Thankfully, the next morning looked decidedly different.
I have to reach back several weeks, all the way to mid-February for this hike, but it is well worth documenting. The town of Tuatapere, as I had mentioned previously, had built itself a big, expensive, private, 3-day hike as a means of attracting tourism to the town. And I had the time, just barely, to hike it before friends from Canada arrived. And so one grey morning (despite 3 days of sunshine forecast), I found myself $130NZD lighter and standing at the track start.
That massive spike you see for the track elevation? Ya, that’s a 900+ meter elevation gain. On the first day. It makes for a grueling start. Oh, and it is also 19km in total hiking that day alone. Well, no time like the present to start my trek!
Thankfully, my anticipation of extended rain was WRONG. I awoke to wonderful sunshine.
Which was a good thing. This was the day we were hiking across the McKellar Saddle – the highest point of the track, and also the day with far and away the most significant ascent and descent. The saddle, which would end up being way up on the left hand side of the next picture.
This was a little bit of an unexpected detour on my part. Prior to hiking around Mt. Cook, Hanna had mentioned the Greenstone-Caples circuit track, a 4 day, 60km valley and mountain-pass trek, in the same area as the famous Routeburn Great Walk (which I’ll be hiking in just 2 weeks from today). Many people actually complete the Routeburn and then use the Greenstone track to get back on the Queenstown side of the mountain ranges you are hiking across. But the Greenstone-Caples track is a more complete circuit, and far less expensive. The Greenstone was one I had wanted to see but had written off as a track I’d miss due to time/other hikes. The option of having an excellent hiking partner for the 4 day tramp changed my mind. And so after waiting out bad weather in Queenstown for 2 nights, I found myself at the start of the Greenstone-Caples track.
You can walk the track in either direction. Hanna and I opted for the Greenstone first, returning on the Caples track. This way, the hardest day, crossing the McKellar Saddle, would be the third day, and our packs lighter than if we took the Caples track first, which would have us crossing the saddle the 2nd day instead. This turned out to be a very good choice for a number of reasons. For much of the first, short day on our way to the Greenstone Hut, we walked amongst forest scenery.
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.
In New Zealand, a series of 9 walks stand above the rest in stature. They are classified as ‘Great Walks’, and are New Zealand’s pride and joy when it comes to hiking. All of them are multi-day treks, and one is actually a kayak/canoe trip instead of an actual walk. 3 are on the North Island, 5 are on the South Island, and the 9th is on New Zealand’s 3rd island, Stewart Island. I touched on one already, the Tongariro Northern Circuit, when I hiked to Tongariro Crossing – the Circuit incorporates the crossing as part of a 3-4 day hike. All that being said, my direction was east, not south, as I went to the oft forgotten Lake Waikaremoana track for my first multi-day hike.
I’ve been talking up the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for a while, hoping and waiting for a perfect mix of weather and time to do it properly. The forecast and my location was finally right to give the Crossing a go on November 15th.