Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit

Before I embarked on my voyage to New Zealand I took upon an ambitious plan to walk, or as kiwi’s would say, tramp all 9 of the great walks of NZ during the one year I was to live there. The great walks are diverse trekking routes that pass through some of the most amazing scenery in this country. They usually take between 2-5 days to finish and are all very well maintained by NZ’s Department of Conservation, but enough of boring facts for now.

 

 

I am here to tell you about my first walk that I completed: The Tongariro Northern Circuit. 

Tongariro Northern Circuit, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand, Volcano Ngauruhoe
Volcano Ngauruhoe aka Mount Doom
Tongariro Northern Circuit, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand
Hikers on the Tongariro crossing

Unlike the very popular one day 20 km long Tongariro Crossing, the Northern Circuit is 43 km long and usually takes 3 days to finish (that is how long it took me as well). The start of the trek is in the Whakapapa village at the foot of volcano Ruapehu. You have a choice of doing it clockwise or counterclockwise. I went for the first option.  

Tongariro Northern Circuit, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand
Reflections of mount Ngauruhoe
Tongariro Northern Circuit, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand
Steep climb to the highest point

The hardest and most challenging day on the whole route was the first day. You ask why? Because I simply overdid it. Apart from photography equipment that already weights at least 6 kg I also carried my sleeping bag, matt, clothes and food for the next 3 days as well as water. Because I knew that the weather conditions are going to be the best on the first day I made a conscious decision to skip the first hut and walk straight on to the second one. I ended up walking half of the route on the first day and by the time I got to the Oturere camping site I had tears in my eyes. 

Tongariro Northern Circuit, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand, Mount Ngauruhoe
Blue lake, tongariro northern circuit, New Zealand
Blue lake as seen from the highest point of the trek
Blue lake, tongariro northern circuit,
Sign warning about the potential danger from the volcanoes

I woke up at 5 in the morning on that day to drive from Taupo to Whakapapa, where I started the trek at 7. I arrived at the campsite almost 12 hours later. I don’t recommend anyone doing the same thing, unless you are really fit, which I am not. The only hiking I have done prior to this one, was a short trek in Erawan National Park in Thailand and walking up Mount Eden in Auckland, but they were nowhere near as difficult as the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

 

Looking back at it now though, I don’t regret the decision, because I got to see the highlight of the trek: emerald lakes and the blue lake, as well as the perfectly shaped Ngauruhoe volcano, which served as the stand-in for Mount Doom in the famous Lord Of The Rings Trilogy.

 

If I waited until the next day, I would have seen nothing due to bad weather, and for a LOTR geek like me, that would have been a real bummer. 

The emerald lakes, tongariro northern circuit, tongariro crossing
The emerald lakes
The emerald lakes, tongariro northern circuit, tongariro crossing
Aerial shot of the emerald lakes
The emerald lakes, tongariro northern circuit, tongariro crossing
One of the emerald lakes
The emerald lakes, tongariro northern circuit, tongariro crossing

The second day was rather easy. I only trekked 7 km from Oturere hut to Waihohonu hut. Considering I’d done half of the circuit on the first day I got a well-deserved rest on the second day before tackling the last part of the journey. The weather conditions were still pretty good except gusts of wind, which I sometimes thought are going to blow me off, but luckily there were no steep ridges to climb on, so I felt pretty secure.   

Oturere hut and mount Ngauruhoe
The second day. Oturere hut and mount Ngauruhoe in the background already covered in clouds
Active volcano Ruapehu
Active volcano Ruapehu in the far distance
Mount Ruapehu
Mount Ruapehu
Waihohonu hut
Waihohonu hut

The last day the weather changed completely. It rained from the moment I set off until the moment I got back to the village – 14 km – non stop. I arrived at the visitor center as wet as a drowned rat and I just sat down in one of the chairs inside and stared blankly at the wall for few minutes, tired but proud of myself for completing the first great walk. I truly hope the next ones will be easier. 

Playing spoons with Jack and the people I met on the trek
Playing spoons with Jack and the people I met on the trek

Tips for doing the walk:


  1. If I was to do the walk again I would choose either to do it counterclockwise from Whakapapa village-Oturere hut-Mangatepopo hut-Whakapapa village, or I'd do it clockwise and split it into 4 days.
  2. You can also skip the first part of the trek and take a shuttle or leave your car at Mangatepopo car park. It will cut the trek by 9 km, but hmmm… that’s just cheating
  3. Like on many other great walks, you have to book the huts or campsites on this trek at least few days in advance, as there are limited spaces, and then pray that the weather is going to be good. If you fail to book, you might either end up with no place to sleep or paying double what you would have paid if you booked it ahead. Don’t forget your booking reference number. The wardens of the huts do check them!
  4. There are few off-side treks you can do, like hiking all the way to the top of Tongariro or Ngauruhoe volcanoes. The first one will take extra 2 hours and the second 3 hours, but you will be able to see the volcano craters! I haven’t done it, but I am considering going back there at some point!
  5. Be careful! The Tongariro National park is highly active volcanic area. Check the signs and don’t do anything stupid. In 2012, during the last eruption of Mount Ngauruhoe a lot of people had to be airlifted from the area.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

I am Marta Kulesza - the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.comI come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me somewhere in the mountains. 

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