The New Year that I missed - trekking another fantastic Great Walk (Tongariro Northern Circuit, North Island, New Zealand)

Published: January 12th 2010
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(Day 641 on the road)After the Lake Waikaremoana hike, my plan was to spend a few days in the city of Taupo and the lake of the same name, before hiking the four day Tongariro Northern Circuit, another one of New Zealand's Great Walks. Driving over to Taupo, I hit the button "Tourist Attractions nearby" on my invaluable GPS. The very first entry was "Napier Ocean Spa". Perfect! Less than an hour later I was in the pretty coastal town of Napier and in the hot waters. And when I found out that they also had a sauna of top of the various thermal pools in a setting right by the sea, well, what can I say.

I spent the next few days hanging around in Taupo waiting for better weather to start the hike, but it was an agreeable little town in any sense. The council even provided a free camping ground, which was a first for me, considering that you typically have to pay for the privilege to park your car overnight somewhere (which naturally I have successfully avoided so far). The tourist attractions however were mostly disappointing I found (especially the much-hyped Hukka Falls and the grandly-named Craters of the Moon).

My birthday (32 years old now, no secret in case you wondered) was pretty much like any other day on the road, and nothing special really. Birthdays are overrated in any case in my opinion. I did treat myself however to a nice Merino shirt after some lengthy consideration about the high cost considering my tight budget, as one of my shirts has been getting quite worn out lately. In fact, a lot of the stuff I am wearing on this trip has begun to show considerable signs of wear, and I have been forced to start replacing items a few months ago. Maybe even quality outdoor gear is not meant to be worn all the time for 20 months straight.

The next day, maybe as a belated birthday present of some sort, I had my trousers stolen from the Taupo AC Baths whilst I was in the water, together with all my cash, two credit cards, my driver's license and the keys to my van. Great. Pretty ironic as well as I had hesitated to long to buy the expensive shirt the previous day and now I had lost about double that amount in a split-second without getting anything in return. Virginia, the bath manager, however was very helpful, the council even paid for the locksmith to get me back into my car and a new set of keys. Reviewing the CCTV tape clearly showed a young Maori girl taking my stuff and cooly walking out of the complex a few minutes later. Involving the police however has come to nothing, I guess it is a pretty low-priority case compared to more serious stuff the police has to deal with. Anyway, nothing I could do about that. I do wonder however why all the pools here in New Zealand charge extra for safety lockers. In my experience lockers are included in the admission price almost everywhere, so why not here? But of course I have only myself to blame, I was just to cheap to spend the extra two dollars and paid a pretty high price for it.

And then, on the last day of the year 2009, I was finally off to the national park, or rather Whakapapa Village, the access town for the trek in Tongariro National Park I was about to do. The weather forecast finally promised mostly sunshine for the next few days, and indeed I should have beautiful weather during the four day hike, which is very rare in these high mountains (Mt. Ruapehu in the park is the highest mountain on the North Island at 2.297 metres). Tongariro National Park is predominantly famous for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, often said to be the best day-walk in New Zealand if not even the world. A pretty grand claim, but I was soon to find out.

The first day was tame by any measure with just over two hours of easy walking up to Mangatepopo Hut. However, as the next day was going to be long and rather strenuous, it was not really feasible to do it all in one go. At the hut I soon met American Judy and British Jack, and we decided to hike together for the next few days. It was New Year's Eve at the hut, and when the Irish hut warden Margret told the maybe ten hikers here that there was a cheering competition between the huts in the area over the radio at midnight we just smiled at her warily for her lame joke. By 2130h most people including yours truly were in bed, and apparently the last to hit the bunks did so just before 2300h. However, as we found out later there had indeed been a cheering competition, and Ketetahi Hut (our next stop) won hands down with a wild party into the wee hours of the morning.

For me, it was the first new year that I had missed, but as we were up well before six o'clock the next morning and had a long hike ahead of us, it was certainly the right decision. And after spending the last New Year's Eve on top of an ancient temple in Bagan, Myanmar, a mountain hut in New Zealand seems like a decent follow-up. I wonder where I will be next year, provided that my money will last that long (which seems unfortunately pretty unlikely unless I soon move to cheaper countries again or manage to win the lottery somehow - Henry: What is happening to your big plan in that area?).

2010 greeted us with a just beautiful sunny morning in the mountains, and by 0630h we were happily walking along. This day of the hike is part of the above mentioned famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but to say it upfront, we were not disappointed at all. It was a truly magnificent day with some of the most stunning scenery I have seen in a long time. You can do the hike in about six hours or so, but as we were packing a few peaks along the way (Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro), we reached our goal for the day, Ketetahi Hut, some twelve hours later.

The highlight of the day was certainly scaling up Mt. Ngauruhoe, an impossibly steep, active volcano (last major eruption: 1975). The closer we got to the cone-shaped top and its crater, the harder the climb became, scrambling over loose lava gravel as there was no path whatsoever. Two steps up, one step down was the motto. Once at the top the wind was so strong it literally blew us off our feet, and standing up without holding on to something was nearly impossible, let alone dangerous. But the view from up there was nothing short of magnificent. Going down later on was much quicker than anticipated once we realised the right technique: Dig your heels in and run/ slide down as fast as possible on the loose gravel. What had seemed daunting when we were going up had become great fun. It is similar to racing down the loose gravel on Mt. Fuji in Japan, if somebody reading this blog has been up and down there. In the end it took us 2 1/2 hours to go up and less than 30 minutes to race down.

