Follow the yellow brick road. New Zealand has its own version of Dorothy’s path with orange triangles marking the way of all of the country’s walks. I was walking the Tongariro Northern Circuit after a couple of German guys I met on my camp up the Mueller glacier, recommended it. You may well have heard of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which is no doubt the most popular day walk in New Zealand and one I had been planning to do. Sadly with increasing popularity comes increasing traffic on the route and I didn’t fancy walking in convoy with a bunch of ill-equipped tourists who always look either lost or as if they are just about to suffer a heart attack.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of the “Great Walks’ in New Zealand. It’s 43km in distance and is usually completed in three to four days. Like with most Department of Conservation (DOC) activities in New Zealand there are huts you can stay in along the route. I had arrived just outside of the Great Walks season so it was now technically winter. Out of season huts do not need to be booked in advanced “hurrah“, there would be less people “hurroo” and that only experienced mountaineers with the correct equipment should attempt the walk. Err…
Well I’m certainly no mountaineer but just two days out of the “walking season”, a moderately fine weather forecast and adequate gear I decided to give it a whirl. I didn’t get going until 2pm because I was enjoying blue cheese and posh crackers while waiting for some eggs to boil on a sunny picnic bench near the visitor centre. I only had 8.5km to walk before the first hut which was good as I was suffering from the mother of all hangovers after a Hen party in Mount Maunganui where we spent the whole weekend drinking, eating and being hungover in our active wear. The hut was cosy with an electric heater and filled with a mix of interesting people who I happily enjoyed talking to.
After a pretty horrendous nights sleep thanks to gale force winds rocking the hut, I put on my alpine hiking boots ready for day two. Many people look down at my choice in shoes and roll their eyes with that “what an amature” look. I know what they’re thinking. Young backpacker totally unprepared and possibly a little bit stupid. Maybe. I must say though, that while every other walker takes their boots off to find a foot full of blisters not once have my Nike slippers caused any kind of discomfort. Yes, they may get wet but even the “waterproof” boots of the people I walked with became wet in knee deep snow. Yes, I may not have the best grip but even those with the very best grip fell on their arse on the ice. So for me my canvas shoes are like gold dust and with a couple of carrier bags over my socks I was good to go. Please note: carrier bags from the UK will not waterproof your shoes as they have holes in to stop children suffocating. Use Kiwi bags instead, they obviously don’t give a shit about kids. Ha.
The second day of the hike included most of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Even out of season the trail was extremely busy. However, this did make some interesting sights such as women in mascara, men in suede boots and denim jackets and some with just a small 500ml bottle of water with them. Baring in mind this is an ALPINE CROSSING through snow. Idiots. Talking of snow, how cool is the ice in the picture above? This unique ice formation covered the ground on the first section of the crossing.
The northern circuit winds around the great Mt Ngauruhoe which is otherwise known as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. If I’m honest that means nothing to me but it didn’t stop me getting giddy as I approached this ginormous volcano. I’ve always been fascinated by volcanoes and earthquakes since school and I have always wanted to climb one. Climbing to Mt Ngauruhoe’s summit is not a proper route and is advised that it is not attempted by the inexperienced especially at this time of year.
I had never planned to climb Mt Ngauruhoe due to the warning signs and technical difficulty involved but when a young German guy at the hut said he was going to climb it, it got me thinking. As I walked past in awe of this magnificent peak I saw a few dots on the horizon. Climbers! Well if they were doing it then surely I could too. His name was Leonard by the way.
In hindsight it was a little risky attempting the climb but my attitude is “you don’t know until you try” plus I could always turn back if needed. Luckily I tagged on to an English couple who paved the way for me to follow. The guy was a doctor and they had a bag of hot cross buns. I choose my friends wisely. I left my pack at the bottom so I didn’t have to hurl 15kg up there too. Wise move.
Words (and photos) cannot tell you how steep it was. It was probably the steepest climb of my life, even steeper than when I when on that Tinder date and ended up reaching the summit of the Remarkables in Queenstown. Lol. The ground was covered in scree (a mass of small loose stones that cover a mountain) which is near impossible to walk on. For one step forward there were two steps back. Not only that, much of the ground was covered in snow up to my knees. Thankfully the English Dr suggested we rock scramble our way up the ridge avoiding the snow and scree. I won’t lie, I was a little petrified but I had too much pride to turn back.
