GREAT WALK: TONGARIRO NORTHERN CIRCUIT
The Tongariro Northern Circuit traverses the uniquely beautiful barren landscape of the volcanic plateau in the central North Island, winding its way over the active volcanoes Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, through ancient craters, and past striking emerald and blue lakes.
The 42 kilometre three-to-four day circuit is in the Tongariro National Park, New Zealand's first national park, gifted to the nation by the far-sighted Maori chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV in 1887 as a way of keeping his tribe's sacred lands safe from exploitation by European settlers. Tongariro National Park has UNESCO World Heritage status for its natural values, and for its spiritual and cultural importance to the Maori people.
The Department of Conservation's National Park Visitor Centre lies in the tiny settlement of Whakapapa on the lower slopes of Mount Ruapehu. The Visitor Centre is a mine of fascinating information about the central plateau's three volcanoes, and has maps and up-to-date information about weather conditions.
The Northern Circuit starts and finishes conveniently at Whakapapa Village, and it is possible to organise shorter day or overnight trips in from the roads closest to the four back country huts. From the circuit itself, there are optional side trips to the summits of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. The section of track from Mangatepopo Hut to Ketetahi is known as the Tongariro Crossing, and is often described as the best one day walk in New Zealand, taking in some of the most spectacular features of the circuit, including climbs across lava flows and up to the mineral coloured Emerald and Blue Lakes.
The four huts on the Northern Circuit are equipped with mattresses, gas cookers (in the summer), toilets and drinking water. During the summer season (late October to early June) you must purchase a Great Walks Pass in advance, whether you stay in the huts, or camp next to them. The circuit traverses open, exposed terrain which can be subject to sudden weather changes, and in winter it becomes an alpine trip for which you will need ice axes and crampons.
The walk can be done in either direction, but this track description follows the Department of Conservation guide by going clockwise. Weather is often the determining factor in deciding which route to take - it is essential to have favourable conditions for crossing the Red Crater and South Crater areas, and it is often advisable to allow an extra day or two in case you need to wait out bad weather. It's a good idea to get a copy of the Tongariro National Park map before setting out.
Whakapapa to Mangatepopo Hut (3 hours in good weather, 9 kilometres): The circuit begins 100 metres below the Whakapapa Visitor Centre along the lower Taranaki Falls track. The track crosses many stream beds and is heavily eroded in places and boggy after rain. Ahead you will see the giant cone of Ngauruhoe, the youngest of the three volcanoes, and the flatter form of Tongariro.
Mangatepopo Hut to Emerald Lakes (3.5 hours, 6 kilometres): The track follows the Mangatepopo Stream up the valley, climbing over old lava flows from Ngauruhoe. A five minute detour at the head of the valley leads to the cold Soda Springs, emerging beneath an old lava flow, where white foxgloves and yellow buttercups flower in spring and summer. There is a steep climb up to Mangatepopo Saddle, with great views back down the Mangatepopo Valley.
From the saddle, a side track leads up to the summit of Ngauruhoe, a strenuous climb over loose scoria. The main track continues across the level floor of the South Crater and on up to the spectacular dark red-hued Red Crater. At the top of Red Crater, a poled route leads to the summit of Tongariro, while the main track continues on over the summit of the crater and then makes a tricky descent over treacherous loose ground to the Emerald Lakes. Just beyond Emerald Lakes, you have the choice of continuing on past Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut (2 hours, 4 kilometres) and returning to this point the next day, or branching off to go straight to Oturere Hut (1.5 hours, 5 kilometres), the track leading through a strange series of jagged lava formations.
Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut (2.5 hours, 8 kilometres): After leaving scenic Oturere Hut, the track undulates over stream valleys and open gravel fields. The track sidles around the foot hills of Ngauruhoe, descends into a valley and crosses one of the branches of the Waihohonu Stream. The track continues through a beech-clad valley, before a final climb over a ridge brings you to the hut. From the hut, there is a short 20 minute walk to the clear Ohinepango Springs.
Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa (5.5 hours, 14 kilometres): On the last day, the track heads west between Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, passing the Old Waihohonu Hut (no accommodation), built in 1901 to accommodate early tourists borne in by stage coach. The path follows the Waihohonu Stream to the exposed Tama Saddle and just over a kilometre beyond hits a junction, where side tracks lead to the old explosion craters, Lower Tama Lake (20 minutes return) and Upper Tama Lake (1 hour return). Whakapapa Village is a two hour walk from the Tama Lakes junction, allowing time to visit the Taranaki Falls before the journey ends.