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Published: January 21st 2016
The day dawned wet... not the start we wanted for the big expedition we'd been looking forward to since we arrived in New Zealand. We were about to start the four day Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk. All of the pictures and the official brochure showed stunning scenery and we were hoping for the same.
Preparing for our expedition seemed to take forever and we wondered how we would ever fit all of the paraphernalia and food we needed to keep us alive in all conditions in our packs. Being able to lift them was going to be another problem. It seemed to take forever but finally everything was stowed and loaded on the car. As we drove to Whakapapa Village, the start and end point for the walk, the weather seemed to get worse. We wondered what we were getting ourselves into.
We went into the Department of Conservation office in Whakapapa to pick up our tickets. Whilst here we suddenly had a bit of a panic and spent $180 on clothing suitable for an alpine climate. It's quite clever of DOC to stock this gear! It was still raining but DOC seemed to think it would clear
so we stopped for coffee and cake. By the time we'd come out it was a little brighter and we saw the last rain drops fall. Our spirits revived with the brightness and we set off on our walk.
We started by passing the ridiculous looking "chateau" in the village centre and then headed out on a really good path over tamed moorland. We dropped down the hill to the forested valley below and took the turn off for the great walk. The path through the forest quickly degraded as this was not territory that day walkers would pass through. It got even worse as the forest petered out to rough yellow moorland. The scenery was pretty, with mist shrouded mountains in the distance.
Generally the path was a dried up stream which had cut a gulley through the mud of the moors. Sometimes we would walk down the middle of the gully, sometimes to one side (often through bushes) and sometimes we would just straddle it. At one point I slipped and landed heavily, with the full weight of my pack, on my knee. I already have injuries to both knees so this was possibly the most
agonising point I could fall on.
Every so often the path would just drop away in a steep ravine which we would have to find a way of scrambling down. For one of these I had to remove my pack, sit on the edge and just drop down, pulling my pack behind, hoping it wouldn't land on my head. As time went on there were more of these obstacles, the moorlands were getting rougher with every kilometre.
We stopped in a gulch which looked like a former river-bed for a delicious lunch of cheese wraps and watermelon. We took the opportunity to rebalance the packs as our shoulders were being wrenched by unbalanced weight. We carried on and found it much easier going.
After a while we realised that, despite the path deteriorating further and in parts becoming a muddy morass, we were finding it easier to keep our footing. It occurred to me that this was he result of us becoming more fearless and believing more that we could do it. It is amazing how believing in yourself can make things, which appeared almost impossible, no trouble at all.
After about five kilometres the path
started climbing for the first time and also started to improve. From a distance we glimpsed the hut where we would be camping for the night and this spurred us on. Behind us, for the first time all day, the snow capped Mount Ruapehu came out from behind the clouds. To our right rose a steep cliff face and behind that the steep cone of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings) rose black into the dense clouds where it was lost. At our feet we found a river-like structure of black and red boulders - a lava flow from the 1975 eruption of Mount Ngauruhoe.
We arrived a few minutes later at the Mangatepopo Hut and were relieved to remove our heavy packs. We found a suitable pitch for our tent and struggled to set it up in the howling wind. We have set the tent up many times but never has it deformed so much under the force of the wind. We prayed it would last the night.
When we had settled down we went for a walk on the lava flows which are a fascinating environment: the earth is soft and springy beneath
your feet; light and airy black rocks lie beneath your feet and occasionally are interspersed with even lighter white pumice or denser orange and red pebbles; white moss, also spongy underfoot, covers the higher patches of rock; other multi-coloured alpine plants are gradually colonising the area. the volume of rock in the flow and the area it covers are immense. Above us clouds lifted and dropped in quick succession over the looming mountain peaks, giving us an ever changing landscape to enjoy.
Following our walk we went into the hut, prepared some dinner and ate it quickly. As we were finishing up the warden came in and gave a "hut talk". He greeted us in the name of God and his tribe who had gifted the land of the Tongariro National Park to the people of the world. He then proceeded to give us a history of the park in both English and Maori. His hope what that by giving us an understanding and awareness of the cultural and environmental distinctiveness that had earned this place double UNESCO world heritage status then we would have a respect for the land. The talk was interesting, though I was too tired
to remember much of it sadly.
Afterwards we had hot chocolate and marshmallows and sat outside in the cooling evening chatting with some of the other trampers who were undertaking the Tongariro North Circuit. By the time we got back to our tent it was pitch black and a fog had descended but to our relief the wind had dropped. We were exhausted from a hard day of walking but excited about the challenges of Day 2.
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