At the Base of Mt Doom: Great Walk #1

Last week, we hiked the Tongariro Northern Circuit. The night before starting, we woke up in Taupo at Reid’s farm, a free campsite by the river which was full of tents and camper vans of other foreigners. Our hike that day was just 8.5 km, so it wasn’t urgent that we get to the trailhead immediately. We spent the morning drying our tent and wet clothing in the rising sun, the sort of camping maintenance has become ‘old hat’ to us salty hikers. We set up and break down camp in telepathic synchronicity. After everything was sufficiently dry from the rainy night, we shouldered our burdens and climbed the hill to the road.

We hitched a ride from a young French Canadian who, when I told her we were Americans, told us to ‘get out of my car.’ She was joshing, of course, and told us about her seven months on New Zealand in her confused Kiwi/French Canadian accent. She dropped us off on the south side of Taupo, and we made it to Whakapapa village at Tongariro in three more rides with a Kiwi, a Dutch expat, and a visiting Belgium couple, respectively.

We got oriented at the information center in Whakapapa and started hiking to Mangatepopo Hut, our destination for the first night on the trail. The walk was easy for us. We were impressed with the wide, well graded trail–you could drive a wheel chair on most of the path. Behind us as we walked, the snow covered peak of Ruapehu stood atop a mostly barren looking landscape. In front of us Mount Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom, waited for us.

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Mangatepopo Hut sat under Ngauruhoe in a valley on it’s west side. Far to the west we could see some green pastures, but it was the only green to be seen. The area of Tongariro park is a beautiful wasteland. There are patches of hardy plants, but mostly bare earth. We cozied up in our tent early and got pelted with a hail storm that splashed water under our fly and created a stream that flowed under our tent. Our tent held up under the onslaught, and we stayed dry.

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The next day, our hike aligned with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike for maybe 7 km. We found ourselves walking in a thick stream of people who all came out for the day. We lumbered with the crowd until we got to the steep side trail to the peak of Mount Ngauruhoe. Looking up, the majority of the mountain was clouded in. We wanted to bag the peak regardless.

The trail up Ngauruhoe started off as rocky, marked loosely by blue poles. Eventually the rocks thinned out and we were scrambling up a steep sandy cone, graded close to 60 degrees. At the top, we got to look into the crater of an active volcano. That was it, really, as we were socked in by fog. We took a few pictures that didn’t do the thing justice, and headed back down. Going down turned out to be a sliding, stumbling, falling sort of process that filled our shoes with sand. At the bottom, just as the fog parted, we could see clear to the top of the volcano.

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Our trip down the side trail to the peak of Tongariro would prove even more entertaining. This trail was a lot easier. We started at elevation, so we had to just follow a ridge for fifteen minutes. At the peak we took a selfie of us in the fog as a memento, and immediately turned back. That’s when the sky opened up on as and for the second time in two days hail pelted us at the park.

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After that, the rest of the day was spent hiking head down past emerald lakes and volcanic craters, just focused on getting to the next hut, which turned out to filled with a school group of two dozen teens. That sort of day, I guess. We made it up a bit the next day hiking back to the lakes to take in the beautiful landscapes we had missed. We still got caught in the daily afternoon rain, but at least on our last night it let up in time for us to set up our tent.

On our last morning on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, we took the side trail to see the Tama lakes on our way back to Whakapapa. The remarkable thing about most of the water we see in New Zealand is how clean it looks. These lakes were no different, radiant with a dark blue color. Then we booked it to Whakapapa. We were low on food, tired, and leery of the dark clouds creeping towards us over Nauruhoe.

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In Whakapapa, we got a ride out of the park and saw blue skies and green pastures for the first time in four days. We had just missed another dose of heavy rain which, we could see from far away, was only on the park and nowhere else. Fish and chips, and a dry nights sleep awaited us in Taupo. Amen to that.

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