Te Araroa (Part 8) : The Battle With The Cold In Tongariro, day 46-53

Day 46 : Taumarunui – 42 Traverse Track (35 km / 21.7 mi | Total: 1110 km / 689.7 mi)
Day 47 : 42 Traverse Track – Tongariro Holiday Park (29 km / 18 mi | Total: 1139 km / 707.7 mi)
Day 48 : Zero day
Day 49 : Tongariro Holiday Park – Waihohonu hut (31 km / 19.3 mi – off-trail distance)
Day 50 : Waihohonu hut – Whakapapa Village (16 km / 9.9 mi – off-trail distance | Total: 1173 km / 728.9 mi)
Day 51 : Whakapapa Village – National Park (20 km / 12.4 mi | Total: 1193 km / 741.3 mi)
Day 52 : National Park – Oio Rd memorial (28 km / 17.4 mi | Total: 1221 km / 758.7 mi)
Day 53 : Oio Rd memorial – Whakahoro (25 km / 15.5 mi | Total: 1246 km / 774.2 mi)

Dec 24 – Dec 31
Total days : 8 | Walking days: 7
Section distance : 171 km / 106.3 mi (Actual : 184 km / 114.3 mi)
Average distance per day : 24.4 km / 15.2 mi (Actual : 26.3 km / 16.3 mi)
Total distance : 1246 km / 774.2 mi

Tongariro!

By the time we reached this section, everyone was quite excited. It felt like the real trail was starting, and Tongariro was, for many, the TA’s first highlight. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing itself was actually only a day long, but there were some options to extend it by adding some circular trails in the area, which quite a few did. I was also keen to hike a little more, but I wasn’t sure what I could manage. I didn’t know the terrain and I had limited time, as we were tied to the Whanganui River journey start date on the first of January, which we had already booked our canoes for. Of course, this was before I realised that the eight days I had calculated between Taumarunui and Whakahoro were way off, and we’d only need five or six, at most.

But when Bee and I set off from our motel in Taumarunui, deserting our raggedy old shoes next to the bin and leaving Isha to happily hitch ahead, this hadn’t transpired yet. We departed early after our day off so we could join the 7:30 safety briefing at the Taumarunui Canoe Hire company, which was conveniently situated along the trail.

When we arrived, it was packed. There must’ve been about fifty people there. The briefing told us about paddling techniques and how to approach some of the tricky rapids along the river journey. I was mostly surprised they still managed to offer us all fresh coffee and muffins. At first, I assumed all the people were TA hikers, until I spotted the Chucks, the rucksacks and the heavy layers alongside the general sporty gear. These weren’t hikers at all. Only five of us were actually hiking the TA, and this is where we saw the French couple again, who would launch the day before us, and a German called Martin, who was part of our group. This is when I realised for the first time it wasn’t required to share a canoe at all, you could also hire kayaks. I regretted not finding out about this before. I would’ve much preferred to paddle on my own. After the videos and instructions we took our time to find our shopping bags, which had been collected from the i-Site by the canoe company. We packed everything in waterproof barrels and large dry bags, carefully adding our names and launch date to the top.

After an hour and a half we were on our way again. We followed a variety of gravel roads up, headed towards the start of the 42 Traverse Track. For the first time in weeks, the weather had noticeably changed. From the searing heat, it was now cloudy and rainy, and the forecast for the Tongariro section didn’t look great. I was wearing my new shoes, the Salomon Speedcross I was trying out for the first time. The soles were thick and sturdy, which I liked. They seemed to have good grip, although they felt odd on the tarmac, making the day painful despite being so easy.

