Sunday, 29 December 2019

Tongariro Northern Circuit (NZ) - Whakapapa to Mangatetopo

The first day of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, this 9.4 km day explores the west side around of Mt Ngauruhoe. Starting at Whakapapa Village, the track passes through low grasslands, heath, and pockets of rainforest. Crossing Wairere Stream and a number of drier watercourses, the day finishes at Mangatetopo Hut, which provides views of Mt Ngauruhoe in clear weather. A good start to one of New Zealand's iconic Great Walks

Distance: 9.4 km (one way)
Gradient: Moderately easy, with mild ascents and descent
Quality of Path: Very clear and well maintained to start with, then becoming rough, eroded and muddy in places
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 steps in places, especially over bridges
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

Finishing up the Abel Tasman Coast Track and flying back to Auckland to collect our road tripping hire car, Alissa and I had a brief sojourn in Taupo before commencing our second Great Walk - the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Due to Lord of the Rings fandom, this was the New Zealand Great Walk I'd wanted to do the most, with plans to do it going as far as when we finished the Overland Track in 2016. With somewhat lousy weather and terrible visibility, Alissa and I drove up to the start of the track at Whakapapa Village, got our parking permit from the visitor centre and made our way to the trailhead located behind the grand, Wes Andersonesque Chateau Tongariro. Lacking in the major statement archway at the start and end of the Abel Tasman, the trailhead for the Tongariro Northern Circuit is a more humble affair, initially following the same route as the Taranaki Falls Track. 

Running concurrently with a tourist-friendly day walk, the track initially starts as an immaculate, well constructed tramping track similar to the high quality of the Abel Tasman Coast Track. With white out conditions, the scenery was limited to the alpine grasses and heathlands that would dominate much of the day's walking. 

It is however not all alpine heath and grass. During the first half of the day, the track crosses through small pockets of remnant rainforest that has managed to survive the volcanic eruptions that have occurred throughout this active volcanic region. 

Most of the rainforest pockets are in valleys or sections with streams flowing through them. The rainforests provided us with some variety during this first part of the day. Given that Gondwanan rainforest is some of Alissa's favourite vegetation to walk through, she was really enjoying this part of the walk. 

Through the forest, the trail descends in places as it leads towards Wairere Stream.

Before reaching the stream, the track enters a small section of grassland after which the day's longest and most sustain stretch of rainforest is entered. 

Sections of the track through here are under boardwalk, and with the rainforest surroundings it definitely brought back memories of hiking in Tasmania - particularly the first day of Frenchmans Cap

At a junction in the track, the Tongariro Norther Circuit splits off from the Taranaki Falls Track as it crosses a bridge over Wairere Stream. 

The bridge provided a lovely vantage point to take in the views of the spectacular rock-lined stream in action. While the track crosses multiple streams over the course of the day, this was the only one with a substantial flow. I didn't realise it at the time, but this is downstream of Taranaki Falls with the water flowing from the nearby Mt Ruapehu. Given that Ruapehu is the only place in the North Island that still has glaciers and is snow-covered throughout the year, it makes sense that there would be a lot more water flowing from it than the much smaller Mt Ngauruhoe (AKA Mount Doom) that is the focus of this walk. 

Beyond Wairere Stream, the track gets rougher and wilder, with a number of shallow crossings being a hop across rocks. Orange markers provided clear directional information that would be extremely important when this area is snowbound in the winter. 

Less noticeable in the forest, the white out conditions had not improved as we found ourselves back in the low grasslands and heath. There was no way for us to know we would normally have been able to see Mts Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. For all we knew, the terrain could have been anything at all, but at least the track was easy to follow. 

While initially under boardwalk, the track became much rougher and more eroded as we went on, and we entered some sections that were quite muddy. Not Tasmania levels of mud mind you, but certainly not dry boot standard. 

While we would encounter the odd shallow stream, the day's walking is dominated by a series of bridges crossing rocky water courses.

While these were dry apart from the occasional puddle, the provision of bridges suggest that can be much deeper and faster flowing. Undoubtedly, these water courses are filled by snow melt and help drain the mountain after significant rain events and as the winter's snow melts away. 

While relatively gentle in elevation loss and gain, the track did feature some short rocky sections that required us to climb up and over short boulders. These rocky sections were actually a bit of a treat as most of the walking was eroded, muddy soil.

While the visibility would not be great until much later in the day, we did notice vast improvements over the second half of our day's kilometres. We could actually start to make out the shape of the landscape around us instead of the narrow sphere of visibility we had experienced for most of the day. 

