When we lived in Taupo we were regular visitors to Tongariro. In the ten years, or so since we left the Tongariro Crossing has been ruined by its own success and is usually a procession of over 2000 every day, fuelled by recommendations Lonely Planet and other guidebooks. I do not know the answer to this, but one is desperately needed. This wonderful country is getting more and more international visitors every year and it is only going to get worse.
The northern circuit is a great walk and suffers a degree of popularity too, and the crossing is part of the tramp. The only solitude open that section is a side trip up Ngauruhoe (and the summit of that lovely mountain is tapu so please do not tread there) or maybe the side trip to the top of Tongariro itself.
The round the mountain track circles Ruapehu and is a different animal altogether. It is a tramping track and can be hard work, but it is magnificent in its splendour and refreshing in its solitude. We had done some bits of this previously. We had tramped from Whakapapa to the Ohakune mountain road one weekend with Jan and Margareet. The rain was very heavy and the river crossing just before the Mangaturutur hut was waist deep. After a deep sleep in the hut, the climb up the waterfalls was a mad scramble through running water. On a separate occasion, we had walked with Richard from the desert road to Whakapapa, again in torrential rain which forced us to miss out on the trip to the Tama Lakes.
In December 2018 we filled in the gaps with a lovely three days from the Ohakune mountain road to the desert road. We used an AirBnB at the Ngauruhoe ski lodge as a base, and we were their first guests. The lovely couple were excellent hosts and shuttled us to and from start and finish with a minimum of fuss and expense.
I had rashly bought the NZTopo app before we left and was very impressed. Provided you use the app online before you go, the tiles are saved and they can be used for navigation with the GPS marker providing reassuring evidence you on track. Even offline it uses up some juice, so take a USB bank or a solar charger if you are out for more than a day. No more maps needed – as long as you have power.
For the first time, perhaps because of a lack of fitness and an ageing body, I wondered about a PLB. I think we need one: purchasing one for $500 would guarantee we never needed it.
The first half day is a lovely stroll through beech forest, past a lake before some boardwalk through the tussock to Mangaehuehu hut. Its a nice three or so stroll and allowed me to exercise muscles that had not been used for a while.
The hut is lovely with sweeping views over the Ohakune plain and the Taihape valley. All the huts cannot be booked and sleep about twenty or so. We lit the fire and warmed up as a trickle of other visitors arrived. An English family, now resident in Rotorua, were entertaining, the doctor/father carrying a whole host of stuff they never needed. Another couple were TA walkers and had travelled 40km or so from Whakapapa as they took a break from the trail. Their lightweight gear was very interesting, especially the Zpacks and the Cuban rain dresses. The rain was torrential overnight and the wind very strong, but the mist cleared and the sun came out as we left at 8 a.m.
The second day is only 9km or so but it is a six-hour walk, up and down as the track crosses all the streams that run off the mountain. The further east you go the drier the terrain until it becomes a genuine desert. The biggest up and down is across the Wahianoa river which threads its way through a huge u-shaped glacial valley. Its a 100m or so down and up, with a rather spectacular bridge across the river in the bottom. The ascent is hard work as it climbs up through scree and sand, three steps up and two steps back.
From here its a deceiving three or four km with a quite a bit of hard work as the track bobs up and down and gradually ascends to the high point at Rangipo hut. This is another twenty bunk hut in an even better position: its right on the edge of the desert with a backdrop of the snow covered peaks and glaciers of the Ruapehu summits and a front vista across the desert towards the Kaimanawa Ranges. It really is stunning and was made even more magnificent as cloud formed in the valley in the evening leaving us perched way above them.
The final day starts rather dramatically with a thirty-minute crossing of the lahar valley: there are warning signs not to linger here as the crater lake, if it burst, would sweep water and debris through the valley. We ignored the claims and explored the sand dunes and volcanic bluffs before reaching the safe zone.
From here there is a hefty pull up to the Turoa skifield road. The reason for such an excellent signal on our phones became apparent as a huge relay tower hove into view. I can’t remember a stronger signal at any hut compared to these two. From here there is a steep descent into a long and seemingly endless desert valley. There are some more ups and downs which were taxing as we had only 5ooml of water each, but eventually, you find shade as the track winds down a dry river bed to Ohinepango Springs. These give a nice spot for a breather with crystal clear water bubbling out of the ground. These are sacred so be respectful around them.
Another twenty minutes or so takes you to Waihohonu hut, a majestic palace of a Great Walk hut with solar panels, picnic benches and a very friendly warden. We lunched here, filled our water bottles before trudging the last hour or so out to the desert road. The last bit of this track is very confusing as you walk out: the orange markers disappear in a myriad of off-road vehicle tracks. Fortunately, the road is audible and helps orientation as you burst out of the desert onto a busy main road. Our shuttle arrived shortly after us and we loaded our sunburnt bodies into the car and headed for a shower and a beer.