Tongariro Double Circuit - Part 1 - Northern Circuit
We had had a mission to do at least some tramping in the Tongariro Park. Of course we wanted to do the infamous Tongariro Crossing, but of course we would have liked to do it without all the other people. We are very much aware that it sounds rude and doesn't really make sense, because everyone has the right to see the places, just as we do. Still, we usually try to avoid being in a special place while everyone else is there as well.
To combine the busy, popular trails with some more lonely parts, we decided to hike a full circuit around the volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park. Our route combined a large part of the Northern Circuit, including the Tongariro Crossing, and then continued on the Round the Mountain Circuit around Mt. Ruapehu, back to Whakapapa Village. We estimated five to six days for the full circuit.
We didn't get to Whakapapa Village until early afternoon, since we knew the first section was just a short 10km walk over to Mangatepopo Hut. Once we got there we first headed to the Visitor Center to pick up a free overnight parking permit. In general overnight parking is not allowed in the parking lots, so we had to show our booking confirmations and our hut passes to be elgible for a permit for the duration of the Northern Circuit and the Round the Mountain Circuit. We also added an extra day, just to make sure. Then we shouldered our backpacks, and off we went.
The track was not too exciting for that first section, even though it afforded some nice views of Mt. Ruapehu. Track condition was good but not quite as easy & well-groomed as we had expected of a Great Walk, we encountered a few washouts and eroded track parts. For us that was actually more of a good thing, than a bad thing - and uneven track makes walking a lot less boring as you have to watch your feet ;)
Once we arrived at Mangatepopo Hut there was already a whole array of tents set up, so we picked one of the remaining spots and pitched before somebody snatched it away. Afterwards we cooked dinner on the gas cookers provided in the hut - what a luxury!
Quick note: On a lot of the Great Walks campers aren't allowed to use hut facilities - on the Northern Circuit it is allowed, which makes camping there a lot more comfortable. At least this was true for our walk, please make sure to check the current regulations if you want to do the walk youself.
While having dinner we met quite a few interesting people - an american couple that had walked the Appalachian Trail many years ago, a german guy fresh out of school that got very excited about the tales of our tramp through the south island and asked for all kinds of advice, wanting to do something like that himself at some point in the future, and a swiss couple that hardly spoke English.
Shortly before the sun set hut-dwellers and campers alike were summoned to the "Hut Talk" by our lovely DOC Host. Only she wanted us to talk before she did, so everybody had to tell their names and how they came to be on the tramp. Then she explained the history of the Tongariro Park, how the Summits and Lakes up there came to be sacred (“tapu”), and how the DOC works to protect the fragile nature not only in the park but in all of New Zealand. We had known some of the things before that, e.g. pest control, predator trapping and things like that, but she really did such a great job explaining it all.
By the time the Hut Talk was over, the sun was already setting and we decided to get ready for bed - we wanted to get up really early the next morning to get on the trail before all the busses with the day walkers got there.
The next morning we were by far the first ones up when we prepared our porridge breakfast in the hut. They even provided solar powered lighting there, so we didn't have to eat with our headlamps on!
We packed up and ended up getting on the trail just shortly after six in the morning - and already there were a few day walkers on the Tongariro Crossing. Unlike the day before, the area we now walked through truly did look volcanic. Lots of black rocks in funky shapes, generally a lot less vegetation, and some streams with orange rims gave the landscape an almost surreal look. Up to south crater the path mostly leads steeply up the mountain side across boardwalks and wooden staircases. Then in the flat crater valley there's mostly dark sand, and no vegetation at all - and all of that pairedwith great views of Mt. Ngauruhoe and it's partly red summit.
It was beautiful. Unfortunately the light was already too harsh and not quite in the right direction to be able to capture the view photographically as we had wanted.
After a few minutes of flat walking across the valley floor, the climb continues steeply on rocky, uneven surface towards red crater. Here we had a bit of an adventage over many of the other hikers, our good physical shape and being used to that kind of trail helped us walk up a lot quicker than many others. A lot of people seemed to struggle with the strong winds up there, and some, afraid of heights, clung right to the rocks and inched their way up. As a side note to that: even though it is a really beautiful dayhike and most people in decent shape should be able to do it without trouble, it is not for everyone! Some people obviously didn't really look at what they were getting themselves into, despite of all DOC warning signs at the start of the trail! Make sure to inform and prepare youself before embarking on a walk like this.
So once we got to the top of Red Crater there weren't many people in front of us and we had a wonderful unobstructed view into the valley with the Emerald Lakes. The descent down was mostly scree and loose rocks and I can only imagine how clogged up that area gets during the day, when hundreds of people slowly slip and slide their way down. We managed to get down easily, as there wasn't much “traffic” yet and we had seen quite a bit of scree on the sections of the TA that we have walked.
The Emerald Lakes are incredibly beautiful - bright blue pools rimmed with orange and red. Around them are a few steam vents, where sulphur steam rises from the mountain and smells like rotten eggs - but they are spectacular nevertheless. We spent quite a bit of time around the lakes, taking in the atmosphere and trying to capture it in photographs.
Afterwards we moved on to the Blue Lake and then back to the intersection, where Tongariro Crossing and Northern Circuit separated, to walk on to Outurere Hut. From here we had a good view on what was a busy day on the crossing: a whole parade of people walking down Red Crater. It reminded us slightly of an Anthill.
They way that followed the Northern Circuit now had some amazing lava rock formations in store, and a lot of black sand to walk through. It felt like another planet, and the heat that was reflected of the black rocky landscape helped strengthen that impression. We were glad to be able to refill our waterbottles at Oturere Hut and have lunch in the shade of the front porch. There is also a waterfall with a swimming hole nearby, as the DOC Ranger there told us, but we didn't try it as we still had a few kilometers to walk before reaching our final destination for the day, Waihohonu Hut.
On the way to that Hut we encountered mostly sparse vegetation and great views of the volcanoes we were walking around. Basically a first impression of what the Rangipo Desert Section of the next day might have in store for us. Then the path finally descended into a beech forest and gave us some shade. Unfortunately that also meant we had to walk up on the other side. The hut wasn't far after that small ascent, but unlike Mangatepopo the Campsite wasn't right beside the hut, but rather a few hundred meters away from it. Which was of course fine with us, but kept us from using the hut facilities that night, because we were just too lazy to walk up and down all the time.
We did take another short walk before dinner though, visiting the Historic Waihohonu Hut - and more importantly the Ohinepango Springs, where we filled our waterbottles with the incredibly nice, cool water from the spring. In the morning our trail would now lead us away from the Northern Circuit and continue onto the Round the Mountain Trail, and go by the spring again for some more fresh water.