A visit to Mordor (The Tongariro Northern Circuit)

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Yep – almost ready to go!

It’s been non-stop for me for the last 48 hours. After wrapping up an intense day at work on Wednesday, there was just no time for pause as I rushed home to face a frantic evening of last minute packing for yet another much anticipated visit to New Zealand (also known to us as “the country we should  have moved to”). True to our form, despite messing around with our stuff for several days prior, we were still nowhere near ready, and by the time we had everything in a more or less decent state, it was close to midnight.

Our Thursday was essentially a day of travelling, summed up by a 4:30am start, a roughly 1hr cab ride to the airport, a 3 hour flight, a 5.5 hour drive from Wellington to Whakapapa (look up pronunciation!) Village in the Tongariro National Park, followed by some frantic gear organisation in the hotel room. Taking into account the loss of 2 hours due to a shift in time zones, it was 1am before I finally hit the sack, a good two hours after J&E.

Five hours later, I snapped awake, well before the alarm went off. Sleep and I just don’t seem to be getting along these days, no matter how much I want it! Despite feeling generally exhausted, I just couldn’t grab those few minutes of extra shut-eye, and after twenty minutes of staring at the ceiling I rolled out of bed to begin my pre-run routine.

The schedule for the day was pretty straightforward – a lap of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a pretty, roughly 50km (Yes, 50, not the 43.1 as stated on the DOC website!!) trail that passes through some of the most unique scenery on the planet. It also has the added tourist bonus feature of encircling Mt Ngauruhoe, which is really a secondary volcanic cone of Mt Tongariro, and better known to LOTR movie fans as Mount Doom. People with extra time on their hands, less aversion to risk and a dying need to take look inside the crater of one of the most active volcanos in the region also have the option of taking a tricky scramble up the main lava flow to the Ngauruhoe crater rim. I’ve heard some even bring gold rings up to toss inside in honour of Frodo Baggins. I suppose if you want to violate leave-no-trace principles, that’s doing it in style.

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Click on the image above for a more hi-res map on Strava, or alternatively visit the DOC website for this walk at this link

By the time I’d freshened up, had breakfast and strolled out of the hotel (Chateau Tongariro – neat place, a bit pricey but we got a steal on one of those hotel bookings websites. It’s conveniently located about 3min walk from the trailhead), it was close to 8am, so the sun was well and truly up. The morning air was clean, and it was chilly in the shade. I stopped at the trailhead for an obligatory selfie with the trail marker, and after spending a good 10 minutes trying to figure out how to take a selfie with a GoPro (yes, laugh at me. I’d do the same), in no particular hurry, I began shuffling down the trail for my first attempt at an ultra distance in 2015.

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The first leg from Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut passed through low scrub with fantastic scenery out across the plain and towards the nearby mountains. The classic conical volcano silhouette of Mt Ngaruhoe loomed up ahead, and glances to the rear presented gorgeous views of Mt Ruapehu, with gleaming white snow still icing its higher slopes. There were numerous trickling creeks and sparkling streams to cross, and for most of the morning, the sky remained a brilliant blue, striped by thin wisps of cloud.

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Mt Ngauruhoe / Mt Tongariro in the distance

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Looking back towards Mt Ruapehu

Trail erosion. This probably used to be a gentle, even slope with a small step.

Trail erosion. From the sides you can see this probably used to be a gentle, even slope with a small step at the top.

The trail itself however, was in a very poor state. Much of it consisted of very soft soil which, over years of being trodden underfoot with limited reinforcement, had resulted in massive erosion. As a result, it was deeply and badly rutted in many parts and quite un-runnable despite the flat and easy gradient. This was possibly what I would call the “worst” section of the trail, and while I was annoyed at the impediment to my pace, I also felt a tinge of guilt at my contribution to the damage to this otherwise pristine environment.

After nearly 2 hours of shuffling, hopping and timidly skirting round deep ruts (okay and yes there was a bit of running too), the trail began to curve round the base of the volcano and in to the Mangatepopo valley. Before long, I had arrived at the junction to Mangatepopo hut, and after a quick stop for water and a chat with the friendly hut warden, I was back on my way.

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Boardwalk trail entering the Mangatepopo valley. That’s Mt Ngaruhoe on the right. By this time, she had decided to put on a hat of cloud, and pretty much stayed that way for the rest of the run.

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Looks like a bit of a traffic jam up ahead!

