The hikes around Tongariro national park are widely known as some of the greatest walks in New Zealand and hundreds of people hike the Alpine Crossing every day. a popular walk already, it was made internationally famous by the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as this area was used to film the scenes around Mordor with Mount Ngauruhoe playing Mount Doom. It genuinely is a walk through Mordor.
By the time we arrived at Whakapapa, the previous seven Great Walks were beginning to take effect. We felt the fatigue of hundreds of kilometres hiked and paddled, and thousands more driven. Breakfast seemed to be a little longer than usual and by the time we finished we realised it was nearly 10.30am and we had a very long day of hiking ahead!
But we got into our usual routine: check we have everything, backpacks on, Apple Watch started and off we go.
Day 1, Section 1: Whakapapa - Waihohonu
523m of elevation
4 hours 17
Apple Watch Says:
A brief introduction to Tongariro
Tongariro is a pretty wild place and parts of the hike are pretty precarious. The section on the second day, up to and down from the Red Crater is well documented for being narrow, incredibly steep and made of slippery scree. Combine this with a lot of people climbing up at the same time and you have a recipe for potential disaster.
Having read up on the best way to mitigate this section, we decided to hike anti-clockwise, it also fitted better for our route weatherise. If possible you want the best weather for the alpine crossing day, you don't want to miss those views! Although this meant we would be walking against the flow of the day hikers, it had the benefits of walking up the worst scree and down the really steep stairs. The opposite sounded far more arduous!
A slow start
So once more we decided to shorten DOC's suggested itinerary of a four day hike down to a two day hike. This meant that both days were going to be over six hours of hiking and up some pretty steep and slippery climbs. So starting day one at 10.30am wasn't exactly the smartest of moves.
The day started lethargically under a cloudy sky and some fierce winds. The track undulated through a very exposed landscape and after a while the clouds started parting. Until then we could only see the ground below our feet, the first view of the mountains and volcanoes was incredible.
If you need anything to give you a boost, it is the sight of a towering volcano like Mount Ruapehu.
However, Mount Ngauruhoe (the main star) was still under cloud. Although we felt lucky to see Ruapehu, we really wanted to get a good view of Ngauruhoe too. We took the short side trail to check out the lower blue mama lake, which was gorgeous and well worth it. The upper lake was a stretch to far fo runs, walking the track in two days.
Feeling uplifted we powered onto Waihohonu, a pretty large hut hidden away in a forested area. It was nearly 3pm and we still had at least another 8km to go before we made it to our hut for the night! We stopped for lunch and to chat to the ranger and then we headed back out.
Day 1, section 2: Waihohonu hut - Oturere hut
569 metres elevation
2 hours 44
Apple Watch says:
Back on the track
Stopping isn't always a good thing. With over 17km already hiked, our legs weren't too happy with the idea of hiking nearly all uphill to our bed for the night.
But we hauled ourselves outside to start once more, the track gently undulates through spectacular forest and rivers at first, before opening up to what can only be described as like surface of the moon.
The path continued gradually uphill through rocks, boulders and an area that barely had a plant or living thing in sight. This was a pinch me, wow section of track, we have never seen a landscape like it. Spaceman impressions were done....
The final stretch
We were only 4km away from our destination when we met a person walking in the other direction. This was a bit of a surprise as he had no pack and was at least two hours from the nearest exit of the park, meaning he would be walking in the dark.
He stopped to warn us about mountain safety, as he thought we were out late! The temperature was dropping and he took us through his home-made jacket that kept away hyperthermia, something that's a real danger in this area. I'd be surprised if a parka and putting your hands in your pockets would help in 0C, but he seemed insistent.
As we continued on the sky darkened, and became really colourful.
Then, something magical happened. The clouds parted and there in front of us was Ngauruhoe in full sunset glory.
We could tell we were near the hut as suddenly several people had come onto the path for the first glimpse of Ngauruhoe in five days. It was a breathtaking sight and a moment I'll always remember.
Oturere Hut was tiny, the smallest we'd stayed in by far, with the kitchen and bunks all in one room. But it was also a really beautiful and atmosphere hut. Positioned on the edge on this barren, volcanic landscape, it felt like we were on an Everest expedition in an area with freezing cold and inhospitable conditions.
We rolled out our sleeping bags, had some dinner and settled in for the night. Our beds were underneath the window, which suddenly lit up at 2am when the full moon passed overhead, illuminating everywhere like it was the middle of the day.
It's moments like that you feel Tongariro is a truly special place.
Day 2, Section 1: Oturere - Mangatepopo (The Tongariro Alpine Crossing)
576 metres elevation
5 hours 30
Apple Watch Says:
An incredible start
We got up just before sunrise to the most incredible view. The skies were clear and Mount Ngauruhoe had turned orange in the morning sun. It's hard to really put in words how we felt on seeing this view.
The view in the other direction was beautiful too. In any other place, this would be considered the show stopper.
Starting the Alpine Crossing
After a hot coffee and breakfast it was time to hike up to the Alpine Crossing. From the Northern Circuit, the track meanders through a flat landscape before climbing up a very steep scree section to get to the Emerald Lakes.
