The Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk

A ‘Great Walk’ evokes quite a few images to me. Beautiful/stunning landscapes. Unique structures and things that will remain in your memories for years to come. Good huts/campsites. My first Great Walk was a bit underwhelming in those aspects. The Tongariro Northern Circuit on the other hand was THE definition of a Great Walk.

For this hike I wasn’t going by myself, I’d met up with another traveller, Sara, from Italy. We would be tackling the circuit in 3 days, 2 nights, as well as doing some of the optional paths along the way. An ambitious plan but both of us were used to hiking, Sara moreso than I. We’d start at Whakapapa and headed to Mangatepopo Hut (at just under 1200m elevation) for the first night, complete the Tongariro Crossing part of the circuit on the second day and push onwards to the Waihohonu Hut, and return to Whakapapa on the 3rd day. All told it would be about 45km of hiking without any detours, including a challenging 2nd day of over 20km and at minimum a 650m climb then descent. It didn’t work out quite that way – the 2nd day ended up being over 25km and 1100m climbing/descending.

First things first was the prep and packing. Sara had to bring olive oil. I don’t think Italians travel without it.

Once everything was packed, we headed to the start of the track.

The first day started with a bit of familiarity – I had walked this small part of the circuit nearly 2 months ago. The weather was pretty nice starting out, mixed sun and cloud. The forecast had been for predominantely sunny skies during the next 3 days, with a chance of isolated showers in the late afternoons/evenings. Excellent hiking weather in other words.

The weather had other ideas though. The first day of hiking was an easy one, roughly 10km over only slightly hilly terrain. We covered the distance in a bit over 2 hours, which was a good thing. 10 minutes out from the hut the weather changed quickly, bringing down a sprinkling of showers first and changing to rain with alarming speed.

But we made it to the hut without getting too wet. Sara and I were the 2nd group to make it to the hut – a Swiss couple was already there and had the gas furnace going. I got rid of my soggy sweater and set it out to dry. All of the huts on the hike are nicely equipped with a drying rack for clothing.

The weather at this point went from rain to hail and lightning. I was glad not to be caught out in it. Many others weren’t so lucky. The hut holds about 30 people including campers and it was supposed to be a full house, so a lot of people were still out in now terrible weather. Over the next couple hours people slowly made their way into the hut, soaked and tired. By the evening, the weather had once again cleared up.

Everyone spent the evening in the hut warming up, drying off and enjoying dinner. It was a very cozy and friendly atmosphere, as the hut was very small for the 30 some-odd people in there. What is shown here is pretty much the entire kitchen/sitting area. Imagine 30 people now (this was taken after many had gone back outside). It was crowded, and pretty warm!

Most of the people ventured back outside around 830-9pm for the wonderful sunset.

The night was an early one for the entire hut – I think lights were off and everyone in the bunks by 930pm. The main reason was most wanted an early start on the Tongariro Crossing portion the next morning. There would be hundreds of people doing it during the day, starting at the hut around 630-7am meant you had a head start and could have much more of the area to yourself! Sara and I set our alarms for 530am. I ended up getting up around 5am anyways, and was glad I did. I got to see the pre-dawn colours.

And that picture is straight out of the camera, I don’t do anything to the photos. It was really quite something to see the purple morning sky. And I was one of the few that got to, everything clouded over by about 530am. By the time we started hiking around 7am, an eerie mist had settled over the valley ahead, obscuring the mountains.

The mist and clouds burnt off by 730am though, leaving great views of the valley we just finished climbed out of, and Mt. Ngauruhoe.

Having already climbed this beast of a mountain once just to stand in clouds, I wasn’t keen on trying again. But it was a clear day. And was supposed to be clear for hours. And Sara wanted to try it. So up we went.

By the time we had reached the summit a few wispy clouds had appeared, but nothing enough to obscure the amazing views from the top (which I didn’t get the last time).

And it turns out, the crater and summit was nothing like I thought the first time. For one thing, it’s a double crater – I had climbed to the inner crater the first time, and this time I was on the outer crater.

We hiked along the rim of the outer crater.

One other really neat thing about the peak this time that I hadn’t seen before – steam coming from some of the rocks. It was a good reminder that this was indeed still an active spot, when you find a spot that suddenly feels like a sauna.

From the south side of the outer crater you could see down to the Tama Lakes. On a fully clear day one would also have a great view of Mt. Ruapehu. Having spent 5 weeks around that mountain, I was used to seeing it covered in clouds instead.

Eventually Sara and I climbed over to the inside crater and then down from the peak, retrieved our bags which we left at the bottom of the volcanic slopes and continued the Crossing. Within minutes of hitting the flat stretch though, a heavy fog rolled through, obscuring all visibility. It was eerie.