At this point, the trail joined the more popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 17km day walk that takes in the key features that the volcano has to show off. I had run part of this back in 2013 as an out and back, as the later half of the trail was closed due to heavy volcanic activity. By the time I reached this part of the trail, it was just after 9:30am, and there were literally hundreds of people already making their way through the valley and up to South Crater.

As the trail extended further into the valley, the lush landscape gradually transitioned into rocky, barren and unforgiving terrain, the forboding slopes of the volcano rising steeply to the sides and front. I reached the turnoff to Soda Springs, popped a gel and pulled out the poles for the first major ascent of the day.

The ascent to South Crater is essentially a really long stair climb, not unlike the steps at the end of the TNF100 route, rising about 300m with just with a few more flat boardwalk sections thrown in. This made it an ideal bit of training, and I was pretty happy to note that they didn’t seem quite as tough as I remembered them being back in 2013. As it was, I couldn’t really get up there in a hurry – the trail was jam packed with hikers, and while they all politely let me through, it still slowed things down a fair bit.

On the climb to south crater - Mangateopopo valley in the background

On the climb to south crater – Mangateopopo valley in the background

Dense cloud had begun to come in low by this time, and as the stairs wound their way up the steep rocky slopes, the jaw dropping views that I remembered from two years ago were blotted out in a screen of grey. Visibility dropped to essentially around 30 metres, and the flowing mist swirled around the rocky outcrops making for a scene right out of any medieval fantasy film. All we needed was a dragon or giant spider to come charging out of the mist.

As I trudged upwards, I saw first hand the seemingly endless flight of stairs beginning to claim its victims. There was a growing number of people sitting by the side of the trail, slouched over with a vacant look in their eyes. The boisterous chatter that had been a feature from Soda Springs onwards gradually faded, replaced by the sound of heavy breathing.

DSCN5229The top of the stairs, in contrast, was a marketplace. There must have been around 50 people just sitting and standing around, catching their breath and congratulating each other for the big effort. At this point was also the turnoff to the Mt Ngauruhoe crater climb, and I saw a few brave souls drop their packs and head off for an attempt in the thick fog. I toyed with the idea myself, but I wasn’t too keen on trying something that risky in such low visibility. Also, I had a long journey that still lay ahead of me, and these people were essentially  halfway there.

DSCN5231I left the crowd behind, and ran off into the bowl of thick mist that was South Crater. For the first time in about an hour, I was alone again. Running along the sandy, flat basin of south crater in the dense mist was a surreal feeling. The grey, dusty floor and bits of rock strewn everywhere gave the place a very lunar feel, and combined with the silence, I just may as well have been on the moon.

My solitary moment was short lived. About five minutes in, I began to see the faint shapes of people ahead, and just as suddenly as it had arrived, the cloud lifted, revealing the eastern wall of the crater and the impending climb up to the red crater viewing point.

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On reaching the other side, I found the rocky, steep path up the crater wall lined with people. Out came the poles once again and I began to slowly pick my way through the rocky terrain. Rolling an ankle at this point would have been disaster. The “trail” was a mix of jagged rock and very loose volcanic scree – traction was at a large premium and my feet would slip back a couple of inches with each step, taking care to avoid the jagged edges of the ankle-high rocks scattering the trail.

After the initial climb out of South Crater, the path continued to ascend up towards the red crater viewing point, as well as the turn-off to Tongariro Summit. All the way up, magnificent views were offered of the partly cloud covered South Crater below, and of the volcanic valley extending out to the east, all of which more than made up for the lung busting gradient and unstable footing.

The valley extending out to the west, quite LOTResque!

The valley extending out to the west, quite LOTResque!

Looking back down on South Crater

Looking back down on South Crater

A quick time check upon arrival at the turnoff to the Tongariro Summit, showed 11:25am.  I decieded that I would give the side trip up the summit a crack. The low lying clouds had cleared away from the ridgeline, so I figured it might be worthwhile for the photos. As I made my way along the ridgeline, however, a deep rumble began to sound. Thankfully, it was neither thunder nor the signs of an imminent volcanic eruption. Rather, it was a reminder that I had had breakfast at 0630, and hadn’t eaten anything other than a couple of gels since. The churning in my stomach got progressively more uncomfortable, and about half-way along the ridgeline, I had to give in. I found a nice flat rock and sat down to munch on the pair of roast beef sandwiches I’d brought for the day.

The Tongariro summit ridge, before the second round of cloud cover came in.

The Tongariro summit ridge, before the second round of cloud cover came in.

