Climbing the Three T’s: Taranaki, Tongariro & the Tararua’s

Coming back to New Zealand is sure a bit of a change, but really it’s just an opportunity to explore a bit more of the home turf. We thought we’d start the year off with a bang by spending the first week having a sneak peak of three national parks in the north island. We were pretty time restricted with only a week to spare before Elric started up at work, but restricted time has never restricted our travels before so why start now. In one week we welcomed the new year with friends gazing up at the stars from the heart of the Tararua Ranges, competed with hoards of people on what must be the most touristy path in the whole of New Zealand – the Tongariro Crossing, and climbed to the summit of Mount Taranaki’s mighty volcano. Not a bad start to the year if you ask me!

New Year in the Tararua’s

On New Years Eve we hiked up with a couple of friends to the Roaring Stag Hut in the northern Tararua’s. We had done a bit of searching for a good DOC Hut in a nice area that was reasonably accessible for a range of hiking abilities to spend new year. The Roaring Stag looked like a sure winner situated right next to a river with a swimming hole, a reasonable number of beds to reduce the risk of going bedless, just a 3-4 hour walk from the road and with a couple of swing bridges and river crossings to add a bit of novelty.

The walk in and the location were beautiful. The hike took us through variations of dense New Zealand bush and led us over a mini mountain to a hidden riverside hut. We were completely alone on the track, hidden in the heart of the ranges. It wasn’t until we arrived at the hut that we came across some other people, but luckily enough beds for us! It was a good thing we left early though because by the end of the evening there were 16ish of us on new years eve in a 12 bed hut (meaning the floor was the only option for some…).

We spent the evening downing a few beers we’d hauled up with us and playing board games all the way up until midnight. Despite the day being overcast and spotted with drizzle the evening was completely clear. We could see every star in the sky as we counted down to the changing of the years, a bit of a ridiculous tradition really, but kind of nice at the same time. Every year is different and it is nice thinking about whats to come (last year will be pretty hard to top though!).

It sure was a pretty perfect spot to celebrate the new year and a pretty hike to access it, but as for ease of access, it probably wasn’t the best choice for that… I think you need a decent level of fitness to be comfortable with the often steep climbs and a distance that seemed to be a lot longer than the advertised 7.2km. That being said though we all made it there and back in one piece and the first time hiker in our group sure can be proud of it as a mighty feat to start of the year!

Racing through the Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Crossing has got to be one of the most well known walks in New Zealand. Maybe it’s the volcanic landscape and turquoise lakes, or maybe it’s just it’s connection to The Lord of The Rings, but whatever it is tourists come from near and far to do the crossing. The extensive number of people has meant that if you want to do the full crossing you need to pay for a shuttle to take you to the start as the parking lot is restricted to 4 hours. It was a bit out of our budget to shell out $40 each for a shuttle so decided to run to the lakes and back within the 4 hour limit (we had heard this was the most beautiful segment anyway).

We hit the car park around 8am, time to hit start on the stopwatch! As you come into the car park there are parking wardens sitting in a booth that write down your number plate as you enter the lot. We wanted to get there early to avoid missing out on the limited spots, but surprisingly there were next to no cars when we arrived (I guess not many people are keen on the jog…). The night before we had slept in the car at a free DOC campsite (Urchin Campsite) and had pre-prepared our running gear so we could go straight from the car to the track with no time wasted! Unfortunately pretty quickly into the trail we hit a never ending line of strolling tourists making it running pretty impossible. All of the shuttles arrive around the same time, and there are a LOT of them. I think the best thing to do would be to start the hike just before sunrise because walking with masses like that is a bit of a mission (especially if you are wanting to get a bit of a pace on).

It was a very overcast day but the run/walk up through the Mangatepopo Valley and up the aptly named Devil’s Staircase was still spectacular. It wasn’t until we were climbing up to the top of the Red Crater that that we were immersed in cloud. In a hope that the clouds would clear by the time we reached the top we pushed forward, battling the winds and crumbling volcanic rock beneath our feet. Sure enough we arrived just in time to see the iconic lakes through a clearing in the cloud. They sure were stunning, bold greens and blues shining out through the white fog, totally worth it.

A glimpse was all we needed before the cloud cover returned telling us it was time to race back to the parking lot. We had heard they were very strict on parking so we didn’t want to take any risks of a big fine! The run back was a lot more fun than the jog in. The hoards of people had all passed through so it was pretty much just us on the trail, a rare event for this track it seems. We could really take in the scenery and to be honest the cloud and fog was pretty nice, cooling us down and creating a bit of mystery to what is already such a unique area. Racing the clock the last couple of km’s turned into a bit of a tired person’s sprint getting us back to the car with a couple of minutes to spare! The parking warden’s booth was empty as was most of the car park so we could have taken a bit more time it seems, but meant we had the rest of the day to have a swim, relax and get prepared for the next hike on the list – Mount Taranaki.

Mount Taranaki Summit Track

After spending the day exploring New Plymouth (and falling in love with it), we began our walk to the Maketawa Hut for the night. It was a beautiful short walk to the hut less than an hour walk from the North Egmont Visitor Centre. The view from the hut’s balcony was incredible and I was completely mesmerised by the clouds at sunset. There was only one other couple there which meant we had a whole room to ourselves, pretty luxury for a DOC hut!

We woke up early enough to catch the sunrise bathing the mountain in a red glow. The initial plan had been to hike to the top overnight to catch sunrise from the summit, but with the forecast warning potential morning cloud we thought we’d save that for another time!

The hike was naturally split into three segments. The first followed a mountain road up to the Tahurangi Lodge and then up a few stairs to where the mountain track becomes a pile of loose rock. I’d say most people can make it to this point, the trail is well put together and the views are epic so totally worth the gradual climb even if you are not too confident hiking.

Beyond this point the hike becomes a bit more challenging. The loose rock giving way beneath out feet felt like every step was pointless and a short distance seemed to take forever. But no matter where we were all we needed to do was turn around to gaze at the incredible view below us to remember why we were continuing the battle upwards.

The final section was where the loose rock became more of a solid rock face. At the base there was a sign reminding hikers to turn back if they are getting tired because ‘There’s still a long way to go!’. To be honest though when we got here I thought we were basically at the top. This was an illusion. There was still a long way to go. We took it slow climbing up, taking a couple of pauses as we went to take in the view (we were also starting to feel the sharp change in altitude). It was pretty surreal when we did finally make it to the summit after crossing the snowy crater. Everywhere you looked would be an incredible view. Absolutely stunning.

The steep and symmetrical shape of the mountain meant that the whole way down we were staring at a stunning panorama. The whole hike took us roughly 6 hours return and it has got to be one of my favourites. We will definitely be coming back to explore more of the national park too because there is so much to see! Elric has also put together a blog post of some beautiful shots from our hike here!

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