A bit more hiking and climbing towards the red crater got us back in the sunlight and got some great, clear views of the destructive looking Red Crater.

We had lunch sitting atop the Red Crater, looking down onto the Emerald Lakes once again. I got another picture taken of me here, this time hunching over nicely with my bag. I look the pinnacle of proper posture here.

Looking down from the Emerald Lakes to where we would be heading soon.

Then, it was another detour, this time to the Blue Lake. Unfortunately the weather decided to shift again, this time from sunny to rain.

After a quick look at Blue Lake, it was back to our bags and then onwards down the slope further.

Looking back up where we had hiked, you could even see that Mt. Ngauruhoe was getting some new snow (right hand side).

From here on it was all new to me, and it was a spectacular spot, even with the rain. It’s a massive valley carved out by old lava flows from the volcanos, giving odd rocks everywhere and preventing much from growing.

The rain wasn’t letting up and we had 4 hours of hiking to get to our hut. Neither Sara nor I slowed down much for this section, simply pressing on in the pouring rain. It’s kind of too bad the weather wasn’t better here, the ground and landscapes changed every 30 minutes to something new, different, and just as amazing as the last.

What started as a rock climb down from the Emerald lakes went to rolling desert like landscapes, and by the end of the hike we started passing through dense forest, which can be seen just in the distance. It really was an amazing few hours of hiking and a great addition to the Crossing type walk.

FINALLY we made it to the hut by 6pm. Including our stops for lunch and snacks, we had been going for 11 hours. Exhausted and soaked despite waterproof clothing, we ate a quiet meal amid a raucous hut before retiring early. I was asleep by 930pm.

The next morning was no rush as there only remained 3-4 hours of hiking to get back to the car, so Sara and I were the last people in the hut by 9am. The rains long gone, the hut had some great morning views.

Well, last people, plus one. While Sara was packing up her tent I met Megan, an American traveller who also was taking it slow that day, because she still had one more day on the Circuit – she had booked every single camping/hut (there are 4), only to find that much of the hikes between huts are very short (one spot is just a 2 hour hike between huts). She wasn’t keen on staying any longer, but her bus wasn’t for 2 more days. She was heading south, like Sara and I, so I offered her a ride and she was happy to join us on the hike out. The three of us head out into the sunshine.

At this point we were hiking between Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Ruapehu. With the pleasant sunny day there were good views of both.

At Taranaki Falls, we had our final snack and rest on the trail. We were 30 minutes from the end of the trail now.

And done! Celebrating our 3 days of hiking.

After finding my car, the three of us celebrated in proper style – with ice cream and cookies.

The idea was to head south to Wanganui to find a hostel/campsite to spend the night before continuing to Wellington the next day. We got to the town just before the information center closed for the night, but they were happy to direct us to a campsite about 15 minutes out of town, on the beach. After picking up a few supplies, we headed there and set up camp.

And then it was off to the beach. Even at 6pm it was still warm and gloriously sunny. And the beach here was simply amazing – truly a hidden gem kind of place.

We had the beach pretty much to ourselves, so after swimming in the ocean for 30 minutes we walked part of the beach, celebrational beer in hand, and then enjoyed the sunset.

The next morning we returned to the beach once again for a few more hours relaxing in the sun. Megan ended up deciding to stay for Christmas in the spot – it truly was a magical area, pristine blacksand coast line, a wonderful campsite and friendly locals. If I didn’t already have a booking near Wellington I know I would have stayed, and Sara felt the same. I loved that spot, and it was truly one of those random, never expected to find or end up in kind of places and a fantastic way to end 3 days of hiking.

All in all, it was an outstanding 3 days. The Tongariro Circuit was fantastic – easily bettering the Lake Waikaremoana track in pretty much every category. The weather certainly was temperamental, but the scenery was just so jaw dropping at times you hardly noticed the rain. The huts were in good shape and the atmosphere in them was inviting, friendly and very fun. The ending, with the fantastic beach and campsite, was also so unexpected and wonderful that it really provided a great finishing touch to the Great Walk. And when I was in the ocean, swimming amongst crashing waves in the sunshine, it didn’t even feel like I had just completed a hike that took me across barren volcanic terrain for 3 days. I had driven just 90 minutes or so to get to this amazing little beach, yet it felt like a different planet. Truly one of the joys of New Zealand, being close to everything yet feeling like a world away at the same time.

4 thoughts on “The Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk

  1. Pingback: The Halfway Mark « The Missing Year

  2. I didn’t even know bout the Northern Circuit walk until I chanced upon your blog. I have been living here for 4.5 years Thank you for this. We’d definitely aim to do this sometime this year before winter. Lovely pictures.