Waitangi Weekend 2023: after all the recent weather events, we were DETERMINED that our plans for the weekend would go ahead. Dan, Gord, Andy and I loaded up the car and set off down to Te Awamutu, driving in mostly rainy conditions to hike the 45km Tongariro Northern Circuit track. We stopped in Hamilton at Good George Brewery for dinner with Flint and Cole, the first time we had seen them since our wedding (which was such a busy day it didn’t really feel like we saw enough of them).
We spent the night in a humble hotel, before continuing on to Whakapapa, stopping for pies and coffee on the way. I didn’t have coffee: I had foolishly (accidentally) skipped coffee the day prior, and although I had a splitting headache, I wanted to see the withdrawal through. I definitely didn’t expect my headache to end up lasting 48 hours though! I did pick up a $4 ham and salad filled bun, that would transpire to be one of the best filled buns I have ever purchased – who would have thought?! The rain got harder and the visibility felt like it was at an all time low. The boys kept making jokes, and I was too afraid to look out the window – I HATE hiking in the rain. We pulled up at the Whakapapa iSite, donned our raincoats and headed inside. Part of me was hoping there would be some kind of advisory against the crossing (that way we could at least say we tried and it was out of our control), but alas, we were merely informed that there was capacity for us to stay in the first night (Waihohonu Hut) but not the second. We were doing the circuit counter-clockwise, and cramming four DOC days of hiking into just three – so day 2 was going to be a big ol’ day.
Day 1: Whakapapa Village to Waihohonu Hut (15.4km, 5 hours 45 min)
We set off in a drizzle that verged on heavy rain. Fortunately we were canopy-covered for the first hour or two, stopping to appreciate the tumbling Taranaki Falls (which were particularly impressive after the recent rainfall) and pausing for lunch when the rain broke (cue: consumption of my delicious ham and salad filled bun). The terrain wasn’t too difficult, any soreness merely came from doing a 15.4km walk off the back of very little training. We passed the turn off for Tama lakes, on this wet day we opted to give them a miss. I think we were the last group to arrive for the day so our bed choices were slim. We grabbed the communal upstairs bunks (which the four of us had to ourselves) and changed into our comfy (and dry!) clothes. The first evening was a fun reminder of why I love camping – cooking up our food, playing cards, chatting over tea and chocolate, and yes, in bed by about 9pm.
Day 2: Waihohonu Hut to Mangatepopo Hut (8.1km to Oturere Hut, 12km to Mangatepopo Hut)
Early to bed, early to rise. Believe it or not, when I rolled over and checked the time (7.04am), Andy and I were the last to rise in our cabin. We hauled ourselves out of bed into the communal lounge, where the floor to ceiling windows perfectly framed the blue sky and entirety of Mount Ngāuruhoe. Waihohonu Hut was one of the nicest DOC huts I have ever stayed in – it was modern, spacious and obviously well set up to provide incredible views, when the weather allowed.
We set off to Oturere Hut with the goal of stopping for an early lunch. After climbing up and down through some native bush and beech forest, we emerged amongst a sprawling landscape that resembled something from outer space. It was rocky, steep and actually quite tough going. I told the boys to go ahead and get the water on for lunch, while I put a podcast in and tried to ignore the climb. I arrived to a steaming bowl of noodles and an enjoyable set up in the sun. The focus was on re-energising for what we knew would be an exhausting afternoon.
For the second time that day, we headed out. Mount Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro loomed in the distance. There was a slight feeling of disbelief that we would be climbing up and over the gigantic mountains in front of us, but I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other and not overthink it. The boys quickly outpaced me, and for my own sake I encouraged them to go ahead while I continued to burn through podcasts. I must say, it was a little intimidating to see them clambering up ahead of me and knowing just how far I had to go.
I enjoyed plodding along, alone, appreciating the magnificent terrain around me. It was in stark contrast to any of the other Great Walks I have done, and most New Zealand hikes generally. There was a distinct lack of greenery, replaced instead with large rocks, mosses and evidence of geothermal activity rising from the hillside ahead. Eventually I reached the bottom of the Emerald Lakes, where the boys had all stopped to wait. This is where the trail linked up with the Tongariro Crossing, so we started to encounter a few hikers coming towards us.
Looking up was daunting. There was a steep hill to climb, made up mostly of scree. People were scrambling their way down it and after several hours of hiking already, we were about to start the steepest part of our climb. I kept stopping to peek backwards at the azure coloured lakes behind me and eventually to the red crater on my left. It was exhausting and we all felt it! I didn’t have blisters before, but I was starting to get them now.
As we came over the summit, the weather slowly started to close in around us. Gord and Dan somehow managed to up the pace, something my feet wouldn’t allow. Despite my suggestion that Andy also go ahead, he stuck with me. It was pretty slow going coming down the hill, but as our descent came to an end, we spotted Gord and Dan waiting for us with some soul warming miso soup they had prepared. Boy, did that hit the spot! We reached camp in good time to set up our tents and have dinner outside, as the sun set and before the rain hit. We played some cards but the cosiness of the rain enticed us all to bed early.
Day 3: Mangatepopo Hut to Whakapapa (9.4km, 4 hours)
Packing down wet tents mayn’t be ideal, but I’d take it over putting up a wet tent anyday! Cramming the last of our possessions into our bags (which took a surprisingly long time as Andy kept finding more of his things in the tent as we were trying to fold it up!), we headed out on the trail with renewed enthusiasm for reaching the end. We’d overheard a lady making an ‘official’ complaint about the portion of the track we were about to embark on to the DOC ranger the night prior, so we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. It was swampy, it was muddy and we spent the better of our time basically leaping side to side above giant water-filled ditches. It wasn’t great, but it was a fun adventure and gave us something to focus on besides the walking! Mount Ngāuruhoe faded in and out of view on our left hand side, and while it stayed mostly dry, we could sense the rain was never far away. The clouds started leaking water just as we were closing in on the car, and just as I could feel my blisters resurfacing. Soon enough, we piled into the car, smelly, wet and excited for some real food. We drove to Taupō, where we scouted out somewhere to eat, before being informed that ‘they had run out of food’ (on the Sunday of a long weekend – not ideal!!). We ended up at Crafty Trout Brewery, located near Pauly’s Diner – where we finally got our burgers. The beer left a lot to be desired but we started the drive back to Auckland, bellies full and satisfied. Another successful hike on the books, we were all glad we hadn’t let the weather stop us!