We had been blessed with the weather. The hikers the day before had really strong winds, clouds and an obscured view. We had clear skies, no wind and a pretty warm day. You couldn't have asked for better conditions.
After a steep climb which involved two steps forward, one step back, we made it to the Emerald Lakes. Another view which is out of this world.
From here the views just got better and better, but the crowds got bigger as well.
Ok, so the walk wasn't all positive. The views and the landscape were all out of this world. However, the Alpine Crossing (the day track) isn't managed very well.
Hikers are advised to hike all in the same direction and, due to parking restrictions, use shuttles to get to the start of the track. The huge problem with this is the massive bottlenecks it causes. As it takes seven hours to hike, most people trekking the Alpine Crossing start early and within a few hours of each other.
The additional problem was that for four days, the weather had been such that everyone was advised to wait for the weather to improve. This meant on our day, hiking up the Red Crater, there were many hundreds of people on a very narrow stretch of path made of scree, and all at the same time.
Add on top of this the fact that a lot of people who were hiking came with converse shoes and you have the perfect storm. I saw a few people in flip-flops trying to attempt one of the steepest descents I've ever seen. It would be very easy to have a bad accident on this stretch of track.
Anyway, rant over, back to the track.
Climbing the Red Crater
The climb was pretty daunting and from the base it looked like the steepest we'd ever done. It wasn't very long, but it looked horrific.
We were walking in the opposite direction to the day walkers, meaning we would be trying to walk up scree (like walking up a 100m steep sand dune) whilst hundreds of people were slipping and sliding directly at us The path is about 2-3 metres wide with severe drops either side into either volcanic lakes or an enormous crater.
No one walking down had control and several clattered into me or fell over trying to manoeuvre round. How someone didn't get seriously injured is a mystery to me. When you add in heavy backpacks and you have one of the worst climbs you can have on a walking track! There were tears and expletives.
The view from the Red Crater
After a few minutes and time to catch our breath, we took in the view. It was amazing enough to wash away all our annoyance with the climb up. In one direction was Ngauruhoe with a splash of red on the cone, another was the enormous Red Crater, then the Emerald Lakes and finally the plateau where the Alpine Crossing exits the National Park.
It really doesn't get any better than this, especially when you look past the selfie sticks of everyone else up there. We spent quite a long time taking in this incredible place and needed to head down, we were less than half way at 1pm.
The path down wasn't great either, but it was a lot better than the scree slope on the other side. We slid down the rubble, cursing just about anything we could before reaching the stairs. To most people the Devil's staircase is a relentless set of steps, but to us it was a welcome relief as we no longer had to worry about literally falling off the side of a mountain.
The final stretch to Mangatepopo
By now we were feeling every metre we'd climbed and descended in our legs. Tough climbs where you fear falling over really exhaust your legs, and we'd only just covered half of the day's distance.
The sun and exposure had also made everything just a bit more tiring. Although we loved the weather conditions, we'd not had a break from the sun in several hours.
We powered on with the thought of a cool break at the next hut, and a late lunch and a cold drink. The path meandered through a landscape that gradually came back to life. The rivers brought the vegetation that soon turned the lifeless area into a vibrant heath.
After five and a half hours we'd made it to the hut, tired and ready to pass out. However, we still had another 9km to go!
Day 2, section 2: Mangatepopo Hut - Whakapapa
2 hours 30
Apple Watch Says:
Ok, one more rant
Sorry, but this section of the track deserves a rant because it is in a shocking state for a Great Walk. A lot of people skip this section altogether because it's not too scenic and it's clearly been left for dead.
The problem is that the track turns into a dirt path which has eroded to become a trench with several slips along the way. It's clear that when it rains, all the water diverts to the path to form rivers which have taken away the path.
The path gets so bad at points that it becomes only wide enough for one foot and it followed by scrambling up mud walls. In the rain I can't imagine how bad it would be to hike this path. It's so surprising to get a Great Walk path that looks like this. We would advise avoiding this section altogether in bad weather, it really wouldn't be worth it.
Finishing the track
Heads down, powering on, we walked through the undulating path, up hills, across rivers and through the forest.
By now the sun was setting and the lands turned into a deep orange colour, bathing in the golden glow of the sun. In the distance we could see Chateau Tongariro where our car was parked. Sadly it stayed in the distance for quite a long time!
But on the final stretch we were shown our final incredible view: Mount Taranaki peaking above the trees in the distance. Taranaki is over 200km away from Tongariro - that's how big it is!
Just before it went dark we made it to the car park and collapsed, in need of a drink and a long rest.
Tongariro Northern Circuit Overview
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is in many ways the perfect hike: it has views, incredible landscapes and is an experience that really tests you, especially if you condense it to two days. In my mind, the perfect hike needs some really tough moments. Tongariro has this by the bucket load, especially if hiking in two days. We did find it pretty tough and would probably recommend hiking in three days for a more leisurely experience.
However, our experience was the best possible version of the Tongariro Northern Circuit you could have. The weather was perfect and the view from Oturere Hut are the best I've seen on any walking trail. We absolutely loved it. Some sections of track should really be upgraded though, or numbers limited.
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Have you ever been to Tongariro National Park? Ever considered walking a trail through volcanoes? Let us know in the comments below!