Tongariro Northern Circuit and Around the Mountain – Whakapapa to Waihohonu Hut

The first couple of days of an epic six day hike around Tongariro National Park, an 87km loop covering the Great Walk Northern Circuit and the Around the Mountain Track. These first two days covered the Northern Circuit sections, including most of the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

I’d walked the Tongariro Northern Circuit in April 2014 and January 2015 and Around the Mountain in April 2015, and did this hike just before Easter 2023. Some parts were familiar but it was a bit scary how much I’d forgotten or misremembered.

Things had certainly changed in Whakapapa with the closure in February 2023 of the Chateau Tongariro, a sad end for this near 100 year old iconic New Zealand building. The Tussock Bar & Restaurant was also shut, and the nearby ski fields had only recently been saved by a significant government loan.

Starting toward Mangatepopo Hut the track was a little easier than I remembered, though last time I’d been along it had been in freezing rain heading in the opposite direction to a very welcome shower and bed for the night.

There were a few small sections of bush, but as with most of Tongariro National Park it’s an open and exposed landscape, wonderful on a good day, not quite as much fun in the rain…

Photos for this first day were taken on my phone as it was wet for much of the near 10km walk. Thankfully it never got heavier than steady rain, the wind was moderate (certainly compared with my home of Wellington) and the temperature was cool but not cold, but after a few hours of this I was grateful for a warm hut.

I had remembered how eroded the track often is, with plenty of skid marks from where people have slipped. Particularly in the wet care was needed, though the mud formations were quite impressive.

There was a surprisingly amount of colour in the landscape. It’s a bleak but beautiful landscape.

Mangatepopo Hut was a welcome sight, with gas powered (not very environmentally friendly!) lighting which was a new addition since my last visit. The drying rack got good usage, and it was cosy but manageable with 17 people in a 20 bunk hut, plus a pair of brave couples outside camping.

Thankfully the rain cleared overnight but it was a cloudy start as I walked along most of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track. Staying in the hut gave me a head start on the day walkers, who finally started to pass me in the South Crater, they weren’t carrying a ~22kg pack!

There are a number of safety warnings, appropriate given the highly variable weather and often poorly equipped day walkers. On average two people a week are rescued off the track! The weather almost perfectly matched the photo suggesting to turn around, but the forecast was relatively fine and I was well equipped.

I liked the low cloud, it added to the atmosphere of this volcanic landscape, used to represent Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

There were definitely more toilets along the track than when I first walked it twelve years ago. Pre-Covid up to 3,000 people a day would walk the track. Thankfully it was much quieter the Sunday I walked it, seeing no one as I headed up the Devil’s Staircase.

The clouds started to clear as I crossed the South Crater.

From the rim the views were epic below, such an incredible landscape.

From here passing the Red Crater was tough going though with strong, cold winds, though the cloud did thankfully clear briefly for views of the surreal crater below.

The cloud came and went as I descended toward the famous Emerald Lakes. The scree seemed a lot easier than I remembered, I certainly avoided filling my shoes with it this time.

The sun came out as I ate a much needed lunch by one of the lakes.

I definitely wasn’t expecting to see a well fed solo seagull, about as far from the sea as is possible in New Zealand. According to the warden at the next hut the seagull has lived here for years, well fed from the food left behind by walkers.

From here the Northern Circuit Track turns off from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track with a long and punishing downhill, eased by the views ahead.

And the views to the side with steaming rocks, colourful rocks, and a closer look at one of the Emerald Lakes.

At the bottom is a surreal landscape filled with colourful plants and unusually shaped giant rocks.

It had been a big day so Oturere Hut was a welcome spot for a rest before a final three hours hiking to Waihohonu Hut.

Despite tiredness this was one of my favourite parts of the day. It was mostly out in the open with big views and relatively straightforward walking.

The clouds briefly cleared from the summit of Mt Ruapehu, which I would spend the next four days circling on the Around the Mountain Circuit.

Oddly in the middle of these near desert like conditions is a section of beech forest, beautiful in the fading light of the day.

The 200m climb through it was a bit of a slog though, and I could see the hut long before reaching it. Other posts will cover rest of the hike along the Around the Mountain Circuit, with more spectacular scenery.

Author: jontycrane

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