Tongariro Northern Circuit: The Great Walk to end all Great Walks

Settle in folks, this is gonna be a long one. I know I’m not one of those journalists during the civil war that got paid by the word, but the Tongariro Northern Circuit was such an awesome experience that I’ve got a lot to say about it and a lot of pictures to share. Better pour yourself a drink. It’s ok, I’ll wait.

Miriam and I had a tentative itinerary for our month-long journey through the North Island which included places we wanted to go and approximate times that we wanted to be there. Unfortunately for us, when we went to reserve our huts for this Great Walk, there were limited spaces available. And when I say limited spaces available, I’m talking 2 bunks left at only one of the huts for the entire weekend. Uh-Oh.

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is 43.1 km (26.7 miles) and ranges from 1120-1886 meters above sea level. It’s supposed to take at a minimum 16 hours of hiking over 3-4 days. Our only option was to do it in 2.

Whenever we told people our plans for Tongariro they acted like we had misread the track description. Yes I know it’s supposed to take 3-4 days. Have you looked at these thunder thighs? Thats 100% American-made, mountain-dominating muscle right there.

We got an early start and left from Whakapapa (pronounced Fak-a-papa. WH is pronounced F on the North Island. We did not know this at first. This led to some confusion especially when asking for directions.) Village on a very cloudy day.

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The minute we stepped out of the car, it started raining. Hard. After the unluckiness we experienced on our last attempted Great Walk, we thought it was only fitting that this one started out the exact same way. Now, its one thing to have it start raining while you are a few hours into a hike or even almost done, but starting your walk in the rain is truly miserable and something I wouldn’t even wish on Justin Bieber or Coach K (ok thats not true).

Fortunately for us, after 5 minutes the rain changed to a mist and stayed that way for most of the day.

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It was very dark and ominous for most of the day. The terrain of Tongariro is kind of creepy too. It’s mainly exposed volcanic scorched earth and barely any animals can live there. All day I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings and something bad was about to happen.

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There are 2 volcanoes nearby (more on that later) and Mt. Tongariro last erupted in 2012. No one was killed and the only damage was to one of the DOC huts.  This sign was posted about an hour into the walk as we tramped towards the volcanoes. Don’t worry, I did my homework about what to do in the event of an eruption (Hint: Don’t walk towards the lava).

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As soon as we got to this ridge we started getting pelted in the face by 80 km/hr winds and stinging rain. All I could do was walk with my head down and my hand yanking my hood over my face. It was brutal.

As you can see, there is hardly any life on this ridge. The conditions on most of this walk were too harsh for almost anything over two feet tall to grow. It made parts of the walk pretty rough but it was also pretty cool because it was such a unique environment.

NZ_3904We made it to our hut at 4, about 7 hours after we started, making it our longest day of tramping to that point. It was already dark by the time we cracked into our traditional salami, cheese, crackers and boxed wine. When we did the Routeburn Track in December, we didn’t make it to our hut on the first night until 8:15 and it was still bright out. This is one of the ways that tramping in the off-season requires more planning. There’s no sleeping in because if you aren’t at your destination by 5:30, you’re gonna need a headlamp.

NZ_3935The weather on day two was much nicer than on our first day. This was important to us and was the reason we went the direction we did. It was much better having nicer weather on this section of the hike because this is where we started to summit mountains and have incredible views.

NZ_3920Remember earlier when I promised you more volcano talk? No? You’ve just been looking at the pictures? That’s messed up.

Pictured above is Mt. Ngauruhoe. More commonly known as Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings. This shot was a couple of minutes away from our hut and would have been in plain sight the previous day if it wasn’t so overcast. We spent 7 hours hiking near something this awesome and had no idea that we should have been seeing it.

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Parts of this walk looked like we were walking on the moon. In fact, if you look closely you can see where the US faked the moon landing. It would probably be about 3 hours from here until we would see another living plant.

And yes. We hiked from down there. Plenty more climbing to do.

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On our climb we passed some gorgeous pools called the Emerald Lakes. You can see the sulphuric steam rising out of the white spots near the lake. While the sulphur is responsible for giving these lakes their beautiful color, it also smells like rotten eggs. At least that’s what I told Miriam so that I could fart as much as I wanted on this hike.

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On our past Great Walks, Miriam and I brought our small point-and-shoot cameras. We didn’t want to bring our nice camera because we worried about it getting wet and we didn’t have enough space in our packs for it. On this walk we only had to pack enough food and clothes for two days so we said “whak it” and brought it along. Miriam lugged it around and got some really incredible shots. If you see a picture you like in this post, chances are, she took it. Even the ones that she’s in.

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Still a lot more climbing left to do. This part of the hike was quite treacherous because we were walking straight uphill and the ground was volcanic rock that had been broken down over time and was now just sand. Every time I would take a step forward, I would slide back halfway.

Further complicating things, there is a popular day hike that goes through this area and shares part of the path with the Great Walk. It was a holiday weekend so there were a lot of day hikers. Some people (I’m talking to you, Germans!) need  to understand that when I’m walking uphill at about 20 feet per minute, there isn’t much I can do to get out of your way when you’re running downhill. There were some close calls.

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I’m so happy that we had nice weather on this day. One, I can’t imagine hiking up that mountain in the rain. I don’t even see how that would be possible. Two, we were able to get some great pictures.

NZ_3975This is the Red Crater. No idea why they call it that. Maybe some dude named Red discovered it.

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I think this sign would have been better if it just said “Welcome to the Danger Zone.”

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We didn’t hike to the top of Mt. Doom, so this is the highest point we reached (1886 Meters). It’s a pretty spooky looking volcano, right? We were just trying to get a picture of us in our Flying Saucer shirts for their calendar until this volcano photobombed us.

Shout out to Gollum sneaking up behind us and trying to hide behind that rock.

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This is the view once we passed Mt. Doom and started heading down into the valley. This part of the trail was primarily black lava flow for an hour and a half or so. As you can see, this part of the trail lacked any decent spots to pee.

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Eventually we made our way past the rocky volcanic terrain and into a valley where we started to see some signs of life. This part of the trail was pretty tricky. It was supposed to take three hours but five hours in bad weather. After walking this section, I think it would have taken longer than that if the weather was actually bad. If you remember from earlier, it rained the day before. Which, realistically, you might have actually read yesterday since you probably aren’t reading this Dickensian post (A Tale of Two Hikers?) in one sitting.

There was bad drainage on this part of the track so if it was raining, we would have likely been walking in a river for five hours. A river that had some steep drops. Even on a clear day, I had multiple falls.

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We finished the Circuit right as the sun was starting to set, completely exhausted but able to feign a smile for this picture. The guy who took this picture of us was very impressed that we finished the Circuit in two days.

Looking back on the six months we spent in NZ it’s really hard to specifically point to one activity as the best thing that we did. However, every time someone asks me about memorable experiences this walk is one of the first things that pops into my head. The terrain and scenery was incredible and I’m not sure if I’ll see anything like it again.

Parts of this walk were really brutal but that’s one of the elements that makes it so memorable to me. Tongariro felt like a place where we didn’t belong because life didn’t belong. We barely heard a bird for two whole days and while I have enjoyed the animals we’ve seen in NZ it was kinda cool to be in a place where nothing dared to live. Plus it was nice to not have to worry about sandflies.

Cheers,

GP

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2 thoughts on “Tongariro Northern Circuit: The Great Walk to end all Great Walks

  1. No sand flies, Gollum sneaking photo bombers, and being able to put ‘wh’ before any word to create a ‘fa’ sound makes it worth while. We are going to have to do this the way you guys did and hope for good weather.

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