Tongariro Northern Circuit: Day One

I’ve decided I just have too much to say about this wonderful track for one post so I’m splitting it into a post for each day.

Around mid-March I set off on a 3-day solo adventure on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. One of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’. The circuit crosses paths with the shorter Tongariro Crossing, but instead of rushing straight across the main sights, it takes a 43 km circuit around Mount Ngauruhoe. The scenery is wonderfully varied and consistently stunning. The most eye-popping sections are along the crossing, which is also the main tourist trail so gets a lot of traffic, but if you have the time I highly recommend taking the long way round. The reward is beautiful alpine fields, clumps of fairytale forests, and the beautifully bizarre Oturere Valley, on top of the vast panoramas and alpine lakes of the crossing. As an added bonus, these sections are much quieter, with just enough fellows hikers to keep you from getting too lonely, without spoiling the wonderful serenity of the place.  

I start off bright and early from Whakapapa Village, after two quick stops to grab a hurried breakfast and a map from the visitors’ center. It looks like rain but the spirit of adventure (not to mention my fancy new raincoat) laughs in the face of this minor adversity. I’ve decided to do the circuit anti-clockwise, so the first leg of the journey will take me 5 hours east to the Waihohonu Hut, and then another 3 hours north to the Oturere Hut where I’ll spend the night. I’ve barely walked 100 meters before I realize that I’ve accidentally picked the perfect time of year to see the area. Besides the temperature being relatively mild, the wildflowers are blooming, making entire hillsides turn bright purple. The light drizzle turns out to be a blessing as it brings out the colors in the flowers wonderfully. I trudge along with a giant grin on my face, already pleased with my excursion.

Mountain stream near Whakapapa Village

Mountain stream near Whakapapa Village

The drizzle doesn’t last long and as I near the top of a hill, the clouds begin to burn off around the same time that Mount Ruapehu comes into view. I quickly discover that the day’s walk is going to take me a lot longer than the 8 hours I had planned. I can barely take 5 steps without stopping to photograph something. When the sun comes out it lights up Ruapehu and the wonderful views across the hills.

Mount Ruapehu with wildflowers

Mount Ruapehu with wildflowers

On top of the vast panoramas, the higher the tracks climbs, the more fascinated I become with the tiny alpine gardens at my feet. The bushes of purple wildflowers that cover the hillsides are the most obvious from afar, but there are tiny specimens everywhere, each one so delicately beautiful that it is a wonder they can survive in such an unpredictable climate. They distract me so perfectly that each time I crouch down to try and capture their beauty on my camera I completely forget about the large pack on my back and nearly topple over when I try to stand up again. Nature walks are a dangerous business!

One of the many breeds of delicate little alpine flowers that make mini gardens along the Tongariro Northern Circuit

One of the many breeds of delicate little alpine flowers that make mini gardens along the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The track climbs higher until it reaches an intersection that splits of towards the Tama Lakes. This is where most of the day walkers go, so as the track levels off, it gets rougher and the number of hikers drops off considerably. I see a few others walking in the other direction, but for most of the walk it’s just me with the occasional brightly colored moth to keep me company. Oh and the two resident mountains of course. By this point Ruapehu is starting to drop behind me, but Ngauruhoe is a constant presence on my left. This is excellent for practicing navigation. Unlike most New Zealand walks, the land is very open so it’s a lot easier to recognize contours than in thick bushy areas, and if there’s any doubts then you can always take a bearing off Ngauruhoe as it is instantly recognizable no matter what angle you view it from. I ignore how easy this process is and become immensely pleased with myself each time I locate myself on the map.

The track towards Waihohonu

The track towards Waihohonu

The sun is beating down by late afternoon so it’s a great relief when I come upon a quaint mountain stream just before the Waihohonu Hut. The scrub becomes tall enough to offer a small amount of shade and a brief dip in the river is a welcome relief for my aching feet. I don’t stop for too long though as the sun is getting fairly low in the sky by this time and I still have another 3 hours to walk once I make it to the first hut. I have a headlamp if it does get dark but I’d prefer to reach my destination before sundown. The first hut is not too far on from the stream, and here the track takes an interesting turn. After walking through scrub for hours the track enters a magical fairytale forest. Trees covered in moss, with big curly roots, litter the ground with golden leaves. The sleepy late afternoon sun makes misty streams through the branches. This is also where the track start to climb again after being pretty well flat for hours, which is a shock to my lazy thigh muscles who have gotten used to letting my feet do all the work.

Fairytale forest climbing the hillside from the Waihohonu Hut

Fairytale forest climbing the hillside from the Waihohonu Hut

After a steep climb up through the wonderful forest section, the track levels off at a much higher elevation than before. The view from here is spectacular. The landscape takes on a desert quality high above the forests and alpine meadows. Vast, barren, and stunning in the golden hour with no other souls dotting the sands. I can see all along the valley where I’ve come from and Ruapehu begins to dwindle into the distance, giving me a wonderful sense of just how far I’ve come. The golden light quickly dims though and I’m relieved to see that its not too much further to the Oturere Hut. After a last climb up a slightly dodgy cliff-face, I roll up to the hut just as the last of the light leaves for the day. I eat my dinner as quickly as possible and collapse immediately into a very satisfied sleep.

The desert landscape on the way to Oturere in the golden hour

The desert landscape on the way to Oturere in the golden hour

Continue the adventure with day two.

Listening to: Earth Blues – Jimi Hendrix

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6 thoughts on “Tongariro Northern Circuit: Day One

  1. Pingback: Tongariro Northern Circuit: Day Two | A New Day Yesterday

  2. Pingback: Tongariro Northern Circuit: Day Three | A New Day Yesterday

  3. It looks like a fantastic hike. Having started my own blog to record my hikes (www.imoverthehill.com), I can appreciate why you are splitting this hike into three parts. There is just so much to say…I find my self editing so much to keep it to one page! Great blog! Thanks

  4. Crystal, this is fantastic! I enjoyed reading your account of your first day at Tongariro and I can’t wait to read the rest. Your photos are beautiful and the landscape is incredible. I can see why this is so popular. I can’t end without saying that it does seem almost like a magical fairytale how the forest rises up out of seemingly nowhere for it’s not visible in any of your other landscape photos. I can only imagine how special that was. Oh! And, by the way, you have good taste in blog templates 😉

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