With little landscape for us to read to give us an indication of progress, landmarks like these stairs provided us with some points of distinction along the way. We passed a number of hikers heading out from Mangetepopo who were able to let us know how much further we had, and by this stage we were more than halfway there. 

With the visibility clearing up, we could see a nearby hill to the north-west of the track. With the cloud rolling around it, the hill reminded me of the Stirling Range back home in Western Australia, which has the indigenous Noongar name Koi Kyeunu-ruff, which means 'place of ever-moving mist and fog'. Somehow this name felt rather apt for the landscape Alissa and I found ourselves in now. 

As we continued along the track, I was excited to just make out the shape of a white building in the distance. As we got closer, I was certain it was Mangatepopo Hut, which meant we would be joining onto the Tongariro Alpine Crossing very soon. 

Sure enough, Alissa and I saw small groups heading out on the crossing as we neared the junction. Considered the best day walk in New Zealand - and one of the best day walks in the world - the Tongariro Alpine Crossing runs concurrently with much of the second day of the Northern Circuit. Given the alpine conditions, the crossing is best done on days with good weather, clear skies and low wind - all the things that were lacking on this day. On a good weather day, the crossing can have 2500 people doing the walk in a single day but on this day the numbers were much lower. With 100 kilometres winds said to be blowing over Red Crater, Alissa and I were glad that this was not our second day of the walk as it would have thrown a complete spanner in the works. Several hikers who had it planned for Day 2 had to reverse their plans and use car access points to do a flip-flop version of the circuit. 

Joining onto the Alpine Crossing, Alissa and I only had 420 metres left to walk for the day. 

Being a tourist-friendly day walk, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing has more informative signage than is found on the rest of the Northern Circuit. The information signage provides a lot of information about Maori culture and history, which allows walkers to better interpret the landscape they are walking through. For those doing the circuit, this cultural aspect is reinforced even further by the hut wardens who regale trampers with stories of Maori mythology, history and culture. This is a great 'add value' aspect of this Great Walk that made the experience all the more interesting. 

Leaving the main track, Mangatetopo is reached via a short spur trail. The campsite features a hut, toilets and some low key tent sites.

After the luxury of of Whariwharangi and Anchorage Huts on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, Mangatepopo was a much smaller and older style hut. Indeed, this hut was built in the 1970s and is definitely showing it is from a different era.

While fairly old, the hut facilities are decent, with a heater in the middle of the room. Unlike the Abel Tasman Coast Track there is no treated water here, however the upside is that gas stoves are supplied. The downside of this is that no one brings a gas stove and unlike the Abel Tasman, the tent hikers can use the hut facilities. This is understandable, but it means 30-40 people are all cooking dinner on four burners. It would be cool if an outdoor camp kitchen could be built for the tent campers to use as an extra 4 burners would make all the difference to making this less of a congestion point at dinnertime, plus the large deck at the front of the hut could do with a few extra benches to improve access to the limited supply of tables to eat at. 

The bunk rooms in the hut are fairly small and spartan, with a fairly crammed in feel common to the era. While a step down from the single bunks we had for most of the Abel Tasman, the provided mats provide that extra level of comfort not seen on most hikes in Australia.  

Arriving first as we did, I was able to claim the luxury of the one single bed in the left bunk room. As always, it pays to arrive early if you want to have a good bed in a shared hut space. 

With our days kilometres done fairly early in the morning, Alissa and I passed the time by eating lunch, playing Monty Python Fluxx and talking to the other hikers making their way to the hut in drips and drabs. 

By the afternoon conditions had greatly improved. Instead of the grey skies and dense cloud, the Sun was out and the cloud was much more sporadic. Winds were still probably not ideal but we met a few hikers who had made it over Red Crater in spite of the potentially dangerous conditions. 

By the late afternoon we were getting glimpses of Mt Ngauruhoe. At its clearest we could see almost all of it except for its very peak. Clear views would have to wait for the next day, when the weather forecast was for clear skies and 5 kilometres winds. How's that for good luck!?

While visibility may have been low for most of the day, this was an enjoyable first day of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. The low visibility gave the landscape a sense of mystique, and the fact we never really got to see all of Ngauruhoe on this day only served to make the reveal of the next day all the more satisfying. Some walkers apparently skip this day, and while it is probably the least interesting day of the entire circuit it was definitely worth doing. A good start to our second Great Walk. 


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