Day one: Mangatepopo Car Park to Tama Lakes, approx 20km – about 5 hours:
We pulled up to the Mangatepopo car park full of excitement to start our second Great Walk. The sun was shining for the first time in weeks and we couldn’t wait to get going! We set off from the normal Tongariro Crossing starting point, but instead of heading towards the crossing, we turned away from Mt Tongariro and set our sights for Whakapapa village. Our plan was to do the 4 day circuit in 3 days, which involved spending one night in a tent by the Tama Lakes.
The weather on day one was basically perfect. Seeing as it was the first week of winter it was quite cool however, the sun was shining brightly so it felt like a warm summers day. We started towards Whakapapa Village where the thought of tea and scones at the Chateau was definitely playing on our minds. The first few kilometres of the track were more difficult then we thought they would be – neither of us are very tall, and we certainly aren’t narrow. Furthermore, these paths were definitely more suited for more slender body types. It took a lot of concentration to walk through these little crevasses and seeing as there had been a lot of snow and rainfall in the past week we were trudging through quite a lot of thick mud too.
After approximately two and a half hours of walking reasonably flat gradients from the Mangatepopo carpark, we arrived at a crossroads giving us the choice to either go towards Whakapapa Village or to take a sneaky short cut and go straight through to Taranaki Falls. Seeing as we had been to Whakapapa Village many times before and neither of us are ever opposed to a short cut, we turned off towards Taranaki Falls. This part of the track takes you over a bridge that crosses Wairere Stream and leads through impressive beech forest full of ferns and native Toatoa as you walk along next to the stream. After 20 minutes or so from the turn off we reached the stunning Taranaki Falls. Definitely lunch time!
We had been to these falls once before before on a wet and miserable day so having such beautiful weather made the experience so much more gratifying. Make sure you go all the way down to the waterline for views of the waterfall – but take a jacket as the spray can travel quite far!
The last part of our day consisted of a slow but steady uphill climb as we battled through to our first nights destination. We passed a lot of alpine tussock in this section and no matter what direction you would look, you always have a beautiful view of a number of snowy mountain ranges. We remember passing a few couples who were heading back to the Chateau for the night – they all thought we were completely bonkers for choosing to camp at the lakes in winter.
Upon reaching the Lower Tama Lake, our priority was to scout out a place to pitch our tent for the night. We weren’t satisfied with any spots so decided to head up towards the upper lake. The views along the ridge line were stunning and we immediately spotted a large circular rock formation with a flat patch in the middle – what seemed to be a gift left by many people before us. It was a perfect spot to pitch a tent in a howling gale – or so we thought (turns out we forgot to take into account the wind direction and the tent was battered all night!).
After battling gales force winds and sub-zero temperatures, we finally had our tent up, nearly getting frostbitten fingers for out efforts. However, we were treated to some stunning scenery and a beautiful sunset behind Mt Taranaki in the distance. We quickly whipped out the Kaweka meals to make for a well deserved dinner. If you have not had these before you are missing out, they are by far the best “freeze-dried” meals we have tried. They are actually AMAZING. We shared a Thai Green Curry and a Butter Chicken, played cards, read our books, ate chocolate and then settled down for a very late bedtime of approximately 7.30pm.
Day two: Tama Lakes to Oturere Hut, approx 18km – about 6 hours:
Day two started off with Sammy’s famous porridge mix (keep an eye out for our recipe which we will share soon!). It was then time to pack up the tent, place a few more rocks on the structure and venture on towards Oturere Hut.
The first part of the walk was nice and easy – we descended back down to Lower Tama Lake and then east following the Waihohonu Stream. This part was relatively flat and we passed about 3 couples going the opposite direction who all had good stories to tell us about their journeys. We found this part of track beautiful, however a little repetitive, so we were glad once we reached Waihohonu Hut knowing the terrain was about to change.
We arrived at Waihohonu Hut for some lunch and were impressed by the layout and size of the hut. With 28 bunks, 7 campsites AND hot running water, you can see why this is such a popular hut for people to stay at – especially for overnight walks starting from State Highway 1, which only take a few hours. We met a couple of ladies who were stopping off for water at the hut during their run of the entire Northern Circuit in a single day. They were the first, but certainly not the last, group of people we met that were doing this. It is an incredible effort and has put the idea in our heads that maybe we could train to do it in one day as well (but probably more walking as opposed to running knowing us!).
