Tongariro Northern Circuit: Day 2, The Tongariro Crossing and Flute-Playing Elves

I woke up…alive! Ahh the small things we are grateful for every day in the wilderness. To be frank I think it would be hard for many hikers to die on a walk this popular. If it was too cold, you would have caught me crawling to the DOC hut and scratching on the door, eventually paying the ranger my extra fee and curling up in front of the fire place. As you can tell, I have a strong, dignified survival instinct.

Peeking out of my tent I discovered the most humbling view of the challenge to come – Ngauruhoe looming above, beckoning. We packed up our tent and set off with a fevered attitude, I believe it was around 7.30am. As we dropped down a small hill, waving goodbye to Mangatepopo hut, we suddenly came face to face with what felt like hoards of people. It was like Sylvia Park on a Saturday morning. I felt irritated. I suddenly had to be polite in the middle of a hike! “sorry”, “excuse me”, “sorry can I just (get past?)” I wish I was exaggerating but I’m not. Hundreds of people.

It’s understandable why so many flock to this journey, I have never felt my jaw drop open so much. The first 40 minutes leading up to the Devil’s Staircase was one of the highlights of the walk. Almost as if Peter Jackson and his team at Weta Workshop had come down and dressed the set themselves. Surrounded by black lava crags, and a jagged ridge on your left, you walk on a mixture of boardwalk and rocky path, kindly undulating, with Naguruhoe on your right, getting ever so big. There were tiny streams weaving their way under foot, with rust-coloured water, little flowers and more gorgeous tussocks and grasses. Heavenly.

A sea of jagged lava

A word to the wise, go to the bathroom before, and don’t drink too much water until you are half-way between Mangatepopo hut and the Devil’s Staircase, I got caught out and had to walk, napkin in hand, quite obviously, far away from the track. And I’m pretty sure someone saw me. The landscape does not rise above a short man so BE PREPARED to hold until the base for the toilets, don’t humiliate yourself (and your partner) on that stretch.

Views from the Devil’s Staircase

The climb was not as bad as I had heard. My workmate said she “tasted death” going up. Oh it is hard, but if you can do a gym class for a half hour you can do this. We took about 2-3 good 3-5 minute breaks. I only saw about 4 people tasting death so that is good odds for the unfit. The views became very ‘bird’s eye’, and the ‘perfect nipple’ suddenly became dappled with blacks, greys and deep reds.

Rocks on Mt Doom
View from Mt Doom, Ngauruhoe

My partner decided to summit Mt Doom. He left me sitting in the shadow of a boulder for around 2 hours as he receded into a tiny spec, inching his way up the steepest volcano I have ever seen. So brave. I quite enjoyed squinting and tracking his path, feeling quite thankful I didn’t attempt it myself. I think I would have if I didn’t have knee issues, but they hold me back from anything I know to be sharply angled. It took him about 1 hour 10 minutes to get up, 20 minutes to walk around the crater soaking up the views, and 40 minutes to return. To get to it he headed in it’s general direction until he saw a not-really-a-path, and followed some other mad-hatters. The terrain was scree with lots of loose rocks, so no pack and hiking poles is recommended. He reported that they would yell “rock!” to each other when they saw something tumbling. The footage from the top was incredible, the panorama shows off Upper Tama Lake, Blue Lake, Mt Ruapehu, Mt Tongariro and all of the crossing bar the Emerald Lakes.

When I lost track of him I felt worried, I was also cold and tired of sitting on rocks, suffice to say I got a bit sookie by the end. When he finally returned I made him lunch of tuna wraps with cheese on wholegrain burritoes, and we set off quite quickly. I was starting to lose my momentum, and it was getting quite nippy when the clouds rolled over. I ate my wraps too quickly, and ended up having the worst indigestion, last time I eat day-old cheese.