My lunch spot on the ridge allowed me to quietly enjoy the views on either side. To the south was, once again, South Crater. Viewed from this side, it would normally have the imposing cone of Mt Ngauruhoe in the background. Today however, cloud cover meant that only the lower slopes of the cone were visible. Overall, looking down into the vast, almost perfectly flat crater floor and being able to just make out the people below, tiny specks as they made their way across the dusty expanse. To the north lay Central crater and above it Blue Lake, usually a shimmering sapphire blue, today somewhat dulled by the reflection of the dark grey clouds hovering to the west.

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Central crater and Blue Lake as viewed from the Tongariro summit ridgeline.

As I popped the last bit of sandwich into my mouth, to my dismay, I noticed that the cloud had once again rolled in over Tongariro Summit. I had been there once before, and had no intention of merely summiting again for bragging rights, so I packed up my bag and turned back along the ridge towards the main circuit. For those if you who are curious, I’ve put a couple of images at the end of this post from my visit back in 2013, which was way before I got into this blogging thing.

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Red crater

There was a final short but sharp ascent to the viewing area for red crater, and this also offered me my first glimpse for the day of Emerald Lakes. Back in 2013, this was my turnaround point as the rest of the alpine crossing had been closed due to volcanic activity. I was now at the highest point in elevation for the day, and I took comfort in the fact that from this point on, there would be more downs than ups!

Emerald Lakes

Emerald Lakes

The descent into central crater was coated with a thick layer of volcanic soil, and was far steeper and less stable than what I had experienced earlier in the day. I resorted to digging my heels into the soft, sandy ground covering the descending path and half-shuffling, half- sliding, I made my way down to the crater floor. As I neared and rounded Emerald Lakes, the air began to reek of hardboiled eggs, the signature aroma of sulphur gases rising out of the volcanic pools. An ordinarily tantalising smell in the kitchen, but not exactly something you want lungfuls of in the middle of a long run.

Northern circuit turnoff after Emerald Lakes

Northern circuit turnoff after Emerald Lakes

Once I hit the bottom, I arrived at a junction where I turned off the Alpine Crossing track on to the Northern Circuit track towards Outurere Hut. Just below Emerald Lakes was a small pool which was just sitting there, still as a mirror. Steam rose both visibly and audibly from the rocky slopes above, indicating how active this volcanic area really was.

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Past this pool, the trail continued to descend steeply to the valley floor. The footing was slightly firmer, but the jagged rocks still remained a feature and so my descent was a very careful game of hopscotch as I trotted down the spur.

The area over the next 5 or so km to Outurere Hut was desolate, with minimal plant life, jagged black rock and a floor of grey sand. It was an uncanny resemblance to some scenes from Star Wars ( Tatooine anyone?). The surreal feeling that I may as well have been on another planet set in as I skipped along, lost in my surroundings as my feet continued to trudge through the soft, grey sand.

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Ancient lava structures make for some rather alien landscaping.

I was now into unknown territory, not only in terms of the trail – this was also the first time I had tested my previously injured legs this year on a distance above 20km, so I was making sure to take things nice and slow, being alert for signs of niggles and anything else that might not feel right. Thankfully, nothing of the sort eventuated, and I was able to just plod along and enjoy the almost strange surroundings.

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Outerere Hut

Outerere Hut

The trail continued to twist and turn through the craggy, rough towers of rock, calling cards left by lava flows from a time long forgotten. Almost everything was either black, white or some shade of grey – even the few plants that had managed to eke a living in this challenging environment had a dull hue. I rounded corner after corner and crested mound after mound, and just when I was beginning to wonder where the next hut was, I crossed over the final little wall of rock that revealed the plain stretching out to the other side of the national park, with the hut nestled in a cosy sheltered spot on the spur just a couple hundred metres ahead.

There was a lone hiker with some european accent who had just arrived minutes before, and was in the process of setting up a tent. I popped inside the hut to replenish my water, and while doing so, read on the wall that it was another 9km to Waihohonu Hut. 9?? The DOC website had stated it was just 7.5! I read further – 16.5km between Waihohonu Hut and the Whakapapa Village. Again a bigger number than what was on the website. I looked at the Garmin – 24.5km so far. That would put the total for the day at 50km, which was quite a fair bit longer than the 43.1 I had set out planning to do.

