Hiking “Round the Mountain”, Tongariro National Park

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A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to head to New Zealand for KiwiFoo and a few other work meetings. I only knew I’d be going about a month ahead of time, but I wanted to fit in a few days backpacking after the conference. After some research, I settled on the Round the Mountain trail, because it was between my work destinations of Auckland and Wellington on the North Island, but promised a secluded experience in the wilderness. I ended up having some wonderful moments on the hike, but it didn’t all go to plan. Since I enjoy being a cautionary example to others, here’s the story of how it went!

Preparation

Planning the route was comparatively easy, thanks to the internet. The official website was surprisingly helpful, but I also found quite a few professional guide pages, and some useful personal trip reports. Looking back, I got quite an accurate idea of what I’d be tackling from the research, especially the personal posts that covered the areas that had proved difficult. The ‘ratings’ on the professional sites weren’t helpful, ranging from easy to moderate to hard, and from a distance it was hard to estimate the time it would take without knowing the expected speed and experience they based it on. I ended up being overly optimistic hoping for a three-day trip, but left myself enough room in my schedule to let it stretch to five if I needed to. The one thing that I couldn’t find anywhere, even in Auckland book stores and outdoor shops, were paper maps of the area. I was set up with a GPS, but I didn’t feel ready until I had a traditional backup. From chatting to folks at the stores, the Topo50 physical maps are no longer being stocked, since anyone can download them and print them for free. This doesn’t give you a large water and tear-resistant map though, and it also isn’t easy to manage while you’re traveling, so I was happy when I found a good map at a gas station closer to the trail head.

I had knee surgery last year, so even though I’d been cleared to keep hiking I wanted to be cautious. I’d been biking a fair amount, and getting in occasional hikes, but it had been over a year since my last overnight trip, and several years since I’d done serious multi-day backpacking. I spent several weeks doing two short hikes up a steep hill every day with a backpack I’d weighted down as much as I could, in the hope of building up my stamina and fitness enough to keep up a strong pace, and stay safe if the footing got tricky. I went from woefully out of hiking condition, to reasonable-but-not-great. More variety in my training hikes and at least one mountainous overnighter would have left me in a better place, but I’m glad I at least was in decent shape when I faced the trail.

Monday

After driving down from Auckland and arriving late, I stayed at the Chateau Tongariro in Whakapapa Village. This was very close to the trailhead, but with breakfast, picking up some last-minute supplies, doing the final packing of my backpack, and checking in at the visitor center to pick up the hut passes I needed, along with any advice they had, I didn’t get out on the trail until noon. I knew there was bad weather due in a couple of days, but I was committed to tackling the hike as best I could, and figured I’d see how things looked as time went on. I felt well-prepared with equipment and experience, I wasn’t going to keep going if conditions left me feeling at all unsafe, but I also knew I was doing it solo which I normally wouldn’t recommend, especially in an unfamiliar area.

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The trail surface was beautifully-maintained on that section of the walk. Gray gravel, clearly-defined edges, and lots of markers left me feeling more confident. There were some steep sections, but even with my backpack on I managed the 8.5 mile walk to Waihohonu Hut in four hours, when the official estimate was five and a half. My hope had been to continue another 7.5 miles to Rangipo Hut, but with my late start that would have involved some trekking through the dark, so I decided to make camp. I had a bivouac tent, and set up in the campground below the main hut. I did pop in to say hi to the folks gathered there and check in with the warden, but after a long conference I wasn’t feel too social. I sensed that wasn’t culturally appropriate and that I was expected to make more of an effort to bond with the group, but I was after some time alone in the wilderness!

Tuesday

I knew this would be a long day, and after my relative lack of progress on Monday I needed to make an early start and would have a late finish. My goal was Mangahuehu Hut 12.5 miles further on, past Rangipo Hut. After the pace I’d kept up for the first section, I was hopeful this was reasonable. It was southern-hemisphere fall, so I only had 11 hours of daylight from my departure at 7am, but that seemed like it should be plenty. I soon discovered the trail was a lot tougher than I expected though. I’d left the section that was shared with the Tongariro ‘Great Walk’, and the route and condition of the trail became much worse.

