Walk 6 - Tongariro Northern Circuit 'Great Walk'

What a difference 5 weeks makes. The last time we were in Tongariro National Park was to ski and Whakapapa Village was a hive of ski-related activity. With the skiers gone and the snow retreating up the mountainsides, we returned to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a 4-day walk around and over the volcano. This walk includes the Tongariro Crossing, claimed to be New Zealand's best one-day walk. It is a "must-do" for many foreign tourists, and on a good day over a thousand trekkers may do this walk - we did not want be be there on a "good" day, so we returned to do a the circuit "pre-season", when snow still covered the cones and craters of Tongariro and the masses were still at their office desks dreaming of a summer crossing. The four-day forecast of cloudy, fine, fine, rain developing, looked as good as we could hope for.

For those who suffered an overdose of green looking at photos from the last great walk, this is the antidote.

Day 1 - Whakapapa to Mangetopopo

Setting out from the impressive 1929 Tongariro Chateau at Whakapapa Village under a cloudy sky, we headed north along the Mangetepopo Track into a landscape unlike any other that we had walked through to date; a low shrubby heathland on the pumice-covered soils of the lower volcanic slopes of Ruapehu and Tongariro. It felt good to in such open terrain, with sweeping views out to the western horizon, after spending much of our previous walks deep in the forest. Initially the track was well graded, but having let the turn off to a popular waterfall day-walk, it soon changed character, becoming what the locals refer to as "the ditch", several kilometres of heavily eroded track crossing over 30 streams that had gouged channels of varying depth as water poured off the volcanic slopes. Bridges helped on the deeper crossings, and we made steady progress along "the ditch", partly walking in its narrow eroded channels and partly walking on a flatter secondary track that has developed at its edge.

Tongariro Chateau

Low heathland on the Mangetepopo Track

Crossing one of the 30 plus stream beds

Pukeonake scoria cone

Clouds obscured the peaks of Ruapehu behind us and Ngaurahoe ahead, as we climbed steadily up through the gap between the scoria cone of Pukeonake on our left and the old volcanic vent of Pukekaikiore on our right. Cresting the ridge we reached the glacial Mangetopopo Valley, where a short descent across an old laval flow brought us to the comfortable hut of the same name in time for a late lunch.

Mangatepopo Hut

Herbfield on crumbling lava flow

This gave us time to explore the valley and surrounding lava cliffs, where streams had cut their way through old lava flows and low alpine herbs had started to colonise and add life to the crumbling volcanic rocks.

Alpine herbs colonising old lava flows

Old lava flow in front of the basalt cliffs
of Pukekaikiore

That evening, the sun set a brilliant red between the cloud band and the horizon, revealing for the first time the distant cone of Taranaki and bathing it in a surreal glow. For the first time we stayed in a relatively full hut, there were 14 of us and the hut warden at Mangetopopo that night, and all went to bed early in anticipation of the promise of fine weather for the Tongariro Crossing.

Sunset from Mangatepopo Hut - the silhouette of Taranaki visible on the right

Day 2 - A perfect day for the crossing

We awoke to the promise of a fine day - a light westerly wind blew and the only cloud in the sky was a circular halo surrounding the peak of Ngaurohoe. The pale conic silhouette of snow-clad Taranaki seemed to watch us from the west. Setting off, we were soon on the crossing track; but so were the first busload of day-trekkers! We joined the well-spaced procession following the track up the glacier-carved Mangetopopo Valley, the bubbling stream meandering down beside the jagged basalt edges of 40-year old lava flows from the more recent eruptions of Ngaurohoe. A steady climb soon found us at the head of the valley, looking up 300m to the saddle between Tongariro and Ngaurahoe. The steep climb with full packs up the jumble of basalt blocks to reach it was the hardest part of the day, but the effort was forgotten almost as soon as we crested the saddle and found ourselves at the edge of the South Crater, looking across at the magnificent landscape of the volcanic plateau. Time for a stop to take it all in and have a bite to eat to replenish spent energy.


