New Zealand: Tongoriro Northern Crossing (Dec 2018)

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New Zealand: Tongoriro Northern Crossing (Dec 2018)

Post by walrus » February 5th, 2019, 7:57 am

My father and I spent the last three weeks of December hiking and backpacking (tramping) in New Zealand, doing 3 Great Walks and sundry day hikes.

If I get my act together (and nobody minds), I’ll post something for each Great Walk (Tongoriro Northern Circuit, Milford Track, Rakiura Track) and then one with general info and some of the day hikes/activities we did. *Apologies for the sideways photos, I'll try to get them right next time.*

First of all, a shoutout to the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC), who do both amazing conservation and trailwork. If you are at all interested in a trip to NZ, their website is an invaluable planning tool."> (note: most trail guides in New Zealand list time to complete (return=round trip) rather than distance - in general, the pace seems to be about 2 miles/hour. The local DOC office is also a good place to stop and chat when you come into a town/region, as the staff there are full of information on local tracks (trails) one might want to check out - they usually also have last minute items (matches, dehydrated meals, etc) and souvenirs one can purchase at a reasonable cost.

Great Walk #1: Tongoriro Northern Circuit
TNC entering park.jpg
TNC is in Tongoriro National Park and shares a section with the Tongoriro Alpine Crossing, a very popular day hike. It also (I am told, not having seen the movies) has some significant Lord of the Rings content. Ngauruhoe plays the role of Mt. Doom in the movies and we also walked through the Oturere Valley, where a battle was filmed? It was certainly full of jaggedy rock formations that looked like the perfect place for orcs to hide. The circuit essentially loops around Ngauruhoe, which is one of the 12 cones of the Tongorio complex (and the youngest and most classically “volcano” looking), taking one through/by volcanic plains, mountain passes, sulfurous springs/vents/lakes, beech forest and alpine lakes, streams and waterfalls.

We did the circuit clockwise from Whakapapa Village and staying in the Mangatepopo, Oturere and Waihohonu huts. This was the track we were most grateful to be staying in huts on, as there was a thunderstorm every afternoon/early evening. Being early birds, we’d scoot out at 6 and have finished the next section by lunch, eaten at the hut, gone out for a day hike/poke around and returned to the hut for a siesta during the storm before dinner/hut talk. (This habit also helped us avoid the hordes doing the Alpine Crossing,) Each Great Walk hut has a resident warden who is responsible for maintaining the nearby track (trail) and traps, posting weather/trail conditions, general hut upkeep, and also does a talk every night: natural/human history, Maori legends, conservation/trapping, what to expect on the track, etc.
TNC start.JPG
Day 1: We checked our non-backpacking bag at the visitor’s center in Whakapapa Village ($5 NZD for 4 days - less than $1/day USD) and wandered up behind the chalet and out along the track, which rolls over many streambeds before a short climb to the Mangatepopo hut, tucked into the flanks Tongoriro’s sprawling complex with views to the west and Ngauruhoe looming behind. Water levels in New Zealand seem to be much more affected by rain than what I’m used to in most of the PNW - feel more canyonlandy. If there is heavy rain, you just wait it out. We witnessed this on our after-lunch wander, in which we stopped to admire a spritely waterfall in the stream that ran by the hut that was not even a trickle when we returned an hour or two later. (It had rained overnight and sprinkled in the morning) We got back from exploring Soda Springs (lovely cold-water mineral (toxic) spring + waterfall) and scouting our route the next morning (lots of up, lots of stairs, lots of lava) just as the first drops of the evening thunderstorm were beginning to fall. Settled into our bunks for a siesta with the rain pattering, reveling in not having to deal with wet tent shenanigans. After puttering around making dinner (gas rings, running water) and getting to know some of our fellow travelers, Ranger Marcel gave his hut talk, filling us in on Maori history and how various mountains got their names. He also told us about the last eruption (2012) that took out a hut in the area and told us what to do if there should be such an event (stay calm, turn of the gas, gather and head downhill). It was then that the skies cleared into a most remarkable sunset. After the storm, you could see all the way to Mt. Taranaki on the west coast, lit up in evening splendor, but had to keep turning around to watch the alpenglow light up Tongoriro.
TNC alpinglow.jpg
Day 2: Up and over Tongoriro → Oturere Hut. We knew that this would be the day we would be sharing the route of the Tongoriro Northern Crossing, the most popular day hike in NZ. It is set up as a one-way (~20k) hike. Parking at either end is limited to 4 hours and there is no camping except at the huts. There are numerous shuttle services that start picking up hikers around 5 am, dropping them at one end of the track or the other. We knew we wanted to start early to avoid the crowds and hustled out early, trying to keep our morning rustling at a minimum. While there were already some day hikers out on the trail, we made our way up in relative solitude, stopping to look back at the opening plains behind us. There were a lot of stairs - switchbacks don’t seem to be very popular in New Zealand. The night before, Ranger Marcel had also told us about an earlier eruption that had spilled lava over this section of the trail (the devil’s staircase) and when it was rebuilt, they “put in nice zigs and zags for you” - there was maybe one zig and one zag….
TNC Devil's Staircase.JPG

