The Tongariro Circuit (Xmas tramp #1) Dec 26-28 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope you all had a splendid holiday.

Being a foreigner here in NZ, it’s pretty hard for me to celebrate Christmas in what I would consider the traditional fashion. Christmas away from family is always hard, but the lack of snow and general Christmas Craziness that accompanies Christmas in America, I have had to develop a new “New Zealand” Christmas tradition: Tramping, tramping and more tramping. As much tramping as can possibly be stuffed into a 2 week period, preferably tramps that are longer than 3 days, and more than 4 hours drive from Dunedin.

We had 4 tramps planned for Xmas with about a day inbetween each for rest (with backup plans and tramps in case of rain). We managed to get 3 of our tramps in, included 2 bigs ones, resulting in 10 full days of tramping over 16 days we were gone. Not too bad!

As Dylan’s family is based on the North Island, we thought 2014 would be a great year to tick of some of our North Island bucket list tramps. #1 being the Tongariro Circuit. We tried to do just the crossing back in 2013, however the weather simply didn’t cooperate. We just weren’t keen to do the crossing in fog and not be able to see anything.

So this year we decided that logistically it would be easiest for us to do the entire circuit. So we booked our trip back in August of 2014. We also decided to be budget, and tent instead of huts, and of course, do the circuit in 3 days instead of the suggested 4 (we skipped the night at Waihohonu hut).

Tongariro circuit Map

We started from Whakapapa village about midday on Boxing day, and literally 5 minutes into the track, we were given Kevin the Kiwi by a German family.

All about Kevin

All about Kevin

The first day’s walk was short, but the track was reasonably rough (lots of pretty major wash outs. I think it would be pretty interesting in heavy rain).

We were rewarded that evening with a lovely sunset and great views of Ngauruhoe.

Ngauruhoe at Sunset

Ngauruhoe at Sunset

Dec 27 was our “crossing” day. The DOC warden at Mangatepopo hut warned us that there could be up to 1500 walkers a day doing the Tongariro crossing/day walk. She also advised us about climbing Ngauruhoe – (2 hours up, 1 hour down) wear long pants, bring poles, wear gloves if you have them (to protect from Scoria) and climb up the rocky ridge on the left, come down via the scree slope/scoria and beware of falling rocks.

I think Dec 27 was one of those 1500 daywalkers days. Not surprising since it was the first Saturday after Christmas and the weather was perfect, but still, it was like a highway.

Last toilet - queues

Last toilet – queues

Climbing Ngauruhoe, looking out onto South Crater

Climbing Ngauruhoe, looking out onto South Crater

Climbing Ngauruhoe (2291m, aka “Mount Doom”) was definitely the highlight. It’s roughly a 600m climb from the track, and actually took us roughly 4 hours (we spent a good hour walking/exploring the crater rim). We took 2 fellow Australian trampers (and Kevin the Kiwi, of course) up with us, and shared a day pack with water and snacks among the 4 of us.

Seriously, if you’re going to do the Tongariro circuit or crossing, I’d recommend the climb to Ngauruhoe (before you go, ensure that you have good fitness, are comfortable scrambling on rocks at high levels, and are comfortable descending on scree. Mar-Oct you likely need an ice axe and crampons. There was still snow at the top during our visit). Seeing the crater honestly blew my mind.

You can also climb Tongariro, although it’s not as high, it only takes about 1+ hours and is a good alternative if you’re not up for the very steep scramble to get to the top of Ngauruhoe. We skipped Tongariro on this trip.

Dylan and I at Ngauruhoe crater

Dylan and I at Ngauruhoe crater

I wonder how many times Kevin has been up to the Ngauruhoe crater?

I wonder how many times Kevin has been up to the Ngauruhoe crater?

By the time we descended Ngauruhoe, most of the day walkers had gone and the crossing had cleared out quite nicely. The emerald lakes were another highlight, and although we could see Blue Lake from Ngauruhoe, we decided to skip the extra hour or so it would take to get there, and just head straight to Oturere hut.

This section of the track was another highlight. I felt like we were on mars – the volcanic rock was really quite interesting. I only wish I had been a little less tired!

Fascinating landscape.  Camera doesn't do it justice, as usual.

Fascinating landscape. Camera doesn’t do it justice, as usual.

We had our last night at Oturere hut, and were very pleased to be camping as the hut is teeny tiny but sleeps something like 26 people. Also, the hut warden there was particularly awesome.

On Dec 28, we (Ok, maybe just me) decided to say reluctant good-byes to Kevin the Kiwi and pass him on to our Australian friends to look after.

Good-bye, Kevin!

Good-bye, Kevin!

Our last day turned out to be longer than expected (funny that, when you condense 2 tramping days into 1). We had an awesome long lunch at the flashest hut I have ever come across. Waihohonu hut is brand spanking new, absolutely enormous and apparently comes with running hot water. Seriously. Are we tramping or what? I’m a little gutted we skipped that one out now, but alas. Live and learn.

Anyways, we had lunch with a couple who the night before, came up to us and asked if we had done the Milford last year (2013). We said yes. So, they too, had been on that same Milford track with us. I don’t remember talking to them, but apparently Dylan and I are reasonably memorable. Also, that was the track where we decided to do really flash food (steak, bacon, pancakes, cake with blueberries and whipped cream, you get the idea. So maybe we weren’t so memorable, but our certainly food was! And yes, I do still need to write that post.). Turns out they actually live in Melbourne, but she is a kiwi who also did her PhD here in Dunedin… NZ honestly gets smaller every single day. And apparently doing a PhD and tramping often go hand in hand. I’m gutted we didn’t actually catch their names… But maybe we’ll bump into them again on another track, you never know!!

We eventually slogged our way back to the Whakapapa village and were totally stoked to arrive back at the car.

All in all, this is probably one of the more interesting and different tramps that I’ve done. The volcanic landscape was simply amazing. It was also probably one of the most exposed tramps I’d done. Barely a tree apart from a small section between Oturere and Waihohonu hut! I was actually a little concerned about sunstroke, especially the day of the crossing. Of course, if the weather packed it in, you would absolutely be exposed to all the other elements and day walkers are notorious for being unprepared for cold weather on the track.

I also enjoyed pondering where else in the world you can get so up close and personal with volcanoes. Hawaii? Certainly, there can’t be that many places with tramping/hiking/camping around active volcanoes. Speaking of, Ngauruhoe used to erupt on average about every 9 years. Except, it hasn’t erupted 1974…

I’ll just leave you with that.

Happy tramping!