The 4 day Tongariro Northern Circuit - A Kiwi Moon Landing

‘I think we should head north,’ Sarah said, as we sipped cocktails in Wellington. ‘I’d like to do the Tongariro Crossing.’ Having spent the last two days gorging myself on Wellington’s superb selection of vegan edibles, I was surprised to hear myself suggesting that instead of doing the day hike, we embark on the four day Tongariro Northern Circuit.

She pulled up the Great Walk’s profile and examined it for a minute. It could have feasibly been a joke when she said confidently we could do it in three, and we could start it tomorrow. It wasn’t.

Google Maps said our trip would take less than four and a half hours. I was still in a blissful state of vegan digestion and forgot that Google Maps can be a dirty rotten liar. We left Wellington around half ten, and after a brief lunch break in W(h)anganui, arrived in the Tongariro National Park just before five, which is always a wonderful time to begin a hike. Thankfully, the summer was on our side, and daylight wasn’t threatening to disappear just yet. The internet promised we could walk the first leg – 8.5km – in about three hours provided the conditions were good. We got really lucky with the weather, and had a whole ten minutes of dry tramping before the rain kicked in.

Had I known that the next two days would bring torrential downpours, gale force winds, peltings of hail, and even a brief offering of snow, I might have turned around and run back to the Mazda. As it was, I was a Great Walk virgin, and quite blissfully unaware that I was making my way steadily deeper into territory from which escape was possible only by foot or helicopter. Sarah set off at a cracking pace, forgetting I was still recovering from a horribly busy few days of intensive digestion. I hurried after her, wondering if I should have packed a pillow, and mentally determining how long we would have to walk before it was appropriate to request a snack stop.

The huts were warm and dry, and the ranger told us a bedtime Māori legend about how the mountains Taranaki, Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe came to be where they are today. We received a weather report at breakfast: wind force was at an acceptable level to climb up to the Red Crater. But en route to the volcanic crater, mist descended and visibility turned horrendous. Sarah informed me quite matter-of-factly that we had finally reached the moon, and if it weren’t for the familiar gravity and my ability to breathe, I might have believed her. We were wonderfully and terrifyingly isolated in a sea of fog. The entire earth could have been under siege and we would have remained unaffected.

By the time we got to the Red Crater, the weather report was obsolete. Wind filled the rain cover on my hiking pack, and threatened to lift me off the mountain like I was a hot air balloon. Cold air balloon is probably more accurate. We considered turning back, and for several moments I was quite overtly aware of my mortality. With our bellies almost literally to the mountainside, we scrambled up the slope, and eventually the path took us over and down. The mist politely cleared for five minutes to give us a view of the Emerald Lakes, then promptly concealed the beautiful colours to return our world to shades of grey and brown.

I highly recommend the circuit to anyone who is physically able. Even on a bad day, Aotearoa is simply stunning. 

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This story and photos have been kindly supplied by Stephanie Grange as part of our Summer Holiday Writing Competition.  We hope after reading it you feel inspired to tackle the walk and make the most of whatever the weather throws at you!

The Moon Tongariro