Once up the stairs, you pop into the South Crater, which sits just below Ngauruhoe, which happened to be quietly steaming that morning. Snack/loo/sunscreen and we headed out across the crater, leap-frogging with a family out for the day hike, stopping to admire puffs of steam and the crater lake before continuing up to the top of Red Crater, the high point of the trek. Dropping down along the rim of the Red Crater, spectacular views open up to the east and south, and mineral lakes steam and sparkle below. Some of the rocks are warm to the touch and you can see the layers of volcanic sediment in both the crater and the edge of the trail. It was as we descended along Ngā Rotopounamu (the Emerald Lakes) that we met first main wave of day hikers coming the other way.
Tongoriro sediment layer.JPG
Tongoriro Emerald Lakes.JPG
Luckily, it was also here that we turned off the crossing route and descended into the Oturere valley, stopping to admire waterfalls and peer warily around craggy piles of lava ejected from the red crader that looked like they were made for nefarious orc business. The Oturere Hut is perched on a ridge just below where the Oturere stream tumbles into the plains below with a very nice waterfall. After lunch, we visited the waterfall and poked along upstream to where there were some nice (if brisk) pools to rinse off the trail dust. Our post-siesta stroll took us further out to the ridge, opening up a view all the way to Lake Rotoaira and (we think) Lake Taupo before bluffing out above the Rangipo Desert. After dinner, Ranger Jamie gave an interesting and passionate hut talk that covered everything from her former career (music teacher) to the history of deer farming (which started when people realized they could make more money by penning and breeding captured feral deer than just from selling the animals they were culling), to the legend of the haka (the All Blacks’ haka is said to come from Lake Rotoaira) and how things such as firewood, gas and sewage are managed along the track (helicopters and hard labor).

