) according to, first of all, the distance you walk per day and secondly the altitude, eg 3000+ metres above sea level (often with corresponding low temperatures). But with a pair of shorts and tekkies you can do almost any hike with the exception of the Drakensberg in winter and at night. The temperature drops below freezing so you have to be prepared. While there’s the odd rare bit of rain sometimes and some hail now and then, you hardly ever get to experience rain-storms, blizzards, wind, snow or any other alpine weather conditions in SA. Neither would you ever need crampons or ice picks. However, in New Zealand, alpine conditions seem to kick in at much lower altitudes, making elevation and weather more important difficulty-factors than distance.
Not sure what to expect of NZ hikes, we decided on the Tongariro Northern Circuit as our introduction. We were keen to get out of the city and into nature over the new year and the Tongariro National Park seems to be a biggie (at least as far as the North Island is concerned) – popping up in conversations and magazines quite often.
The beauty about this hike is that you can start anywhere, stay over in any hut for extended periods (Peak: maximum 2 nights at huts and campsites. Off-peak: maximum 3 nights at huts, 5 nights at campsites) and walk in any direction. You plan your own trip and all you have to do is book your overnight spots in advance. The other joy is that all the overnight spots have a hut as well as a tented area, so if you prefer to pitch a tent, like we do, you have the option. It is a welcome change to the big hikes in SA (Otter, Amatola, Brandwater, Tsitsikana, Prospectors, Outeniqua, etc) where you have to hike from point A to point B in a certain direction – no starting where you please or going in the “wrong” direction. The advantage of the latter may well be that it limits the number of hikers which in turn minimises the erosion?
30 December 2010 (Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo hut)
Being only 240km from Palmy, we decided to make an early start on the first day of the hike (or tramping as it is called over here) and drove the same morning of day one’s walk. But we overslept. True to our nature, we left everything for the last minute and ended up shopping and packing when we were supposed to be in bed already. And with the whole environment being different, we couldn’t find affordable substitutes for some of the food-items we normally use, like Toppers / Imana / Knorrox / Vegemince – readymade soybean meals.
But hikes to me, have never been about the food – I am not a person who brags about my “five star” meal on a hike. And we ended up with plenty of great food anyway, including our own homemade biltong, which I would struggle to go without.
And so we were off at six in the morning with only a few hours of sleep, arriving at the Tongariro National Park at 9 o’clock. We decided to start our hike at the Whakapapa Village, which is located inside the park. The huge Chateau Tongariro greets you as you drive up the road towards the parking area and visitor/information centre. We still needed a map of the area, not wanting to cart around four 1:50 000 topographical maps, which was our alternative from the Palmy DOC and Bivouac Outdoor store, amongst others. As luck would have it, the route meanders across not one or two, but four maps.
Luckily the visitor centre had maps for sale and with our smaller, topographic map (1:60 000, and specifically covering the Northern Circuit) in hand and boots on, we put on our backpacks and with great shock and amusement, I discovered that one half of my hip belt clip apparently decided not to join us for the trip! Not just any part – probably the most important part of the backpack. One of life’s little curve balls … I call it character building. And a Boer makes a plan, so Gerry went back to the visitor/info centre curio-shop to find a clip. The only thing available was a compression strap, which he bought incase we could use it somehow. But we couldn’t, and so a Boer had to come up with plan B – which was to make a knot in the existing straps, thus tying the loose ends together. This involved Gerry pushing and pulling to tie the straps, while I held my breath, which made taking it off a bit tricky.
And so we were on our way. We seemed to have picked the perfect day for the start of our four-day hike – sunny with just a light breeze. You walk through the village behind the Chateau and turn left onto the track. The first few kilometres wind mainly through shrub-land, with two tiny patches of beech trees to cool you down a bit. Tussock stands out prominently between other hardy bushes.