After two hours of climbing we reached the summit. I wanted to take a look at the air vent which was letting out hot steam. Incredible. The ground was so hot I could feel it through my shoes and I could actually hear the steam/water/lava – whatever it was – bubbling underneath me. We saw people at another peak and asked a Swedish chap what was up there. The volcanic crater he said. Wow. I just had to see it. So we walked down and up for another 30mins to reach the breathtaking red cater.
I hate going downhill. Not only does it scare me but my poor knees aren’t what they used to be so this I was not looking forward to. After about 30mins of making our way down the same rocks we had just come up, we realised that a quicker and less dangerous route would be to ski/sledge down. Getting my arse wet on some snow was a lot more appealing than the high risk of falling on a sharp rock. What a genius suggestion because skiing down in Nike trainers was hilarious and I felt like a kid again.
There was a slight problem retrieving my bag which I had left in a clearing which had became one of many clearings as I climbed higher. I had also taken a different route down and my bag was a similar colour to the rocks. Thankfully with the help of others it was soon found. After the joy of reaching the summit of Mt Doom I had planned to climb Mt Tongariro too but a huge cloud came over as I came near and I figured the views (or lack of) wouldn’t be worth it. My legs were also like jelly and I needed a proper feed. My Kiwi luncheon sarnie just wasn’t hitting the spot.
I shot over the crossing which was actually a pretty tough walk and definitely not one to be doing if you’re not much of a walker. I stopped at the lakes for my token photo shot. The above photo is the one you see all over tourism brochures and is what draws people on this walk. It’s even more spectacular in real life I can assure you.
I had packed plenty of water but you know me, I go through gallons of the stuff. I consumed nearly half, a good couple of litres, on my unplanned summit climb on Mt Doom so I found myself short about an hour or so from the hut. Not life threatening but enough to make me feel uncomfortable. A chap at the first hut said he drinks snow so I filled my water bottle painfully slowly. Of course, the snow failed to melt at all and I was unable to get any out. Ultimate fail. In hindsight I should have just picked up a lump and let it melt in my mouth before swallowing it. Amature.
On my walk to the hut a young boy ran past me so fast I didn’t have time to ask him where he was going. I kept thinking about him as he had just a small empty backpack and was dressed in jeans and casual shoes. Surely he couldn’t have been going to the hut, he wasn’t equipped to stay the night? Surely he wasn’t trying to make it to the end, that was another 25km away? The young lad was at the hut when I arrived. He was doing the Tongariro Crossing and had taken the wrong turn. He was running to catch his shuttle bus which was taking him to a night bus to Wellington where he would catch the ferry to the South Island the following day. Wow what a fuck up. Thankfully we found some blankets and a telephone in the hut and we all shared our food with him. I made him half a peanut butter sandwich for lunch the following day. Life saver. Practically the same crew as in last nights hut we all settled down for bed around 7pm, exhausted. All of a sudden a group of 40 young teenagers on a school trip arrived to our already full hut that slept just 20. All I wanted to do was sleep so I become incredibly grumpy when they started cooking food at 8pm and stayed up till 11pm playing games. Some people are so inconsiderate and that’s what pisses me off most when travelling. People can be dicks at times.
Me and the German guy Leonard set off early together to try and complete the walk before the bad weather which was due to set in late afternoon. It was 8.5km to the first hut which we smashed in a couple of hours. It was then another 15km to the finish which was predicted to take five and a half hours. As soon as we set off on the final leg the weather turned and we were hit with strong head-on gales and drizzle. We didn’t stop to put any more clothes on as we thought it would pass. It actually got a lot worse and we were now unable to stop at all because we would have become too cold. I was only wearing a Merino base layer and a windproof jacket and I was completely saturated down to my undies. We kept scrunching the end of our sleeves to ring the water out. It was SO cold and I was getting severe wind burn but I needed to keep my heart rate up. We ended up walking 15km without stopping once. No food, no drink, no going to the loo. Leonard and I walked in total silence, it was that bad. Now and again he would stop to wait for me and give me half a grin, one of those “I can’t believe this is happening“‘ looks. We saw nothing the whole day, visibility was zero.
We finally made it back to the car park in record time. 23km in under six hours. Everything in my pack was soaked through but luckily I had some warm clothes in my car. As soon as I stopped the cold set in and I struggled to turn on my gas cooker to make a cuppa. The message from my brain to my hand telling it to turn just wasn’t getting through. I have never experienced such close levels of hypothermia before. It was a massive reminder of how conditions can change at any time and even prepared like we were, it’s sometimes difficult to stop, stay dry and keep out of the wind. I keep thinking of the school group in t-shirts and shorts who weren’t that far behind us. Don’t go take exploring the outdoors lightly. Be prepared. Stay safe.