‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’ says Boromir in the first Lord of the Rings movie. But here in the real life Middle Earth (AKA New Zealand) one can in fact, walk right into Mordor, and back out again. And not only that, it’s a hell of a beautiful journey.
The Tongariro National Park is located roughly in the centre of the North Island of New Zealand, and is home to a number of excellent walks, beautiful snow-capped mountains, some gorgeous waterfalls, and generally stunning scenery. It’s also home to one of the most popular day hikes (or ‘tramps’ if you’d prefer to say it in Kiwi language) in New Zealand—the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
This 19.4km journey crosses through the national park, and as the name suggests, heads up into alpine territory, meaning despite its popularity it’s not exactly a walk in the park. But people flock here to do this walk for a number of reasons—it’s beautiful, it’s fairly easy to access from places like Taupo and Rotorua, and last but definitely not least, it passes Mt. Ngauruhoe—otherwise known as Mt. Doom thanks to the Lord of the Rings franchise. And the opportunity to simply walk into Mordor is just too good to pass up.
But for me, I wanted something a little bit different. I’d been toying with the idea of taking a solo multi-day hike for a little while now, and was looking for the best place to start. Having just moved to New Zealand I was overwhelmed with possibilities—NZ is known for its ‘tramping’ and has a huge variety of hikes on offer, including their ‘Great Walks’.
The Great Walks are a selection of very popular walks, through stunning scenery, that are generally achievable to most hikers (in the right weather conditions), run over a few days, and have access to great facilities like huts with toilets, water and cooking facilities along the way. This seemed to me like a good place to start, and fortunately one of those great walks—the Tongariro Northern Circuit—follows the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for a ways, before circling around the formidable Mt. Ngauruhoe, so you get to have a good look at Mordor from all angles.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit runs in a loop, so you start and finish at the Whakapapa Village where both parking and accommodation are available. It covers approximately 45km and most people complete it in 3-4 days. There are three accommodation huts along the way, but each hut has a camping area also, if you’d prefer to carry your own canvas in.
These huts sleep anywhere from 20–28 people on platform bunk beds, so be prepared to find yourself sleeping next to a stranger, and in a room with a dozen other people (at least one of which will snore, guaranteed). They also have toilets (of the long drop variety), water tanks (they recommend boiling the water before drinking), gas cookers, sinks, and wood fired heating. They do not have cooking materials (pots, pans etc), food or bedding. And they may or may not have things like dishwashing liquid, matches and toilet paper, so best to bring your own stash just in case.
The Great Walks season runs from roughly Oct 25 – April 30 and during this time huts need to be booked in advance (sometimes well in advance) online via the Department of Conservation website at a cost of $36 per person, per night. Outside of the season huts run on a first in, first served basis and only cost $15 a night.
If you plan to do any of the Great Walks outside of season then you really need to know what you’re doing — this is an alpine environment and can be dangerous even in summer, let alone in winter. Always check local weather information, and consider going with a guide (or not at all!) if you’re not experienced in these environments. If you find the huts are booked out, then consider camping. There’s a lot more spaces, it’s less popular, and much cheaper. But of course, a tent is just one more thing to carry!
I decided not to push my luck and allowed myself the full 3 nights/4 days to do the trek, and chose to stay in the huts as I didn’t yet own a suitable lightweight tent to carry. I chose to hike clockwise, which is the most popular way to go, and it means that you are walking with the traffic of the popular section that parallels the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, rather than against it. As a quick overview, this means you cover the following:
Day 1: Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut – 9.4km
On day one I dropped the Kid at school, and drove three hours from home to Whakapapa Village. I dropped into the tourist information centre to sign in for the hike, and to get a free parking pass for my vehicle. Because it was already around lunchtime the main parking space was full, and I had to leave my vehicle on the side of the road. From there it was a matter of lacing up my hiking boots, donning my 16kg backpack, and walking up the road to the start of the track.
This first section was probably the least interesting, and also the quietest. I saw barely anyone until I arrived at the hut a few hours later. Which was probably a good thing because I’m not ashamed to admit I was already struggling a wee bit! Mangatepopo Hut put on a stunning sunset and I celebrated my first day on the track with a wee plastic cup of wine (yes, I carried a 400ml plastic bottle of red wine with me!) and some dark chocolate after a not-so-gourmet meal.
Day 2: Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut – 12km
Not the longest stretch of the hike, but definitely the hardest. But the views—oh wow, they’re so worth it! This is the day that you parallel the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, so I went from barely seeing a soul the first day, to sharing the track with literally hundreds of other travellers. Now usually hiking up a mountain with a thousand other people carrying 16kg on my back wouldn’t really be my idea of a good time. But I left early, took my time, and seriously, these views are like nothing you’ve ever seen before, making it well worth it.
I ate lunch at the top overlooking Mt. Ngauruhoe on one side and the stunning Emerald and Blue lakes on the other, feeling extremely proud of myself for making it as far as I had. And the good thing about being surrounded by so many other hikers is there are plenty of people to ask to take a photo for you! However I definitely breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the point in the track where my route diverged away from the Alpine Crossing, and I had the trail all to myself again.
Day 3: Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut – 8.1km
A nice short relatively easy day; I took my time in the morning with a leisurely breakfast and a few hours later found myself at the very modern Waihohonu Hut with a whole afternoon to relax, recover and enjoy the views.
Day 4: Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village – 15.4km
I knew today was going to be the longest stretch km wise, and I knew I still had a three hour drive ahead of me when I was done, so I got up at dawn, ate breakfast in the dark, and headed off as the sun was rising throwing beautiful pink colours over Mt. Ruapehu off in the distance.
This day was hard. My boots were pressing on my big toes (I ended up with huge bruises across both big toenails!) so my feet were really hurting, and the distance felt long. My pack was a little lighter after eating a few kgs of food, but it felt heavier than ever. Then the weather turned and I went from perfect days to clouds, rain and wind. But I just kept putting one (painful) foot in front of the other, and eventually made it to the beautiful Taranaki Falls, which are only a short stroll from Whakapapa Village.
I stumbled back into ‘town’, let the tourist info know I had returned safely, and very gratefully pulled off my boots and got in my car (still safely parked on the side of the road) for the journey home.
Things to consider
- This is an alpine route. While a relatively easy journey in good weather conditions, it can be extremely dangerous in poor weather. People have died doing both the Alpine Crossing day trip, and the longer Northern Circuit that I completed. As such it is not to be taken lightly and you should always check weather conditions and seek advice from DOC (Department of Conservation) before you leave. Also ensure you have adequate communications if things go wrong.
- Packing for a four day hike can be a challenge if you’re new to it like me. I sought lots of advice from online forums and Facebook groups and got some fantastic tips for lightweight but filling food options.
- Don’t forget as well as food you’ll need water, spare clothes, wet/cold weather gear in case the weather turns, cooking pots and eating utensils, matches, dishwashing liquid, first aid supplies, sleeping bag etc. The DOC website has an excellent ‘Great Walks’ checklist you can utilise. I also took a thermos so I could have a hot drink/soup during the day, a book (Lord of the Rings course!), an iPod packed with podcasts & music, some thongs/jandals to wear at the huts for a break from my boots, and most importantly—red wine and chocolate!
And most importantly; just give it a go! I was so nervous setting out as a solo female with an average fitness who had never done an overnight hike before. Not to mention I didn’t have all the most high tech and expensive gear. But it was absolutely fantastic. Not only did I get to experience one of the most stunning landscapes in New Zealand, but I proved to myself that I could do it. And I know this is just the first of many great tramping experiences to come in this wonderful country.