As you reach the beech tree forest you find the turn-off to the Taranaki Falls, which you get to see on the last day of the tramp. This is the last sight of big trees for a couple of days, with the surroundings becoming shrub again as the landscape turns more desert-like. There are still plants and grass everywhere, and it is greenish all around.
We crossed a couple of streams but the going was fairly easy. The biggest issue is probably the erosion. Most of the way the path has eroded into deep ditches and dongas due to the trampers and subsequent rain that turn the footpath into little streams. Some of these trenches are literally shoulder depth and impassable. This has resulted in numerous additional paths crisscrossing the original track. Although it is fairly dry, the path is still muddy in some areas, very slippery in others, with little streams here and there.
With Mt Ruapehu and all its glaciers behind you, you have a beautiful view of Mt Ngauruhoe, which is still an active volcano. Its last eruption was in 1975.
The path winds up and around the cone-shaped mountain of Ngaurohoe until you reach the Mangatepopo Valley and see Mangatepopo hut in a distance. A couple of other hikers were also on the route, but from what I could gather, no kiwi’s! All tourists and foreigners.
We pitched our tent and started up the stove for a nice cup of soup. It was still fairly early in the afternoon, and so we could have a quiet and cozy evening watching the sun set in the west. At seven, the hut warden quickly gathered everybody in the communal area for an update on the weather, some basic info and to check permits and trampers’ whereabouts.
Mangatepopo hut has two sleeping rooms and a communal area with a dishwashing basin and gas heater. Two long-drop toilets (with toilet paper and hand wash basin!) are a couple of metres away from the hut and campsite and to wash yourself there’s a tap next to the hut.
31 December 2010 (Mangatepopo hut to Oturere hut)
When we woke the next morning, everything was wet – the flysheet of the tent on the inside and outside! But the sun was rising over Mt Tongariro and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It looked like we would have another perfect day for tramping.
Just after eight we were packed and ready to go. The biggest part of this day’s hike follow the same route as the popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a one day hike taking you past all the highlights of the area. We’ve been warned that hundreds of people stream across the mountain, but we only saw a few. Maybe because it was the last day of the year?
The first section of the route is well laid out with wooden walkways, keeping you out of the mud and making river crossings a breeze. After about 3km you reach a loo out of the blue with Soda Springs to your left – a five-minute detour. From here the path winds up steeply via fractured black lava flows (known as the Devil’s Staircase) and as you go higher, the plants become less and the track becomes more gravel and rock.
One of the options for this day’s hike is to climb up Mt Ngauruhoe, 2287m above sea level. We were contemplating doing it, but sort of decided against it, mainly because the day already features a few other uphill scrambles, as well as many other things to see and do. But as we got closer, the temptation got the better of me. A steep volcanic mountain beckoning to be climbed – who could ignore a challenge like that!
And so we decided to leave our backpacks at the bottom, take some water and warm clothing (we were after all in alpine territory now) and started the ascent of the cone-shaped mountain. After a couple of metres you can cross over more towards the right-hand side of the crater. What looks like a highway up the mountain, had me thinking that this would be the best route to follow. However, this turned out not to be the case. I repeat – do not take the widest, most prominent route on your right to scale the mountain! It turned out that this is one of the “highways” used for skidding/skiing down the scoria.
More to the left is a small rocky ridge and most climbers followed that route. We could see that they were proceeding faster than us as we got higher and higher, but couldn’t do much about our, by now extremely scary, situation. We tried to scoot over to the rocky ridge, but all the loose rocks and gravel made it impossible. Have you ever been in a situation where you know that you can’t go down, but only upwards? So the only choice was to keep going, which became ever harder and more dangerous as our altitude increased.
Then at some point you realize that you can’t go up any further, but you cannot go down either – you’re stuck. And with that, fear and paranoia strike as you are stuck helplessly in one place, contemplating the idea that a rescue team with helicopter will have to come fetch you. And yet you are so close. You climb one step and slide down two. And the moment you lean forward to far, gravity wants to slip you right off the mountain with one easy slide (unless you start rolling like a stone). I was hanging onto gravel for dear life with Paul Simon’s song “Slip Sliding Away” screaming in my ears!
