A start with a blast
20 September 2022
Gary maps the Tongariro Northern Circuit on the Central Plateau and is fascinated by this multi-day Great Walk, one like no other premier tramping experience.
Story Gary Patterson Photos Gary Patterson or as credited
My volcanic great walk starts with an alarming loud blast. It all happened a few days ago when I was mapping the Tongariro Northern Circuit for a free app I am creating for the NZ Great Walks. On this trip, the three handheld GPS units that normally sit on my bike’s handlebars are literally handhelds being cupped in my palms. Walking with this handful makes me look like an exercise nut striding along with walkers’ weights. However, I am not in the outdoors for fitness or play. My task is to walk the loop track anti-clockwise over a shorter (but long) two days and collect as much data as I can for the app.
It’s nearing the end of spring and I reach the track early. Leaving from the carpark behind the Chateau Tongariro Hotel the air is brisk; in part due to being up in the sub-alpine altitudes and in part from the fresh overnight snow that blankets the surrounding peaks. The weather forecast is perfect and my new Earth Sea Sky gear will keep me warm in this extreme environment – no other NZ Great Walk has the entire track above a kilometre high. A short walk leads me into a hollow in the track, then … BOOM! The sound of a sonic blast startles me. If it was not for a treeless landscape every bird would have fled skyward. I expect to see a dark column of volcanic smoke rising so I pick up my pace to a high point and see … no signs of an eruption. Was it an earthquake I missed while walking? After a few moments, I conclude it must have been an avalanche on Mt Ruapehu, on a massive scale. Although I am 10km from Ruapehu’s crater lake the blast sound was so violent that it sent my heart racing. I continue onward with a greater awareness of nature’s power in this volcanic and alpine landscape.
With my pulse rate now back to normal I reach Taranaki Falls. Here I drop my pack and scamper down some steep steps to the base of the waterfall. The falls are super scenic and drop 20 metres off a volcanic cliff, casting a fine spray that fogs my camera lens. I take a few snaps anyway and log GPS readings before the morning mist clears and I return to my pack. Ahead of me is the base of Mt Ngauruhoe looking staunch and mysterious with its top cloaked in cloud. As I reach the junction to Tama Lakes the cloud parts and I get my first glimpse of its symmetrical cone. It is difficult to know if the vapour is clearing or clagging. I pick up the pace on the side track to the lakes as I am so eager to capture photos of these points of interest before it closes in on me. It is an easy climb to the semi-circular lower lake but the best views are beyond at the upper one. I scramble towards the sky on the loose tephra rocks. It is a tough race with the swirling cloud. The slope lessens and the 360-degree view reveals volcanic splendour everywhere I look. Up here the larger and higher explosive crater lake sits below Mt Ngauruhoe, while the lower lake has Mt Ruapehu as its backdrop. The massive mountain is still cloaked with winter snow and I can appreciate the avalanches that could careen off its sides in the warming spring melt. I spend nearly an hour up here watching daywalkers slowly joining me while the wisps of the cloud quickly retreat.
Back on the main route off the flanks of Mt Doom the track’s formation narrows. I find a desolate Middle Earth path that enters a realm cast for the multi-dayer where I suspect most day-walkers will never pass. The remoteness washes over me as I follow the flow of a pretty bubbling spring. After a brief visit to a historic shelter, I reach the large and modern Waihohonu Hut. The hut’s picture window framing the volcanic cone protruding out of the beech forest could easily hang in some fancy nature lodge or city gallery. Although the hut is welcoming I don’t linger long. I drop my pack and hike on a side track to a freshwater spring with my hands full of lunch, GPS units and camera gear. Returning to the hut, I hoist my pack and traverse the southern flank of Mt Ngauruhoe. As I walk I notice how the orange and pink gravels of this desert landscape are so extreme and devoid of life. It’s otherworldly. I love it! A landscape more akin to a planet like Mars than our own, at any moment it seems a Martian rover could easily cross my path. I round a corner and out east I see not a rover but the Desert Road highway; the vast scale gives automobiles the appearance of ants, and laden big rigs become beetles. From this elevation, it’s a crazy juxtaposition of volcanic barrens and the remote Kaimanawa Mountains being cut in half by civilisation’s road and power lines network. I continue along my own line that circum-navigates the mountain’s natural symmetry.
