Great Walk #1: Tongariro Northern Circuit

Hiking, or tramping as it’s called here, is a very popular activity. It’s not surprising considering the abundance of beautiful natural scenery in New Zealand (if you’re wondering what I’m talking about, see the Lord of the Rings films for reference). There are a series of 9 hikes called the Great Walks. They are all famous trails that go through some of New Zealand’s most diverse and stunning landscapes. Most of them take 3 to 6 days to walk and have huts where you can book a spot to sleep or campsites where you can pitch a tent. Most of them are seasonal, meaning they may require extra equipment or expertise to deal with more dangerous conditions during the winter. We decided to give one of these famous hikes a try. The Tongariro Northern Circuit is located in the center of the North Island. The trail is 43.1 km and typically takes 3 to 4 days to complete. We booked spots in the huts for this a few weeks back since the spots can fill up quick during the Great Walks season (October-April).

We woke up a little late (as usual) on our last morning in Hastings, and after a quick breakfast we took off for the village of Whakapapa. Our drive was supposed to take about 3 hours plus a stop for lunch in Taupo, but ended up taking closer to 6 due to bad weather, slow driving trucks, and road closures. The weather alternated between torrential rain and sunshine as we drove up and down a series of small mountain highways. Looking back on it now, the weather was clearly an omen.

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What a great day for a hike!

We had planned to start the trek around 1 in the afternoon, but we didn’t start until a little after 3. We weren’t sure what kind of weather to expect after our drive, but it was overcast and drizzling on and off when we got to the trail. The tops of the mountains we would spend the next three days hiking around were shrouded in clouds, masking their true size. We passed through a few groves of tall trees towards the beginning, but for the most part we were surrounded by lots of low shrubs and bushes in various shades of pale green and brown. The trail was very muddy and not in very good condition in many sections. It seemed like the storms we drove through this morning had been here as well.

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Ah, this isn’t so bad (20 minutes in).

You may remember in a previous post I mentioned we’d be making a trip to Mt. Doom. Well, this is the trip! The mountain we’d be walking around, Ngauruhoe, was featured in the Lord of the Rings films as Mt. Doom, and many of the scenes that took place in Mordor were shot in the area. With this in mind the bleak weather and barren landscape seemed appropriate.

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Maybe those dark clouds are blowing away from us…

The sign at the trailhead said that this portion of the hike would take 3-5 hours depending on your fitness and the weather. About an hour in we started to hear thunder rumbling, and we looked back to see some ominous dark clouds in the distance. They were still pretty far off and might be blowing in another direction, we told ourselves. If anything it added more to the authentic Mordor ambience. Nevertheless we picked up our pace and made less frequent picture stops.

As we continued on the thunder became more frequent and the dark clouds seemed to be moving closer. Great, this sense of urgency and dread must be something like what Frodo and Sam felt as they hurriedly crept through Mordor to destroy the ring at Mt. Doom. At around the 2 hour mark we crested a hill and saw the Mangatepopo hut, our first nights lodging, off in the distance.

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This way, follow me!

This gave us a bit of a morale boost. Maybe we wouldn’t get caught in the thunderstorm after all! But of course as soon as we took off towards the hut the rain started coming down even harder. It had been drizzling/misting on and off up to this point, but now it was really raining. Fortunately it didn’t take us long to get to the hut. We managed to make this section of the trip in about 2 and a half hours. Soon after we got in it really started pouring outside, so we really did make it just in time.

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Nothing like the sight of your destination (that miniscule tan rectangle just left of center) to get your spirits up!

The hut was quite lively when we arrived. There was a common area with a heater and gas stoves for cooking. Above the heater was a drying rack for wet clothes. On either side of the common room were two bunk rooms. Each room slept about 10 people. The rooms were lined with a long upper and lower bunk with mattress pads set on them. There was a large group of college students doing the 1 night hike (wimps) who were taking up almost half of the spaces in the hut.

We hung up our clothes to dry and set about making our dinner. We had a carrot, onion, bell pepper, and mixed bean stir fry with teriyaki sauce and boil in the bag rice. We ended up packing more veggies than we needed so dinner was quite large, but we had worked up a pretty good appetite during our walk. It was delicious, in the way that only really bland food can be delicious after a long exhausting hike. After dinner we played cards with some new friends from Switzerland and the UK. I was feeling pretty tired, but Alana has this thing about going to bed too early so we stayed up until around 10 before she finally gave in and agreed it was late enough to go to sleep.

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