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Trekking the Northern Circuit in New Zealand

South Crater, Tongariro Crossing

South Crater, Tongariro Crossing

The Kiwis call it tramping – but whether you refer to it as tramping, trekking or hiking, New Zealand is one of the best places to do it in the world, particularly as we head into the Southern Hemisphere’s summer season.

If you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies and want a chance to experience Mordor for yourself, check out the Tongariro Crossing – considered New Zealand’s best day walk – or continue on to do the Northern Circuit over four to five days.

This is a challenging trek, where you’re walking on volcanic rock and ash, and much of the track is undefined – you have to look ahead for the next marker to find your way. While a moderate level of fitness is required, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking landscapes as you trek through glacial valleys, across lava flows and past brilliantly hued crater lakes and cascading waterfalls.

If you have limited time, the Tongariro Crossing can be done in a day, or you can continue on to do the Northern Circuit, a 41km trek that takes four to five days depending on your pace.

Start from the town of Whakapapa on New Zealand’s North Island, where you’ll trek through red tussock and mountain hebe in the Mangatepopa Valley before trudging up the steep and jagged Devil’s Staircase to Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro. Here you’ll pass the South Crater and Red Crater, with sweeping views of the Oturere Valley and an optional poled route to the Tongariro Summit. You’ll then pass the Emerald Lakes, so-called because of their brilliant hues caused by minerals washed down from the Red Crater, as you make your way to Ketatahi Hut for the night or carry on another two hours to reach the Ketetahi car park.

Oturere Valley

Oturere Valley

If you’re trekking the complete circuit, over the next few days you’ll descend into the Oturere Valley, walking past dramatic lava formations, to reach the Oturere Hut beside a cascading waterfall. From here you’ll pass through glacial valleys and beech forests to Waihohonu Hut, with views of Mt. Ruapehu in the distance (the largest volcano on the North Island). Then you’ll climb the Tama Saddle, with an optional side trip to the Tama Lakes, before heading back to Whakapapa.

Before embarking on this trek, contact New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, or DOC, to buy a hut or campsite pass for each night of the trek (online or in person) – this guarantees you a bunk in each of the backcountry huts. Aside from bunks, the huts are equipped with gas stoves for cooking, sinks for washing your dishes, rainwater to refill your water bottle, as well as outhouses. Hut passes cost NZ $25 per night in the peak season and NZ $15 in the offpeak, while camping is $20 peak and $10 offpeak.

Other than that, though, you’re on your own. You’re responsible for carrying in your own food, cooking utensils, toilet paper and sleeping bag, as well as carrying out all your garbage.

It’s isolated, so the DOC recommends bringing a personal locator beacon or mountain radio with you (particularly during the winter) – don’t count on getting mobile-phone coverage. Manage your risk by checking the track conditions and weather forecast before heading out, and make sure you have waterproof/windproof gear and well-worn-in hiking boots – not to mention enough food to last you an extra day or two in case you get stuck out there during inclimate weather.

Photo Copyright @ 2009 VH Media

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