St Ngaurahoe blessing the trampers

Mangetepopo Stream babbling past the 1950s lava flow

View back to the east from the Mangatepopo Saddle

Crossing South Crater

The spring snow defined the contours of the steep sides and cones surrounding the South Crater, in reality an extensive drainage basin, and contrasted with the tan silt of the flat basin floor. Scattered rocks and boulders on this silted plain reminded us of images of lunar landscapes beamed back by various landing parties many years ago.

Crossing the crater floor, we came to our second major climb of the day, a 250m ascent of the rim of Red Crater, at 1886m the high point of the crossing.

Climbing up out of the South Crater on to the rim of Red Crater

On the smoking rim of Red Crate

Dyke leading from the Crater to the
vent of the volcano

Looking down into Red Crater

Red Crater is superb, the black and reddish coloured rocks of the inner walls of the crater plunged down to the smoother greyish rocky slabs lining a dyke, an old magma pipeline to the vent of the volcano. The sulphurous fumes drifting out of the lower eastern wall of Red Crater, and the snow blackened by ashy deposits, reminded us that this mountain is still an active volcano. To the south the perfect snow-striped cone of Ngaurohoe glistened in the sun. From the west to east, the northern horizon provided a sweeping vista from snow-capped Tongariro, past the flat-topped North Crater, and on to the sapphire waters of Blue Lake, perched high over the snow- and water-covered basin of Central Crater.

Panorama from North Crater to Blue Lake

From the top, a look downwards along its eastern flank revealed the jewels of the mountain - three small lakes filling old volcanic explosion pits and gleaming a brilliant emerald colour in the sunlight. A sliding descent on the steep scoria slope of the crater brought us to the edges of these beautiful lakes - no better place to stop for lunch than here and to lay back and admire this superb volcanic landscape; sulphurous steam rising from fumeroles on the slope of the black and red crater above the emerald lakes contrasted against the snowy mantle on Tongariro and the Central Crater.


The incredible setting and colour of the Emerald Lakes

What Nello saw in the mountains

It was hard to move on, but move on we had to. Crossing the soft melting snow of Central Crater we climbed up to a ridge holding in the dark blue waters of Blue Lake, brilliantly contrasted against the snow-covered lake shore.

Day-trekkers crossing Central Crater as Ruapehu
peaks out from behind Ngaurahoe and Red Crater

The sapphire waters of Blue Lake

From here the track rounded the North Crater and passed through a north-facing gap to descend slowly down through tussock covered slopes, offering superb views to the north over Lake Rotoaira and distant Lake Taupo. A final series of zig-zags brought us to Ketetahi Hut, not far from the steaming Hot Springs of the same name.

This would be our comfortable and pleasant home for the night, though it would be a few hours before the 10 hut "residents" could finally relax, as a constant stream of day-trekkers passed by, stopping to rest on the deck and investigate the hut and any occupants who might be having a cat-nap on their bunks.

Ketetahi Hut

Views over Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo

Ketetahi Hut alone on a red tussock ridge

Day 3 - In Mordor and beyond

Sometimes it is good to get up before sunrise - today was such a day. Below our hut, a soft layer of cloud covered the valley floor beneath the blue-pink horizon in the pre-dawn light. It would be another good day.

Pre-dawn light over the Ketetahi Hot Springs

An early start saw us retracing our steps of yesterday steadily back up the gentle 300m ascent from Ketetahi Hut to Blue Lake. This was the one disadvantage of staying at this hut. The advantage was that it offered us one more chance to admire and stroll across the magnificent landscapes of Tongariro, and at a time when no day-trekkers had yet arrived.

Panorama over the Central Crater from Blue Lake - Red Crater, Ngaurohoe and Tongariro forming the horizon

When we reached the Emerald Lakes we turned south onto a new route, soon reaching the south gap leaving Tongariro. Below us, stretching from horizon to horizon lay a jaw-droppingly surreal landscape - black, black and more black - a valley filled with jagged lava flows and eroded basalt formations on a stony soil virtually devoid of vegetation. This had to be Mordor, and we named the descent into it - a narrow loose scree path winding its way down between the sharp, contorted rocks of an old lava flow that dropped steeply 300m from the gap to the valley floor - Sauron's Staircase.

