Tongariro Northern Circuit and Southern Circuit

Date: 23-25 December 2021

Time: 3 days (34:15 hours)

Distance: Approximately 90km

Mt Ngarahoe only just showing his head.

Christmas time is usually a time for family. And while we are ‘orphans’ in our new home without any family to share the holidays with, we usually try to get into the mountains and away from the hustle and bustle of this time of year.

A good “gettin’ away from it all” for us is usually at least a five-day tramp. But this year we decided to do five days of fast-packing and hence cover more ground. First up is something I’ve been wanting to do since the first time we walked around these mountains (2010, 2013, 2016, and 2018) – a continuous trip around both Mt Ngarahoe and Mt Ruapehu, cutting out the stretch of shared track between the two mountains. The first question was, should we go clockwise, or anticlockwise. We opted to go clockwise.

We had two main reasons for our clockwise decision: one was to get the Tongariro Alpine Crossing out of the way on a good weather day, and the other was to avoid wet feet until the last day. We knew that the last section has a tonne of stream crossings, some of which are impossible to cross dry footed.

Although we tried to pack as light as possible, having to take a tent, food and clothing for three days, including catering for a potential sudden turn of the weather, meant we were still carrying heavier packs than what I was hoping for. My pack weighed around 7.5-8km and Gerry’s was around 10-11kg. This did not include a mattress of any kind, but we did take a tarp and space blanket incase it got too cold from the ground up. We both wore the same shirts and pants for three days, and a second pair of tops and bottoms for the evenings and nights. I was never going to compromise on socks and knickers, so had 3 pairs of each.

We made the trip to National Park Village late afternoon the day before, and by the time we arrived it was already quite late. We stayed at the Discovery Lodge just down the road from Whakapapa Village (about a 10 min drive) and were, apart from another pair in a campervan, the only people there. It remains one of the cheaper, albeit basic, places to stay close-by for adventures in the mountains. Leaving home after three in the afternoon, it was lucky we had leftover food from the previous night (asparagus pie and soup). After using up some valuable time trying to check-in last minute, with COVID-issues and being late, we could finally have a quick dinner before going to bed by 10pm. 

Day 1 – Whakapapa Visitor Centre to Mangatoetoenui Stream via the Northern Circuit

35km – 11:15hrs

At sunrise we made some tea and started getting ourselves ready for the adventure. Drove to Whakapapa Village, parked the car, made a quick last pee stop, and were on our way by 06:30. Apart from a very light breeze and some cloud in the morning, it ended up being a beautiful warm sunny day. We didn’t see a lot of other people, but approaching the Mangatepopo Hut (08:45), we could see some day trippers on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing coming from the carpark. We were slightly ahead of them, but eventually they caught up with us. We also caught a few others who were ahead of us, and all the way up to Red Crater we were passing and catching up with each other, chatting, taking photos and just enjoying the beautiful day and fantastic scenery. I’d guess there were about fifteen others on the crossing. Not the usual droves of people we’ve become accustomed to. The first set of toilets (09:30) that used to be at the bottom of the steep rocky climb to get to South Crater, have been moved to a spot just around the corner, so to not be as visible anymore when approaching from the hut. A second batch of three loos (new since the last time we were there) have been placed higher up, right on the edge of South Crater. 

We were going great, making good time going up and through South Crater and further up Mangatepopo Saddle to the highest point on the route next to Red Crater. By then the sun was out and it was very hot. 

On the steep down scoria section from Red Crater, I slipped and fell. ’Skiing’ down is not as easy as it looks, especially with a still heavy-ish pack. The guy next to me mentioned that he fell four times last year and that he’s trying to improve on that. Haha. A few more manoeuvres and near slips, before we reached Emerald Lakes at 11:30 where we turned right towards Uterere Hut. Everyone doing the one-day crossing were, of course, going straight towards Blue Lake and down the mountain.

Still descending past Emerald Lakes and walking through the volcanic landscape, we stopped for lunch at Uterere Hut (12:45) where we had a yarn with a funny man (who was wondering if Gerry is making me do these things and whether I needed saving. Haha). After 45 minutes we were on our way again to Waihohonu Hut, the mansion that is shared between the Northern Circuit and the Round Mt Ruapehu circuit (colloquially known as the Southern Circuit). On the way there, the Uterere Hut warden was making her way up the hill. By then we were cooking in the blazing hot sun. Already sun-burned, the sunblock we applied at lunchtime didn’t seem to make much of a difference. I was also running out of steam a bit, and we started to move slower than I’d hoped. 

By 15:45 we were at the hut, which we passed, thinking we might spent the night near the Ohinepango Springs. The only other people we saw for the afternoon was a pair of elderly men whom we chatted with for a few minutes shortly after the Waihohonu Hut. At the spring (16:10-16:30) we sat down trying to figure out our next move, and also to get some water. It was still reasonably early and we thought we may as well push on to the only other place I was aware of that would have water – the Mangatoetoenui Stream. It was only another about 4km, but being quite sore and tired by then, it took more than an hour to get to the stream. It was reasonably easy terrain with only a few scrambles up and down some erosion trenches. At 17:45 we pitched the tent and fired up the stove for some soup, tea, and food later on (dried mashed potato with ginger flavoured tuna, and a chopped red onion).

I was quite warm during the night (as I was all day) and it soon became clear that we might have over-catered in terms of warm and wet clothing, but you never know what will happen in the mountains, and so it is what it is.

Day 2 – Mangatoetoenui Stream to 1km past Ohakune Mountain Road 

28km – 12hrs

I was not as quick out of the starting blocks in the morning, but we managed to have a snack, some tea, and had all our stuff sorted (the tent still somewhat wet from condensation) to leave at 07:30. We had a reasonably good night’s sleep, despite only having a tarp and the tent bottom between us and the ground. Not being used to distance training of any kind, I was well aware that I’d covered 35km the previous day on very challenging terrain. 

