Mount Ruapehu and the Tongariro Northern Circuit
The maiden mountain of Pihanga was much admired by the warrior mountains Putauaki, Tauhara, Tongariro and Taranaki. The warriors fought for her hand in a great and fiery battle, until Tongariro was victorious. Defeated, in the hours of darkness, the other mountains retreated, leaving Tongariro and Pihanga to look upon each other forever. Putauaki and Tauhara fled north until the morning sun froze them in their place. Taranaki headed south, carving a trail behind him (which later filled with water to become the Wanganui river), before he turned west, becoming frozen near the west coast. Although the exact details vary a little from storyteller to storyteller, the Maori legends about the volcanic landscape of the Tongariro Volcanic Centre in New Zealand’s north island provide an intriguing alternate history to the fiery geology of the region. Since moving to New Zealand, I have discovered a previously unknown love for geology. From the fault lines in the Southern Alps, to the volcanic centre in the north island, there is a fascinating insight here into how the Earth’s crust changes and adapts over millennia.
I awoke on my 34th birthday to discover that Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe were hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds. I was to be starting the Tongariro Northern Circuit that day, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, a collection of 9 walks throughout the country that are well maintained and cover a diverse range of scenery. For just over 43km, this walk is one of only 3 loop tracks within the 9 walks. I have previously walked the Kepler Track, and like that hike, although I chose to walk it in 4 days as laid out on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, it could easily be walked in less. This particular hike incorporates the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the country’s most popular day walk, and whilst it can be started at varying access points, the walk effectively cuts between the volcanic mountains of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Tongariro, traversing across old lahar fields and debris spilled out historically from previous eruptions. This hike couldn’t be more different from the south island if it tried.
After breakfast at the Station cafe in National Park village, I had a short drive to the nearby Whakapapa village where I was to start the hike. On the drive over, the local radio station was reporting beautiful sunshine on nearby Mt Ruapehu, but with nothing but low cloud for company, I didn’t really pay it any attention. The village is a collection of accommodations, including the large, grand and well known Chateau Tongariro which greets you as you enter the village. There are lots of walks that head off from here, and a decent sized visitor centre which incorporates a DOC information office is on the main road. I parked up here, and inside found a reasonable exhibition display about the geology and eruption history of the region. I had a wander around, logged in my intentions to set off hiking, and then overheard that despite the cloud hugging the lower land, the ski centre up Mt Ruapehu was definitely above the cloud and basking in the March sunshine. With just a 3-hr hike to reach my first hut, I decided that there was plenty of time to explore the area before setting off on the hike.
So I jumped back in my car and followed the road out the back of the village, climbing higher and higher until suddenly the cloud broke away and I was in another world. A sound of excitement escaped my mouth involuntarily as I continued to drive up and through a rolling scene of black boulders, crust and apparently barren rock face. Behind it all, the dramatic peaks of the summit of Mt Ruapehu jutted up against the blue sky and white patches of snow sparkled in the sunshine. It was a little like Iceland all over again, but yet different, and I was giddy with excitement. At roughly 1600m (5249ft) altitude, there was a chill in the air, so after putting on some layers, I grabbed my camera and headed straight to the ticket office to get a chairlift pass up the mountain. Heading up the first chairlift, the distinctive cone summit of neighbouring Mt Ngauruhoe (familiar to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) poked up above the cloud base. Taking me up to roughly 1750m (5741ft) altitude, I swiftly headed to the upper chairlift and continued to grin widely as I headed up to the Knoll Ridge cafe at roughly 2000m (6561ft).
The view back down the mountainside was incredible thanks to the low cloud hugging the land beyond in every direction. The pinnacle ridge of Mt Ruapehu stood dramatically to the side, and everywhere I looked there were rocks and boulders of varying sizes. There was little to no vegetation and it felt wild and foreign. After taking a nosey at the map of the upper slope in the cafe, I realised there were some options for walking up here. The going was rough, uneven and even unsteady in places, but suddenly there was a mountain peak to explore and there was no stopping me. Early on I realised the error of my ways: having not expected to be hiking yet, I had come up the chairlift with no water and no sunscreen and as the exertion level increased, I found myself stripping off layer after layer of clothing, whilst also being paranoid about burning my face. Following first a well worn path, and then a series of poles up the rocky slope, I climbed a further 200m (656ft) to reach the ridgeline of Pinnacle Ridge.
The view from here was phenomenal. The cloud continued to hug most of the western land, but Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro behind it, stood tall and proud above the cloud and as I moved around the pinnacles, the line of view was in places broken by the vertical statues of rock that jutted up from the side of the mountain. Whilst I wasn’t purposefully looking for movie locations, I had been made aware that this too was used in the Lord of the Ring movies, and with all the barren volcanic rocky landscape here, I can see why it made a good set for Mordor.