Sauron's staircase descending into Mordor

Looking down over the landscape of Mordor

For an hour we crossed this surreal terrain, otherwise known as the Oturere Valley. Gradually, the scenery began to soften; more low shrubs and herbs started to appear and the hard, rocky pumice-speckled soil gave way to a series of low charcoal coloured sand-dunes, populated by strangely shaped exposed blocks of basalt.

Oturere Valley lavascape


A land of strange lava formations.....


... and jagged basalt slabs in black sand dunes

The appearance of Oturere Hut marked the end of this landscape and the start of another. Having stopped at the hut for a rest, we soon found ourselves crossing a series of dry stony gulches, followed by undulating gravel hills, where a few grass tussocks and low shrubs attempted to hold together what there was of top-soil. This would probably be as close as you get to a desert in New Zealand.

Track crossing a dry stony stream bed

Oturere Hut

Lava gives way to gravel south of Oturere

Say no more!

A boulder-filled stream bubbling its way through the gravel hills provided an excellent spot to have lunch and to soak tired feet in icy waters. As we crossed the hills, snow-covered Ruapehu become more and more the focus on the horizon, as Tongariro slipped into the background.

With each passing crest, the vegetation seemed to gain ground, until eventually, instead of wandering across a sea of gravel, we we walking along a narrow stony path winding its way through a garden of low shrubs, alpine herbs and tussock grass.

View across the Rangipo Desert
Descending the garden slope, the path suddenly disappeared into a beech forest and descended quickly to a bridge that crossed another fast-flowing mountain stream. The green and shade of the beech forest was a welcome change after the long trek through the fascinating, but exposed lava- and gravel-scapes. The long steady climb up and over the beech-covered ridge was less welcome, but it brought us out to magnificent views of Ruapehu, and a quick descent of the other side saw us on the verandah of Wainohonu Hut, nestled in a shady grove just above Wainohonu Stream. That night we slept well to the soft babble of the stream beneath.

Crossing the beech ridge

An alpine herb and shrub garden

Bridge from the shrublands to the forest

Day 4 - Wainohonu to Whakapapa

We had shared the same huts for the last three nights with 6 other trampers; Allan and Ros from England, who enthused us with tales of their walks in the Pyrenees and eastern Europe, the fanatical Czech photographer (who carried 40 rolls of film and climbed back up to Tongariro from Ketetahi Hut for that perfect sunset photo) and his girlfriend, and two young blokes from Sydney who shamed us all with their haute-tramping cuisine. Along the way we had also encountered an assortment of Americans, Canadians, Danes, French, Dutch, Austrians and even the odd kiwi. For a good way to meet the world, walk the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

Wainohonu Stream near the hut

Our last day was a bit anticlimactic after the sensory overload of the previous two days, and probably just as well. For the most part, the track climbed steadily up through low shrub - tussock vegetation towards the Tama Saddle, the clouds playing cache-cache with Ruapehu to the south and Ngaurohoe to the north.

A short early detour enabled us to visit historic Old Wainohonu Hut, its red corrugated iron walls standing out against the green of the beech copse in which it stood. This was one of the first back-country huts when built in 1904 and is now part of the historic estate of New Zealand.

Old Wainohonu hut (built in 1904)

Upper Wainohonu Stream

The clouds clear briefly to give a glimpse of Ruapehu

Lower Tama Lake and Ngaurohoe

Eventually we passed Lower Tama Lake and crossed the dry river beds of the saddle. Cloud was building up and, with the cold westerly, seemed to indicate an imminent change in the weather; it was good to be descending toward Whakapapa and the end of the trek. However, we had one last stop, to have lunch at the base of Taranaki Falls.

One last river to cross

A bask in the last bit of sunshine watching the water pour through a narrow gap in the black basalt cliff before plunging 30m down into a boulder-strewn pool was a great way to end the walk, with only a short 40 minute stroll on to Whakapapa and the end of the circuit. Our spirits were high and a soak in the thermal pools of Taupo would soon restore our tired bodies.

The cliffs above Taranaki Falls

30 m high Taranaki Falls

The Tongariro Northern Circuit deserves its designation as a great walk. It offers a range of open and unusual landscapes, and provided a great contrast to the leafy, canopied greenness of our first great walk around Lake Waikaremoana.