The next two days were not quite as spectacular as the second day, but very beautiful all the same. On the third day we had the most amazing sunset view from Waihohonu Hut where we stayed: A blood-red circular cloud right above snowy Mt. Ruapehu. It looked like the cloud was about to swallow the whole mountain in a minute (see the picture on this page). Judy and Jack proved great company, with similar interests and hiking ability. We were very lucky with the weather, and literally ten minutes after we arrived back in Whakapapa Village on the fourth day, it started to rain for the first time. Wow!

We said good-bye to Jack who was keen to get going, but Judy and I stuck around as we were planning to hike up Mt. Ruapehu. As an added bonus, Judy had booked into a comfy cabin at the closeby holiday park, so after about a month now of sleeping in my van, in mountain huts or in my tent, I had two wonderful night's sleep in a proper bed again (with good showers, kitchen, laundrette etc). Thank you Judy for taking me in! The next day it was cloudy and raining, so there was little point of going up, and instead we drove over to the geothermal area of Orakei Korako (steaming lakes, bubbling mud, the works) for a relaxed afternoon.

The day after however the weather was great again, and after some hours and climbing up numerous steep and slippery snow fields later we were standing next to the emerald-blue crater lake of Mt. Ruapehu. Judy was flying back to the US the same evening from Auckland (about a four-hour drive away), so we were rushing a bit, which was a shame. Going down however was, once again, great fun. Judy proposed simply sitting on our bums and sliding down the snowfields. I thought she was insane as the gradient seemed way too steep, but before I could say anything else she was already halfway down the first slope. As it turned out, the friction from our pants was just perfect for the incline of the snow, and we picked up good speed without loosing (all) control. We were down back at the car park in no time, much much faster than the people ever so carefully walking down across the snow! But as it turned out Judy missed her flight in any case (by ten minutes, how unlucky), so we could have spent a lot more time up there. Ah, if you only knew these things in advance...

Lastly, and somewhat off-topic, I have recently become a huge fan of shooting panorama shots. I have always found it frustrating not to be able to capture wide-angle scenery, and have thus found panoramic images to be just perfect. I have shot and then stitched together quite a few of these in the past few months, and have of course all uploaded them to my flickr account. Have a look if you are interested (this link will get updated automatically and will thus always display all my panoramic shots, including future ones).

Next stop: Whanganui River Journey Great Walk (North Island, New Zealand).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


12th January 2010

Man, I'm so jealous. I only did the crossing when I was there, but enjoyed it immensely, and it was great to see all your pictures of the rest of the loop track. Ngauruhoe sure is a bitch, ain't it? I ran out of water about half way up, and cursed myself the rest of the way up, but still found it worthwhile at the top. I seem to recall at the time agreeing with the whole 'best day-hike in NZ' claim, although I think I ultimately ended up liking the middle day of the Routeburn track and the day hike to Cascade Saddle from the Rees-Dart track even more in NZ. I guess the claim may still hold up if you consider the true 'day-hike' (to/from civilization in one day vs. one day of a multi-day trek) nature of the Tongariro Crossing. Anyways, keep those track reports coming, and best of luck in getting your items back.
12th January 2010

damn cool sunset and cloud,Ben !!
12th January 2010

Happy Bday & Happy New Year
Best wishes for 2010! The Tongariro hike looks amazing. We had bad weather both times we wanted to hike it! Maybe 3rd time lucky!
12th January 2010

Hallo Ben, Du bist ein toller Schreiber und Fotograf! Schrecklich, mit dem Diebstahl, aber das hat dir die Lust am Reisen zum Glück nicht verdorben!! Freue mich schon auf deine nächsten Reiseberichte und Fotos!! Alles Gute und Happy Travels!!
12th January 2010

Great pictures
Thanks for sharing the great pictures of your trek. Happy new year!
12th January 2010

hey ben, mal wieder unglaublich tolle bilder die du eingestellt hast!
12th January 2010

dem kann ich nur zustimmen! Echt klasse und macht sooo dolle Fernweh!!!
14th January 2010

The photos here give me goose pimples. Simply stunning my friend! Dale
16th January 2010

best new years day ever.
19th January 2010

Happy New Year. Jealous of your weather. The crossing was only open for a day. Rain, rain, rain and wind, wind, wind when we walked it. Still good!
13th October 2014

Did you climb Mt. Ngauruhoe with your backpack?
Hi Ben, I plan on doing this track on Dec 31 this year and I wonder what's your advice regarding backpacks while scaling up Mt. Ngauruhoe. Naturally, I prefer to do it without such heavy weight on my back. Is it safe to leave it at the base of the mount, or is it possible to hide it somewhere closeby? Thanks in advance.

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