The 42 Traverse Track started at Whakapapa River, where Bee set up her tent for the night, at the spacious field next to it. The French couple opted to walk a bit further, and so did I. I was thinking of camping at the Tongariro trailhead the next evening, as opposed to the Holiday Park, about 7 kilometres before, so I hoped to get a little further ahead as it would make the next leg easier. I walked for another hour and a half, up the spacious track, and squeezed myself in the grass right next to the trail, a little beyond the French couple. Around 10 pm I was introduced to what this track was actually used for, when the roaring of quad bikes emerged from the trail ahead, then came closer and passed me with high speed, their headlights momentarily brightening everything. This was not an aspect I was going to enjoy about this leg.

Whakapapa River at the start of the 42 Traverse Track
The only camp spot I could find – right next to the trail

When I continued the next day, the traverse proved actually very pretty. I moved along high points with great views where I did some resting and writing until I turned to the Waione/Cokers Track, just before another quad was able to catch up with me. I was happy to be off the main trail, and the new track was so overgrown I didn’t think the bikes would come here. Branches kept hitting me in the face and the track was carved from thick clay-like mud but my new shoes had great traction, so at least I didn’t slip – until I tripped over a branch and catapulted into the air.

When I reached Tongariro Holiday Park I didn’t know whether to keep going until the trailhead, or to call it a day. I hovered outside, checking the forecast for the next day, which looked inconclusive. I didn’t quite fancy going inside to ask reception for their opinion either – the comments on the Guthook app were so bad, the campsite sounded like a horrible place to stay. When the French couple arrived, I asked about their plans. They had also considered walking up to the trailhead, but they figured it was a safer move to stay at the holiday park. We walked in and spoke to the owner at reception. Of course, he was nothing like the feedback we’d read. He was perfectly friendly and helpful. He told us the weather was looking very cloudy for the next day, but the day after was probably going to be better to do the trail. It would be cold, but there would be better views.

We all decided to stay at the holiday park the next day, and wait for better weather. This was perfectly fine for Bee and myself, as we had calculated in an extra day exactly for a reason like this, but I didn’t quite understand why the French couple kept saying we had so much time for additional routes, and why they weren’t more concerned about taking a day off, and eating into their time to get to their canoe launch date in Whakahoro, which was the day before ours. Surely they’d have to make long days to get there on time?

It wasn’t until the next morning that I finally understood. The Guthook app and the trail notes all assume the river journey starts at Mangapurua Landing, as opposed to Whakahoro, where everyone launches, two days before. I’d inadvertently given us two extra days. I couldn’t believe it. Now I understood why everyone else had booked in a canoe start date only five or six days from Taumarunui. They’d been right – we’d unknowingly given ourselves way too much time for this leg. I was annoyed, I’d already spent too many days on the Timber Tail because we were tied to an unnecessary motel booking, we had a long day off in Taumarunui only two days ago and now we were on another zero in anticipation of better weather on the Tongariro Crossing. I really didn’t want to waste another day.

With this in mind, I got more serious about doing a longer trail around Tongariro. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing that was the official part of the TA was the highly touristy route from Ketetahi Road going south, turning into Mangatepopo Track to Whakapapa Village along the way. However, there were a few other trails we could take. The Northern Circuit route edged away from the Alpine Crossing just before the Red Crater, and formed a big loop, also linking back to Whakapapa. It would be longer and a quieter alternative to the Alpine Crossing. It would take two days, instead of one. Then, there was the option to divert even more and include the Round the Mountain Track after the first day, an additional two or three day route which circled further south around Mt Ruapehu, and had an easy link back up to the TA just after Whakapapa. I was dying to do it and hoped the weather held up. I shared my thoughts with Bee as it would be nice to do it with someone else, especially as we were starting the canoe river journey together. She wasn’t quite sure if she was keen to do it or not.

When we looked at the large Tongariro map at reception, the owner sorted us out with the perfect route we were both immediate keen on. He advised to to follow the Alpine Crossing and walk up to the Red Crater for the views, then backtrack the few hundreds meters back to take the Northern Circuit instead, continuing the TA again at Whakapapa. The Round the Mountain Track could always be added if we felt like it.

