After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Tongariro Northern Circuit - January 2013

Seeing as we were both working over Christmas we decided to take a short break mid-January. New Year's resolutions abound we decided to do something a bit more energetic and adventurous, start the year as we mean to go on and all that!

We had been wanting to go on a multi-day hike for a while, but we never quite got around to it. So after researching various options, we decided to head north and combine our desire to do a big walk with seeing one of the most spectacular landscapes the North Island has to offer. The Tongario Crossing is a staple of any tick-box tourist trip of New Zealand, and rightly so. We decided to make it a bit more interesting and do the whole circuit, as well as the popular day hike. The trip was pretty last minute, cue a panic-buying session in Kathmandu (outdoors shop) the day before, making sure we had decent gear to survive the trek.

The morning of our departure from Wellington was foreboding to say the least, a miserably grey and wet day. We trudged down to the bus station only for the bus to break down before we'd even got on the road. Sitting there waiting for the mechanic, we just wanted get moving and get walking. We were a little nervous, as we hadn't undertaken a multi-day hike before and had got a bit caught up with all the scare stories going around of people getting stranded or injuring themselves in the Tongariro National Park (not to mention the possibility of volcanic eruptions, as the last eruption was only in November!).

Eventually we were jump started and it was thankfully smooth sailing thereafter, the friendly bus driver did all she could to make up time by crossing off any stops that people weren't booked on at, so we didn't actually lose much time. It was a lovely evening when we arrived in Turangi, with just enough time to walk along the river and do some last minute shopping for supplies, before turning in for an early night.

We got up at the crack of dawn the next day to catch the 6am shuttle bus into the National Park. Bleary eyed we watching wound our way in the park with the imposing Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom) coming into view, fittingly accompanied by the soundtrack to Lord of the Rings. We stepped off the bus not long after the sun had started to rise and headed off into the cool crisp air. Most of the people on our bus were doing the day walk, so we felt a little smug to be able to maintain a good pace despite having the extra burden of sleeping bags and 3 days worth of clothes and food on our backs. We had been going for less than an hour when we reached Soda Springs, a teeny trickle of a waterfall surrounded by wild flowers. At this point we zipped past a bunch of 18 year old girls who had already cracked open the chocolate and energy drinks, who looked just about ready to give up already, and this was before we'd even started on the Devil's Staircase. We had heard horror stories of huge bottlenecks at this this section as it is, as the name suggest, a set of narrow and relentless steps, but as it was still early there weren't too  many people around just yet, and we were able to go at our own pace. It was certainly a good thing that we were doing this in any heat, as the sun was still to hit us directly as it rose behind the mountains. At the top we were rewarded with a view across the South Crater, and our first experience of the lunar landscape. After crossing the Crater we then climbed once more, towards the Red Crater with some fantastic old 'blow holes' from previous volcanic activity.

We were making good time and so took a detour to climb to the top of Mt Tongariro, for even better views of Mt Ngauruhoe. It was at this point that we could hear some rather loud and rather ominous booming. Not many people were on this path, so it was a little unnerving after reading all the warning signs about the possibility of eruptions! After consulting the DOC leaflet and ascertaining that we couldn't smell any noxious gasses so it was probably fine, we continued on our way. Once at the summit, we were rewarded with yet more imposing views of Mt Doom moodily blanketed in cloud, before heading back to the Red Crater and descending steeply down to the Emerald Lakes. It was gravelly enough for your feet to sink in and steep enough for you to be able to almost run/ski down. It was certainly more fun going down than it looked coming back up as some of the more intrepid day-trippers were doing. The Emerald Lakes at the bottom were absolutely stunning and we spent some time taking photographs and soaking up the scenery, before pressing on to avoid hanging around in the volcanic activity area for too long! From there the day trippers were forced to turn back (the normal route is still closed due to the recent eruptions). Due to starting the trip early, it had only been busy when we had returned from the deviation to Mt Tongariro, but past this point there appeared to be very few people walking the full circuit and we began to feel much more that we were in the middle of nowhere (in a good way). The last stretch over the Oturere Valley was a fairly desolate landscape shaped by lava flows. By this point we had been walking a good 6 hours on what turned out to be a beautiful summer's day, and with our heavy bags we were starting to tire. Around every corner we were convinced that the hut we were aiming for must be 'just around the next corner', and thankfully it eventually was!