Numerous people who were on their way down already, yelled that our way was impossible and that we should get over the small ditches to the ridge on the other side, but after a few failed attempts, we gave up on that idea altogether. There is a yellow cliff almost at the top and we figured that if we could only reach it, it might be more solid and maybe easier from there. But boy were we sadly mistaken. It just got worse and as I was hanging onto slippery scree and volcanic dust, unable to move, I was thinking to myself “if only I could make it down in one piece”, without the embarrassment of having to hitch a lift in a helicopter!
While we had to deal with the very real risk of slipping down the mountain, our friends on the other side occasionally had to dodge flying rocks. Since they were climbing the rocky ridge, every now and then someone would dislodge a rock, sending it hurtling down the mountain and you would hear everyone screaming out a warning as it was flying down: “rock!”, “rock!”. It was just as scary as I’m sure if one of those were to hit you, you’d be dead as a donkey.
At this point I was ready to give up, which is not something I easily do. It almost became a matter of life and death. But then Gerry found a way across the yellow ridge where we could join up with the “better” path. With eyes closed and scared motherless, I just made a run for it and let momentum take over. And from there it was almost plain sailing to the top.
I was so relieved and at the same time so angry with myself for making the wrong choice. This will be one of those moments where you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and realize what an amazing feat you’ve survived.
But what a majestic view you have from the top. It was all worth the effort. The weather was still perfect and with the almost completely clear day, we could see all the way to Mt Taranaki in the west. To the north, the magnificence of Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo completely overshadow the small Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake.
Ominous little whiffs of sulphurous gases that are emitted from the mountain next to the rim of the crater serve as a reminder that you are actually standing on an active volcano! Inside the huge crater there was still a bit of snow. And strangely enough, the higher we went up, the more ladybirds were around. I noticed, because in my panic-stricken stuck-in-one-place moments, I had time to look at the ground that was only a few centimeters from my face anyway.
There’s only one way to describe the descent – you “bliksem” off the mountain. And for those of you who don’t know the word, it is a succinct way of saying that you scream down the mountain mainly involuntarily at great speed and often with little or no control over where you’re going. There’s no other way to get down – you skid, ski, slide, slip and basically see your arse (fumerole!) in the loose gravel and scree all the way down.
Climbing Mt Ngauruhoe is not for the faint hearted, but it’s an amazing experience and I will strongly encourage everybody to give it a go – at least once. I would like to still try it in winter when the climb requires crampons and ice picks.
It reminds me a bit about the last/top bit of Kilimanjaro – the terrain is very similar and there’s also a section of loose gravel/scree where you literally freefall down the mountain.
We collected our packs and pushed on. Dusty and dirty, but pleased that it hadn’t rained, and most impressed with our accomplishment. From here the path winds up a little more until you reach the rim of the South Crater, which you cross passing a huge yellowish dam/puddle. Once across, the climbing starts again taking you up to the Red Crater (1886m) on the Mangatepopo Saddle. The presence of oxidized iron in the rock causes the red colour.
At the top you reach the turn-off to climb Mt Tongariro to the left (it is an optional extra out and back walk which we decided to leave for next time), but we headed straight on to where the Red Crater was belching out steam, being an active fumerole (a fumerole is an opening in Earth’s [or any other astronomical body’s] crust, often in the neighborhood of volcanoes, which emits steam and gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, and hydrogen sulfide – Wikipedia).
Still on the ridge we had wonderful views of the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake in front of us, with the Central Crater to the left just before Blue Lake. As we sat quietly having lunch and contemplating life, someone started playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on a bagpipe at the Emerald Lakes. What a wonderful moment, with the sound of the bagpipe carried for miles across the craters and mountains in the middle of nowhere. And I suddenly realized again that it was the last day of the year.
