Tongariro National Park Volcano adventure

Weather forecasting can really put you off. My friend Ben and I had a great plan to run the 3 peaks of Tongariro National Park in a one day mad volcano scramble, but the weather was less than ideal. Sometimes it is easier to hope for another opportunity in the future, but inevitably it never happens and the chance for a great adventure slides away.

Still, holding on to the thought that there never is poor weather, only  poor clothing choices, we drove to the Tongariro National Park discussing alternatives.

The ‘alternative’ ended up been the best trail run I have done for some time. A lap of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, distance  44 km, including the popular Tongariro Crossing.

It was a good choice, as all 3 of the peaks we intended to climb where hidden in dark ominous cloud shortly after dawn as we looked across the plains from the Chateau carpark towards Mt Ngauruhoe.

A middle aged German couple in a vehicle asked us for directions to the start of the Tongariro Crossing as the Conservation Office was not yet open. Then armed with fully laden running packs including wet weather gear and carbs of choice, we trotted across the wide expanse that separates Mt Ruapehu from Mt Ngauruhoe.

Running near the Chateau

The Department of Conservation (DOC) have been investing a decent slice of their annual Government handout into the Tongariro National Park. The track was hard and fast, with wooden platforms over wetland and steps up embankments to prevent scouring. We made good time, knocking off the 9km in 1hr 15min to the start of the Tongariro Crossing and before long we were part of the steady hiking procession that is a daily occurrence in the summer months on this trail,  even with the threat of heavy rain.

The wind was gusting ferociously as we ascended the devils’ staircase but we had time to laugh with the German couple we met previously, who had driven from the Chateau carpark to the start of the Tongariro Crossing, while we had run the distance, and now had caught up to them again.

Basically all the hikers we passed had made good clothing decisions, which was good to see. I have completed the Tongariro Crossing many times over the years and clearly less people are willing to risk exposure to the elements over the Pass than in previous years, although the odd plastic sack jacket was amusing, buffeting around the person like an unpegged tent.

The easterly was blowing strong and just before ascending the exposed South Crater, we donned our own seam sealed jackets and pressed on past the groups hunkering down behind stark black and red volcanic rock that provided a number of nooks and crannies from the wind.

I stopped to peer into the usually impressive red crater and could see nothing but steam mixing with windswept cloud blowing hard back into my face.  A quick scramble down the scree to the Emerald Lakes brought Ben and I out of the cloud and we stopped to appreciate the emerald green lakes that are aptly named.

At this point we arrived at junction point where 99 percent of the people on the trail complete the Crossing after about a further 2 hours hiking past the Kitetahi geysers.

We stashed our coats away and took the path less travelled, heading out on the Northern Circuit towards Oturere  Hut and after a quick descent, rubbed off all our elevation gain in a few short minutes.

Moving well, we were surrounded by majestic cliffs of red volcanic rock and bizzare volcanic shapes on the valley floor,  following the trail as it snaked between them.

The chance of rain was diminished and the heat of summer sun could be felt pressing through the high cloud cover.

And then in a moment, a lazy step cost me, sprawling forward onto my hands and knees, the sharp edges of the rock grazed my knee and palms.  A trifle embarrassed, I quickly dusted myself off and we arrived a short time later at the Oturere Hut for an early lunch and I was able to clean the grit out of my minor grazes.

The early afternoon was spent jogging in a wilderness like no other in New Zealand. Mt Ngauruhoe was always a presence to our right, still cloaked in cloud, as we circumnavigated it and in the distance to our left, the Kaimanawa Range gave us a feeling of remoteness and adventure.

The well trodden path was easy to follow and it was just fantastic to be out here, the wind now just a fresh breeze, making the trail running conditions perfect.

In no time we could see the impressive Waihohonu.Hut in the valley, beautifully sighted by DOC to appreciate both Mt Ruapehu in the distance and Mt Ngauruhoe directly in front. We let our tired legs have their way and flewdown the valley side, enjoying undulating but descending single trail second to none to the Hut.

The Waihohonu Hut is worthy of a short overnight trip on it’s own, with large windows and high stud, internal heating and a wooden stove with wrap around decking, it is equal to the Milford Track huts.

We probably stayed a little too long, re-hydrating and eating the last of our food, and left with slow heavy legs, with 14 km and a gradual ascent over the pass on our way home back to the Whakapapa Village.

The earlier discussed side trip to Tama Lakes failed to materialize as we both understood how the other was feeling. The rolling and ever rising volcanic plain seemed to conceal the usually prominent Chateau from our view. After a couple of hours of knuckling down, landmarks from the morning began to take shape and all of a sudden, there it was, the Chateau, yellow and blue, beautiful under the grey cloud and shining like a lighthouse, calling us home.

Funny how the legs can pep up a bit when the mind knows the cold coke in the cooler is now a near certainty, not just a future hope encouraging us on.

The drive home to Tauranga seemed short as we reminisced on a great day out, when the rain threatened but never materialized and the wind blew itself out to the steady cooling breeze.

The Butter Chicken and Lamb Korma washed down with a glass of beer in Taupo was DELICIOUS.