We were the first to arrive at the Oturere Hut (this kind of thing doesn't happen very often as most who know us will testify!), and bagsied ourselves a corner of the communal bunks. We managed to fill our water bottles before realising that there was a shortage and that we might have to utilise a nearby waterfall if we wanted anymore. Thankfully, some of the more experienced and enterprising hikers hopped on top and dangled a billy can in as the water level was lower than the tap. We met some friendly folks and chatted with them over our well-earned dinner of pasta with powdered soup as a sauce, before turning in for an early night. One of the people we met also reassured us that the explosions we had heard were most probably from the nearby military base, which was a relief!

Another cracking morning meant we were off to a great start on Day 2. The highlights of the landscape on this day was the view of the two mountains (Tongariro and Ngauruhoe) side by side. We hiked over some very exposed landscape before ducking down into a valley and crossing the bubbling Waihohonu Stream. We then climbed back up through a dense beech forest, which gave us a welcome respite from the sun, but increased the humidity levels greatly! Sooner than we had anticipated (after around 3 hours), we arrived at Waihohonu Hut. If Oturere Hut was everything you imagined of a Department of Conservation hut (cramped and back-to-basics in a cosy/rustic sort of fashion), then Waihohonu was the complete opposite, or the 'Gucci' of the DOC Huts as one lady described it to us. It had only recently been built and was a very smart, state of the art ski-style lodge. We ditched our bags and went off in search Ohinepango Springs. Arriving at a small stream we were determined we hadn't 'found it' yet, and pursued it up an old stream bed until the terrain got so difficult we had to admit defeat! I guess the stream gushing out from the hillside in winter may be a sight to behold, but after a fairly dry spring it wasn't particularly impressive. We headed back to the hut and had a dip in a nearby river for a bit of a freshen up, well needed after a couple of days walking in the heat without showering. We spent the evening chatting to our fellow hikers and were subjected to quite a painful 'introductory' session by a young and keen DOC employee, who encouraged us all to share with the group our names and occupation. It felt a bit forced, and we knew most of the people there from the previous night. Before dinner, we ducked out to have a quick look at the original Waihohonu Hut located not far away, built in 1903 as a stopover for coaches. It had lots of interesting historical information, and some old diaries and notebooks written by intrepid skiers who had been snowed in there. We hit the hay pretty early again, after another long and enjoyable day in the sunshine we were ready for some rest.

On our final morning we were greeted with the sight of the frost shimmering in the dawn light, a good omen for the day ahead. We headed off across the tussock and shrub land and were making good time so decided to take a side trip up to the Lower and Upper Tama Lakes. It was certainly well worth doing the detour, and although the wind on the ridges was pretty fierce, the view from the top was absolutely spectacular. We then headed back down and followed the winding path over to Taranaki Falls, a very impressive and awe-inspiring waterfall. From there it wasn't too far back to the village of Whakapapa, spurred on by the thought of some proper food after a few days of packet soup and instant noodles. When we arrived in the village we quickly realised we'd stayed there before, back in our gap year trip of 2004, when we'd first learnt to snowboard on the slopes of Mt Tongariro. We found ourselves a cafe and toasted our success with toasties and soup. Bliss!

Our return back back to Turangi on the the shuttle bus was painful to say the least. We were ready to get back, showered and spend the evening with a few cold beers. On the way back the bus was also heading back to Mangetapopo car park, where we'd started off from, to pick up the day trippers. Which of course we didn't have a problem with, until it became apparent that we had to wait as long as took for them all to return in dribs and drabs. So we were stuck on a cramped and stuffy bus on hot summer's day, desperately wanting to be back somewhere with a proper chair to sit on with aforementioned cold beer in hand. Although we did witness the amusing spectacle of our bus driver gazing at the summit of Ngauruhoe through a pair of binoculars and commenting on how many flames he's seen coming out of the top of it recently... we were glad to hear that after we had done the walk!

We finally arrived back at the hostel for well-earned showers and beers, and even ended up going for another walk along the river. The Israeli guy we'd met on the trip thought we were mad!

At the end of trip, we were on a high and were really pleased with what we had achieved, even though it didn't turn out to be as challenging as we had imagined. The weather was better than we could ever have hoped, but being at a high altitude it didn't get too hot. We couldn't believe it had taken this long for us to do this kind of thing, and are adamant it won't be long until we do it again. We returned to Wellington refreshed and invigorated, which made a nice change!

Tongariro Northern Circuit