The Tongariro Circuit is not a path well travelled, not when you compare it with the Crossing which is the more popular track for tourists and NZers alike. I realised this when I had to explain that the Circuit is a 4-day 43 km hike to several people, not the 1-day 19 km trek they were familiar with. People were mortified when I explained that we were doing the Circuit, and screwed their faces up at the thought of 4 of us “being squashed up with the cast of thousands” in the Department of Conservation (DOC) huts on each of the three nights, and even worse...with no shower facilities or warm water. Although, to be fair my response was quite similar except I peppered that with lots of shrieking.
But I digress. I had other things to worry about, like my lack of fitness for this type of endurance for one thing. I didn’t want to be the one who slowed everyone else down, so I booked myself in with an amazing personal trainer Joanne Pearce of JOFIT, to help me build up my strength and stamina. Let me tell you, this is not my comfort zone at all and it was hard slogging it out at the gym but I got there in the end.
We booked our three nights at the DOC huts in advance, so were able to plot out how far we had to hike between each point on any given day, deciding to follow the recommended route and section given this was our first multi-day hike for any of us.
We packed all our essential kit ie pots, pans, plates, food, drinks, suncream etc into our brand new 35L hiking backpacks, along with our rain gear and hiking boots - then headed off to beat the Waitangi weekend traffic.
Day 1 - Whakapapa Village to Mangetepopo Hut: 3 hours, 8.5km
The four of us assembled ourselves at the Whakapapa village (pronounced: Fah-car-papa) and set off in great spirits. The first section was primarily flat-ish, albeit very muddy and boggy. For some reason, we found navigating the mini stream crossings a bit amusing, likely due to the expectation that we would trip and fall in the water (we didn't). This first bit of the hike wasn’t overly challenging and throughout that first day, we marvelled at the majestic scene that is Mount Taranaki (pronounced: Tah-rah-nah-key). It was overall an enjoyable yet still tiring walk that day. The biggest challenge was the weight of the bags as we were carrying up to 18kgs each. I found this particularly difficult. I tried to keep the whining to a minimum, but over the next few days I found that I got used to carrying the weight and therefore the whining waned.
About three hours or more after trekking through the valleys and taking in a quick lunch stop to refuel, the Mangetopopo Hut was a welcome haven. If you’re only used to extravagant five-star hotels, then this will be a huge eye-opener for you, but all part of the experience. You’ll find that after a day of hiking one can’t complain because even with its basic facilities and the size or slight lack thereof, it will indeed shelter you from the raw elements of NZ’s often unforgiving weather.
We claimed our bunk beds for the night (in a side room off the main bunk room and kitchen/seating area), and prepared our chef’s special for the night, a-la-freeze-dried cuisine. Good tucker that was, and we settled in to relax and take in the last of the day’s sun. And what a visual feast that was. Mount Ngauruhoe or Mount Doom as it is now more commonly known amongst Lord of the Rings (LOTR) fans around the world, is just stunning and we marvelled yet again at the beauty of this gorgeous country we call home.
Day 2 - Mangetepopo Hut to Otuerere Hut: 5 - 7 hours, 12.8km
Although we were up and ready very early on Day 2, we still seemed to be the last to leave the hut, we put this down to the other Brit-Kiwi’s amazing ability to faff (ahh, hard life).
We’d been forewarned that the second day of this trek is the hardest, and as much as I was hoping this was a joke...it was not. We kicked off on the boardwalk, which made for pleasant walking. As this section is a popular route for the Tongariro Crossing day hikes, there were scores of hikers on this path - and this contrasted quite starkly with the previous day where we saw nobody, except for the dozen or so at the hut.
And then we came to the steps, of which there were thousands (possibly an exaggeration, but near enough). They don’t call it the devil’s staircase for nothing!! I’m not going to lie, I had to stop regularly to catch my breath - as did many other people. It is tough yakka, and there may have been a few tears. I thought back to my Personal Trainer Jo telling me to push myself further, and I just had no idea how much building that mental toughness was going to mean to me, and I regretted swearing at her. The physical aspect is crucial, but it’s the inner conversation you have in your head that is the make or break of pushing you over that line. I had a new appreciation for what athletes must go through. I couldn’t imagine having to constantly reach so deep inside my head to take that extra step forward.
The terrain we had to walk through is rugged and stony, like you might expect to see on the moon. I sighed in relief when I thought I’d reached the top, but then I looked up and with a sinking feeling realised there was even further to go. It was insane! It was the steepest bit of this climb, and there was loose gravel so we held onto the chains to avoid taking a tumble.
