September 11, 2018

Volcanofest 2018: Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit

Grymm and Frostbitten Lands, Steff

tongariro northern circuit

Hiking is fun.

Except when it’s not.

Except when the weather is so shit you can’t see ten feet in front of you and your feet hurt and your whole body is sticky and you’re on fire and covered in army ants and you hate everyone and everything.

Some hikes are like that.

This one was not.

tongariro northern circuit

In March I hiked with some friends old and new around the Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walk tracks. The hike normally takes four days to complete – we did it in three, but we cheated a little and missed the first day.

To complete the full track, you would start at the Whakapapa Visitor Centre and hike along the Taranaki Falls track to Mangatepopo hut. A few months previously I attempted the trek with another group of friends and we were turned back by the weather on the second day. Since some of us in the group had already hiked this day – and it’s definitely not the highlight – we decided to skip it to save on Annual Leave.

Day 1

tongariro northern circuit

Instead, we took a shuttle bus to the Mangatepopo car park and hiked in 20 minutes to the hut. That plonked us in the middle of a misty, rocky valley with the giant cone of Ngauruhoe and the flatter form of Tongariro visible ahead.

From there, we walked around old lava flows and up the Devils Staircase (unnecessarily ominous I felt, but others agreed it was accurate) to the Mangatepopo Saddle, which was a snack break.

(Anyone who’s hiked with me knows I measure milestones by snacks, so this was a very important event.)

tongariro northern circuit

We then crossed the Red Crater. This is one of my favourite parts of the whole hike. Last time we hiked it was shrouded in the deepest, densest fog I’ve ever encountered. It messed with my vision to the point I had to slow down because I thought I was zigzagging everywhere. This time the weather was much nicer. It meant we could see the crater walls and the rock formations. It looked as though we were walking on the surface of Mars. Spectacular. We are so lucky to be able to experience something like this in New Zealand.

tongariro northern circuit

Chilling in the Red Crater

We had to climb up this to get out of the crater.

tongariro northern circuit

We reached the other side of the Red Crater – which was the point we turned back last time – and continued up the summit. Because the track is rocky, it’s marked out by poles (close enough together that I can JUST see the next one). The track follows the ridge of the crater and involves some serious scrambling over rock faces and a scoria-covered ridge. If you’re afraid of heights, this is not where you want to hang out. I loved every moment of it.

Then we had to go down. Yay!

(That was sarcasm. Down is not my friend).

We scrambled down a scree-covered slope, buoyed up by a spectacular view of the Emerald Lakes. These are old explosion pits that gleam in brilliant shades of blue and green (or grey and grey, if you are me). Their brilliant colouring is caused by minerals washed down from the thermal area of Red Crater.

tongariro northern circuit

I am happy here because I am on Mars and we haven’t yet hit the scree.

tongariro northern circuit

Scree is interesting – it’s just gravel piled up, and you’ve got to half walk, half skid down it, and try not to fill your boots up with it.

I failed.

tongariro northern circuit

tongariro northern circuit

Emerald Lakes was another snack stop (success) and photo opp. Signs in this area alert us that we’re in an active volcano zone. We treated that with the gravitas and seriousness that was its due.

tongariro northern circuit


More downhill over rocks and rocks and rocks. And some lava forms. But mostly rocks. Because I am sure-footed as a mountain goat, I had no trouble with this section WHATSOEVER.

That was also sarcasm.

As I learned on the Inca Trail, rocks are not my friends.

tongariro northern circuit

This bit went on forever. It was supposed to be 4km but it felt like 40. Finally, we could see Oturere Hut nestled on the eastern edge of the flows.

FOOD TIME. The hut was tiny, and because we have a very relaxed walking pace (ie, we are slow), the separate rooms had already filled up and the only beds left were in the main room with the stoves and tables. We staked out some beds and then commandeered a table outside. It was a little chilly but it meant we could all hang out.

We broke out the whisky, ate some delicious dinner (we’ve been getting these food packs from Go Native – I can recommend), played some games, and talked some shite. Then we went to bed where I slept for exactly 14 minutes and we had to get up again for day 2, aka the day of rocks to end all rocks.

Day 2

tongariro northern circuit

tongariro northern circuit

After leaving Oturere Hut the track undulates over a number of stream valleys and open gravel fields. The volcanic eruptions (some as recent as 2012) mean that there isn’t much vegetation. It’s just ROCKS. YAY.

I love rocks.

Such love.

One part I remember with particular clarity is clambering down a giant stream valley. My husband CDH calls the way I go over rocks, “The Stephanie Shuffle” – and I employed this extremely scientific technique here to hold everyone up while I inched my way down the slope. Miraculously, I didn’t fall over.

tongariro northern circuit

Halfway through this day, Sam pointed out that we technically didn’t have to wait until we reached the hut to enjoy our hiking whisky. What a revelation! Hiking after this point was much warmer and more pleasant. Whisky rations = low.

tongariro northern circuit


Finally, we caught sight of Waihohonu hut, and the path moved over even, packed earth and sand. I pronounced loudly how awesome it was that I survived the rocksplosion day without falling over once… and then promptly tripped over thin air and face-planted into the dirt.

Waihohonu Hut is like a palace. It’s enormous and there are plenty of tables for games and eating. It drizzled and colded outside (the technical term) while we played games and finished off the whisky.

tongariro northern circuit

Day 3

We woke up early. Technically, most of us never slept because we shared a cabin with a ridiculous snorer (ugh). We dragged our packs into the main room and commenced the morning ritual of faffing with gear, making porridge, and brewing tea. 17 hours later, we were ready to leave!

A few minutes from the hut is a historical hut we could explore. It had a separate (tiny and bare) room for women! It looked cold and like it would be full of crazy hillbillies.

These are not the hillbillies you are looking for.

tongariro northern circuit

Mist cloaked the ridges as we clambered over rocks and down the Waihohonu stream on our climb to Tama Saddle. This day there was a lot of eerie mars landscapes and it was wonderful. The weather soon cleared and we had beautiful views of Ngauruhoe. We walked for five centuries and eventually, we hit road.

We drove back to Taupo and hit Pauly’s Diner for our celebratory feast. I ate two burgers and a slice of deep friend Mac&Cheese and I have no regrets. NONE.

tongariro northern circuit

For my other hiking adventures, see my articles on The Inca Trail, The Routeburn track, and the Rakiura track.

All photos courtesy of Lee Janeway and Aaron Dick. Thanks Lee and Aaron!