We scrambled down the mountain again on the steep scoria covered ridge of the Red Crater until we reached the three Emerald Lakes (old explosion pits filled with water). The smell of sulphur is very prominent as you reach the bottom of the ridge. The path to Oturere hut winds around the lakes and to the right further down the mountain towards the Rangipo Desert.
We decided not to walk the extra stretch to the Blue Lake straight ahead, since you pass along its edge when doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which we plan to do in the near future.
Descending the Oturere Valley means walking between lava rocks and gravel next to the Oturere River. What was supposed to be a quick, less than 5km walk to the hut, turned out to be a whole afternoon slog on our battered bodies and we only reached the hut at half past five. We quickly pitched our tent, took a cold bath from a water bottle and popped the bubbly!
Oturere hut is even more basic, with a dishwashing basin on the outside where people wash themselves and their crockery! There is a river and waterfall a few metres downhill from the hut, but many people don’t seem to make the effort to walk there for a freezing cold wash. This is the case with all the huts – no shower facilities, but only a river, normally a couple of hundred metres from the hut which is ice cold (not for sissies like myself). I would have liked to see some washing up facilities that are not shared with the basin where you wash your dishes, though!
Two long-drops away from the hut and tents might be the only privacy the hutters have? If you share a room with a couple of other strangers, where do you dress/undress, etc?
Our second day turned out to be yet another perfect sunny day with just a light wind. And so 2010 came to an end as we sipped our hard-earned bubbly. Cheers everyone!
At midnight all the hikers joined in a countdown and shouted “Happy New Year” into the walkie-talkies of the hut wardens (each hut’s trampers getting a turn), while some nice fireworks lit the sky, seeing us into the new year. As the fireworks were still dying away, a howling wind all of a sudden started sweeping through the mountains. From inside the tent it felt as if we were going to be blown off the mountain, the wind continuing to blow throughout the night. Gerry got up to secure the tent at more places and we eventually fell asleep despite the clapping and flapping pieces of the tent.
January 2011 (Oturere hut to Waihohonu hut)
With day three being a shorter one, we slept in a bit and only crawled out of the tent by eight. By then the howling wind was also something of the past and we looked set for another great day weather-wise. The result of our little stint up Mt Ngauruhoe, left me with such severe pain in every possible muscle in my body – even the front parts of my arms, wrists and fingers – that I could hardly move. Most of the other trampers were also taking it easy and by ten we were on the road.
From the start of the second day, past the Mangatepopo hut, the terrain very much reminded me of the Fish River Canyon. Same rocky, gravel terrain except for less sandy bits. The Tongariro Northern Circuit, to me, feels almost like a mix of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia.
From the Oturere hut you wind down the ridge, through the dry sandy riverbed and up on the other side across the next ridge. A chilly wind coming from Mt Ruapehu had me grabbing for my fleece before long. The path continues along similar undulating terrain for a big part of the day’s walk. The gravel path is quite “worn-in” and you can follow its trail into the distance over the ridges. Some of the river-crossings are little streams with perfectly clear water. Apparently (unfortunately) most of the water in the Tongariro Park has such high mineral content due to the volcanic activity that it is toxic and cannot be consumed. The huts are equipped with water tanks (and roofs! :-)) to collect rainwater for drinking, and so you have to carry your day’s supply with you.
After about two hours walking over the ridges, we turned left on the crest of one and followed it all the way, gradually descending until we entered a forest of beech trees. Still further down we reached a significant river that we crossed via a little footbridge. And then the biggest climb of the day awaited us. Winding through beech forest we went up and up and up. The small leaves of the beech trees made for a soft carpet under our weary feet. We stopped for lunch and a short rest while the birds were chirping away.
Eventually you reach the top of the ridge and continue down the other side where the hut can be seen in the distance, right next to the Waihohonu River. The Waihohonu Springs is just upstream in the previous big river, and these two streams join forces further down towards the desert, and therefore they are both called the Waihohonu River.