The roughly 3km from the stream goes all the way uphill to the gravel ski road, with the last bit being the steepest. From the Tukino Ski Road (08:15) it is a lovely undulating walk to the Whangaehu River (Lahar Valley). I can’t believe I just said ‘lovely’ and ‘undulating’. Usually when we get to that point, going counterclockwise, I’m so buggered that everything feels hilly and challenging, and there’s not much lovely about it. The bridge in the lahar valley is as daunting as ever. Perhaps the noise from the raging stream far beneath add to the scariness. 

At 10:15 we were at the Rangipo Hut where we filled our water bottles and signed in (as Gerry had done at the other huts we passed).  

Not long after, we reached the Waihianoa Gorge and River which is the second unnerving bit for me on this stretch of the track, as always. A rather imposing gorge with a steep and slippery down and uphill keeps you on your toes. Maybe I should add that I have a very vivid imagination and have played off in my mind many very elaborate scenes of tumbling down the mountain, breaking bones and knocking heads open like coconuts on the way down. Haha, see, no shortage of dramatic effect in my mind’s eye.

I was reminded again that this is a track. With track I mean some waratahs or pegs, adorned with a lovely orange triangle to show the way, whacked in every so often. You find your own path between these poles. If it’s very foggy, you might have difficulty spotting the next marker. Apart from the odd boardwalk or stairs to help protect the environment from erosion, the ‘path’ goes where you want it to go. Within reason.

We were again by ourselves for the biggest part of the day, and only saw two other couples a few kilometres from the Mangaehuehu Hut. Not being able to reach the second hut in time for lunch, we stopped in the shade of some trees, as soon as we finally reached the trees (13:45-14:15). At the hut an hour later (15:15) there was a gentleman by himself. We filled water bottles, drank some electrolyte and chatted for fifteen minutes before heading on our way. In the final stretch before Ohakune Mountain Road, another three youngsters were making their way to the hut for the night. 

What felt like forever, finally brought us to the Ohakune Mountain Road (18:15). We contemplated sleeping at the Waitonga Falls (1.5hr before the road), but I knew that that would mean a very long last day – something I was hoping to avoid on Christmas day. My pace already diminished since the previous day, and there was no hope of going any faster on the third day. So we slogged up the mountain road (3km) to reached the turn-off back onto the track by 19:30. We walked down the slippery slope to the stream to get water for the night, before walking some more to find a suitable spot away from the track. It was after eight by the time we could pitch the tent and start making dinner.

Watching the sun set while having dinner, I was wondering how I would still make another 25km day on challenging terrain. 

Day 3 – 1km past Ohakune Mountain Road to Whakapapa Visitor Centre

25km – 11hrs

Another good night’s sleep and we were ready to start the day at 6:45. Cresting the ridge through rocky terrain, we reached the cascades. We’ve been down there before, but going up always feels somewhat easier. Fortunately it was dry and sunny which made slipping a bit less likely. Even the little stretch I remember so clearly below the cascades that meander through a narrow little path in a side stream, was dry enough to not get wet feet.

We reached the Mangaturuturu Hut by 08:00 where we spent some time having a snack, topping up water bottles etc, to leave there again at 08:30. From there the track cross the big Mangaturuturu River which can be a problem when it has rained lots or with snow-melt. This was, again, dry enough to rock-hop across. After a big climb we reached Lake Surprise while still gaining elevation. A few more up and downs (more than I care to remember), river crossings (one which we couldn’t avoid getting partially wet feet – my one foot was half wet and the other nearly dry) and negotiating eroded trenches, we reached the Whakapapaiti Hut by 14:00 where we stopped for lunch. I was out of steam and annoyed that I couldn’t go faster, which meant that we were again going to finish fairly late (on Christmas day). We were yet to find a place to stay for the night, and worried that places will not be open that time of a public holiday. 

From the hut (leaving at 14:40), another dodgy stream crossing in wet times, could again be crossed by rock-hopping. Almost all the places I remember as wet and muddy were reasonably dry. It was our third day without so much as a hint of rain, but some occasional clouds helped with the heat. This last stretch from the hut back to Whakapapa Village felt very long. I was going as fast as I could, but wasn’t moving very fast. It reminded me of something I read in Bryon Powell’s book (Relentless Forward Progress) about the later stages of an ultra – it goes something like this: move faster, because you’re going slower than you think. (And at the beginning stages of an ultra, the advice is to go slower, because you’re going faster than you think). 

When we reached the wetlands area some time before five in the afternoon, Gerry made an on-line booking for the night at the Discovery Lodge, so we’re going full circle. We thought of staying elsewhere after the trip, but didn’t want to book in advance, incase we might need another day to get around the mountains (we had extra food and were prepared to do that if needed). 

We finally reached the turn-off to the Silica Rapids, and after another long while we reached Whakapapa Village at 17:45, where we saw the first people for the day. It was quite weird to walk the whole day without running into anyone else. People obviously have other things to do on Christmas day.

Glad to have made it in one piece, even though I had some intense niggles on and off during the three days, we drove to our overnight spot for a well-deserved and much-needed shower. Needless to say, all eateries within striking distance were closed, so we cooked the potatoes I packed for ‘incase’, fried some ‘incase’ onions, and added the ‘incase’ can of baked beans. The cucumber that stayed in the car was still fine despite the heat, so with a warm bubbly in the one hand and a pan of oily, salty, fried goodness, we spent a lovely evening outside while dark clouds loomed in the distance.