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There were still frequent marker posts, but often there was no worked trail surface, just stream beds and fields of pumice. The trail wound up and down across a seemingly-endless series of valleys and ridges, and by lunchtime it was clear I was moving more slowly than I’d hoped, even falling behind the official estimates. On top of all that, this was waiting for me:

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I had prepared for the practical problems of being a solo hiker, but I hadn’t thought too much about the psychological ones. I knew the lahar valley was coming up, and had been looking forward to some interesting terrain and a tiny slice of danger when I researched it from the safety of home. When I got there, it was unexpectedly hard. The river always seemed to make a loud roaring noise, the trail was often hard to see, four hundred metres felt like a long way, the route was hard to follow, and it was technically very challenging. I got very focused on getting through as fast as I could, and wasn’t thinking clearly. As I was climbing out of the other side of the valley along the side of a cliff, I found the rock-ledge I was on narrowing. Rather than stopping, looking around, and thinking, I shucked off my backpack, left it on the shelf and inched along the ledge to the next section of trail, leaning into the cliff-face and trying to keep my balance. I heard a crash, and saw my backpack had fallen off the ledge. Thankfully it was only a twenty-foot drop, but it could easily have been me. Sobered, I finally took a good look at where I was, and realized that the current trail was down below me, near where my backpack had fallen, and I’d been following an old one that had been washed away. I carefully made my way down, retrieved my backpack (thankfully nothing was damaged), and made my way uneventfully out of the lahar zone.

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I left the valley chastened. I like to think I’m conservative about safety, but by not paying attention to the trail, and then forging ahead instead of backtracking when it became dangerous, I’d taken a very dumb risk. I was lucky to get away unharmed. Looking back, I could see I was so focused on the distant lahar danger that I’d lost perspective and freaked out. I don’t think I’d have made the same mistake with other people around, just the process of talking about what we were doing would have grounded me a lot more. The experience made me realize how insidious panic can be. I didn’t realize how badly my judgment had been skewed while I was in it, and it left me with a lot more compassion for the folks in news stories who do stupid things during a crisis.

Finally at around 1pm I made it to Rangipo Hut. By that point I was an hour behind schedule, tired, recovering from my scare, and not looking forward to the next section. I filled up on water, chatted to the folks staying in the hut, and heard they were planning on sitting out the coming storm for the next few days. The weather was still fine, with nothing serious expected until the next day, so I decided to press on to Mangaehuehu.

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I soon hit Waihianoa Gorge. My photo doesn’t do it justice, check out this one by another hiker to get an idea of the scale, but it was wide, deep, the trail was mostly loose scree, and I had to go all the way down it and back up the other side. The descent was treacherous, but not too dangerous when I did slip. I took a couple of falls but just got a few more scrapes and bruises. Heading up was a slog, but actually had a much more defined trail. I then headed across some very technical terrain, apparently lava flows and hills of ash and pumice, where the trail was hard to spot and seemingly little-used. I started to hit patches of forest, which made a pleasant change from the moonscapes I had been hiking, and had a much better tread, but also posed a challenge as sunset approached.

I put on my headlamp, and picked my way through the trees and streams for about an hour in the dark. I was so tired that I was just confused by the odd behavior of the moon. One minute it was full, lighting my way, and the next time I looked, it was just a sliver. Without thinking too much, I shrugged this off as more New Zealand quirkiness, much like their flightless birds and fondness for “Yeah, no.” Of course, it was actually a lunar eclipse! Thankfully I made Mangaehuehu Hut at around 7:30pm.

It was occupied by a group of three local deer hunters who’d been there for several days. They were just getting into bed, but there was a nice set of bunks free for me. I had been planning on tent-camping the whole time, but the lure of a roof over my head was too strong, and I didn’t want to spend time setting up and dismantling a shelter again. I had some decisions to make about the next day too. I was woken up several times during the night as the remnants of Cyclone Ita brought gale force winds to rock the hut. I’d checked the upcoming route, and if I was going to do it in one day it would involve as much hiking as I’d done today, with much of it along exposed ridgelines.

Wednesday

I woke up at 4am, and knew I had to abandon my hope of doing the full loop and instead hike out to the nearest town. There was a break in the weather, and the hunters were headed out too, so we all set off together before dawn.

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The hunters were friendly, but competitive and insanely fit. The pack in the photo was full to the brim with venison, at least seventy pounds worth, and the bearer is in his sixties, but I was still hard-pressed to keep up with him. We ended up doing the 5.5 mile trail out to the road in two and a half hours after they set a blistering pace. It was a good way to end the hike on a high note. They gave me a ride down to Ohakune, where there was a hope of transportation back to Whakapapa Village.

My interaction with the visitor center there was a funny one. I wandered in, said hello to the lady behind the information desk, and told her I was looking to get transport back to Whakapapa. “Well, how do you propose to do that?” was her reply! I told her I was hoping she could suggest a solution to my dilemma, and she consulted with colleagues, rummaged behind the desk, and finally appeared clutching the card of a local taxi firm. She wasn’t willing to hand it over to me though, so keeping one eye on me, she negotiated with the driver, sharing his apparent surprise that somebody would want to be driven from one place to another in return for payment, and finally informed me that it had been arranged. I thanked her gratefully, and had an uneventful ride back to my hire car. I unloaded my gear, crawled into the back seat, and watched sleepily as wild winds and monsoon rain lashed the parking lot.

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