Two Peaks/Torrential Rains in Tongariro Nat'l ParK

Trip Start Nov 10, 2013
Trip End Apr 02, 2014

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tongariro National Park.  New Zealand's first National Park.  The fourth National Park ever established on the planet.  A UNESCO Natural & Cultural World Heritage Site as of 1993.  Located in the central part of the north island, this beautiful, volcanic active area is home to three of the island's most culturally significant volcanoes and was to be our first multi-day trek: the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

 Having booked the trek months in advance (that's how popular it is), we set out on on a beautiful, calm, warm, sunny Sunday morning.  The plan was to cover the 50-odd kilometer track (the term New Zealanders' use to describe a hiking trail) over the course of 4 days, which would - in theory - allow us ample time to undertake some of the short side trips that branch off the main track.

Well, we started things off with a slight misstep, when we began the trek at the wrong trail-head.  The track is a big loop which can be hiked in either direction.  However, we were unaware that there were two different trail-heads, within a few hundred yards of each other, to allow trampers (New Zealand term for hikers) to head of in either desired direction.  Anyways, after hiking for 45 minutes, we realized our mistake and wrong heading, and were luckily able to correct our course by taking a short side-jog that connected the two trails.  So, having only spent 1.5 hours on the trail, we eventually ended up on the right course, and away we went.

The next 8 km's past by uneventfully as I slowly slogged down the trail, making a pitiful attempt to try and keep up with my younger, albeit, far stronger brothers.  The trail was in pretty rough shape by Parks Canada / US National Park Service standards, as it was heavily rutted, with deep-cut,  troughs sometimes 1.3 meters (4 feet) deep and hardly wide enough to pass through with a large trekking pack on.  Once we had passed through hot humid rainforest terrain, the trail began to undulate it's way through scrub-land on the flanks of the Tongariro volcano.

 While we had made pretty decent time to the Mangatepop Hut and Campground, the weather at noon looked somewhat ominous in our intended direction of travel, so we felt it best to simply set up camp and spend the rest of the day hanging out, and hoping for better weather on day two.  As it turned out, the dark clouds that had earlier engulfed the mountain summits that we planned to climb broke and the weather ended up offering a beautiful sunset.  Shortly thereafter, it was time for a much-needed sleep, with a plan to hit the trail early the following morning.

 Day two saw us break camp in the dark and be on the trail at 05:15.  This allowed us to beat the heat (and the crowds), gain the south crater, and ditch our trekking packs just as the sun began to crest the mountainside ahead of us.  From here, it was light day-packs only and a short, 1-hour (less for the guys) strenuous uphill push to climb to the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe (prn. Knee-ha-roo-ho).  This peak, which was featured as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings movies, stood at 2,287 meters (7,503 feet).  Having slogged my way up the black sand scree-slides the entire way to the summit, I was able to join the guys at the top at 8 am, to an almost perfect morning (except for the cold, whipping 20-30 km winds).

 After a brief stay on top for a bite to eat, to take some pictures, and simply drink in the scenery, it was a short half hour descent to our packs, just in time to bump into 38 other hikers attempting to start what we had just finished!  Perfect timing!!

 Once we loaded up our packs again, we joined the throng of hikers trekking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (one of NZ's most popular single-day tramps), which follows part of the Northern Circuit that we were on.  Even I was able to push hard on the trail and pass a bunch of hikers with day-packs, as I tried to stay up with the bros in our ascent of Mount Tongariro (1,967 meters,   _____ feet).  This second peak had a well-defined, designated trail to the summit, so we kept our trekking packs on and just plowed our way up.  At this point, we were greeted with a great view of Mount Doom!  

 Descending via the same route, I rejoined the day hikers (again passing many of them), as I made my way past the Red Crater, the Emerald Lakes, and some active fumeroles - steam vents.

 After this, it was another steep descent to the valley floor, followed by a trudge through an exotic volcanic landscape, before arriving at the Oturere Hut and Campground.  We set up camp and soon realized that the weather forecast for the following day was calling for heavy rains, strong wind, thunderstorms and possible hail.  So we quickly deliberated on our options and went to bed and the air temperature began to change.

 Well, the rains began about midnight and continued through 8 am the following morning.  As such, we quickly put on our rain gear, took our soaking wet tents down and hit the trail in a misty, foggy, drizzle.  With poor visibility (less than 150 meters, 492 feet) in most places, we followed the trail markers through volcanic terrain and rainforest valley floor, before arriving at the Waihohonu Hut and Campground.  Our original plan had been to have an easy third day, and just enjoy the backcountry, but considering the weather conditions, the forecast for the fourth day, and the extent of our wet gear, we decided to get the hell out of dodge early.

 So we had a quick lunch stop on the patio of the backcountry hut, and then continued following the trail through the ever-persistent drizzle.  It was at this point that we broke the group in two: Kevin and Shawn went ahead, to try and get to the visitor center and get a refund on our skipped third night of camping; Kris and Mike remained with me to encourage my slow ass to keep moving.

 At one point the drizzle turned into a heavy downpour (the kind where the rain droplets are huge and actually sting upon contact) and the trail itself became a mini-river 15 cm (6 inches) deep.  Needless to say, my boots were soaking wet.  But my rain gear and pack cover managed to keep my essentials dry enough.

 As fatigue began to set in around 3 pm, I just turned on the autopilot: I tried to ignore the muscle pain that seemed to permeate my entire body and just plant one foot in front of the other.  We finally arrived back at the trail-head about 4:30 pm, completely exhausted!

 With no real plan, we followed Lonely Planet's advice and drove to a nearby town where we scored an excellent accommodation in a little place called the Mountain View Motel.  This allowed us to dry out some of our gear, have a hot shower, and enjoy a nice, dry sleep.

 All in all, the Northern Circuit provided us with just over 55km (34 mi.) of pristine, beautiful, stunning, and incredibly challenging backcountry terrain.  I would like to think that our brief stay in Tongariro  afforded us a real, true, and accurate glimpse into what this amazing World Heritage Site can offer up.

 Absolutely Amazing!

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