Our departure from Waihohonu Hut began with an immediate ascent up a large ridge, through the tree line and back out into the open. It was fairly steep to begin with and definitely got our hearts racing again! We passed a couple of hunters and a few more crazy people who were running the whole thing in a day. Once we reached the top of the next ridge the view changed completely and we felt like we had just landed on the moon.
The next stage of the walk towards Oturere Hut took about 2 and a half hours and was quite literally filled with many ups and downs – a lot more ups than downs however as we had a bit of climbing to do to get up to the hut. There was another couple who were a few gears ahead of us – seemingly racing to get to the hut in time for a bed. Seeing as the views were so open and vast we were able to see them in the distance and map out our upcoming route. We both really enjoyed this part of circuit as it had incredible views as well as lots of varied terrain to keep us entertained. The last few kms of the day felt like they took far longer than it should of. Once we saw the 1km marker each and every bend and ridge we went past increased our anticipation to see the hut. However, 1km in very steep terrain takes a lot longer than on the flat so there were many hopes and dreams crushed for the 30 mins it took to get there. It was just as the first drop of rain fell for the day Sam let out a loud yell and Matt instinctively knew that we had reached the hut. It was finally time for some laksa noodles!
Oturere Hut sleeps 26 people and we quite literally got the very last two beds. After the previous night in a tent we were VERY happy about this. We defrosted our spaghetti bolognese, cooked up some pasta and grated some cheese for dinner – all whilst creating some very jealous hut mates. We played a few games of Monopoly Deal (you seriously need to get this game, it is so addictive!) then Matt went out to take some photos while Sam snuggled in for the night with her book. All-in-all a very good day two.
Day three: Mangatepopo Car Park to Tama Lakes, approx 20km – about 5 hours:
We woke up to an AMAZING sunrise on day three which was going to set the scene for the rest of the day. We started off our day with another round of Sammy’s Famous Porridge Concoction, a cup of Cafe Laffare coffee from our Sea to Summit X-Brew Coffee Dripper (another essential item as we are coffee snobs so having the ability to drink yummy coffee on tramps is such a luxury) and we were off for the final leg of our journey.
The day began with a small uphill gradient as we ventured through Oturere Valley. Seeing as it had been a clear night, it was very icy and frosty and Sam managed to have a large number of near falls (as Frame The Adventure comes along more you will learn just how injury prone Sam is…). At the end of the arrived at the bottom of a very steep, lava sculpted ridge and it was half way up this when the beautiful smell of sulphur became very prominent.
The climb out of the Oturere valley is pretty tough, but very rewarding, as the Emerald Lakes are located right at the top. After a short stop to catch our breath and take in the views, we joined the Tongariro Crossing track and started up another steep ascent to get to the highest point – the Red Crater! As soon as we joined the Tongariro Crossing track, we were simply amazed at how many more people were doing the crossing. During the pervious two days we would pass a group of people once every hour or so, whereas, once we reached the Crossing it felt like everywhere you looked there were hundreds and hundreds of people. A friend of ours who works in tourism in the area told us an average of 7000 people do the crossing each day in summer – which is absolutely insane! In saying this though, its actually a really nice sight seeing so many people enjoying the outdoors and getting some exercise. Our only complaint was that so many people we passed were so underprepared! Gumboots, jandals, jeans and frilly tops are probably not the best attire for a day tramp through active volcanic areas. If you are wanting to do this hike, please please please make sure you are well prepared! The Department of Conservation and Mountain Safety Council websites are a good place find out some essential information for staying safe.
Although it was a hard slog getting up to the red crater with our heavy packs on, it was well worth it in the end. Throughout our various hikes we have done, we have learnt that the harder the climb, the more rewarding it is at the top! Nothing quite describes the feeling of achievement of getting to the highest point of a track and knowing it is all downhill from there. There were definitely a few “ooh” and “aahs” at the top and no photo could ever do the real life image any sort of justice. The contrast of colours and layers make it truly one of the most beautiful things we both have ever seen. The day before we got there, it was completely covered by cloud so we were immensely grateful to have such a clear day.
