The Tongoriro Northern Circuit - Day 2: Mangatepopo Hut - Oturere Hut

Published: January 22nd 2016
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Day two of our epic hike dawned and the pitch black sky with cold hard stars shining out were replaced with perfectly clear blue skies. It was freezing cold on the mountain side and we were glad of our hastily purchased thermal layers. We had breakfast in the warm hut and then went out to strike our camp. We had to queue for the long drops as the hut didn't afford any privacy for changing.

We joined the path feeling good and even overtaking day trippers who were just doing the one day Tongariro Crossing - they would be sharing our path for the first few hours. It was funny seeing how some of them were dressed - including split ballerina shoes in one case. They earned the nickname "tourists" amongst us multi-day trampers.

The path was a good boardwalk which climbed constantly but gently through intriguing lava flows and strange basalt formations. Before us, with the sun behind it, towered Mount Ngauruhoe, decked with clouds. We came to a short muddy path, forded a stream and continued on to reach a cascade of water emanating from lichen covered rocks. These were the pretty Soda Springs which are a short detour from the main path.

We picked up the rucksacks we'd left by the main path and continued up the hill. The first few kilometres to this point had felt easy but now we had come to the section of the mountain known as The Devil's Staircase. This is an unrelenting steep slope which climbs five hundred metres in around three kilometres. The views behind us, across the lava flows, were really amazing but it was hard to take them in on our regular stops up the slope because we were too busy trying to take in oxygen. Most people had to stop regularly... Especially those of us lugging four day's worth of supplies and camping gear.

We took the mountain slowly and steadily and eventually our lungs and legs were delighted to arrive at a plateau. This was the spectacularly beautiful, other-worldly South Crater - a wide expanse of yellow rock surrounded by a high rim of grey and black rocks. Steam blew across the perfectly flat floor of the basin giving the area an eerie feeling. It was a real relief to have stopped climbing and we ambled along as if we were carrying no weight.

Here we met a man who had seen the mountain erupt in 1975 and who had walked the path on three previous occasions before having a brain haemorrhage. He was a kind, interesting and inspirational man and we enjoyed talking to him. He had brought his two grandchildren on his latest walk, one of whom was a twelve year old girl with her arm in a sling. Her ability to climb the slope one-handed was impressive.

High above us, to our right, loomed the incredibly steep slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe which we had entertained hopes of climbing... until we saw it. There is no chance that Lindsey and I would have safely gotten up there and certainly we would have struggled sliding down the loose scree slope.

In the shadow of Mount Ngauruhoe, the flat basin rose slightly. We decided to climb to the top of the small ridge and we were glad we did. Hidden behind it was a small circular yellow lake which looked dramatic in the alien surroundings of the crater.

At the end of the Southern Crater the path started climbing steeply again, onto the Mangatepopo Saddle. The rock below our feet was some kind of mudstone, yellow, very slippery and sometimes covered in loose scree. We hadn't gone very far when the cloud came down to meet us. Visibility became very poor and the temperature plummeted. Despite this, we didn't put on our warmer layers because we were still hot from climbing and thought it would be transient. About half-way up the Mangatapopo Saddle chains had been put into the rock to help us - this is how steep and treacherous the mountain had become. With our heavy and bulky packs going was tough. We passed an old couple who told us how impressed they were with us carrying our baggage. We ended up climbing at the same pace as them.

Just before the summit the cloud thickened reducing visibility to only a couple of metres. This was unfortunate as it meant that we missed seeing the impressive Red Crater at the top of the pass. Also, we had planned to take the plateau to Mount Tongariro but, as we couldn't even see the guide poles due to the fog, we decided to pass on by. Not far after this path we came to a cairn and were then excited to cross over the summit.

Our excitement was short lived. We found that on the other side the air was frigid and the wind strong. At the summit the path narrowed due to an outcrop of hot rocks. The cloud condensing on the rocks gave rise to steam which fogged my glasses so I couldn't see. Also as the path was so narrow there was nowhere safe to stop, lay down our packs and add warmer clothing. We were now shivering with the cold but wouldn't be able to do anything until we reached the bottom.

