The Tongariro Northern Circuit circumnavigates Mount Ngauruhoe, better known as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings. One of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, the Circuit winds across undulating Alpine scrub, buzzing with flies and chirruping cicadas, before climbing up to skirt the rim of the Red Crater at 1886m and descending again through barren volcanic landscape. The Northern Circuit trails itself is well trodden, clearly signed and well maintained. A lot of the flatter sections are raised on wooden boardwalks. It’s a pleasant Summer trek and its 43km can be covered in two days if you’re reasonably fit.
The Circuit was my first experience of North Island wilderness and it was rewarding, despite some pretty soggy weather (more on that below). The volcanic terrain really differentiates it from the average mountain trekking experience. Like most people, I set off in a clockwise direction from Whakapapa village after some early morning hitchhiking from National Park village. It was easy going to Mangatepopo Hut before the interesting stuff started. As I walked up the Mangatepopo Valley, Mt Ngauruhoe emerged from the drifting mist on my right hand side, its barren flanks scored with the snaking black trails of recent lava flows. An active ‘parasitic’ cone of Mt Tongariro, Ngauruhoe last erupted in 1954; the black rock it spewed out is young and remains free of vegetation.
A 500m ascent up the stepped path led on to the Mangatepopo Saddle; a flat drainage basin north of Ngauruhoe which resembles the surface of Mars. A final climb up to the Red Crater marked the high point of the trail at 1868m, though annoyingly the cloud base at 1700m meant that I saw nothing of Mount Tongariro (1967m). Likewise, the Red Crater itself was wreathed in ethereal mist and though I could sense its scale I could see little of the vast bowl of the crater. I arrived late in the day and was alone – the sense of isolation was overpowering. There really is nothing like being on a mountain in atmospheric weather on your own. The constant whiff of hydrogen sulphide and the red oxidised rocks steaming in the damp air were constant reminders that volcanoes aren’t traditionally the most hospitable of places.
The first day ended with a winding trail through Mordor-like terrain down to Oturere Hut, the second of the three huts on the Circuit. Since I hadn’t booked ahead, I’d decided to bivy out on the mountain in my new Outdoor Research Aurora bivy bag. Unfortunately, the rain started at about 6pm as I finished walking for the day, and didn’t stop for twelve hours! This was my first night bivying out, ever. I’ve camped out hundreds of times but before Tongariro I’d always had a good tent with me. The Hilleberg Akto one man tent is my favourite, and is so compact and light at 1.6kg that carrying it isn’t difficult. The Outdoor Research Aurora bivy, in comparison, weighs just 680g.
The Aurora performed well enough for me to (1) stay warm and (2) get some sleep, which after all are the most important things. But it was a very rainy night, and pretty much everything inside the bivy got damp thanks to condensation building up (despite venting through a 15cm unzipped length by my face), plus the fact that I was pretty wet to begin with anyway. A major problem with bivy bags is that opening the zip in rain is necessary, but moving around inside the bag makes it infuriatingly easy to let more rain in. However, the Gore-Tex was excellent at keeping rainwater out and I had no complaints about the durability and quality of the build. When bivying, you have to adjust your expectations and expect an inevitable trade-off between convenience and comfort. I would like to see how the Aurora performs after a ‘dry start’ to get a better idea of just how much of the dampness was condensation versus how much was from my soggy clothing when I got into the bag.
The second day began as soon as the sunlight began to brighten the sky at about 6am. Packing up was quick. After a brief stop at Oturere Hut to brush my teeth, I was off at 6.45am, before any of the other trekkers got moving. A few light spots of drizzle soon surrendered to a fresh, dry breeze as I wound my way south over the eastern foothills of Ngauruhoe. A few more kilometres of beautiful barren terrain gave way to a thick beech forest nestled in a small river valley, before a steep climb out through the soggy foliage led to to Waihohonu Hut. From here it was a relatively less interesting and pretty straightforward final 14km back to Whakapapa. I finished at 1.40pm, for a total of thirteen hours of walking (including breaks) over the two days.
The verdict? The Tongariro Northern Circuit was an enjoyable first trek in New Zealand and a nice introduction to its alpine, volcanic environment. Wild camping on the Circuit is a real alternative to staying in one of the huts, since you can still obtain fresh water from the huts when you walk past them anyway. You don’t need to book ahead, and it’s free. Just remember to camp a minimum of 500m from the main trail, because New Zealand’s Department of Conservation forbids camping any closer to Great Walk trails. Despite some fairly miserable weather, the Outdoor Research Aurora performed well enough, though I would always choose to carry a one man tent in bad weather!