Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Tongariro Northern Circuit (NZ) - Oturere to Waihohonu

The shortest day of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, the 8.1 kilometre third day takes walkers from Oturere to Waihohonu. Leaving Oturere Hut, the track journeys through more desert-like rugged terrain before entering beautiful rainforest on the home stretch to the thoroughly modern and comfortable hut at Waihohonu. Featuring worthwhile side trips to Old Waihohonu Hut anOhinepango Springs, this is another enjoyable day on the circuit

Distance: 8.1 km (one way)
Gradient: Moderately easy, with mild ascents and descents
Quality of Path: Largely unmodified through through the rocky 'desert' sections, and then well formed tracks through the rainforest
Quality of Signage: Well signed at all trail junctions, with expected time and kilometre information to the next landmark
Experience Required: Bushwalking/Tramping Experience Recommended
Time: 2.5-3 Hours
Steps: Several formal and informal steps in places
Best Time to Visit: Great Walks Season; at other times alpine experience is required
Entry Fee: No
Getting There: The track starts at Whakapapa Village. From State Hwy 47, head towards State Hwy 48 and follow the road up to Whakapapa Village. Parking for the Great Walk is located across the road from the lawn before Chateau Tongariro with a parking permit available from the visitor centre, located a short walk up the road. The trailhead is located behind Chateau Tongariro on Ngauruhoe Terrace

While New Years Eve celebrations did not run too late and featured lovely platters of canap├ęs courtesy of the hut warden, Alissa and I had a terrible night of sleep at Oturere Hut. The temperatures inside the hut were uncomfortably warm, and our bunkmates did not want to open the windows due to the sandflies. While I understand not wanting the sandfly bites, I would have gladly accepted them instead of being drenched in sweat in a stuffy room. Additionally, while we were in a room with fellow snorers, I was woken up for snoring several times in the middle of the night even though others were snoring like chainsaws. The only good that came of being woken up at 1am was stepping outside to cool down and seeing the stars. Although Alissa and I have camped in areas like Karijini with clear, dark skies, the stars were even more vibrant and spectacular here at Oturere. It made me think of our friend Mark Pybus from the Life of Py who loves astrophotography and would have had a real kick out of this. 

Alissa and I woke up early enough to see sunrise from the hut, and we gathered all our gear out of the room for an early departure. We had not enjoyed Oturere as a hut at all and were keen to get going as soon as possible, especially given that Waihohonu promised a more modern and spacious design.

Breakfast outside the hut in the morning was quite lovely, with the glow of golden hour lighting Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe. After finishing our breakfast and the last bit of packing, Alissa and I were once again the first hikers heading out for the day. An American couple had brought some fold out chairs and were sitting out on the track looking out at the beautiful landscape, and they told Alissa and I that they were super impressed that we were always up early and ready to go so quickly.

At 8.1 kilometres, the day from Oturere to Waihohonu is one of those very short days that sometimes occur on multi-day walks, however while short the landscape is fairly interesting. Like the previous day of the Tongariro Northern Circuit after the Emerald Lakes, the landscape on this day is mostly an arid-looking moonscape. While this is New Zealand and their version of dry is still too wet to be technically a desert, the area looked like the sort of place one might expect to see R2-D2 being ambushed by Jawas.

For the majority of the day, the track is a mix of relatively gentle walking with occasional dips down into dry creek beds that likely only flow after heavy rain and when the snow melts for Mt Ngauruhoe.

Due to the rain two days prior, there were some pools along the creek beds, however the general appearance was more similar to dry Western Australia than the wetness normally associated with New Zealand. 

While mostly treeless and rocky, there were some interesting transitions in the landscape that kept it interesting. Some sections were rocky and rugged, and then we would climb out of a valley into an area that was comparatively smooth and sandy.

For most of the day's kilometres, it appears as if Mt Ruapehu is the main goal for the day, however Alissa and I knew that the day's short distance meant we couldn't possibly be heading that far. While lacking in trees, Alissa and I had no idea where the track was taking us, however with plenty of marker poles to follow it was very easy from a navigational standpoint. 