At the Red Crater you have an option of going to the summit of Mt Tongariro which sits at 1967m. The sign estimates that this will take 1.5-2 hours return but it was definitely more like 1-1.5 hours depending on how long you stayed taking in the amazing views at the top. We absolutely recommend doing this for a number of reasons: the stunning views obviously, but it would feel so wrong to make it so close to the summit without actually getting up there. There were a few risky patches of ice where, as usual, Sam nearly tumbled to her (not so) gracious death, but all and all it was an easy enough climb. We got back to the Red Crater and found a perfect looking lunch rock and sat and ate our last salami wraps of the trek.
Once we left the Red Crater it was straight to a very steep descent and as we made our way further along we experienced so many more ridiculous attempts of ‘footwear’ trying to tackle the gnarly hills. We both were very smug with our brown leather tramping boots – so we made an extra special effort to prove just how useful they were by stomping in every pile of mud we could find whilst everyone tippy toed around us. It was very satisfying and equally as enjoyable. We stopped at the start of the Mt Ngāuruhoe summit track and very quickly decided we should add it to our bucket list!
The last few hours consisted of descending down devil’s staircase and it was quite a pleasure to be going down as opposed to up. Although by the bottom, Sam’s knees were screaming for some uphill again. This part was not our favourite as going down stairs for such a long time gets a bit boring and painful – in hindsight I’m sure our blisters and hunger accentuated these feelings. Once we reached the bottom of the stairwell the track turned into wooden pathways going over boggy swampland which followed alongside the Mangatepopo stream. We paced passed Mangatepopo Hut and got our skates on for the last 30 minutes to the car park. Nothing quite beats the feeling of removing your boots for the final time after a long 3 days on your feet!
Overall, this walk was stunning, fun and difficult – all in one. We were blessed with the most incredible weather and we were lucky to meet some awesome people along the way too. We highly recommend it to absolutely anyone who is interested in a challenge. However, if you are short on time then the Tongariro Crossing day walk has been labelled “The best day walk in New Zealand” for a very good reason!
Know before you go: Head to the Doc Website for all necessary information.
- Most of the track is on rugged and exposed alpine terrain, although there are sections of formed track/boardwalk. There are only two sections of forest – near Whakapapa Village, and near Waihohonu Hut. The lowest altitude of the track is 1120 m, and the highest (at Red Crater) is 1886 m.
- The weather can change suddenly – from warm and sunny to cold, wet and windy.
- Most streams are bridged and there are no large river crossings, but heavy rain could cause flooded streams to become difficult to cross safely. Be prepared to wait for water levels to drop.
- Major hazards are generally managed on the track during the summer (October to April), and in winter the main hazard is snow/ice on the track.
- We recommend that you treat stream water to guard against risk of infection from giardia and other bugs.
- This is an active volcanic area, and eruptions are possible at any time without warning. Active volcanic vents on the Tongariro Northern Circuit are Mount Ngauruhoe, Red Crater, and Te Maari Craters. Volcanic hazard zones surround all of these vents. If you are within one of these areas when an eruption happens, you may be in danger.
- Great walks season: 21 October 2017 – 30 April 2018
- Huts and campsites must be booked in advance and fees are paid at the time of booking.
- Huts: Adult (18+ years): $36 per night, Child (17 years and under): free but booking still required
- Campsites: Adult (18+ years): $14 per night, Child (17 years and under): free but booking still required.
Outside the Great Walks season (1 May 2017 – 20 October 2017):
- The winter environment and weather at Tongariro is frequently cold, wet and windy.
- Daylight hours are short and temperatures are often below freezing.
- Snow and ice is common in higher areas and sometimes on lower areas. Deep snow can hide track markers. At times surface conditions can be hard ice. Alpine equipment and skills are frequently required.
- DOC does not manage hazards such as flooding or avalanche.
- Fees are charged per person per night, and hut beds are on a first come, first served basis only. All huts require a Serviced Backcountry Hut Ticket, which must be purchased in advance. Alternatively, a Backcountry Hut Pass (valid for 6 or 12 months) may be used.
- Gas cooking stoves are not provided – you need to bring your own (and plate/mug/utensils).
- Running water is turned off inside the huts. Water can be obtained from the outside water tank; if this is frozen, then from the nearest water course or by melting snow. We recommend that you treat all stream water in case of giardia or other bugs.
- No emergency radio facilities.
- There are no DOC rangers based at the huts although DOC staff do occasional checks on facilities (and hut tickets).
- Heating is available (gas heater at Oturere and Mangatepopo, wood burner at Waihohonu).