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Walking the Great 9: The Tongariro Northern Circuit

I really do love it when a plan comes together. What turns from a small idea to actual reality always seems to amaze me, and that was exactly the case with this trip. Having knocked off 2 of the 9 great walks to date and having now relocated to Wellington, it was time to explore the various parks and walks the North Island had to offer. In particular I had one walk in mind which I had been wanting to take on for quite some time; The Tongariro Northern Circuit. I'm fortunate enough to have some very like-minded adventure enthusiasts for mates here in the North and so when I presented this idea to them, there was nothing but excited responses all round.

So what's to know about the Tongariro national park? Well, Tongariro is New Zealand's oldest national park and a dual World Heritage site. It is home to 3 of New Zealand's most active volcanoes, Mount Ngauruhoe, Mount Tongariro and Mount Reupehu, . If that's not enticing enough to go and see this amazing area then I don't know what is! The Northern circuit is also listed as another of the 9 Great walks of New Zealand, giving spectacular views of the volcanic heart of Tongariro National Park, a landscape of stark glacial contrasts and alpine landscapes. I was excited just thinking about it.

A snow cloaked Mount Ngauruhoe

Cole and Sam Johnston know the area very well as they venture often into the Tongariro National Park to do the "Tongariro Crossing" ,awarded as being one of New Zealand's best day walks. Cam Barton, an avid photographer both underwater and on land, loved the idea of coming along and taking some winter shots with us. The date was set for the 19th may with an intended finish on the 22nd.

Kit packed and in the car, it was time to take the 5 hour drive to Whakapapa Village from Wellington. Eager to catch up with the guys, who had drove down during the day from Tutukaka up in Northland, I set off straight after work on Thursday 18th with our walk due to the start the next day. It was great to see them again, they had the beers waiting in the fridge and we were all dead excited for what was to come!

A great catch up with the guys

The next morning, the weather that was brought to us wasn't very flash at all, in fact it was so stink that we decided we would delay the walk a day which meant we could complete it in 3 days rather than 4, which was definately do-able. So what do we do with our free day to explore? Well we firstly took a drive and walked a couple of the Whakapapa short trails, firstly to Silica Rapids and then onward to an awesome waterfall in the form of Tawhai Falls. It was an epic spot to take some shots and get our eye in on the cameras as this trip was going to be full of photos!

Silica Rapids

That done, we noticed there was an indoor climbing wall nearby and it being shoulder season (not quite summer, not quite winter/ski season) the place wasn't very busy at all so we stopped by and were happily surprised to find it was open. Cam, Sam and Cole moved onto the more difficult climbs and were making it to the top, I think I'm gonna need a bit more practice at this! It was good to get a good session in on the walls and the various graded climbs. I guess you could call it a bit of a warm up for what was to come!

Attempting some of the climbs at the indoor climbing wall!

We were staying at an accomodation situated right at the start of the Northern Circuit called Skotel, a real neat chalet set up with a really convenient location in Whakapapa Village. We decided to get the majority of our packing done that night and so we could get going early the next morning; it's amazing how much gear one needs to do a walk these days! The next morning we were all set to leave to take on the trail when Cam jumps out the shower and asks "Have you guys looked outside yet". Having checked only 20 minutes earlier I presumed it was still raining, but oh no it has just got much better, it was snowing!

We started the Northern Circuit and with the snow getting heavier, it brought a sheer white surrounding combined with an definitive silence on the horizon; it was an eerie yet tranquil setting. White capped mountains surrounded us on all sides, it was an amazing start to what would turn out to be quite the journey. It wasn't long before we came to hear the deafening sound of Taranaki falls. Tumbling 20 metres over the edge of a large lava flow, which erupted from Ruapehu 15,000 years ago, Taranaki Falls plunge into a boulder-ringed pool. We stopped here for a while for some photos but we still had a lot of ground to cover and so we motioned on.

The Taranaki Falls

We took a short off-track and made for the Tama Lakes which consisted of a lower and an upper, tama lake. Wanting to make it back before sunset we only ventured to the lower lake and just as well as 10 minutes after arriving there, a front came in and gave us some more snow!

Our aim for that evening was to reach Waihohonu hut, but it was hard to not stop and observe the amazing snowy realm we had found ourselves in. Upon reaching the hut I almost forgot that it was a Great Walk we were doing, and so suspected the hut to be a traditional back country hut; I was wrong. The hut was huge, with several different bunk rooms and a massive kitchen/lounge area! Most Great Walk huts now have been revamped in order to suit the vast numbers that come through and do these tracks. Due to the time of year and the weather also, it was nice to have a quiet hut for the night. We explored around the hut which hugged the edge of a pine forest which had turned into a scene out of Narnia with all the fresh snow dumped on the branches. After a big day we decided it would be smart to get an early night as we would be doing a big day tomorrow by covering the ground all the way to the emerald lakes, and then proceeding over the top of red crater!