My legs still felt relatively good – fatigued, but still a good way from hitting the wall. Still, I dreaded to think what impact an extra 7km might have – I had promised J I would be back at the Village by 5pm at the latest, and it was already 1:30pm. Although most of the major climbs were over, there was still some challenging terrain ahead, and the first 24km had already taken me over 5 hours. I hurriedly got my gear together and shuffled out of the hut. A quick stop at the toilets, and a brief exchange of pleasantries with the hiker who had now finished building her home for the night, and I set out to make up some time, praying that the terrain would start to ease up, and that my legs would hold together.

The stretch from Outerere to Waihohonu Hut had its own bit of character. As I got further away from Outerere, the jagged, rocky lava structures were replaced by spurs and slopes of volcanic sand, layered in neat, wavy ripples shaped by the mountain winds. The going became much easier – there were still some changes in elevation as the trail dropped between spurs to cross over creeks, but the surfaces were generally flat and far less technical. I still had to keep my wits about me, though, as the flat, almost featureless sand meant that the trail was far less obvious, and more than once I found myself running 20-30m off the track due to a brief distraction by the amazing sights.

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Fairytale forest colours

As I ran south for over the next hour, and the once imposing shape of Mt Ngauruhoe slowly shrank to the size of a party hat, then a soft serve cone. After crossing the umpteenth spur, the trail finally dropped down into a deep valley, and for the first and only time in the entire run, dipped below the treeline and into a lush forest. Everything was a brilliant green – even the trunks of trees and surrounding rock were coated with emerald coloured moss and lichen.

The forest trail was damp and thus soft and spongy, relieving some of the stress on my limbs and joints as I plodded down the track, which continued to descend through the forest. At the base, it crossed the Waihohonu stream, and after a brief stop to enjoy the sight and sound of the rushing water,  I marched back into the forest on the other side of the bridge to face the harsh climb up the other side of the valley.

My legs were still good for descending, but as I power hiked up the steep hillside track, I could feel the first hints of the dreaded “wall”. With over 30km and 1500m of ascent already in the legs, I could feel the burn through my quads and glutes as I trudged onwards and upwards. The dense forest foilage, while beautiful, also shielded me from the cooling breeze that had been a big comfort in the open terrain, and the dampness meant that humidity was also a factor. I began to perspire profusely, and the sweat from my brow mixed with sunscreen stung my eyes and had me tearing uncontrollably.

I trudged on forwards, squinting and barely able to see, wiping my eyes on my sleeve every thirty seconds or so. After a seemingly never ending 15 minutes, I broke through the treeline once again, and reached the top of the 120m climb. The fresh mountain breeze returned, and before long, the stinging in my eyes subsided.

Waihohonu hut

Waihohonu hut

The trail descended down the other side of the spur I had just climbed, and I passed a couple of hikers – the first I had seen since Outerere Hut. One asked where I was headed, to which my response was  “Whakapapa Village – my wife and son are there, and if I don’t make it in time for dinner, the Mrs will be upset!”. At the bottom of the spur there was another short climb up a small flight of steps, and at the top of those was the last hut for my journey – Waihohonu Hut.

The hut itself was huge, and looked more like a two or three star chalet than barebones tramping accommodation. The water however, unlike those at the huts before, required boiling before drinking. I had depleted the water in my squeeze bottle, but my 1.5l hydration bladder was still full. I decided to chance it, given I had only been needing around 5-600ml of fluids per 7km, if nothing went wrong, there would be plenty to get me to the end. I sat for a short while to munch a chocolate bar and chat with some of the hut occupants, and in 7 minutes I was back out on the trail to face the final 16.5km to Whakapapa Village.

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The trail just out of Waihohonu hut, towards Whakapapa.

The last leg of my journey was the most runnable, consisting mostly of well groomed singletrack and gravel trail, but ironically by this time, my legs were spent, and except for the steeper descents, for the most part all I could manage was an 8km/h shuffle on the flats, and a slow trudge up the hills. On the positive side, this gave me more time to take in the sights which were, by the way, breathtaking.

