Tongariro Northern Circuit: Emerald Lakes to Whakapapa Village
When people think of beautiful landscapes and stunning scenery, they often think of rolling green hills or mountains reflected on lakes. But sometimes there can be something just as mesmerising as a stark and rocky landscape. Tongariro National Park in New Zealand’s North Island is a volcanic and geological wonderland, and it is such a contrast to what I’m used to living in the South Island. After several hours spent hiking past the dramatic peak of Mt Ngauruhoe, and climbing over the ridge of Mt Tongariro and Red Crater to descend past Emerald Lakes, I found myself at the top of a steep descent with an expansive lava field below me. To my side, steaming vents blew puffs of smoke out of the ground and as far as I could see, the ridges of lahars and the rocks from volcanic explosions littered the landscape. Here I was, leaving the crowds of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing behind and entering the wild emptiness of Middle Earth’s Mordor.
The swirling dark clouds over the blackened landscape created a dark and gloomy view, but the sun intermittently sparkled through the ever changing cloud base. It was a quick descent from 1700m (5577ft) down to roughly 1460m (4790ft), following the poles with orange arrow that mark out a route. Whilst the upper altitude gave a good overview for location reference, it became clear as I dropped lower that it could be very easy to get lost amongst the undulating rocky piles that littered the landscape everywhere. Whilst the peaks of Red Crater and Mt Nguaruhoe stood distinctively behind me, the rest of the lower slopes was like a rabbit warren. Initially there was some yellows and reds to the rocks around me, but the lower I got, the more the landscape darkened to the ashy black. The path was well trodden, and sprouts of vegetation poked up from the sandy substrate.
I naively thought once I was on the valley floor that it wouldn’t be long until I reached my hut for the night, but in fact this section of the walk felt like it went on forever. It had been many hours since I’d left Mangatepopo Hut behind, and I was getting tired. But there was so much to look at. There was evidence of rocks from a historical river bed, as well as so many formations of different rock types, created by a mix of setting lava flows, lahars, and rocks deposited by explosive force. To my left a tall ridgeline slowly dropped down, and behind me I regularly looked back to see Mt Nguaruhoe and Red Crater. The plant life around me was typical of an alpine landscape, with low shrubs and occasional flowers. The closer I got to the Oturere Hut, my bed for the night, the more it even felt a little like sand dunes, such was the dusty ground of ash.
Even though I knew State Highway (SH) 1 was out of sight in the distance, I felt a million miles away from anywhere, having not seen another soul since I’d taken the turn-off for the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Finally the Oturere Hut (1360m/4462ft) came into view, nestled near a drop in the landscape, and I was relieved to take my backpack off. This was another small hut for what I was expecting. Some of the hikers that I’d shared the hut with the previous night, had opted to push on to the next hut, but even still with hikers walking the trail in both directions, it was booked out for the night, and several people were camping outside.
I was told about a waterfall not far from the hut, so walked to the edge of the drop, and followed the worn path down towards it. The Oturere falls are a multi-tiered waterfall that spills down the mountainside, having come from the ridgeline I’d just climbed down from. It was peaceful here, and I walked slightly up stream from the falls to get a varying view of the Oturere Stream and the river valley below. Some other hikers had taken a dip here but I wasn’t brave enough to get in the cold water. Back at the hut, I wandered around the immediate vicinity inspecting plants and watching the rain move in over Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, before heading back to the hut. Shortly after, the heavens opened and the rain moved in. I was so glad I wasn’t camping as it rained a good part of the night.
The next day’s hike was a short one. It is easily possible to hike back to Whakapapa Village from Oturere Hut in one day, and a few of my fellow hikers were doing so. I and a few others, had decided to follow the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) suggestion of walking the circuit in 4 days. So with the DOC signage showing the next hut was only 3hrs away, I didn’t hurry myself in the morning to get going. Many people set off ahead of me, and I took one last look at the waterfall before heading off myself. It remained dry but was overcast. The hike effectively cuts up and down the old lahar ridges that mark a historical volcanic eruption. Nearest the hut there were lots of large and jagged rocks, but as the time wore on, these grew few and far between.
Again I mused how easy it would be to get lost if the path was left behind, although I knew SH1 was getting closer as I walked, and indeed on the lahar ridges, I could just about make out the odd truck ploughing the road in the far distance. It takes a hardy plant to live in these conditions, and it was a constantly changing patchwork between the rocks and alpine plants, and the loose ash scree between them. On the third lahar ridge, the path changed course and trees were suddenly in front of me. It was strange seeing such tall vegetation when the rest of the hike so far had only had the stunted alpine flowers and bushes. The path led right up to the trees then dropped down within them to a broad and fast-moving stream in a shallow valley. This was more like the South Island hiking I was used to, and at the bridge to cross over, I met some hikers heading in the other direction.
Once over the stream, the path climbed back up the slope within the forest. My legs were a little tired from the previous day’s hike so they grumbled a bit as I regained the lost altitude. Eventually breaking out of the tree line again I could see Mt Ruapehu peaking through a gap in the cloud. Some of the landscape that I could see contained the track I would follow the next day, but for now I was winding past more alpine bushes and round the corner I could already see Waihohonu hut, my bed for the night. Climbing down through the trees once more, I crossed over another mountain stream and found myself at the hut (1120m/3674ft).
This more modern hut was huge compared to the previous two huts, and with many hikers in both directions combining two days of hiking, there were much less people staying here, making it seem even more spacious. There were several familiar faces already there and arriving after me, and several of us had been chatting multiple times over the 3 days, and had got to know each other a little. The Great Walks of New Zealand are a mecca for tourists as much, if not more so than Kiwis, so there was a veritable collection of nationalities amongst us, with a range in age also that made for some interesting life stories. While often these are people that come into your life for only a few hours or a few days, they are people that have shared an adventure with you and some of my memories from this hike revolve around the hilarity and stories that were traded between us.