The following morning we awoke at 6:00 with our plan to be out the door for 7:00. Some trampers had decided to sleep on the floor next to the warm fire in the lounge/kitchen area which was something I don't think they thought through! With us setting off early, we were happy waking them up with our morning breakfast.

We would firstly trek through the pine forest we had explored part of the night before, working our way through until we crossed the higher ridges before reaching Oturere hut. We had expected high winds that day, and they definitely got the forecast right. As soon as we hit high on the ridge tops we were blasted with snow and 90km winds; there was no hiding from it up here so we had to keep moving. Ultimately it worked in our favour as we pressed on, with the last stretch towards Oturere hut we had the wind to our backs which gave us a little spring to our stride; every little helps eh!

Upon reaching the hut stood in awe at the view that had presented itself in the form of a now, white Mount Ngauruhoe, a mountain adored by most Lord of the Rings fans as the renowned Mount doom. Its cone shape gives it it's main photogenic attribute, but not to forget with all these surrounding volcanoes is that they're all in fact, still active! We stocked up on water, and after a short break we were on the move again for what would turn out to be the most difficult part of the walk.

We reached the basin from where we would need to ascend to the ridge that held the emerald lakes. With only a couple of hundred metres you'd of thought it would of been easy, yet with a metre deep snow in some parts it proved to be a bit of a battle to reach the lakes. On one occasion I stepped into what I thought was a solid bit of snow only to be swallowed up to my hips in the stuff! But i'd do it all again if I got the witness the view I was faced with at the top again. A crystal blue lake with a white blanket coating it's banks partnered with the unmistakeable smell of sulphur. I'd heard so much about the vivid colours of the emerald lakes, I guess the name speaks for itself! Yet to see them in person, it was a staggering sight.

We stopped here to change to our crampons as we'd found the ground up here to be frozen over and with an ascent over the top of Red Crater(1886m) ahead, we didn't want to be slipping over! The snow deep and ice ladled over the ground, we took our time going up, the views around us now obscured by the icy mist and fog up here; the temperature dropping quickly. With not too much to see at the top and an icy chill ever-present, we made our way down into the expansive red crater, where we decided to sidle off the track for a good kilometre so we could set up camp at the base of Mount Ngauruhoe.

There was a cold wind blowing through and we didn't waste time setting up camp for the night, especially with the forecast having told us it would get down to -10; it really was going to be the coldest night i've ever experienced! The sunset lit Mount Ngauruhoe in a spectacular orange tint before the last bit of warmth was gone, the temperature then began to plummet. We found ourselves crammed in Cole's tent for dinner which was warm and cosy. A rookie error by myself leaving my gloves outside the door to find them crooked and frozen after 30 minutes along with my boots! Looking to the sky the milky way showed itself in spectacular colours, shooting stars flying everywhere with the bright snow-capped volcanoes in the foreground; it was a majestic sight and one I won't forget for a long time. We all stopped to take photos but remaining out here in the cold for any length of time was too much, especially with the wind chill! I opted to get in my sleeping bag as soon as possible and snuggle in the for the cold night ahead.

A warm sleeping bag it was, but a warm tent it was not. I awoke to find everything frozen, from my 2litre hydration bladder and my gloves to the thistles on my toothbrush; all frozen over. With no water, we all started using our stoves to boil snow at 5am which is a painfully long process, but would at least give us some drinking water for the morning.

We packed up and set off at sunrise, presented with a rare view of the distant unmistakeable cone of Mount Taranaki, some 300km away. Eager to make it to down the devils staircase before the crowds came in, we descended which was simply a death sentence for whoever laid their foot on the steps, said the one that slipped over 3 times! We opted for the rocks at the side of the staircase, a much safer option and it wasn't long before we reached the bottom. We opted to take an off-track that lead to Soda Springs, an amazing little waterfall which was surrounded by mighty icycles and pieces of ice.

Enjoying the soda springs

The tongariro crossing is one of New Zealand's most popular day walks, and it certainly lived up to it's name with crowds of people coming to enjoy the awesome volcanic experience. We left the soda springs and were the only ones heading in the direction back to Whakapapa village with everyone else just starting their day heading up to Red Crater; where we had just come from. We chose not to stop at Mangatepopo hut and make for the village instead, a track that would sidle around the side of Ngauruhoe and bring into view one of the other, slightly less photogenic Stratovolcanoes in the Tongariro national park, Mount Ruapehu. The largest active volcano in New Zealand, Ruapehu stands at 2,797m high and last erupted in 2007.