The trail was a gradual climb up the valley between Mt Ruapehu and Mt Tongariro, and crossed a series of ridges cut by streams. The low-growing alpine scrub allowed me to see for miles, and there was beauty in almost all directions. Each time I pulled my poles up and grumbled up a small climb, there would be without fail a new expanse of jaw-dropping scenery to behold. I have literally hundreds of photographs from my trip, and it took me a good two hours to pick and whittle down the lot to the handful that I’ve included in this post. They aren’t necessarily the best ones either – some I’ve saved for a bit of an experiment – more on that later. In the mean time, here are a few more from the final leg of the trail:

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Around the 8km from Waihohonu, I reached the top of one of these little climbs, was met by yet another beautiful scene, and just as I had done countless times before, I reached back for my camera. Except this time, it wasn’t there. In a panic, I rumaged through my pack. It definitely wasn’t with me. When had I last taken a photograph? It couldn’t have been long ago given how often I’d been using it. I was already running late for dinner thanks to the unplanned extra distance, and I certainly wasn’t keen on adding any more kms to the journey, but the thought of losing all the precious photographs and videos I’d taken was too much to bear. I strapped my pack back on and double timed it back along the trail, eyes peeled to the sides. I hadn’t heard anything drop, so it had probably fallen into the scrub by the trailside, and the fact that it was black didn’t really help.

Thankfully, as you probably guessed since this post isn’t just a verbose clump of plain text, I spotted the camera just around half a km back, lying face down on the side of the trail, just under a little shrub. Overcome with relief, I said a quick prayer of thanks, and promptly shoved it deep into one of my shoulder-strap pockets where it wasn’t going to go anywhere without me noticing.

The next hour or so was somewhat uneventful,  I passed a couple more groups of hikers, who were clearly going to get to their destination in the dark, but other than that it was pretty much the same story. Grumble up one side of a hill, get blown away by the scenery at the top, then blast (or shuffle) my way down the other side. Due to time limitations, unfortunately, I had to give the Tama Lakes side trip a miss. No worries, just one more excuse to come back! Finally, I reached the top of the last ridge, and in the distance, I could just make out the tall chimney stacks of the Chateau Tongariro, signalling that it was going to be mainly downhill from now on. The sight was heartwarming, but I knew I still had a good 8km or so to go.

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The descent down towards Taranaki falls

Just shortly after, the trail descended and then levelled briefly at the top of Taranaki falls. I stopped for a look over the cliffs, but decided against descending the 40 or so metres down to the valley floor, so I didn’t end up getting a proper look a the falls themselves. Instead, I settled for a 30 second rest at the top of the bridge to listen to the powerful crash as the water launched itself off the cliff edge and plunged into the river below.

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The last part of the trail was still quite pretty, with little purple flowers amongst the grass coloured golden by the sun which was now low in the sky. Unfortunately though, it was a bit lacklustre compared to what my eyes had taken in all day, and so my attention turned almost completely to the finish line. The trail meandered round the foothills and slopes of the mountain, and by this time, I could really feel the fatigue building in my legs as the protested with each and every step. Each time I rounded a bend, my heart would pound in expectation of seeing the end, only to be disappointed by yet another stretch of trail.

As such, imagine my delight when I turned the final corner and was met with the sight of rooftops and chimneys peeking over the top of the vegetation lining the track. I made a final dash for the finish, and after bursting out into the carpark, bent over with my hands on my knees gasping for breath, much to the amusement of several tourists who had just come back from a visit to the waterfall.

They kindly helped me with my obligatory trail-end photo, and happy and relieved, I strolled back to the hotel. The tiredness in my legs was forgotten in the joy of completing my day-long journey and being reunited with family, but a good solid shot of DOMS did well to remind me the next day!

The Northern Circuit is by far the most unique trail I’ve run through, and I would love to come back one day, be it for another run round, or even to hike it over 3-4 days and savour it a little more. If you’re ever out that way, definitely do not pass it up, even if you just take the shorter alpine crossing option. Photos and descriptions in text will do no justice to the sense of awe and wonder you will have standing in the shadow of the massive volcano or looking down on the vast craters from the rims.

And so, that sums up the first two days of our three week visit to New Zealand. As I type this, we are now on day 5, and tomorrow, J & I begin the next bit of adventure on our itinerary – the Abel Tasman Coastal track.

Happy running, and stay safe!

A tired, happy me

A tired, happy me

Appendix:

Some photos from Tongariro Summit back in 2013 when I did an out and back on the first half of the alpine crossing. The weather was a littler clearer on that day!

Highest point of the run for the day! The desolate wasteland around Mount Doom! View from Mt Tongariro summit

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3 Responses to A visit to Mordor (The Tongariro Northern Circuit)

  1. Runnabe Mom says:

    All I can say is wow – what a place and what a run you had! Such beautiful pictures – hope you enjoy your holiday.

  2. Pingback: NZ family holiday update #2 / Tongariro Northern Circuit video | Run Just Because

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