We were elated when we finally reached the top. Mount Ngauruhoe stood in all its beautiful glory and the view of the stunning emerald lakes with their vibrant rich blue and green hues was sight that made it all worthwhile. The surrealness of being in a spot we’d seen countless photographs of was mind-boggling.
We opted out of hiking for a further few hours to summit the mountain. We still had the remaining hours of trekking with our heavy backpacks to the Outuerere Hut, so we embarked on our descent, careful to take each step down with care as it is easy to take a tumble, which I nearly did several times - but not bad for someone of a clumsy nature. A few crazy cats ran helter-skelter down the slope, perhaps they thought the faster they went, the less likelihood they had of falling down. I don’t see the logic in that but fair play to them, they seemed to get down in one piece.
We stopped for lunch by the emerald lakes. We were physically tired but the magnificence of the picturesque lakeside setting even more spectacular. With the “worst bit” behind us we ventured off and took the Circuit path to the right, with the Crossing path of the one-dayers to the left.
Thank goodness we had our walking poles. I’d balked against purchasing these, but without them, we’d have taken hours longer to navigate our way down the steep inclines.
The next bit ahead was fairly flattish terrain, but it seemed to go on forever. We did, however, have a bit of entertainment along the way, with our two Brit companions acting out LOTR scenes which they loved. Unfortunately, this was lost on me because I’m rather ashamed to say, given I am now a true blue Kiwi resident, I have never watched any of the LOTR movies. The other Brit-Kiwi kept trying to pull our little group along and kept up the morale by telling us that the hut we were dying to reach was “just over the next ridge”. Imagine our disappointment each time we reached each ridge only to find out he was lying. But I can tell you that when we finally spotted the roof there was a lot of whooping and hollering going down!
No doubt if you’ve clicked on this blog, then you may have done a bit of hiking yourself so you’ll have felt the same euphoria that enveloped us as we took off our boots and sat down for ten minutes. Trekking all day really does help you to appreciate the little things in life.
This hut was a lot smaller than the first one, and the majority of the bunk beds were in the main kitchen/seating area. We spent some time comparing notes with the other hikers and deftly prepared our cuisine du jour, pasta in a packet before falling down gratefully into our beds. We were pleased that we were halfway through the trek, and thus it was a sound sleep for all of us after a hard day out on the stones.
Day 3 - Otuerere Hut to Waihohonu Hut: 3 hours, 7.5km
The next day was a much easier trek, anything would be compared with the previous day, but it was also a shorter day for us in terms of distance and time. We were keen to reach the third hut, particularly after hearing that it was the swankiest of the three.
We trekked through a very diverse landscape, ranging from desert-like areas and then several forests that were lush and green including one that had a steep incline that we were not expecting, and then our hut was just yonder.
The Waihohonu Hut was colossal and modern. There were separate bedrooms on each side of the cavernous dining area. We could understand why we were told it was the swankiest of the huts. After claiming our beds, we headed off to the local stream to cool off. It was a scorcher of a day, and we were sweltering in the heat. The stream was connected to a spring and the water was clear but freezing. We loved it!
Given it was our last night of the trek, we decided to pull out the big guns prepared our cuisine du jour - Riz a-la-packet (rice from a packet), finished off with a mug of hot chocolate...mmmmmm!
Day 4 - Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village: 5 hours, 14.3km
I had a cold beer and hot shower calling my name, so I was motivated to get us moving quickly because it was going to be a long day with just over 14kms to cover. We had to drive back to Auckland directly after completing the hike, so we made sure we were up and ready to go before the crack of dawn. We wanted to cover a good amount of distance before the sun rose and roasted us with its hot rays, because that would make it much harder to hike.
I led the cavalry on this last leg of the trek and we had a good pace going. By the time we reached the Taranaki falls, a short distance from Whakapapa Village and the end of our Circuit, we were happy to stop and reflect on what we’d achieved while taking in the sumptuous scenery before us. We still had another 40 minutes to go, but that last little bit felt like hours. We knew we were so close to the end, yet our legs wanted to give up. We had to reach deep down from within to muster up enough energy to get ourselves over the line.
You know, never in my life would I have imagined that I would be so happy to see our car, but indeed I was. We all were. Even more so than we were to see the huts at each point. We stripped off our boots and outer layers then sat down on the concrete for fifteen minutes before embarking on our journey home.
When we considered that we were all complete novices at multi-day treks, we were very proud of we had achieved - 43 kms, 4 days, 3 huts and no injuries (besides the blisters). It was by far the most physically challenging thing I have ever contemplated and I aced it. I’m already planning our next one, there’s no stopping me now!