The ground beneath our feet had turned to a thick layer of fine black soil - ash deposited from repeated eruptions of the volcano. This provided little resistance to our weight and was treacherous beneath our feet. The result was that with even the slightest movement we slid down the mountain. Even standing perfectly still you could slip. Sliding downhill is one of the things that I hate the most... I was pretty terrified and had a few hundred metres to go. I wiped my glasses, gritted my teeth, prayed and just kept going. Every so often a boulder would come loose and slide down the mountain. I was also worried that people would topple down on top of me. I fell seven times as we went down the mountain and became resigned to the fact that it was going to happen. At one point, after a fall, I suddenly lost all confidence that I could get down safely. I had a bleak few moments before I re-asserted my will-power and assured myself that everything would be okay

Part-way down the mountain, the cloud suddenly broke for a few seconds. My heart almost stopped with the breathtaking beauty of the scene below. At the bottom of the slope appeared three vividly coloured, luminescent azure lakes which stunningly contrasted with the surrounding black volcanic ejecta. The Emerald Lakes, as they are known, are one of the absolute highlights of the trek and the sight of them made every hardship, every toil and every pain vanish. If there was nothing else on the walk but barren waste-land, it would still be worth four days hiking to get here. By the end of the few hundred metres, which had taken me almost an hour to negotiate, I was gaining in confidence but I was nowhere near bouncing down like some who almost knocked others over or put their foot over the edge of the narrow path.

At the bottom of the soil path we found a sheltering rock and could finally take off our packs safely. The first thing we did was to add some warm clothes and gloves... Just in time to stave off hypothermia. Then we hunched and ate the most delicious, hastily constructed sandwiches. It was around 2pm and we'd been toiling for hours so were glad of lunch.

From our rock perch it was a short walk over a scree slope to the outlying Emerald Lake that our path would turn past. At this point we should have taken a short detour to the Blue Lake but we were too tired and cold to think properly so we missed out on this. The Emerald Lake we walked past was just gorgeous though with Mount Ngauruhoe shrouded in cloud behind and steam vents just above it. The water was a deep shade of green in stark contrast to the reds and blacks of the mountain. We scrambled up a ridge at the end of the lake. I thought the path carried on over the ridge and I was just trying to work out how I would get down when to my relief Lindsey pointed out that it went a different direction.

We carried on down the path which took a steep rocky spur down into the Oturere Valley below. We must have dropped about two hundred and fifty metres in one kilometre over very rough terrain. The path was narrow and wound around red rocks. To either side of us was a precipitous drop. When the clouds cleared, the views from our descent were of a phenomenal waste-land of volcanic debris.

It was a huge relief to reach the bottom and find a generally flat path through the valley. The rock beneath our feet was covered in a layer of volcanic ash which made it quite springy. All around us were immense lava forms which the path wound it's way through. We half-saw these in the mist which gave them a mysterious but imposing feel.

We climbed one last hill which seemed to go on for a long time but as we made our descent we suddenly turned a corner and three hundred metres in front of us was the welcome sight of the Oturere Hut. We staggered in and dropped our packs with relief. After quickly setting up the tent we got a much needed cup of coffee and sat chatting with a Danish couple we'd exchanged words with on the path.

After the reviving coffee we went down to the impressive waterfall not far from the hut. I got into the water and had a wash in the freezing cold flow near the edge of the drop. The water was bracing but it felt good to wash away the strains of the day. We spent the rest of the evening preparing dinner and chatting with other trampers. There was also another hut talk, this one long and rambling but quite funny. Through this it became apparent that there were fourteen different nationalities in the group of 28 staying at the site... quite an impressive display of how international New Zealand's Great Walks are.

We made our way back in the dark to the tent, where our torch failed us just at the moment it started raining. This was extremely unfortunate as we hadn't set the tent up properly and couldn't find the spare. When we finally got everything ready we crawled into the tent just as the heavens really opened. We lay reflecting on the immensity of the day, proud of our achievements and wondering what day three would hold.

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