Further along the way, Alissa and I crossed a creek that, while barely a trickle, was still at least flowing.

The view from the creek was excellent, as it provided yet another angle for us to admire Mt Ngauruhoe from, with the patches of snow providing us with a clue as to how far around the mountain we were. 

After rising up one last dry creek bed, Alissa and I found ourselves along a broad flat at the top of rainforest-filled valley. From here, we could tell that the track was going to descend into the valley. Remembering the elevation graph, we knew we would rise up the other side as well, and that the hut would not be much further along. 

With the day still young and with no other hikers anywhere near us, Alissa and I took a moment to appreciate the views of Mt Ngauruhoe before continuing on.

Alissa and I noticed that the area looked as if it were covered in patches of snow, which didn't seem possible given the warm weather of the last two days. 

On closer inspection, it was a bloom of white flowers that created the illusion, with the particular flowering plant being in profusion along the valley rim.

After following the rim for a short distance, the track eventually descends down into the valley. 

A remarkable change in landscape occurs as the track heads into rainforest. Alissa, always a fan of rainforest walking, said that the transition felt like a weight was lifted from her. Not that she didn't like the arid moonscape walking, but there is something about forest that always makes her feel more at ease and at peace. 

As the track heads to the bottom of the valley, the track crosses a fast moving branch of Waihohonu Stream.

The stream is crossed by a sturdy bridge which leads to the steep climb out of the valley. 

The climb here is must steeper and longer than the descent, however the Gondwanan landscape provides lovely scenery and cool shade to rest in. 

Reaching the top of the valley, the track once again transitions briefly to arid moonscape while providing fantastic views overlooking Mt Ruapehu. While waiting for Alissa, a hiker heading the other direction kindly offered to take my photo while I did the same for her. With her and her friend heading down into the valley towards Oturere, I was able to sit down and have the mountain views to myself for a moment. 

After Alissa caught up to me, the two of us began the descent to Waihohonu Hut. Making our way down, we could see the hut just on the other side of another pocket of rainforest. We were well and truly on the home stretch. 

The rainforest walking was once again very enjoyable as the track plunged down towards to the hut. 

With all the steps and sloping descents, I twisted my ankle at one point, however while it was painful there was thankfully no damage done. 

The track passes through the camping area for those electing to use a tent instead of staying in the hut. Unlike Oturere and Mangatepopo, the campsite at Waihohonu is a further distance away from the hut, which is a bit odd given that of all the huts on the trail Waihohonu is undoubtedly the one that can cater to tent campers who wanted to make use of the facilities. 

Just after the tent campsite area, the track crosses a bridge over another branch of the Waihohonu Stream, with a swimming hole located upstream of the bridge. 

Rising up from the stream, Waihohonu Hut comes into view. Immediately, Alissa and I were taken by how massive the hut was. It certainly seemed to share DNA with Anchorage Hut on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, but seemed even larger and more modern by comparison. 

Entering the hut, there is a large mud room for hikers to hang up their gear. This is a room that features strongly in Tasmanian huts like on the Overland Track and Frenchmans Cap, and is a great way to keep the hut clean by encouraging hikers to leave their dirty gear here before walking through the rest of the facility. 

After the cramped hut at Oturere, Waihohonu was pure luxury, with large tables and benches all throughout the main dining space. Similar to Anchorage, the large windows were positioned in such a way as to take advantage of the views, with Mt Ngauruhoe just casually looming in the background beyond the trees. 

Additionally, the kitchen was so much better geared up for use by hut and tent walkers alike. Where the previous huts had maybe one tap and four burners that could be all placed close together, Waihohonu had four sinks and a whopping 8 gas burners that was much easier to share amongst the groups. 

While more spacious, the sleeping is mostly the utilitarian bunk platforms that had been a feature of the other huts. While not as bad given wider corridors and higher ceilings, it was still not ideal. 

That being said, with Alissa and I being the first ones in for the day, we were able to claim two of the best beds in the entire place; in an annex just after the kitchen, there are four individual bunks that provide the best comfort. As with most days on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, this was another occasion where the early bird hiker certainly get the good bed worm. 