We picked up the pace and made it through the lowlands of the volcanic terrain before laying sight once again on Whakapapa village; where we had set off to begin our journey just a few days before. Reaching the car park was a momentous feeling for all of us as battling through the snow and the elements hadn't been easy but we were glad we did it in those conditions all the same!

The Tongariro Circuit has been my favourite great walk to date, the terrain is simply stupefying and surreal. Its not often you can look around you and spot volcanoes surrounding you on all sides! It's definitely a must do walk for the keen hiker to explore these ranges and experience just how fascinating this place is. We did find that the conditions here change quite rapidly, and so to check the weather beforehand is a MUST DO! And for those LOTR fans out there, well, to say you've walked at the base of Mount Doom is definitely a story to tell!

Below you will find a list of the gear I used for this trip, being equipped with the right gear to suit the conditions especially in winter is pivotal. I have provided links to each product if you would like to find out more. I want to say a big thank you to Macpac, Meindl boots and Jetboil for providing me with the amazing quality of their equipment they provided me with for this amazing trip.

With Great Walk 3 of 9 done it's time to look ahead to number 4. I'll look forward to telling you all about it soon, until then, Happy Adventuring!


Jetboil stove kit

Since taking on a lot more adventures of late, I

feel investing in good, quality equipment is

always a good investment; it makes life in the outdoors that bit easier. Jetboil, produce a variety of different stove kits, different sizes and shapes, ones adapted for cold weather etc. These stove kits boil water at an insanely fast speed, which is definitely handy if your on top of a cold, windy ridge line and in need of a hot cuppa. I wouldn't go on a trip without one of these in my pack now, so take a look at their website and see which stove kit best suits you. I opted for the "Mini-mo" set-up which is rated for below freezing temperatures and even has simmer control.

Meindl Island Boots

This fabulous boot is superbly comfortable and has what it takes for those who want to explore the

countryside whether on or off trail. This 100% waterproof, Gore-Tex lined boot has integrated pronation and supination zones which promote correct posture and support. I found this boot to be super supportive which definitely helps for the winding trails we found on the circuit. An amazing back country standard boot which could tackle a number of terrains; I honestly don't think i've tried a boot more comfortable. The Meindl Island MFS Active is the most awarded boot in history and has received a Gold Medal Award at the 2009 European Outdoor Expo - voted by a panel of independent experts as the most technically advanced, correctly supportive, and proven outdoor footwear for the last 20 years.

Macpac Cascade 75litre Pack

Macpac Traverse Rainjacket

The Traverse AP Rain Jacket Mens is it if you're after a versatile high performance lightweight jacket. Super breathable, I found it provided a lot of wind protection also when we were up on the ridge tops. Definitely the best fitting rain jacket i've ever tried on, and with it being so lightweight, It's perfect for whatever tramping adventures your setting your sights on.

Macpac Pulsar Down Jacket

Proven to perform when you're pushed to your limits, the Pulsar Hoody is an absolute essential for mountaineers and outdoor explorers. I found it worked as a perfect mid or outer layer especially up on the tops when the conditions are constantly changing. It's super lightweight which I really liked and packs down really small when you want to put it in your pack.

Macpac 220 Thermal Top

I absolutely love the merino base layer from Macpac! I often wore it on its own as with 100% merino construction, it naturally regulates temperature, meaning you'll be

comfortable in a range of climates and conditions, and is naturally anti-odour – even after days of wear. Couldn't advise a better base layer, best one i've ever tried!

Macpac Minaret Tent

Majestic sights

Purchasing a tent is never easy, it is essentially your home in the outdoors and if you're deciding to take on much more challenging trips, you'll need one that's up to the task. Weight is always a big topic as no-one likes to carry more than they feel they should have to. The Macpac minaret is a 3-season tent built for the weight conscious. Coming in at 2.4kg and classed as a 2-man tent, this definitely was both spacious, light and it stood up to being pitched up on ridge line tops. It comes with a seam sealer which can seal the interior

fly seams to make it fully waterproof, no-one wants to put wet clothes on, right? The interior walls are lined with pockets to place ready to hand belongings and saves you digging through your bag.

Personally, I love this tent and can't wait to get out and use it more and more.

Strangely enough, I look forward to pitching it up!

Check out the link here and see for yourself.

Macpac Epic 800 Sleeping bag

It's amazing how much the temperature drops when the sun goes down, particularly when your up on the tops. I always would prefer to be too warm than too cold with a sleeping bag, especially if the surrounds you're going to be in are those of the mountains. I opted for the Epic 800 sleeping bag from Macpac. It's designed in a 'mummy' shape which is close fitting which keep you warmer and is rated down to -20. It comes in a water proof sack which saves you the worry of pulling it from a wet pack and it being soaked as well. They come in different sizes short/tall as well to get you the perfect snug fit. Take a look and see what you think


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