Day 3: Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut - only a few hours of track, winding up and over foothills as they descended into the Rangipo Desert, then dropping down below the bushline into a lovely cool beech forest on the banks of the Waihohonu stream. It was here that we realized we hadn’t heard birdsong for two days, only seen falcons riding the winds. Nice to be back in a less blasted landscape for a brief interlude, at least. It was here that we met Ranger Annie on her way up to the Oturere Hut to help Jaimie chop firewood. The track climbs back up above the bushline soon enough, crossing another branch of the stream just below a slower/wider spot that has been encouraged into a nice little swimming hole. Waihohonu Hut sits where the two main tracks (Ruapehu’s round-the-mountain trail and the Tongoriro Northern Circuit) meet and is therefore rather more substantial than either of the huts we’d previously stayed in, with three bunkrooms and a much larger living area. It also gets heavy use in the “off” season (no bookings, hut tickets/$ go into a box on the wall) by those pursuing snowy backcountry adventures - more people than there are bunks with late arrivals rolled up on the floor. We did a lot of side-trip exploring in the afternoon, poking down along the round-the-mountain trail which wound its way up and over and around stream beds that showed sign of recent vigorous water, feeling glad the day was dry and not threatening a thunderstorm. Returning to running water, we followed the Ohinepango Stream to its source, a cold clear spring - beautiful, but too cold for swimming. After poking around looking for Whio (alpine blue duck), we headed over to the Waihohonu, stopping to look for Whio (maybe we saw one flying upsteam?) and explore the historic Waihohonu hut, the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. Back to the hut for a siesta and then a swim back at the swimming hole we’d passed in the morning, which was much warmer than the waters of the Ohinepango Spring. Ranger Annie’s hut talk covered area history and predator control - she does a lot of trapping and told us the only rubbish we didn’t need to pack out was apple cores - dusted with cinnamon, they make excellent possum bait.
TNC historic waihohonu hut.JPG
TNC historic hut interior.JPG

Day 4 - Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village. In the morning, we followed the Waihohonu up away from the edge of the desert and up onto the saddle between Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. Both mountains entertained us as they emerged from the morning clouds, whipped around by the mountain winds (which were pretty brisk at the top of the saddle and the lakes). As we were headed to Rotorura that afternoon, we only made time to detour to Lower Tama lake, an old crater now filled with beautiful blue waters with a lovely view of Ruapehu. After the lakes, the track descends the saddle through a few little valleys and then comes out above Taranaki Falls. We’d visited the falls as a day hike the afternoon before starting the track, so continued across the scrubland rather than following the route down the stream below the falls. This gave us time to bid goodby to Ngauruhoe and the rest of Tongoriro as we rounded the bend and caught our first glimpse of the chalet at Whakapapa. What an incredible 4 days!
TNC ruapehu rangipo.JPG
TNC waihohonu.JPG
TNC Tama lake.JPG

Once we’d reclaimed our bags, borrowed some wifi and taken our rubbish to the recycling center, we followed the road up to the ski area at the end of the road. Didn’t quite reach snow, but lots of lava and vistas opening up after hairpin turns and construction of a new gondola or something. And a chance to get more up close and personal with Ruapehu, looming large and in charge overhead. Then down the mountain and across the plains to Lake Taupo for a swim and ice cream before heading to Rotorura for laundry and showers.

BONUS: On the advice of a friendly iSITE employee, we stopped at Kerosene Creek on the way to Rotorura. A short hike along a steaming and somewhat sulfurous stream leads to nature’s jacuzzi. The creek is fed in part by a hot springs that comes in conveniently just above a waterfall and pool. Generations of soakers have enhanced it somewhat and there is a handy dead tree where one can lounge in the pool and soak away any lingering soreness left by adventures or stand under the waterfall for a pounding massage (although between the well maintained trails and luxury of mattresses, I didn’t have most of my usual aches and pains). Plenty of other people (though not as many as one used to find in the Oneonta Gorge), but worth it for the experience for me.]
TNC Kerosene Creek.JPG

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Re: New Zealand: Tongoriro Northern Crossing (Dec 2018)

Post by Chazz » February 5th, 2019, 9:51 am

Great trip report. NZ and the volcanic areas there is a dream trip for me.

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Re: New Zealand: Tongoriro Northern Crossing (Dec 2018)

Post by bobcat » February 6th, 2019, 4:10 pm

It sounds like a great trip! I love those New Zealand "tracks" and their well-built huts. In my youth, I spent about two months there, doing six multi-day tracks altogether (two in the North Island and four in the South).

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Re: New Zealand: Tongoriro Northern Crossing (Dec 2018)

Post by sgyoung » February 15th, 2019, 10:09 am

Very cool! This is a great report. It looks like you had pretty great weather too, which is no small deal around Tongoriro. If you do get the time, reading reports from the other great walks would be fun (but if not, that's understandable. You can also just post pictures :) )

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