With most of the day still ahead of us, Alissa and I initially took a moment to chill out and enjoy the lovely views from the hut's spacious deck.

Given the short length of the day, it is just as well that Waihohonu has not one but two worthwhile side trips that can be reached from the hut. After both were recommended by the hut warden, Alissa and I headed out to tackle them both. 

The first one is off the main track on the next day of the Northern Circuit, however with Alissa and I keen to get to the end for a celebratory meal, we decided it was a worth the 15 minute walk to check out on this day given we had the entire afternoon. 

Hidden behind a grove of forest is Old Waihohonu Hut - the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. This hut was an important stop for overland journeys across the North Island in the 19th century, and has been restored and well preserved given its historical significance. 

The main room of the hut is very much like the older vernacular huts Alissa and I have seen in Tasmania, particularly bringing to mind both Du Cane Hut on the Overland Track and Twilight Tarn Hut on the Tarn Shelf Circuit. Like Twilight Tarn, Old Waihohonu has been converted into a bit of a museum display, with skis, mugs and other memorabilia hanging on the wall. 

Near the window, a number of billies are set up cleaned and upside down as the sign asks visitors to leave them. 

Access from its own door is the tiny ladies' quarters. While the men had a lovely roaring fire that I imagine was accompanied by pipe smoking and drams of whisky, the ladies' quarters are an austere affair of corrugated iron and nothing else. Certainly, equality (or even temperature control) were not a consideration back then at all. 

Having enjoyed the old hut, Alissa and I began the next, somewhat longer side trip to Ohinepango Springs. This had been highly recommended by the hut warden, who said we should bring as many water bottles as we could carry with us to fill up. The track to the springs follows part of the Round the Mountain Track which goes all the way around Mt Ruapehu in a similar fashion to the Northern Circuit going around Mt Ngauruhoe.

With cloudless skies, the day was getting pretty hot and uncomfortable, and the track certainly felt longer than it really was.  Alissa decided she didn't want to go any further after we reached a series of steep steps heading down, and I continued on by myself. Not long after the track crosses a bridge over a stream. This stream is fed by Ohinepango Springs and thus meant that the springs were now only a short distance away. 

The track to the springs runs upstream and head along the edge of the stream.

When the hut warden had said a spring, I had been expecting the kind of gently trickling springs we see in Western Australia. Ohinepango Springs were a massive gushing out of water from an underground aquifer filled with ancient glacial water that had filtered down through the rocks over centuries only to bubble up at this point. The water was delicious and refreshingly cold, and I skolled an entire bottle before filling it up again to take away. I then filled my second bottle and Alissa's water bladder to maximise the amount of spring water we had for the rest of the trip. 

Heading back to Alissa, I couldn't help but notice how crystal clear the water was. While a longer side trip than the old hut, this was definitely a highlight of the day and well worth heading out to. 

After returning to the hut and having an afternoon nap to make up for the crappy sleep the previous night, Alissa and I spent the rest of the day enjoying the hut and surrounds. We played cards in the hut, enjoyed lazing on the outside deck and went for a swim in Waihohonu Stream. 

Later in the evening after the hut warden gave his talk, he looked out the window and pointed out that the Sun was looking very interesting and that we should go out and photograph it. What we saw looked like a blood moon, but was actually the sky being blocked out by smoke from the bushfires back home in Australia having made their way over to New Zealand. While beautiful in its own way, this photo will always be a reminder of how horrendously destructive the 2019-2020 fire season had been in Australia - so much so that the effects could be seen across the Tasman Sea.

While the third day of the Tongariro Northern Circuit is short and not quite the spectacle of day two, it was nevertheless an interesting day of walking that featured a good mix of barren rocky terrain and rainforests, with a number of lovely streams that culminated in the beautiful Ohinepango Springs. The short day is more than made up for by the luxury of the Waihohonu Hut, which allows walkers to relax and enjoy the area in spacious and comfortable surrounds, and the two side trips are entirely worthwhile. 

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