An Award Ticket from UAL allows one free stopover. This is a key benefit to be aware of; a stopover adds major options to what already is a great deal. So on Feb 22 I boarded the plane in Sydney for my return to the States, got off in Auckland, picked up my Toyota Corolla at 9:15 pm, and drove until 1:30 am before pulling over and catching some Z’s in the back.
Destination: Tongariro National Park, in the center of the North Island (and the 4th oldest Nat Park in the world). I had only 4 days in New Zealand (the downside to Award Tickets is you take what dates you can get). I had just come from doing the Overland Track and the South Coast Track – rated the #1 and #2 best trails in Australia – and the “Tongariro Circuit” is rated the best trail in New Zealand, and one of it’s super classic “Great Walks”. It circumnavigates two semi-active volcano’s; a 50 km track thru alpine terrain and fresh lava fields, all with big views.
So guess what I was going to do the next morning? OK, so I’m totally predictable …
At 8 am I was impatiently waiting for the ranger station to open. I had zipped in from Auckland the previous night without stopping for supplies; fortunately I nabbed 3 brownies from the gift shop café; now all I needed was a map. A thick bank of low clouds hovered just above, hiding the mountains, and the wind was blowing, but there’s a reason New Zealand is so lush and green, so one must go in conditions like this or else little would ever get done.
With my fanny pack now stocked, off I went. A real upside to the wet climate is one doesn’t have to bring any water. I brought one empty 20 oz bottle and that was plenty (you dip straight out of the streams with no purification). The track was beautiful, well marked, and fascinating. Essentially every single plant and animal here exist only here. I couldn’t recognize so much as a blade of grass. Actually, I take that back – the climate, terrain, flora and fauna are very similar to Tasmania – and no where else.
Really nice huts are spaced only 3 – 6 hrs walking distance apart; there is a fee for using them, but since the Park Service doesn’t expect anyone to do the track w/o them, one can run the Circuit for free. The clouds were hanging in there, but spitting out only a little rain, so I was delighted to take my time, explore a little, and take tons of pictures (see Photo Gallery). After a few hours I trotted thru a moonscape of little vegetation, then started up the volcano proper. Occasionally I would catch a sulphur smell, and upon getting higher, I realized that what had looked like patchy ground fog was actually steam vents, which one is able to walk right up to and on top of.
A slog up a steep slope of black volcanic gravel followed, which disappeared into the clouds, but it wasn’t long. Then after more weird features that made me stop and gawk, the track led back down into an old crater that was totally flat. I considered scrambling to the top of the actual volcano (a posted route exists), but since I wouldn’t be able to see a thing up there, continued down on a fast new crusher-fines track thru a very rough lava field. I’ve come to appreciate the work Aus and NZ put into their trails – next was a full 800 m of boardwalk was built over a bog, and then I was essentially down, just needing to complete the Circuit back to the start. This turned out to be slower than expected, because although it was mostly flat, the track was so overgrown I couldn’t see my feet sometimes. Fortunately, the vegetation was beautiful.
Getting this done in a leisurely 9.5 hrs met I had plenty of time to drive to the Discovery Lodge (run by one of NZ’s best mountain runners), grab a hot shower, and then share a nice meal and a beer or two with my friend Claude, who had just come off of 4 months at the South Pole, and was spending 3 weeks traveling around the country. Sleeping in the back of the Corolla was less then optimal, but hey, if you run out of money you run out of fun, so the Toyota worked.
How good is this route? Very. I’m putting it on my World Top Ten List (Long Trail category). Here’s why (and very similar to the Overland Track):
- Maritime Climate – Can be wet and cloudy, but never gets real hot or real cold. Both tracks can actually be walked in winter. Feb is warmest and driest.
- Biosphere – Down Under evolved separately from anything in the N Hemisphere, so seeing completely different flora and fauna is fun.
- Amenities – Both tracks are well-signed, well maintained, and have nice huts (emergency shelter).
- Easy Terrain – Both are mostly rolling, with one significant climb.
The Tongariro however, has to get the Top Ten nod for these advantages:
- Logistics are dramatically easier – The Overland is a point-point, with no bus service between; locals simply have a friend shuttle them, but that service isn’t available to visitors. It would be faster to run the Track in reverse than to attempt a hitchhike.
- No mud – Due to the porous volcanic soils, Tongariro doesn’t hold standing water.
- Unique Features – The very recent volcanic activity (last eruption 1975) gives the Tongariro a dramatic specialness.
- The Overland is 85 km (or 65 km if you exit via boat); I prefer this to the T’s 50 km, but that’s personal preference and a small matter.
An important clarification, is the “Crossing” is a different route than the “Circuit” (officially called the “Northern Circuit”, because there is also an “Around the Mountain” circuit adjoining it to the East. The two logically would combine for a very good and much longer loop). The Crossing is a 19 km point-point route that is easily managed; 3 shuttle companies are waiting to drop you off at one end at 7, 8, or 9 am, and pick you up at the other end. Normally I would consider this a weenie alternative, but it turns out the Crossing is an outstanding route. It shares the exact same high volcano track as the Circuit, adds nice beech forests low down on each end, and leaves out the lengthy rolling terrain required to complete a loop.
When planning for my first NZ tip 12 years ago, I stumbled on the Dept of Conservation’s designated “Great Walks”. Being a list kind of guy (aren’t all guys?), and not wanting to spend days researching a foreign country, I immediately seized upon the idea of orientating my trip around running all of NZ’s Great Walks.
This silly idea worked great, and I strongly recommend other runner/tramper/travelers consider it. It saves lots of time by not gnashing about what to do, and these routes really are great (some are definitely “greater” than others), and provide a excellent spectrum or terrain and conditions, from sunny and idyllic (Abel Tasman) to full-on mud slogs (Stewart Island). One of these, the Milford Track, was called “The Finest Walk in the World” by a London newspaper in 1908, but I only think this is true if you’re a fish (the water can be waist deep).
There are now 9 Great Walks (one was recently added), and one is actually a river trip. They’re all about the same length (32 – 78 km), and all are well-maintained, signed, and with huts.
Give it a go mate.