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Mangatepopo to Ketetahi – Day 1 on the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The Tongariro Northern Circuit circles around Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, right in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand.  It’s a three or four day tramp (Kiwese for hike), depending on how quickly you walk.  The Tongariro Northern Circuit is an extension of the Tongariro Crossing, which is billed as being one of the best day walks in the world.  It probably is, except for all of the people walking it.

Mt Tongariro, Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe are easily picked out from Taupo, across Lake Taupo.  This gave us a good idea of where we were headed.

Mark, Jen & I started at the Mangatepopo roadend.  This is on the western side of Mt Tongariro, up the Mangatepopo Valley.  The Hot Bus, a shuttle service from Taupo, dropped us at around 7:30am, and we found ourselves in a carpark full of buses and vans letting out hundreds of backpackers who were about to do the Crossing.  They couldn’t work out why we had full packs (why come all of this way just to spend only one day out here, we asked), and some of them were really inappropriately dressed for an alpine experience – tight denim jeans, sandals.

The track heads up to the head of the Mangatepopo Valley, across old lava flows, then steeply up the Devil’s Staircase, a vertical rise of several hundred metres.  This is a track that is about to be replaced with a new switchback track, which was under construction.  There were two helicopters dropping off bucket loads of screenings to track workers up near the top – so much for serenity.  In the meantime, all the walkers scrabble up the steep track.  At the top is Mt Ngauruhoe, a conical volcano that was used as Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings.

The track the crosses the South Crater before ascending up to the Red Crater, a hold in the side of the mountain that looks like it’s still alive.  There’s a big gash in the wall of the crater, which must be a vent.  Steam rises up from some smaller vents in the rim of the crater.  This is the highest point on the Tongariro Crossing track, a bit above 1900 metres high.  Steeply down the other side are the Emerald Lakes, a series of small pools that are turquoise blue.  It’s all very spectacular stuff.

The day finished at Ketetahi Hut, which is on the side of a steep slope that overlooks Lake Taupo off in the distance.  The track has numerous switchbacks on the way down, which was a bit frustrating when the hut was in sight – a straight line would have been appreciated.

At sunset, the nearby Ketetahi Springs formed spectacular steam louds against the orange glow in the background.

This photo was taken with an 8 second exposure.

The hut was overflowing that night, with latecomers having to lay out their sleeping bags on the floor.  Still, the huts on New Zealand’s “Great Walks” are a very different experience to hiking in Australia – they are clean, well-maintained, supervised by hut wardens in the busy months, and even have supplied mattresses and gas stoves.  No rats or mice, no earth floors and no leaky roofs!

There were some track workers staying in the hut, and in the late afternoon, some of them were collected by a helicopter to work on the track just near the hut.  For half an hour or so, the pilot certainly threw the helicopter around when delivering supplies to the guys below.

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