Gerry found a lovely spot amongst the trees next to the river with a picnic bench. What a luxury to be able to keep your food, cooking and general living off the ground and out of the dust for a change. The campsite at this overnight spot is quite far from the hut, and had only one long-drop, with no water. You have to walk all the way up to the hut for drinking water. The Waihohonu hut is really five-star. It looks more like a proper house, enormous and with beautiful porches. The warden informed us that this “hut” is brand new and has only been open to the public for the past two months. It can also be reached from the desert road parking area.
The previous/older hut (not to be confused with the original historic hut) is on the same side of the river as the campsite, just a few meters back on the path. There are now three Waihohonu huts with only the new one in use.
2 January 2011 (Waihohonu hut to Whakapapa Village)
As is usually the case (at least for me), by day four of any hike, most aches and pains diminish as you get “walked in”. You manage to find a rhythm that causes the least amount of pain, while your backpack finds its fit into the grooves of your body. I might loose a toenail or two again, but that is usually part of my happy feet outings.
Being a long final day, we decided to make an early start and were ready to go shortly after seven. From the campsite, you pass the new hut and after a short walk, the turn-off to the historic hut is to your left. It was completed in 1904 for visitors and tourists travelling by coach from Waiouru or Tokaanu and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand.
The track meanders next to the Waihohonu River (?), between the two volcanoes (Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe) back to Whakapapa Village. As we walked over the ridges, a strong cold westerly and later south-westerly wind greeted us (we later found out is was blowing at speeds of up to 45km/h). In the valleys, sheltered from the wind, we could feel the temperature rising and the sun eating at our necks. Here and there a cicada (known for their remarkable acoustic talents) was screeching away, confirming that summer is in full swing.
After about three hours of walking over the ridges and through the valleys and little streams, we got a glimpse of Lower Tama Lake. A kilometre or so further on, you reach the turn-off to your right for an out and back walk to view the two landmark lakes nearby: Upper Tama and Lower Tama on the Tama Saddle. We left our backpacks by the side of the track again for the 1.5hr return trip up and down a steep hill.
After about 10 minutes walk, we came to a magnificent view of Lower Tama with its beautiful turquoise colour. Beyond this point we started the big climb to Upper Tama on the ridge of the mountain. Up and up again in loose gravel and stones until you suddenly see the huge Upper Tama way below on the other side towards Mt Ngauruhoe. It is almost bean-shaped and a much darker blue – not the turquoise/emerald colours of the other lakes.
Refueled with some sustenance in the form of nuts, berries and some water, we turned to head back down. And suddenly we saw the roof of Chateau Tongariro at Whakapapa Village, with a hazy view of Mt Taranaki in the distance behind it. While we seemed to be fairly close to the finish, we still had 2.5 to three hours of walking ahead of us.
We made our way back down with a strong wind from the side, picked up our packs and continued with the last stretch of the hike. Winding through shrubland with tussock intertwined, the path turned into ditches and trenches again, with new paths on either side of the ditches.
As we got closer to Whakapapa, the amount of trampers in both directions also increased.
With about an hours walk to go, we reached Taranaki Falls, which can also be visited by means of a little 2-hour loop track frequented by many visitors who stay over in Whakapapa Village. Here we had to decide which half of the loop we wanted to take back to the village – the upper or the lower path. With the waterfall being on the lower path, we decided to take that route.
We stopped for a quick lunch of biltong and jelly babies while admiring the waterfall. By now the sun was really hot and the mist spray from the waterfall was quite a blessing.
For the last time, Gerry strapped my backpack to my body as we took on the final section of the last hour’s walk, mainly through beech forest next to the Waiere Stream back to the carpark.
What a lovely walk and wonderful experience. We missed some of the additional things to do and things to see, such as the Soda Springs, Blue Lake, the Ohinepango Springs and climbing up Mt Tongariro, amongst others. But we have to leave something for next time. The tramp offers a variety of options and caters for almost everybody’s tastes.