On the morning of day 4, I was one of the last to leave the hut. Many of the others had a long drive ahead of them or a bus to catch so were keen to get going. It was another grey day, and although I had a bit of driving to do myself that afternoon, I knew I wanted to explore the side tracks on this day’s trail. Close to the hut is the turn-off for another multi-day hike, the Round the Mountain track that circuits the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu. One of the hikers with me on the Northern Circuit had completed that hike recently and after she talked about it, my appetite was whetted to hike it on another occasion. I left my backpack at the junction and followed the Round the Mountain track for 20mins to reach Ohinepango Springs. On route I had a view over the eastern plains that spans the area between the Tongariro volcanoes and the Kaimanawa Mountain Range. Not too far away, SH 1 paves a route through here, where it is known as the Desert Road because of the apparently barren and ‘sandy’ landscape. From where I was standing though, there was plenty of vegetation everywhere I looked.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the Ohinepango Springs were not overly exciting. It was effectively a fast-flowing river coming away from a pool of water that had a slight bluish tinge to it. Probably on a sunny day they look more spectacular, but had it not been for spotting a whio (blue duck) which are rare and endangered, I would have been a bit annoyed with wasting my time. As it was, I enjoyed watching the little duck swimming around and got excited when he made his distinctive whistling sound. The whio are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world, and it is estimated their numbers are under 3000. They only live around exceptionally clean water, so whilst their presence is a good indicator of the health of a waterway, it is the contamination of waterways and more so the predation from introduced species that have played major parts in their decline.
Returning to my backpack, from where I could see the clouds roll over the Kaimanawa Ranges, it was only about a 10min walk to the next turn-off for the historic Waihohonu Hut. Painted in bright red, it was a remnant from a bygone era where men and women were separated for sleeping. It is open to have a nosey around, and it is littered in etchings from past occupants, as well as a few artifacts to look at. Built in 1904, it remained in use until the 60s and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. It is now managed by the Tongariro National Historic Society. By the time I had returned to the Tongariro Northern Circuit, an hour had passed since I’d left the newer Waihohonu hut behind, and I still had quite a bit of ground to cover. It was time to push onwards to Whakapapa Village.
The landscape was a mix of bare exposed ground with the odd plant or areas completely covered with alpine plants. The mountains I’d hiked over two days prior were shrouded in cloud as I walked towards a river bank. There was some incredible erosive patterns in the banks nearby and shortly after leaving the river out of sight, a section of boardwalk crossed a rather marshy zone. Although there were mountains flanking the valley either side of me, the valley itself felt open and expansive. It was some time before I caught sight of the depression in the ground that was hiding one of two lakes near the trail. But even then, there was a bit of dropping and climbing and circling before the turn-off to the two Tama Lakes was reached.
As the lakes are a little over 2hrs away from Whakapapa Village, this was a popular walk for visitors from there, and so suddenly there were other people about after I’d spent all morning on my own. I left my backpack at the junction and took only my water sack and snacks with me to go to the lookouts. It is only a short walk to the lower Tama lake viewpoint, and as I walked there I met a couple of hikers who’d stayed with me at Waihohonu hut and were on their way back from the lakes. The lower lake filled a small portion of the crater that it sat in, and it was only later after reading a book about the National Park that I discovered that the whole crater would have once been filled with water, but that part of it had filled in with sediment, and eventually so would the rest of it. There was a couple of viewing areas around the 1335m (4380ft) plateau, but although many people went no further, I was keen to head up to the higher viewing area to see the upper Tama lake too.
It was a good climb up to the higher viewing area at 1440m (4724ft). The upper Tama lake sits below the southern flank of Mt Nguaruhoe who’s summit remained under wraps the whole day. Under the grey sky the water took on a steely grey colour, and far below, the lower Tama lake looked more blue. Behind the lower lake, Mt Ruapehu also remained shrouded in cloud. It was an enjoyable spot to take a break, and the vista was impressive despite the lack of sunshine. To the west, the landscape rolled in hillocks towards Whakapapa village and beyond. I took my time absorbing the view as I retraced my steps back down the hillside and back towards the Tongariro Northern circuit.
The track cut a snaking path up and down through the rolling landscape as it cut across the valley to the west. There were plenty of people coming in the other direction, many of whom seemed dismayed with my answer when they asked how far they still had to go to reach the lakes. Eventually I saw some buildings in the distance which meant the village was within reach and a short while later I came to a track junction. Both paths led to the village, one directly, and the other cut down past a waterfall to join the track that I had left the village from 3 days prior. This junction was at the top of a large rocky drop where the Taranaki falls tumbled over the cliff. I left my backpack once more and climbed down the steps to the bottom where I soon came face to face with the waterfall. There were so many people here as I acknowledged my return to civilisation. It was a beautiful waterfall and well worth seeing. Even the cliffs were interesting to look at.
I climbed back up the stairs to retrieve my backpack and continued on above the falls, crossing the stream and negotiating the ridges of a historic lava flow. The DOC sign had stated an hour from the falls to the village, but it wasn’t even that long, and as I looked out over the vegetation for the last time, I suddenly found myself coming out at the car park by the hotel at the end of the road. Then it was just the trudge back to my car and the final removal of my backpack. Like the Kepler Track which I hiked a few years ago, the Tongariro Northern Circuit definitely peaks in terms of views on day 2, but I still enjoyed exploring the volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park, circuiting between the impressive volcanic summits of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Nguaruhoe and Mt Tongariro. Despite the crowds in some parts, this geological wonderland is most definitely worth exploring.