I was excited about going off-trail and doing something different. The TA so far had been easy. I missed the adventure. Doing an official trail as opposed to creating my own meant that ultimately, I was just following a red line down a map. I had little recollection of the towns I passed – they all merged into one. The TA so far had been distinctly unadventurous: I had little sense of being responsible for myself, my own safety, and hardly did any research into the roads and trails and river crossing ahead of me, apart from reading the comments on the Guthook app. I just kept on following that red line and figured it would all work out. And it always did. I missed feeling like I was venturing into the unknown and was accomplishing a significant feat. I figured the Round the Mountain Track might give me a sense of that. Being away from the TA on a quiet track, I’d wild camp along the way, ignoring the huts entirely, and I’d be responsible for being back in time to make the canoe launch date. It would be a stretch and I’d have to walk long days, probably in the biting cold, but I would be off the grid and that was a feeling I was strongly aching for.

The roadwalk to the Tongariro trailhead

The day of the Tongariro Crossing I left early and followed the road to the national park. I reached the trailhead an hour and a half later, and saw quite a few ‘no camping’ signs. I was happy I’d stayed at the holiday park until this morning – clearly camping by the trailhead wasn’t allowed anymore. When I walked up the well maintained trail through a beautiful forest, it was still quiet. Then I got above tree line and everything changed. I began to smell the strangely intriguing perfume of sulphur. It got busier with people and the temperatures plummeted. The wind bashed me right in the face and it was so cold I quickly put on all my layers and wore my camp socks for gloves. When I reached the first hut for a quick rest, snow flurries thwarted around the sky.

Starting the trail in the forest

The view from inside Ketetahi shelter

As I continued up the last brushes of vegetation disappeared. By the time I reached the high plane, everything was bare, and everything was rock. The greens were gone and replaced by deep browns, blacks, reds and pinks. I looked out over the Blue Lake, where a low mist hovered, until the clouds parted and a short descend appeared ahead of me, with the Red Crater a proud backdrop. It was an impressive sight with deep colours and jagged edges of the volcano’s sharp crater. I made my way over and found two blue lakes at the bottom acting as a vivid contrast. The turnoff to the Northern Circuit was right there, but I’d planned a quick hike up to the Red Crater first.

Bee was out there already, high up in clouds, and she’d left her pack behind a big rock, something I was loathe to try. She came down and told me the top had been shrouded by clouds, and she got no views at all. The clouds didn’t lift until she went down again. I looked up at the short route up – with most tourists walking in the opposite direction I was going, a steady array of day hikers moved in my direction and I could only imagine how annoying the steep hike up against the grain would be. I decided this one view wasn’t worth it. Besides, I was stunningly cold and just wanted to keep going.

Passing Blue Lake
Looking out at Red Crater in the distance
One of the Emerald Lakes with Red Crater in the background, which the Tongariro Alpine Crossing climbs up to

I watched Bee move onto the Northern Circuit and I followed shortly after. The terrain was spectacular. It was easy to hike and I found myself flying along, almost running at times, feeling like I had boundless energy. I hadn’t felt like that before. I thought the landscape would be similar to that in Iceland, where I’d spent three and a half months hiking all over, but it was so much more interesting, there was so much more to see beyond the black volcanic ashlands of nothingness. My new shoes had great grip and I felt like I could hike forever. I kept stopping to take pictures, then running along again.

Despite my progress, the weather was intense. It was dry, luckily, but the wind created a chill that was as otherworldly as the landscape. This track was not as popular as the Alpine Crossing, and I felt far removed from everywhere else. When I approached Otuhere hut, two women in jeans and without packs walked in the opposite direction. I was absolutely shocked. It was bitingly cold. We were hours away from the crowds. They would be walking a very long day if they weren’t staying in a hut and they were clearly not prepared for any of this. It looked like they would be lucky with the weather, and would probably make it out just before dark, but if the conditions were to take a turn for the worst, they would be the people search and rescue would be looking for. I couldn’t believe the sheer stupidity.

