We thought we were prepared for our overnight tramp on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. We reserved a campsite at Oturere Hut months in advance. We checked out the map, and arranged to trim off a boring 7km from the 43km loop by parking at Whakapapa Village and getting a transfer to the Mangatepopo Car Park. We also planned to hit the trail at noon to avoid the morning rush of hikers heading off on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (reputed to be one of New Zealand’s best day hikes). With all this advance planning, we were rather chaffed with ourselves. Our egos were just inviting karma…
The day of the hike, we woke up early and had a leisurely morning, including a stop at Spoon and Paddle for breakfast before heading south from Taupo. Between a stop for petrol and a couple groceries, before we knew it we were scrambling to get our sandwiches made and our gear packed up. We connected with our driver from Ruapehu Shuttles, but he needed to get to another pick-up and drove off before we were ready. We were grateful that they were able to come back and pick us up a couple hours later (and that New Zealand’s long summer daylight meant starting the 14km hike at 2:30pm would be totally fine), but we were annoyed at ourselves for being such unprepared newbs after a month of trekking in New Zealand. The DOC at Whakapapa Village had nice gear, a coffee truck, and an informative nature display, and after a bit of a wait, we were in the van and headed to the trail head at Mangatepopo Car Park!
Mangatepopo Car Park to Mangatepopo Saddle
From there, it is an easy 1 km walk to the turn off for Mangatepopo hut. (We were definitely glad to have shaved off the section from Whakapapa to Mangatepopo because the terrain looked flat and largely unremarkable. Thanks to all those internet reviewers who suggested this hack!)
After Mangatepopo Hut, we began our intimate day-long encounter with the iconically conical Mount Ngauruhoe (which also served as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy). We climbed through the jagged, dried lava from the volcano’s past eruptions toward Mangatepopo Saddle. An informative display shares how recently the volcano has erupted, and with the recent tragedy at White Island/Whakaari, we definitely picked up our pace, as we rounded the mountainside.
As we hit Mangatepopo Saddle, we felt our first gusts of gale force wind. Walking across the saddle towards the Red Crater was like pressing against a wave; we held onto our hats and used our poles to supplement our core strength.
Assisting a Heli-Rescue on the Ascent to the Red Crater
While we were battling 50 km/hour winds, we faced the second dramatic episode of this trek. An Irish woman reached out to Victor from the ground. Her husband had fallen and busted his knee. Victor put his Wilderness EMT training to use–we helped them call for a helicopter rescue, wrapped them in our emergency blanket, and made sure they were good on food and water. We were glad to help because when the man got on the phone, he wasn’t sure what trail he was on, nor could he identify his location on the trail to emergency personnel. After helping him explain their location, we explained the dangers of hypothermia, but we weren’t sure they fully grasped the risk of their situation. They were in the most exposed section of the trail being constantly battered by gale force winds. While a helicopter was on the way, they could have easily died of cold and exposure before it arrived. We waited until they reunited with their kids (who had hiked ahead of them), until we moved on.
After we crossed to the other side of the crater, we were grateful to hear and see their helicopter team circling to pick them up. The fact that this man didn’t have any idea the name of the trek he was on and that someone unfortunately died in that exact spot a week later is a reminder that mountains are not to be taken lightly. Every hike, even a day hike, requires preparation and precaution.
Descending to Oturere Hut: The Far Side of the Moon
After leaving the injured hiker, we were rewarded for our effort with the eerie, incredible views of the Emerald Lakes and the vents pumping steam out of the active volcano. We descended down the Oturere Valley through more jagged volcanic landscape. We figure this is as close to what Mars looks like as we will see on earth.
When we arrived at our campsite, the wind returned in force, gusting up to 70 km/hour. While Victor bemoaned our permit’s mandate that we camp within a certain distance of the hut (rather than somewhere more sheltered), we were happy to find a stunning perch overlooking a water fall and a plunging gorge. We enjoyed a delicious freeze-dried of venison stew (it came with its own separate mashed potatoes) and an incredible view of the volcano in the setting sun before tucking in for some shut-eye…or so we thought.
Battling Wind and Weather While Camping at Oturere Hut
That night brought some of the most challenging weather we’ve faced in our camping experience. The wind howled so violently it snapped one of the lines of our tent, allowing rain to soak any of the clothes we weren’t wearing. In addition, the wind swept a thick coat of volcanic dust up under our rainfly, so we slept with bandanas covering our entire face to minimize how much we breathed in.
When we woke in the morning, we’d never been more jealous of the folks who paid extra to book beds in the dry, stable hut. (However, we did earn street cred and respect from a couple of awesome teenage girls who had convinced their parents to try backpacking after their experience with the Duke of Edinburgh outdoor leadership program.)
Hiking Out from Oturere Hut
The next day, we battled more wind before brief refuge in a birch forest. We stopped at Waihohonu Hut to lay out all our damp gear to dry before continuing through the valley. On this section, we were treated to the jagged snow-capped peaks of Ruapehu, another of the region’s many volcanoes.
While we didn’t take the detour to see the Tama Lakes, we were able to return to the region a couple weeks later and glimpsed them on a helicopter tour of the park!
Taranaki Falls to Whakapapa Village (Lower Route)
At the end of the hike, we took the lower route for a view of the stunning Taranaki Falls. The day hike to the falls from Whakapapa Village is a great alternative if you are short on time because it winds along the stunning blue waters of the Wairere stream through lush and shaded native forest.
Day 2 of this hike was a long, flat hike out, but we were happy for the easy terrain after the drama of the previous 24 hours.