I hung out here for a while, in no hurry to leave. It got a little cold and I had to put all my layers back on, but otherwise it was glorious. I looked longingly up at the continuing pathway that headed up to the true summit of Mt Ruapehu. The volcano has a composite summit, made up of lots of peaks of similar altitudes separated by glacial deposits, a plateau and a crater lake which is the source location for the volcano’s eruptions. Following this hike, I sourced a fascinating book, A Volcanic Guide to Tongariro National Park, which gives a lot of information about the formation and activity of the volcanoes in the region. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before my trip because I didn’t appreciate what I was standing on or what I was looking at at the time.
I yearned to keep going, and probably there were enough hours in the day to do so, but I had no food or water with me, and no sun protection (never mind my other usual hiking staples of a first aid kit and survival gear), and I knew deep down that to continue without these things would be a rather stupid thing to do. On such a fine day, I probably would have been okay, but I know enough to be aware how fickle the weather in the mountains can be, how much the clouds can change out of nowhere, and there was snow up there which added a whole other hazard. With a top altitude of 2797m (9176ft), it would have been a fantastic summit to tick off, but I had enough common sense to know I should leave it for another day. After accepting my decision, I retraced my steps back down to the cafe and sat outside for awhile, realising that the clouds were starting to retract a little down below. Perhaps the day’s hike wouldn’t be too bad after all. On the chairlift rides back down, I stared out at the black rocky landscape and watched as Mt Ngauruhoe popped back into view, still with the clouds swirling dramatically at its base.
After an unintentionally hair-raising drive back down to Whakapapa village, I kitted up, checked all my hiking gear and set off on day 1 of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. My destination was the Mangatepopo Hut, 9.4km (6miles) from the start at the edge of the village. Cutting down Ngauruhoe Place behind the Chateau Tongariro, I reached the first of two access points to the Taranaki Falls track. I was reminded a little of the vast heather moors of Scotland as I traversed the tussock and bushy vegetation. The cloud by now was indeed dispersing and I had the constant companion of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro for company almost dead ahead. The larger snow-speckled peak of Mt Ruapehu remained behind me, and then the path dipped briefly into some trees where the route to the hut split off from the track to the falls. Remaining within the trees for a short while, it crossed a couple of streams before emerging out the other side of the woods, and from then onwards, was completely exposed.
By now, it was well into the afternoon. I assumed most of the hikers would have set off ahead of me, but there was the odd other hiker also setting off as late as me, and I was overtaken by a few as I stopped often to take photographs. The path quality was rough and uneven considering it is a Great Walk (although my only comparison is the Kepler Track), and it undulated up and down over hillocks and dry river valleys for kilometre after kilometre. At times there were boardwalks, and at other times, boulders to walk over, and in almost every direction there were volcanoes to look at. With the ever changing shape of them as I moved across the landscape, it was hard not to take photographs every few hundred yards. I was exceedingly snap happy, and I hadn’t even reached the true volcanic landscape yet.
Eventually though, Mt Ngauruhoe started to disappear behind the hulk of Pukekaikiore, and Mt Ruapehu was by now looking distant behind me. Negotiating some steps, and coming level with the mound of Pukeonake to my left, the track started to curl a little and I knew I was getting close. Finally I spotted the hut in the far distance and a little later I found myself at the junction with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The clouds had reappeared a little around the summits as I reached the turn off for the hut, and I found myself shortly after at a packed hut. Working on a booking system in the summer months, these huts book up far in advance in the peak season. With a camping area immediately outside, there were people milling around everywhere. It was a struggle to find space to put my backpack once I’d found a free mattress to stick my sleeping bag on. After a snack, I sat outside to survey my kingdom, and over the course of the next few hours as the sun lowered, and the clouds moved around and away, we were treated to a spectacular view of an incredible volcanic landscape.
There was so much chatter in the hut. It turned out that several of those hikers who had arrived early, had been encouraged to continue on to the Alpine Crossing that day as the following day was to be poor weather with potentially poor visibility. Having seen the clouds leave whilst I was up Mt Ruapehu, I could see how this would have been a stunning day to walk the famous track. I was gutted to hear the weather report for the following day, but at the same time, had had such an incredible morning up Mt Ruapehu that it was hard to regret my choice. I could only hope that the weather man got it wrong, and as darkness fell, I like everyone else in the hut, retreated to my sleeping bag in order to get some sleep ahead of the big hike on day 2 of the circuit. Finally on my third attempt, I would be hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day, come hell or high water…