Entering the Northern Circuit

I saw few others that afternoon. Several hikers going in the opposite direction, clearly TA thruhikers by the weary look on their faces, and that was about it. Towards the end the land of volcanic rock was interspersed by the perfect angelic section of wood. This would be the ideal spot to set up a tent, I thought, but unfortunately camping wasn’t allowed that close to the trail. I stayed for a while, enjoying the umbrella of the trees and eating some snacks. I wanted to take it in as much as I could. I hadn’t expected this trail to be this enjoyable.

Bee and I had aimed to reach Waihohonu hut that day. Just before I arrived, the sky thickened with heavy clouds and a light freezing rain overwhelmed everything around me. It made the freezing conditions even more difficult to bear. I ran along, and luckily the rain didn’t persist. When I reached the hut in a hurry, it had already cleared, and Bee and I camped outside the busy hut, fully booked well in advance by groups of tourists. We were happy to camp, and found out TA hikers even receive a discount and don’t require advance booking like everyone else, something we didn’t actually know as it wasn’t advertised anywhere.

Hiking with Mt Doom behind me

We found hidden spots in the trees, that soon also proved to be the coldest, and I hardly slept that night. It made me worry about the coming days on trail, and all the other cold nights and days I might experience on the TA. I even started thinking of wrapping my sleeping bag around me during the day, to help keep me warm. I wasn’t quite capable of dealing with these extreme conditions.

The coldest night on trail

The next morning we rose late so we could check the weather conditions before heading out. If the weather was good, we would continue along the Round the Mountain Track. I had pretty much convinced Bee to do the trail with me, although the weather was inconclusive. The skies were grey and cloudy and the air was icy. Perhaps the warden could advise, so we entered the hut after almost everyone had left, to find him. He told us the forecast: 30 mile per hour winds, freezing cold temperatures, with some rain later on. The next day looked better. He didn’t specifically advise us not to do it, especially if this day was the only opportunity to hike the trail, but it certainly wouldn’t be the ideal day for it.

We were unsure until the very last minute, after we’d removed ourselves from the hut and walked into the open land where we would have to decide whether to take the trail around Mt Ruapehu, or follow the short track into Whakapapa Village. When we looked at the sky, the clouds were lowering and darkening, but for a small patch of blue sky above town. It would take at least two days to hike through the Round the Mountain Track, and I’d have to walk long days to get to Whakahoro on time, and probably walk the last stretch the morning of the canoe launch. It was looking at an intense schedule.

Looking at the Round the Mountain Track from a distance, the dark clouds low and threatening

Bee quickly changed her mind about doing the trail, and decided to head straight to town. She’d been on the fence all along, and her decision left me in turmoil. While I was desperate to hike the trail, things for Bee were different. She’d started to feel apprehensive about being away from the TA, and was more inclined to do shorter days as opposed to longer, even though she was quite capable of both. She was also planing on staying in New Zealand for another year after the TA, and would easily be able to hike more trails during that time. I, however, would fly out of New Zealand after the TA, and quite possibly never return.

While I really wanted to chase the adventure, I realised how hiking with another person changed everything, and made it twice as difficult to break away and choose my own way. There was no need for me to stick with Bee, we were both happier hiking solo, but still. Having someone decide against, became a huge factor. If Bee had been up to it, I would’ve had no hesitation to go. If this was part of the TA, we’d both simply continue along. But more annoyingly, if I’d been alone, I’d probably gone as well. But what if she was right to err on the safe side? What if I went and realised I’d made a mistake too late? What if the weather was horrible and I’d find myself in freezing temperatures walking two long days through grey clouds with no views?

