This will be a multi-part post on my 4 Day Tongariro Northern Circuit Tramp.
On Saturday morning, I laid in my bed excited and anxious about the day ahead of me. The sun had not yet risen, and the night before, I spent a lot of time getting my pack just right. I was a bit nervous I was taking too much stuff, but I was able to handle the pack well, and last moment, decided to take my full-frame camera to take pictures with. This meant a second bag and having an over-the-shoulder camera bag, I decided I will wear it in front of me for easy access.
My dog was snuggling up to me, and my husband slept softly next to me. It was 6:15 and I had to get going. I get up, and shower, the last one for 4 days, and I quietly get ready. Bag, Shoes, Socks, a second pair of socks, battery pack, walking sticks, camera…. Yup… I am ready. The car is packed up and I head off to the store. It opens at 7am, and I am feeling a little sheepish being the person who is almost waiting for the place to open. I grab some sausage from the hot food area for breakfast, and I start to head down south.
Setting out from Whakapapa Village
The drive from Auckland to Tongariro is 4.5 hours, and the drive was beautiful. Clear skies greeted me for most of the drive down, and after hitting Waitomo Caves, I have started to reach areas of New Zealand I haven’t yet visited. The rolling hills and valleys laid out before me as I eventually entered Kings Country, the central region of the North Island. My car climbed in elevation as I was reaching the central plateau where Tongariro stood. Clouds started to come in and blanket the area, but undeterred, I continued on. Listening to my Tramping playlist, I am getting myself into hiking mode. Finally, after a couple of stops, I had to pick up a blister pack just in case, I see Whakapapa Village, which is basically the entry/exit point of the park for this area. In front of me is the Chateau Tongariro, a large hotel with Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Ruapehu bracketed behind it. It immediately made me think of McMichael Hall from my Alma Mater, combined with the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. It has the same grand, stark, and slightly ominous feeling to it.
I suddenly realise that the place is very crowded. Cars, lining up and down the road as I approach the visitor’s centre. People walking with numbers on their back.. there is a race going on today…. Dang it, I should have checked for that.
I make my way to where a man is pulling out of a 60-minute parking spot. I [ull into the spot so that I can at least check in and get my bearings.
The Visitor centre has a nice exhibit of the region and feels very much like any visitor centre you have been to at a National Park. After speaking to the people at the front desk, I am signed in, and given the race, being allocated a special parking pass so that I do not need to move my car.
Mt. Ruapehu as Clouds begin to roll in
Meanwhile, two other trampers, siblings from Auckland are also signing in. The younger of the two is only 18, and his older sister, around 25 or so is leading the charge on the logistics of the walk. We find out we will travel all four days together, so I bid them farewell for the moment, and tell them I will meet them at the Hut. Secretly I am glad that I am at least talking to people, and that If I get out before them, they can help me out if I run into trouble. preparations. I load up my bag, a heavy 15-20kgs worth, and I set off.
The first day of the Northern Circuit is relatively short at 3 hours. As you make your way away from the village, and across the western part of the circuit. Since I was starting the Trail, during the aforementioned race, this meant that for the first couple of kms I was fighting against a steady stream of worn out runners on the track. Soon, there was a turnoff to the Mangatepopo Hut and I was off on my own.
Once I made the turnoff, I climbed out of the forest and entered what would become a familiar sight. The land here is broken by many dry streambeds, and gives the appearance of a volcanic alpine field… which is exactly what you expect. In many ways, It reminds me of parts of Iceland, with the same short, squat bushes, and hardy plant life.
A Storms a-comin’!
The weather was overcast, and in the distance, some darker clouds were rolling in, and to my right, you could see Mt. Ngauruhoe covered in dense clouds. This section is only a three-hour hike, and I was making a good time, with occasional stops to take photos or watch the weather. Rain threatened fall a few times before deciding to finally give me a light shower. Thunder rolled distantly as I wondered how conductive was I with two metal walking sticks.