Hurrying through Red Crater

Red crater was otherworldly, red like Australia’s center, and Mars-like with it’s formations. Feeling rather exposed in Red Crater, I could see how you could easily die there. It was flat as a pancake inside and the wind whipped around the crater in a menacing way. At the other side there is a scree infested slope to climb. I became very stressed here, and flustered with all the people wanting to get past. Irritated, I could not find the right temperature, taking this top off, then layering and so on. I remember swearing profusely and digging deep physiologically to get to the top, slipping around on the scree. The sweat I produced was from fear, and my face was as red as a baboon. The view from the top looked out over what they called a desert? The view really was phenomenal. If I was in a better mood at that stage I would have stayed for about 10 minutes. A little walk along the ridge you begin to turn towards the Emerald Lakes. At the top, the geothermal activity rivaled Rotorua. I gazed from the red puffing crevice to what looked like a cliff. A cliff we were supposed to climb down… scree infested the slope that dropped down to the emerald lakes. I could see Blue Lake in the distance. The clouds were grey, spitting occasionally. I had a strong urge to get down of this maunga (mountain). At the top of the cliff we noticed two people dressed as elves from Lord of The Rings. One even played a theme from the movie. This was a geeky highlight for me 🙂 .

In the worst mood ever

I’d say my behaviour and mood deteriorated when I started the steep drop to the lakes. My partner taught me a way to get down, but gee, it was tough going. I fell over many times, and was sweating with embarrassment and anger as I slowly made my way down, side stepping like a 90 year old man. This was not my finest hour. My partner was incredibly patient with me, offering help and moral support along the way. I believe at one stage I said “I think you’ve helped enough”, not sure what I meant at the time…then soon after I completely lost it and said “just fuck off!”. Like I said, not my finest hour. I’ve noticed that in my hardest moments I’m desperate for help, yet have such conviction that I can, and must, do it by myself.

The Emerald Lakes are what you would expect. Dazzling, dreamy, and the lightest turquoise you would find in the Maldives. After the painful slog getting there, the lakes perked me up, like water on a thirsty plant. They are a set of three, with the largest at the top. Fringed with yellow, they scream out to be swam in. I saw a lonely seagull bathing, of all things, and wished I could paddle around on the surface with him.

Tragically iconic picture
Seagull on a sea of emerald

I took a side trip by myself while my partner read his book next to the lowest lake. After his Mt Doom trip I was surprised he was standing. He just commented on having slightly sore knees, oh to be young again. The Blue Lake side trip was a 15 minute walk away with a slightly steep incline just at the end. I had left my pack and noticed how bizarre it felt walking without it! I felt like I was flying, running even. I was underwhelmed by Blue Lake, I feel that Lake Taupo is prettier. That being said, Emerald Lakes may have set the bar too high.

We reconvened and skirted our way around the lowest lake and towards Oturere hut. It was a steep decline with scree and fixed (sort of) rocks for what felt like a 500-700km. It was rough, at times my balance gave out and I got low to the ground like a salamander and gripped anything with my hands for support. A Chinese couple walked past like nobody’s bin’ness and put me to shame. I can’t explain the view, I can only show you a picture to depict the view that we saw going down this steep bit. Would make a menopausal woman weep it would. We descended onto a welcomed flat section and trudged along after wolfing down some fruit straps and a snickers bar. This next section before the hut was about 5km, but felt much quicker, and was joyful, there was no one in sight! It felt like taking a deep, cool breath on a hot day. We laughingly joked we were about to be attacked by Warg riders (LOTR in-joke), and marveled at the scenery. The rain clouds descended, and we rugged up. It amazed me how changeable the weather was, in the middle of summer! This section of the walk would have been extremely different in winter, or even spring. It seemed like we were hopping over dried up sandy streams, I’m not kidding you, it was like a lava field at the beach, sand everywhere! The view behind us was of the ‘triple threat’ i.e. Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.

The picture I mentioned…
Ngauruhoe and Tongariro

A rainbow shone over us when we spotted Oturere hut. I think because of the day we just wanted to pitch and disappear that night. The hut was lovely, small and cozy again. The fire was roaring and adults played cards while the children bounced all over the bunks. For dinner we made our first Ramen Bomb. This consists of a packet of 2-minute noodles with instant potato flakes mixed into the broth. Surprisingly tasty and full of sodium. We had seconds, cleaned up and crawled into our tent. I was exhausted that night, and cold. I wrapped my emergency survival blanket around my sleeping pad to insulate it (bring a pad that is insulated people), and hunkered down for the night. Despite the wind and rain that had descended, I don’t think I’ve ever fallen asleep faster.

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