The afternoon is deadly quiet. I’ve seen only one other soul in the last few hours before I encounter a near-lifeless rock of a man. As I approach him I can see his head keeled in despair. I do not give a meaningless greeting but one more pertinent to his weariness and distressed-looking state. “Are you ok?” I ask. It takes a moment for him to come to life with a simple “No”. I soon learn that this middle-aged solo trekker from the city has no food. It is not that he has run out of provisions, it is just that he just decided not to take any for this back-country multi-day trip. In addition to a lack of food he also has no map, PLB or any clue of his whereabouts. My bewilderment at his foolishness quickly passes and my attention now focuses on getting us both to the hut. After feeding him and lessening his load into my pack, his weakened limp frame manages the normally 20-minute walk in just over an hour. The welcoming view of the hut has him nearly in tears. Later that evening he shares how he got to a state where he could no longer walk, sat down and in a dream-like delirium heard a voice of an angel saying that help will come. I have never seen a man so spent and ready to meet his maker. It was sad, yet I was happy to be there to help him.
Our hut warden is an entertaining chap. His evening talk to us visitors is factual, fascinating, and funny. He is an incredible orator and his tales have us hanging on every word, sometimes in disbelief. His animated delivery starts with Māori mythology spanning from Māui to the origins of the surrounding Maunga. There were administrative matters too, delivered in an upbeat fashion about how we might respond to an overnight eruption, earthquake or fire. The talk also leaves us with questions … did the warden’s hippy parents really name him Buffalo, his brother Bison and his sisters Daisy, Lily and Rose? After his talk, we applaud in appreciation and we retire to bed to rest our tired legs that feel a bit half pulled. The night passes with some vocal snorers. I am not sure how many hours I have slept but I emerge early from the sack ready to depart. From the hut, I can see the crater rim and the low point where I would soon join the popular day walk of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
My second day’s tramp starts gently by undulating around rock outcrops but soon the walls of the steaming crater appear ahead. This is also where my puffing starts and my heart rate climbs in elevation with the rising grade. My pace is slow and steady for nearly an hour as I climb the 300 vertical metres up to the rim. I pass the guy I helped yesterday. Our hut companions gave him some food and he is in a good shape to make it out to the nearest road end. Near the top, the grade slackens and the Central Crater is reached, as is the junction with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. My early start has secured an empty crater, devoid of people but full of grandeur. The hole is not unlike a meteor impact, a round flat pit with steep-sided walls. I cross the crater to map the edge of Blue Lake before quickly returning as the air starts to condense. In the crater, I discover a native mountain buttercup at 1700 metres … life in a lifeless environment. It’s a steep climb up the velvet-scarred edge of the Red Crater rim. On reaching the track’s highest point (1868m) I surveyed the surroundings. To the north is the track’s namesake peak; far out west protruding out of a blanket of cloud is Mt Taranaki; while Mt Ngauruhoe is only metres away with slivers of snow running down the flanks that I have nearly rounded.
Clouds and the crossing’s first day-walkers start to appear. My morning of solitude is broken and I start the descent. I cross the flat basin of the Southern Crater and the crowds are really starting to cross my path. I start by saying hello to each but eventually revert to a friendly head nod. As I walk I reunite with some of last night’s hut companions, and we chat while we drop off the crater wall. After visiting a soda spring we reach Mangatepopo Hut and stop for lunch. The hut’s silence is broken by our lively banter that is full of stories of our climb, our tiredness and our last night’s snorers. Our walk out from the hut completes the loop with an easy traverse back to the Chateau and civilisation.
At the carpark I save my GPS data, switch off the units and take off my boots. The only negative discovery of the trip comes as I take off my socks to reveal a family of rowdy blisters that has set up camp on my feet; a rider’s blessing to skip these nasty things but they are a walker’s curse. While my attention is on my feet I am also deep in thought about how this volcanic circuit exceeded my expectations – what a joy it is to circumnavigate Mt Ngauruhoe and how different this track is from other NZ Great Walks. From my other adventures on other Great Walks, there is a common theme. Most of the walks offer waterways, wild forest, or a wicked pass to cross … the Tongariro Northern Circuit is none of these. It’s a loop of a lifetime, a voyage through volcanism and also a walk in the exposed wilds. I had a blast. So with a grin I leave the plateau and look forward to sharing the track and the map on the Great Hikes App.
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