After Rotorua, we headed south toward Tongariro National Park. On our way there, we spent one night camping in the Kaimanawa Forest. As we neared the campsite, we saw a 10 K (6 MPH) speed limit sign. We wondered what must lie ahead considering the speed limit on most roads is 100 K (60 MPH), even when it doesn’t seem possible (or safe) to be driving that fast on all of the winding, narrow roads. Turned out it was a single lane bridge over an enormous gorge. After crossing, we pulled over to take a closer look (and laughed as we saw the speed limit on this forest road immediately went back to 100 K after the bridge). The gorge was massive – looking down gave me instant vertigo.
That night at camp, we had an unexpected visitor. We had left our cooler outside and Jay woke up to the noise of a brush tail possum trying to claw it open. He scared it off before the little guy had any success. Needless to say, the cooler has stayed in the campervan overnight since then.
The next morning, we got an early start to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – one of the most popular one-day hikes in all of New Zealand. Since it partially overlaps with the Tongariro Northern Circuit we would be doing on another day, we did it as an out and back hike to see sections we wouldn’t cover as part of the circuit. We started the hike where folks typically finish the point to point route, and as such, we did not come across any other hikers for the first few hours. The weather was a bit mysterious that day – blankets of clouds moved in and out, with periods of sunshine and clear skies in between. The clouds moved fast and created an ever-changing landscape that was fascinating to watch unfold.
Along this section of the trail, there is still an increased volcanic risk following the Te Maari Crater eruption in the area on August 6, 2012. The crater is just one mile from the Ketetahi Hut, which is now a day shelter only – they no longer allow overnighting there since the eruption. Volcanic risk signs are posted at different points along the trail, some with indicator lights on the risk level. The crater is still visibly smoldering.
Maintenance work was being performed along sections of the trail. Throughout the day, we watched as a helicopter made numerous supply drops to the workers on the trail.
As we made the the ascent toward Blue Lake, it became increasingly cloudy. Before long, we were walking through a dense fog that made it difficult to see the trail ahead. Thankfully, the trail markers are bright orange and sit atop bright blue sticks, so they can still be spotted despite the conditions. It was so foggy, we passed by Blue Lake without even seeing it, even though it sits right next to the trail. In fact, we didn’t even know we had passed it until someone coming from the opposite direction asked us how it was. On our way back through later in the day, the skies had cleared and we were able to see it.
After Blue Lake, we made our way toward the emerald lakes. Their brilliant coloring is caused by minerals washed down from the thermal area of Red Crater. When we first arrived, the sky was cloudy. Then, as we sat down to eat lunch, the sky turned blue in a matter of minutes. It was fascinating.
Near the emerald lakes is the Oturere Valley. When you arrive at this valley, it feels like walking straight into a Lord of the Rings movie. And rightfully so – this is the heart of Mordor, where many scenes were filmed. We watched as the clouds moved aggressively overhead, changing the landscape before our eyes.
When all was said and done, we had hiked 14.5 miles over the course of 7 hours. The next day, we took a day off from hiking and spent a relaxing day in nearby Okahune. After so many back to back days of hiking, it was a much needed break for our bodies.
That night, we packed bags for our first overnight hike – the Tongariro Northern Circuit. The circuit is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”. There are a total of nine Great Walks – three on the North Island and six on the South Island. The circuit does a 26.6 mile loop around the northern half of Tongariro National Park.
The Department of Conservation recommends doing the circuit in 3-4 days (there are 3 huts along the route). We decided to do it in two days and stay at the Oturere Hut at about the halfway point. On day one, it took us six hours to cover the 13 miles to the hut. The day started off foggy with some light drizzle, but then turned into some of the most extreme weather I’ve ever hiked in. I’ve experienced extremely windy hiking before (in Patagonia, it was so windy, it shut down transportation in the park). And I’ve experienced very cold hiking before (hut snowshoeing in Colorado). On this day, we experienced a combination of extreme wind, cold, and rain combined. There were moments when the rain let up and we were able to get some better pictures. Overall, the conditions were much worse than they seem in the pictures.
There was a stretch where we climbed 2,200 feet over the course of roughly 5 miles. The conditions were brutal during that section – sideways rain with winds so strong it was hard to stay upright. I nearly fell over several times and Jay actually did fall over. He was absolutely fine – in fact, he was beyond fine. It was during this section that with the biggest smile on his face, he yelled over to me, “This is awesome! This is an adventure!” Personally, I would have preferred a nice, sunny day. There was a stretch where I thought to myself, “I could be in a nice, warm bed right now. But instead, I chose to do this?!?” I let myself bemoan for a few minutes, then told myself “get comfortable with uncomfortable” (thanks Coach Manthey for posting that on FB the day before). I thought about how I’m going to face moments much tougher than this when I do my first Ironman in six months and how I must develop my mental toughness. I said a prayer, then started singing songs in my head. The one song I could not get out of my head was “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” from Annie. At one point, I just started laughing. The wind was so fierce it was ripping my poncho apart. I looked ridiculous, but I suppose it did add a dramatic effect to the pictures and videos that we took.
Just before the summit, I started smelling sulfur from the Emerald Lakes which sit on the other side of the ridge. That’s when I knew we were getting close to reaching the highest point of the trek. I was hoping the wind would die down some when we reached the other side and started descending. Thankfully, it did.
The descent down to the emerald lakes was steep, and on loose dirt, so it was a bit more like slide/shuffle than a walk. When we reached the lakes, we stopped to eat lunch. As we were eating, the rain picked back up again, so we quickly got a move on. The next section of the hike descended into the large, mystical Oturere Valley (where where they filmed Mordor scenes for “The Lord of the Rings”. Walking through the valley felt like stepping into another world. The wind and the rain along with fast moving clouds added to the effect.
After about an hour walking through the valley, we reached the hut. We had made it. I was thrilled to find out it was warm and toasty inside. I would sleep well tonight (thanks to ear plugs that drowned out the snoring from fellow hikers).
The next day, it was more of the same weather – cold, wind, and rain. Which made for a long 13+ mile finish to the circuit. We walked fast and got back to the campervan in five hours. In total, the 26.6 mile circuit had taken us 11 hours over the two days. The redeeming factor on the second day of the hike was that on several occasions, the sun peaked through the clouds and the rain, creating spectacular rainbows. It seemed a new rainbow awaited us at each new bend.
And so, we had completed our first “Great Walk”. It was an experience we will never forget.