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Friday, May 24, 2013

     There are not many other mountain regions in the world which had been given that many names as the most famous volcano on the Central Plateau of New Zealand's North Island: Mt. Ngauruhoe lying in Tongariro National Park has been also known as Ngātoro-i-rangi, the sacred Warrior Mountain from the stories of ancient Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe, ancestors of the local Māori, and lately even as the mythical Mt. Doom from the Middle Earth. Tongariro National Park is New Zealand's oldest national park as well as a World Heritage Area with unique volcanic features, and its mountains have been sacred to Maori people for centuries. 

     The traverse of the spectacular volcanic terrain of Mt Tongariro is one of the most fascinating treks in the country and one of the top walks in the world. The Tongariro Northern Circuit takes you on a moderate and well marked 43.1 km (3 - 4 days) journey winding over Mt Tongariro and around Mt Ngauruhoe. Since number of trips can be arranged in either direction around the Tongariro Northern Circuit, such as day trips including the extremely popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing, overnight trips or a 3–4 day walk around the complete circuit, the whole area tends to be rather busy during summer months. Especially the phenomenon known as Middle Earth tourism has transformed in the last few years this spectacular region of literally untouched moonscape filled with volcanic craters, emerald lakes, hot springs and steaming vents into the most heavily trafficked Great Walk. In fact you have to try really hard to capture the essence of its remaining wilderness nature. We felt it's still worth the effort.


     Tongariro National Park is located in the central North Island of New Zealand with the nearest towns Turangi, Ohakune and Waioura and the closest airport in Taupo. The main entrance point to the park is from a parking area in the Whakapapa Village. It is approximately a 3-5 hour walk to Mangatepopo Hut, or a 5–6 hour walk to Waihohonu Hut. The track can also be accessed from the following 3 locations: 

  • From the parking area at the end of Mangatepopo Road, from where it is a 30 minute walk to Mangatepopo Hut. 
  • From the parking area at the end of Ketetahi Road, it is about a 2–3 hour walk to the Ketetahi shelter, then a further 3 hours to Oturere Hut or 5 hours to Mangatepopo Hut. 
  • From the parking area just off Desert Road, 35 km south of Turangi. It is approximately a 2 hour walk to Waihohonu Hut.

     Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe are active volcanoes which can be climbed as side trips. The last eruptions happened in the Te Maari craters on the northern slopes of Mt Tongariro in August and then again in November 2012. You should always check the current Volcanic Alert Level of these volcanoes and avoid the summit climbs if there are any signs of increased volcanic activity. The summit of Mt Ngauruhoe (2287 m) can be reached by climbing directly up the rocky ridge on the left from the base of Mt Ngauruhoe at Mangatepopo Saddle. Allow 2-3 hours for return trip. Mt Tongariro summit (1967 m) can be reached by following the poled route from Red Crater. Allow 2 hours for return trip.


     The Tongariro Northern Circuit (43.1 km) starts and finishes at Whakapapa Village, State Highway 48, Mount Ruapehu. You can walk the track in either direction:

  • Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut (8.5 km, 3 hr)
  • Mangatepopo Hut to Emerald Lakes (8 km, 3 hr 30 min)
  • Emerald Lakes to Oturere Hut (4.8 km, 1 hr 30 min)
  • Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut (7.5 km, 3 hr)
  • Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village (14.3 km, 5 hr)


     There are three huts, with campsites close by, available on the Circuit: Mangatepopo, Oturere and Waihohonu. We stayed at Ketetahi campsite for the first night, however the hut and the campsite are no longer available for accommodation due to the damage after volcanic eruption in August 2012. Bookings are required for huts and campsites during peak season (October to April). During off peak season (May to October) huts and campsites are on a first-come basis only and no reservations are necessary.


     As on the most of the high altitude tracks in New Zealand the weather can change very quickly and you should be prepared for all weather conditions. The strong winds reaching 100 km per hour and poor visibility dropping to zero are no exemptions on the volcano ridges. In fact, similar weather conditions prevented us from continuing further along the Northern Circuit and led to finishing the alpine crossing at Ketetahi parking area.

Track Notes

DAY 1: Mangatepopo Hut to Ketetahi Hut via Emerald Lakes (11 km, 6 hr)

     After a very early start of the day with 5 am morning shuttle from Taupo to Mangatepopo, we left the hut and started following Mangatepopo Stream up the valley. We soon came across the whole field of successions of young and very black lava flows from Ngauruhoe Volcano which erupted in 1949 and 1954. A land younger than that and accessible to the public you can probably only find on the Big Island in Hawaii where the lava is still continuously flowing. Near the head of the valley a short side track led us to Soda Springs that emerge beneath an old lava flow.

     From the Soda Springs one hour steady climb led us to the South Crater with spectacular views of the valley which on a clear day could show you Mt Ngauruhoe, the Kaimanawa Range, Lake Taupo and a landscape all the way to Mt Taranaki in the west. Unfortunately the weather had started to deteriorate and strong winds had picked up bringing thick clouds reducing the visibility. In a good weather it is possible to climb from here to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe (2287 m, 3 hour side trip). 

     After crossing the South Crater, which is actually glacially carved basin rather than the real crater, we followed a steep track leading up a ridge to the Red Crater. From the top of Red Crater it is possible to climb to the Mt Tongariro summit (1967 m) in a good weather. The crater is still active releasing a strong sulphur smell as we walked up. The iron in the rock oxidized under high temperature and gave the crater its bright red color. The display of the formations of solidified lava within the crater was like nothing we've ever seen so far. As we reached the Red Crater the wind picked up reaching about 70 km per hour which made any progress up a ridge with heavy backpacks very difficult.

     We finally reached the summit of Red Crater (1886 m), the highest point on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, from where we started our steep descent on a loosy scoria-covered terrain to Emerald Lakes, an obvious highlight of the whole track. Their breathtaking color is caused by minerals washed down from the thermal area of Red Crater. Their water is cold, acidic, not suitable for drinking and it freezes in winter. During our descent we could also see across the Central Crater to the Blue Lake, a short 30 minutes side trip. Due to the incredibly strong wind we couldn't stop for a lunch and decided to continue to Ketetahi shelter for the night. We soon arrived at the junction where The Tongariro Northern Circuit walk branches off to Oturere Hut and continued over the Central Crater. We then reached the Blue Lake which is  considered sacred and which in native language translates as Rangihiroa's mirror.

   From the Blue Lake we continued around the North Crater (a cooled lava lake) and started our descent to Ketetahi shelter. For the whole time the majestic Mt Doom or Mt. Ngauruhoe had been shrouded by thick clouds and hadn't revealed itself for even a second. I would say we've got a pretty good reason to come back.

DAY 2: Ketetahi shelter to Ketetahi parking area (2 hr)

     We spent the night at Ketetahi shelter, however we were the only ones who made quite a brave/not so wise decision to camp there. To build a tent in that incredible wind saturated with sulphur on the slopes of Te Maari craters surrounded by its steaming vents was certainly an adventure itself and did test our camping skills to their very limits. The Ketetahi shelter and the campsite do no longer provide accommodation due to the damage after volcanic eruption in August 2012. The next morning we started our 2-hour descent back to the forest bushline providing us a striking contrast to the moonscape of the previous day.

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