Tongariro Northern Circuit

I’m writing this post looking out at Lake Aniwhenua, a small lake that is omitted on most maps. I’m looking out and see a group of Maori boys paddling along the lake, grunting and paddle out of rhythm. The wind is blowing and my fingers are freezing but this is the best campsite thus far. I have a picnic table, there are trees for my hammock and the bathrooms are clean. Happiness is easy when you don’t have much.

A few weeks ago I completed my first solo-backpacking trip! Even though the trip was short – two nights and three days -it was monumental for me. The day before I stayed in the Mangahuia Campsite, just outside of Whakapapa Village where the trailhead was located. I spent the evening packing and cooking for the next three days. In attempt to eat healthy I prepared spinach and sausage with potatoes and extra butter. Don’t ever bring potatoes on a backpacking trip. That should be one of the top 10 rules. Why did I bring the heaviest starch known to man? I’m not sure. BUT those buttery potatoes tasted damn good after eight hours of hiking.

Ready to go
Ready to go
Skinny trail
Skinny trail

The next morning I was one of the first cars out of the packed campsite, eager to start on this walk. I filled my MSR gas canister with petrol from the nearest station. I never used my stove, but it’s good to bring in case of emergencies. At the Tongariro Visitor Centre I grabbed a map and added my name to a list in case of emergency. The first day was only three hours, 8.5k, to the first campsite, Mangatepopo. It was a rough start though. The trail was narrow, with not even enough room for my trekking poles, and muddy and slippery. Also my poles, Black Diamond Distance FLZ, were a liability this day. They weigh only 15 oz and fold up to 13.4 inches. But when the tips get stuck in the mud the sliding piece comes loose and I’m left with a half erect pole, and the bottom half is dangling. And so, every 30 steps I stop to reattach the bottom part of my poles or I slip and fall hoping that I have a trekking pole to stabilize me, which happened twice. One was a nice vertical slide down a muddy ditch my right half smeared in brown. I finally made it to the hut and was greeted by Sue, the hut warden.

Tent!
Tent!
Mangetepopo Hut
Mangatepopo Hut

The campsite was situated right next to the hut and I began to set up my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1 tent, which I totally scored and purchased for 50 bucks! This was my first night using the tent and it’s ultra light indeed. There are no poles to establish sides, only three raised points to create a body-like shape. This means falling asleep to the sounds of rattling tent during windy nights. I can sleep anywhere, so this wasn’t a problem for me. After a quick nap I entered the quiet hut. All ten campers were either reading, writing or preparing dinner. At 710 we had a hut meeting, required by all hut wardens in New Zealand, where Sue introduced herself, explained the hut rules and gave us the weather report for the next day. I fell asleep around 830 after completing a few word searches. The next morning, around 8am most of the campers had left. I started on my way after a quick coffee and yogurt.

All smiles...
All smiles…
Boardwalk
Boardwalk

The first hour was flat and steady, mostly along boardwalks, which are common along trails in NZ. I followed along a stream that weaved around old lava flows from when Ngauruhoe erupted in 1949 and 1959. At the toilets situated near Soda Springs I de-layered and asked a German couple to take my photo. Bad. From here it was a climb. From Mangatepopo campsite to the highest point, Red Crater, it was nearly 2250 feet. Like not reading a movie summary before watching, I did not read the track overview for this hike. Pro is that I didn’t psyche myself out. Con is that I couldn’t prepare mentally for this incline. There was LOTS of stopping and cursing. I walked with a Spanish couple for most of the climb. The woman and I would share desperate glances at one another, rolling our eyes and gasping for air while day hikers passed us. We were hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a 3-4 day journey, whereas most of the hikers were only completing the Tongariro Crossing, a day hike. There was a flat portion in the South Crater, not a real crater but a “drainage basin between the surrounding volcanic landforms.” The trail and the 40 to 50 people I could see were covered in clouds; a threat of white hanging around swallowing each hiker as they climb into the clouds. I kept trudging on since it was cold and misty.

Before the climb
Before the climb
Trail markers
Trail markers

There are no images from the climb to Red Crater because I was more concerned about staying alive. It was blowing around 35mph during the hour it took to conquer the crater. I was literally moving inch by inch; my legs like lead and my hips stubborn. This was truly a mind over matter experience. If not for my heavy pack I might have been blown off the crater with gusts throwing me to the right. I am a dramatic person and this was evident when I would take a step then fall into the gravel, my knees surrendering to the wind. Passerby’s lean over and yell, “Are you okay?” Sentences were too much work. “Yes. Pack, heavy.” At the peak of my desperation I found a large rock to crouch behind. My rain cover was flapping away and my trekking poles were horizontal in my hands. I took five minutes to readjust when a German man joined me and asked if I was okay. Seconds later another man said to us that there was a gray sleeping bag “down there.” I look at the bottom of my pack and I shout, “That’s mine!” I pass people and ask if they’ve seen a sleeping bag? All they see is a crazed woman with arms flailing and eyes wide. Only 40 seconds of eternity passed until I spotted my pack on the gravel. I hug it and run back to the rock where the German man was holding my pack down because it was starting to fly away. I buckled my sleeping bag on and the German man begins to, calmly, teach me a slipknot. “This is a very easy knot and will be easy to undo.” Man! This is not the time nor place. He wishes me luck and runs into the mist. Ten minutes of heavy walking and there is a huge cluster of boulders that about 20 people are huddled behind stuffing food in their mouths. Shivering from the cold, but eager to get over the crater. I spot the Spanish couple and fall into their laps. After a quick lunch I give myself a motivational speech, which was basically just GO. This got me to the highest point where finally the Emerald Lakes were visible. It was one of the best rewards after a grueling climb – the small pools of blue hidden among the red and browns of the crater. I would have cried if I had any energy left to produce tears.

Emerald Lakes
Emerald Lakes

The descent was quick, but maybe just as dangerous with the slippery rock. After a quick break at the lakes I began the final long stretch of 7.5 miles to the second hut, Waihohonu. I was the only person turning off for the hut whereas everyone near me was continuing straight for the carpark. But it was nice to be alone for the remaining four hours where the landscape was moon-like with strange boulder formations and shrubbery.

Rock formations
Rock formations

With sore shoulders, hips and feet I arrived at the campsite. After a quick nap I entered Waihohonu, which is called the Palace of the Park because it’s more like a ski lodge then a backcountry hut. I recognized two guys who were at the first hut with me the night before. We discussed hatred of umbrellas and visiting Australia, where they were from. Apparently the busiest place on a Friday in the capital, Canberra, is the airport because everyone is flying to another city in Australia. I slept like a baby that night but awoke to a rainy morning. The last day was short in comparison, only five hours. I zoomed through fields that resembled Montana, but with a smaller sky (!!). The last hour was, as always, treacherous with the landscape unimpressive and my feet throbbing.

Historic hut with Australians out the window
Historic hut with Australians out the window
Landed in Montana
Landed in Montana
Taranaki Falls
Taranaki Falls

Upon seeing Jack the Van I was elated but also overwhelmed at the small adventure that just took place. Every day presented a new and distinct challenge, most of it mental but also physical. I had no hand to hold or friend to shoulder my complaints, but that also wasn’t something I needed or missed. In the end you are the only one who can provide self-motivation. You are the one who decides to keep going. So GO!

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