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Through an eruption zone

Image of the October 2018 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more articles from the
October 2018 Issue

The Tongariro Northern Circuit has it all: mountains, valleys and a diverse, unique volcanic landscape.

Volcanoes, open landscapes, pools of startling colour, lava formations like statues, craters, lakes, delightful copses of beech forest and three comfortable huts.

So, what’s not to like on the Tongariro Northern Circuit?

There is one thing: crowds. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which the Northern Circuit overlaps between Emerald Lakes and the Mangatepopo Hut, is extremely popular. On a good day, you can expect to share the track with hundreds, if not thousands, of others. However, if you’re prepared for that, this 3-4 day Great Walk offers a wonderful tramping experience in the heart of a justly famous World Heritage national park.

1. Whakapapa Village

With accommodation, cafes and a visitor centre, Whakapapa Village offers a logical place to begin and end the Northern Circuit. From Ngauruhoe Place, the track to Taranaki Falls begins – take the upper track, which is shorter and sidles across open landscapes offering views of Ngauruhoe.

2. Taranaki Falls

At a signposted junction, drop your pack for a quick side-trip to view the 20m falls: a horsetail plume tumbling over a lava escarpment.

3. Tama Lakes

From Taranaki Falls, the poled route begins a steady ascent towards Tama Saddle, the low point between Mts Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. Before the saddle, however, is a worthwhile side-trip to view the dazzlingly blue Lower and Upper Tama Lakes, both nestled in old explosion craters.

4. Tama Saddle

From Tama Saddle, the North Island’s highest mountain and volcano presents less the shape of a classic andesitic dome and more the profile of an upturned ship. Beyond, the track enters a wide, open valley – the headwaters of the Waihohonu Stream, which gathers its strength from innumerable gullies on the flanks of both mountains. Lower down, the track passes through some beech copses, one of which shelters the historic Old Waihohonu Hut, built by the Tourist Department in 1903–04.

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5. Waihohonu Hut

The modern Waihohonu Hut, the third of the same name, occupies a terrace with superb views of both volcanoes, a sun-drenched deck, and plenty of living space. It’s a superb design, which absorbs its many visitors well.

6. Oturere Hut and valley

From Waihohonu, the track first crosses Waihohonu Stream, then after a climb over a ridge, crosses another significant creek. Much of the rest of the route crosses exposed ground, around the 1200m contour, with the brooding presence of Mt Ngauruhoe to the north-west, etched by innumerable gullies. Oturere Hut has a good position with views of a nearby waterfall. The walk up Oturere Valley is one of the track’s finest sections, passing through surreal lava formations that seem like sentinels – or perhaps ogres – on either side. The final section to the Emerald Lakes steepens.

7. Emerald Lakes and Red Crater 

Bright blue, turquoise, blue-green, grey-green, just grey… these geothermal lakes change hue according to the weather, and can go from bright to dull with the shadow of a passing cloud. The Emerald Lakes are located at the junction of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, where the ascent beside Red Crater begins. It’s one of the track’s bottlenecks, so requires a degree of patience.

8. South Crater and Mt Ngauruhoe

The 1868m summit above Red Crater marks the track’s highest point and offers extensive views over the three Tongariro volcanoes, Central and North Craters, as well as the more distant Kaimanawa Ranges. A descent over rough scoria slopes leads to the flat expanse of South Crater.

9. Mangatepopo Hut

From the lip of South Crater, the benched track sidles across the base of Mt Ngauruhoe, before zigzagging into the Mangatepopo Valley. Following the lively stream, the track wends between lava formations and hardy subalpine plants to reach Mangatepopo Hut. With suitable transport arranged, you can end the tramp at Mangatepopo Road. Alternatively, continue on to Whakapapa.

10.  Mangatepopo Track

The Mangatepopo Track heads roughly south, around the flanks of Pukekaikiore (1692m) across exposed, open terrain. Ngauruhoe
is usually a large presence, its shape distorted from the close proximity. The track crosses numerous small streams, and can be rutted in places. It joins the lower Taranaki Falls Track about 30 minutes walk from Whakapapa.

Tramper on the Tongariro Northern Circuit with Mt Ngauruhoe beyond. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography
Reader tip:
“Get up early on the day you walk the crossing. By 8am, there will be 300 others joining you on the walk – it felt like being in a city, rather than being out in nature.”
– Sarah Topliff

When to walk

Driest period: January-April (less than 190mm of rain)
Wettest period: May-December (more than 230mm of rain)
Warmest month: January (6.9-17.9°C)
Coldest: July (-0.6-6.8°C)
Quietest period: October, November and April. The number of walkers doubles from November to December, from 500 to 1000, and remains at over 900 walkers a month until April, when numbers dip to 770.

Best time: April
April is a quieter period but still has significantly lower rainfall than winter, and the temperatures aren’t too frosty, typically ranging from 4°C degrees to 13°C degrees at Whakapapa Village.

Temperature and rainfall figures are monthly averages from the Chateau Tongariro weather station. Tramper numbers from DOC data from the 2016/17 season.

Distance
42.9km
Total Ascent
1682m
Grade
Easy
Time
3-4 days
Accom.
Mangatepopo Hut (20 bunks), Oturere Hut (26 bunks), Waihohonu Hut (28 bunks). Campsites.
Access
From Whakapapa Village

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