I’ve been walking the Tongariro Northern Circuit anti-clockwise, which is the opposite direction to most of the other hikers. Part of the Tongariro Crossing has been closed due to volcanic activity as well, meaning hikers have to walk in as far as they can and then double back, making it a longer trek than usual if you want to see all the sights. A few hikers are staying the night at the hut just to get an early start on the crossing which is usually done as a day walk. Whichever route they’re walking, most of my roommates at the Mangatepopo Hut are just setting out on their adventure. A german couple who I’ve been leaping frogging for the past couple of days are the only others who, like me, are nearing the end of their journey.
The weather forecast for the day isn’t good. The rain is supposed to get heavy later in the day, and more importantly for anyone attempting the crossing, high winds are due around the mountain tops which can make some of the steep sections pretty dangerous. I wake up before sunrise to find a few brave day walkers are getting an early start to try and beat the strong winds to the tops. I wish them luck. They’re going to need it. I’m just up early to try and beat the heavy rain back to my car. The drizzle is pretty light so far but I’m glad I’ve already tackled the tricky sections and had calmer weather for them. As I head off I cross my fingers that the heavy rain holds off for the next 4 hours. My map says 3 hours back to Whakapapa Village from Mangatepopo but my feet are not in a good state so I suspect this leg is going to be a slow one.
I actually enjoy the drizzle. The rolling hills of Mangatepopo Valley with its tussock and wild flowers look wonderfully moody in the rain. There’s something exhilarating about traversing its hills and gullies with clouds and sheets of rain rushing past. The elements are up close and personal, not just something happening up in the sky. The sun peeks out at times as well, lighting up the hills around me with wonderful streaks of gold that shift with the racing clouds. I’m starting to leave Mount Ngauruhoe behind, the volcano that’s been my constant companion along the trail, but the small summit of Pukeonake, while nowhere near as majestic, is a pretty new friend in the changing light.
The spell the valley has cast on me briefly wears off enough for me to remember how sore my feet are. One of my blisters has popped, wetting my sock with its ooze. I stop to patch myself up a bit and trudge broodily along for a while, wincing with each step. As I come out of the next gully though, Mount Ruapehu rears up in front of me and puts a giant smile on my face. Its pretty hard to feel down about anything with that wonderful mountain staring back at you. If anyone is thinking of doing the circuit, there are two main reasons that I recommend doing it anti-clockwise. The first is that staying the night at the Oturere Hut in that direction means you have a good chance of getting to walk through the Oturere Valley in the morning fog, which adds to its wonderfully bizarre grandeur. The second is that for the home stretch you get to have Mount Ruapehu bam smack in front of you most of the way. I mean I suppose you could just turn around occasionally if you were going the other direction, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it sitting there every time you lift your eyes from the path in front of you.
About an hour out from Whakapapa Village I meet an American girl who is the only other solo female I’ve seen along the circuit. Its nice to stop for a quick chat with a kindred spirit, and good to see that there are other girls out there braving the wilds. I was beginning to worry I was the only one!
Not long after saying goodbye to my American friend, Whakapapa Village teases me by coming into view. The next 45 minutes are absolutely torturous. My feet are ready to give up the ghost but I can see the end and it looks so close! Near the end the track veers away from Ruapehu as well so I don’t even have the wonderful mountain to lift my spirits. Luckily this only goes on for about 20 minutes. I swear I can hear my feet sigh with relief as my car comes into view. Barefoot, pack off and into dry pants, I feel like I’m in absolute paradise. The rain starts bucketing down 2 minutes later. The weather has treated me well this trip. Looking at the clock I realize I’ve arrived back at the same time that I left 2 days ago. 43 km in 48 hours. My trek has taken me across beautiful alpine fields, strange desert valleys, barren volcanic craters, and rolling tussock covered hills. I’ve seen majestic mountains, delicate alpine flowers, quaint mountain streams, fairytale forests, alpine lakes, not mention volcanos galore. Not a bad effort overall. My feet are relieved to be out of my boots for good this time, but the rest of me of me is hungrily plotting my next adventure.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 43 km loop around Mount Ngauruhoe (also known as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings). It can be done in either direction over 2 or 3 nights. Hikers usually start at Whakapapa Village, but there are other entrance points at the Mangatepopo and Waihohonu road ends. The weather can be extremely hot or extremely cold and is very changeable, so bringing correct gear is essential. Don’t let that scare you off though. Layers and a bit of common sense will see you through just fine. See the DOC website for more information on the huts and what gear you’ll need. Its a wonderful trek which takes you through a variety of beautiful landscapes. The Tongariro Crossing is an alternative that goes across some of the main sights as day walk if you don’t have time for the whole circuit, but I’d highly recommend making time for the whole circuit. It’s quieter, more varied in its landscapes, and gives you more time to get into the mood of this beautiful place.
Listening to: Sweet Dreams – Probot