The skies were getting progressively darker, and I while I love thunderstorms, being stuck in one on my first day was not what I had in mind. So, I picked up my pace a bit and started looking for the hut.
And finally, I turn a corner and see the small building off in the distance. A grin came to my face, with the rain stopping, starting, and stopping again, I rolled into the Mangatepopo Hut in just under 3 hours. The place was already full, with people who were doing the Northern Circuit in the opposite direction as I was arriving earlier in the day, and a large family of 15 going in the same direction I was going.
I set my stuff down and go looking for a place to put up my tent. Finding a spot, I start to set up my tent, and rain begins to fall. It is still a sprinkle, but the clouds portend worse weather. Luckily, a few other hikers came in to help. Naomi from Germany, Gabriel from the US, and Emma from New Zealand, all pitched in and my tent was up in no time. Soon, we were all safely in the hut as the storm rolled over us. Behind us, Mt. Ngauruhoe sat blanketed in deep clouds, and Tongariro would peak out between storms.
Storms heading off
We had our hut talk, which is basically the health and safety information in case of fire, earthquake… or eruption, and through that talk, we all introduced ourselves. The family of 15 were from Hamilton, and they do a Great Walk every year. They were definitely the ones commanding the hut. Then there were people from the US, (A Guy from Wisconsin, and a Physiotherapist from New Jersey), an older couple from the Czech Republic, a German and Russian Couple, a fellow from Tonga, and a few others, including myself, the Auckland Siblings, and other kiwis who had come in about a half hour or so after me. The hut Wardens who were in attendance were surprised at the large Kiwi family, but otherwise, the composition of the group seemed typical: people traveling to New Zealand for adventure and tramping. Many people I spoke to were on months-long holidays, and in Wisconsin’s case, he had been traveling for 5 years. There was definitely a tinge of jealousy when I heard that.
Around the talk, everyone was preparing and eating their dinners. I pulled out my first dinner; Beef Teriyaki, and it was surprisingly good. The food being surprisingly good would be a running theme throughout the trip, and it wasn’t just me who thought so. Credit must be given to the New Zealand companies that make this food, almost to a person were impressed with them.
Mt. Ngauruhoe the night before
The night was setting in, and I made my way to my tent. The clouds were starting to roll away, and I got some good views of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. The weather report called for early clouds on the mountain but leading to a fine day with afternoon thunderstorms. Our wardens gave us the heads up to leave early, to first beat the crowds, but more importantly, beat the heat.
With that on my mind, I headed to my tent and settled down for the night.
That is until around 1:30 in the morning.
Of course insomnia hits. Being excited and anxious, I initially only got 4 hours of sleep, and here I was… awake. The wind had died, and I opened my tent to see the vanishing waxing Gibbous moon. The stars were still fairly washed out by the light, but I could see Orion upside down fighting the ground. Off to the east, where it was darker, I could see the Milky Way starting to come out.
But dang, it was cold. Despite having on some thermal pants and shirt, I found myself quite cold. So a quick trip to the bathroom, and back. I tried to settle back into sleep. Around 3am, I found myself still awake, with thoughts running through my mind. I decided to get out again, knowing the moon had now fully set, and its light out of the way. And there, I saw an incredible site. Having been in Rarotonga a couple of weeks before. I had seen a multitude of stars. But I was still stuck by the tyranny of light pollution, even on that small island. That was not the case that evening. With nothing for miles around us, the Milky Way became their own clouds, and the stars blazed and twinkled with a determined fierceness. I couldn’t even compare the sky to my midwestern days, or the nights in Pauanui… light pollution always tinged the sky in some way.
I found myself just staring up at the sky as I did as a child, finding the constellations I knew, and wondering about the others I have yet to learn. Even the constellations I did know had so many more stars than I was used to, it was one of those moments you feel so small and tiny, and feel the vastness of the universe, even though you can only see your own neighborhood.
The weather still being cold, I got back into my tent and wrapped myself up. A few minutes later, I nodded asleep. I had a big day ahead of me tomorrow, and I needed to be ready. Maybe 5-6 hours of sleep is enough.