So I made the choice I would regret for days to come and I followed Bee back to town. We took the short trail to Whakapapa en slowly found ourselves moving into clear skies and sun. As we progressed, the crowds of tourists became abundant. People aimlessly strolling down the tracks, while I flew past, anxious to get ahead. I looked back at Mt Ruapehu and it was still cloudy, but not as bad as it had been in the morning. It may have been horrible still, although it may have been fine. I sorely regretted not going, and even Bee did, making the decision all the more painful.

Bee in front, heading back to Wkahapapa

Whakapapa Village was cold and touristy and it was early when we arrived. I wanted to keep going but there was no reason to continue. We still had three days until we started the river journey. We went for coffee, walked around and finally went to the campsite, which had a sign out saying it was fully booked. This wasn’t ideal. I dragged Bee in anyways, thinking it may be different for small tents that don’t require amenities – unfortunately, it wasn’t. We just turned around to leave when I tried one last time and asked if he was sure there wasn’t any space for two small TA hiker tents, which did the trick. Apparently, they always keep space for TA hikers, as it’s not so easy for us to just walk to the next place. We set up on what was more a dirt road than a field but the kitchen and showers were great, despite the busyness. I retreated to my tent early but even though I was out of the national park, it was still very cold.

The next day the sky was a perfect blue with just a few clouds. I left late as it was a short day to the small town that was confusingly called National Park. The trail was surprisingly nice, a lovely track through heather and forests, and well maintained at the start, given that we were in such a touristy area. I looked back at Mt Ruapehu from a distance, which was clear and sunny, with a few white clouds hovering around its crater. I was still angry with myself to decide against something I’d wanted to do so badly, that I hadn’t just gone off to hike the trail on my own. It would’ve been a perfect day to finish the mountain track.

Mt Ruapehu behind me, on a warm and clear day

It took a handful of hours to walk the trail and some gravel road to National Park. Again, it was early when I arrived, but I had some writing to do, so I kept myself busy until late the next morning. I finished my writing and set off a little before noon. As the trail moved further away from Tongariro, it began resemble the typical north island experience again. I was back on the green hills, on a cycle path skirting small mountaintops. It was quite a nice trail, but it wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t adventure. It was everything I already knew.

I walked to Oio Road that day, where I found Bee, the German Martin who we’d met at the canoe hire company and a section hiking couple. They were all waiting for evening to set up their tents. I was happy I didn’t get there too early. There was a war memorial, a toilet, and a spigot with water attached to a fence. Apparently, people camped here a lot, and so did we.

Back on a typical north island track

Camping at the war memorial

The last day was an easy road walk to Whakahoro, the launch site of our canoe journey down the Whanganui River, all the way down to the eponymous town. The only cars passing me were the canoe hire trucks carrying boats and tourists. I walked without taking a break, and in Whakahoro I immediately found the café, pretty much the only building in town, which had a population of only 8.

At the café I found everyone. I received a free coffee, which apparently all TA hikers get. I bought some WiFi just like everyone else, as we would be off the grid for a few days at least. Nobu and Kei were there as well, and it was great to be reunited. Of course Bee was there with Martin, and slowly more hikers dripped in that we would be sharing the journey with. Australian Gina and her friend who was joining her for a short section, and Jordan from the US, who was a trail runner trying to set a fastest known time record for the TA.

‘Whakahoro – Population 8’

It was New Year’s Eve, and a group of people was celebrating in the cafe, oddly enough, as we were in the middle of nowhere. I could hear them cheer from my tent, and even watched their fireworks. My biggest celebration would come in the shape of the barrels I’d stuffed with way too much food. I couldn’t wait for the morning, when the canoes would arrive and the journey would start and I’d be able to eat everything I wanted. I didn’t need to celebrate New Year’s Eve – everything I wanted was coming to me the next day.

Published by

Rosanne Luciana

A Dutch-born London-based hiker who has swapped an East Asian backpacking experience for the opportunity to truly immerse herself into nature, by quite simple, walking.

2 thoughts on “Te Araroa (Part 8) : The Battle With The Cold In Tongariro, day 46-53

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