New Zealand Great Walk: Tongariro Northern Circuit

After leaving Argentina on February 12, we landed in rainy Auckland on February 14 (hellooo time change!) and hit the ground running: we picked up our car rental, stopped at an Icebreaker Outlet because we are weak people, and then drove down to Waitomo to visit the amazing Waitomo Glowworm Caves, which if you’ve never seen glow worms, I highly recommend! Afterward we continued on to Tongariro national park, where Kay had planned the first of the New Zealand Great Walks we would be doing.

With folks telling us it was the worst summer in 20 years, the pouring rain convinced us to turn our 4D/3N hike into a 3D/2N hike, starting from the opposite end to try and get some better weather for the often unpredictable Tongariro alpine crossing in the middle of the hike. The weather started out fine enough on the first day. Even though it was supposed to be rainy, it was actually pretty dry and the temperature compared to Patagonian summer was wonderful.I was pretty excited to see “Mt Doom” from the Lord of the Rings in person, even though Kay is not a fan of LotR. He was still enjoying how different the landscape was from Patagonia.Meanwhile, I was enjoying the cushy paths they have in New Zealand. This was like the Rolls-Royce of hiking paths after all of the “path”, aka little stones scattered around a vast, rocky terrain in Patagonia, where one often had to guess if they were still indeed on the “trail”.
I mean, look at that. My feet are dry and not knee-deep in mud!We were expecting New Zealand to be very green especially as we drove along the highway down to Tongariro, and honestly when we arrived, most things actually looked pretty brown. We had been told that it hadn’t rained much, but it was raining now. So we were enjoying mostly brown landscapes with colder-than-normal weather and precipitation. I hoped with our six weeks here that things would perk up a bit by the time we left.
This drizzly waterfall was the greenest thing I’d seen in the country so far.When we made camp, I was amused  to find that I had gotten quite a hiking tan from my poles in Patagonia. Thankfully I can say by now that it has faded completely… but it was very strong those first couple months! Also, probably about 30 minutes after we set up camp, the weather suddenly changed and mist rose out of the valley like a straight-up zombies-rise-from-the-dead moment. It freakily came up from the left, drifted over camp and stayed for the night, lightly drizzling everything.Normally I don’t get up in the night during camping, but it was a special time of the month, so I woke up at like 3am to wander over to the bathrooms. It was a bit of an adventure in the fog, especially because my headlamp chose that moment to stop working, so I was fumbling around with my iphone and all my “supplies”.

I have to say, the New Zealand camping bathrooms are EXTREMELY impressive. I loved them! Real, sit-down toilets with ventilation for the smell, and they have rain-collected water you can pump to wash your hands. I was in toilet-heaven the whole time in New Zealand after the horrifying Patagonian squat experiences.

I want to say that we had great weather for the Tongariro crossing the next day, but we did not:After hiking in Patagonia, we both agreed that it was not a hard hike, but it was a bit of an upward slog on semi-unstable ground through thick mist and rain, with wind blowing rain sideways as we made our way up.

And very surprisingly, I didn’t really care.What am I going to do? Change the weather? They say that there is no bad weather, only bad gear, and I had on my gortex and rain pants. Even without what I’m told are amazing views, I was still pretty happy to make it to the top!

We had a snack before going down the part known as “Devil’s Staircase” which I was told by an older Kiwi hiker that it’s not really at all like it used to be. It was still a steep downward slope that I was happier to go down than up, but he said it used to be way worse since they remade the path.

Over the top, the weather cleared up almost entirely, although by the time we made it to the hut, it started raining again where we were too.We had originally booked only camping spots, but because we had to change our reservation due to the weather, instead of three nights with reserved camping spaces, we had to swap two of the camping nights into one night in the hut, which was more expensive, but the only available option.

It was my idea to take the hut option instead of trying to push the whole hike into 2D/1N and we agreed that we were almost happier that night in the weather to be in the hut instead of out where the tents were.The hut facilities were also actually very nice and a great option for those who just want to hike with their sleeping bag and food and leave a tent and cooking gear at home. You can go much lighter this way and the social atmosphere was very nice as well, better than hostels these days, as everyone was interested in hiking!Our last day the weather was again a little so-so, but not terrible. They had promised this day would be the worst, but in fact, it was much better than the second day of hiking.It was a little frustrating with the park reservation system, because you absolutely need to reserve ahead of time, or there is a real chance that you will not acquire either a hut or a tent camping space, but they also fill up, making it nearly impossible to switch dates around due to inclement weather.

The best you can do is book and decide if it’s still safe and worth it for you to do the hike with your gear when you arrive. We did hear of people asking if they could hike the Tongariro crossing with their babies or young toddlers, which I cannot recommend. The trail is not suitable for strollers and prams, and the crossing has rugged-enough ground that it’s not safe to baby-wear either. But for everyone else, we even had a man in his 70s doing the trail along with us, so it’s really not that hard.

After this we headed down to Taumarunui for a night before starting our next great walk. Kay wasn’t going to let me rest for a minute. 😉