Round the Mountain Track (25-29 December 2013)

Even seasoned hikers of 24 years make “mistakes”. Any tramper, even a complete novice, will tell you it’s a big no-no to wear new – yes, you read right, brand new! – boots on a tramp. Especially a five day one at that.

But here’s what happened: sixteen years ago, I (Gerry got his pair a year or so later) bought the Mt McKinley (made by Hi-Tec) mountaineering boots. They were made from solid half-inch thick pig skin. Metal shank in the sole and a metal cap to protect the toe-box. You could drive a Panzer tank over your toes and you would’t feel it. Okey, okey, I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the gist of what I’m trying to say. These were heavy as hell, indestructible, solid leather shoes that will last you a lifetime.

Until we moved to NZ, that is. Not in a million years would I have expected it to be possible, but these solid half-inch thick pig skin boots actually shrunk. Could it be the cold and generally more humid weather than what we were used to in SA? Who knows, but the fact of the matter is, they’ve become one size too small – which is significant, as anyone who’ve ever worn a size too small shoe will tell you.

Little did I realise when we booked a 5-day tramp, the Tongariro Northern Circuit in 2010, that the then 13 years old boots might be a size too small. But we made it, black toe nails, blisters and all – I blamed any discomforts on being unfit, carrying too heavy pack, the unfamiliar terrain and swollen feet. Not once did it cross my mind that the shoes might have shrunk – it fitted perfectly just a few months before. Either that, or I got too big for my shoes. Or as a friend pointed out, maybe I just got too fat! 😉

And so it came about that when we decided on a whim to do the Round the Mountain Track, we realised that proper boots might be a good idea, given that the terrain is quite rugged.

Two days before the start, we dashed into town (Gerry did some serious internet research about our best options a few days prior to buying) and bought ourselves new pairs of boots. We quickly took them for a spin in the backyard and decided there and then that they are comfortable enough to be treated to a five day tramp.

25 December 2013

Whakapapa Village to Waihohonu Hut+

We made the trip from Palmerston North the morning of day one. Left late which meant we could only start our hike at 11:00. Since it was Xmas day, the info centre was closed and we couldn’t officially book in and get a final weather report before setting off. We had a last warm coffee in the comfort of our car before stepping out into the wild on a cool and dreary day.

The first day of this track when done clockwise, is the same as the last day of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, also done clockwise. Although this is “familiar terrain”, it is in the opposite direction to what we did before, and three years have gone so overall it is a completely different experience.

An hour of walking through scrubland, tussock and mountain beech, takes you to the Taranaki Falls. After a quick snack stop, we continued along the path for about two hours before reaching the junction that gives you the option to see Upper Tama and Lower Tama Lakes. Despite the late start, we took it very easy, trying not to get blisters with the new shoes in the first few kilometres of a five day hike. On and off a drizzle kept us company all day long with a nippy tail-wind, cool conditions, but overall not too bad. We had backpacks to shelter us from the worst of the wind and rain, whereas the trampers coming from the front had to face the weather head on.

An easy walk takes you to Waihohonu Hut which we reached at about 4pm. Filled our water bottles and pushed on for another kilometre or so. A small detour takes you to Ohinepango Springs, which is rather impressive, pumping water out of the mountain at a vast rate and forming a significant stream over which a wooden bridge have been built to make crossing easy.

A short bit further along the track, we made a 90 degree turn from the path and into the scrubland to stay clear the required 200 metres from the path, where we pitched our tent with only a light wind that died away a couple of hours later. We spent an absolute perfect evening and windless night all alone in the outback. The mist and drizzle continued, but we were warm and dry inside. We did, however, discover that our 24 year old backpacks don’t have an ounce of water-proofing left in them. Luckily everything was packed in drybags and sack-liners.

26 December 2013

Waihohonu Hut+ to Rangipo Hut+

Another cloudy morning, but luckily no rain. We slept in a little and had another late start. The tent was a bit wet from the night’s drizzle, but we propped it into the wet pack and were off on a stroll. The scenery is truly beautiful passing through the Rangipo Desert with stunning views of Mt Ruapehu on your right. That’s if your lucky enough to have the mountain showing itself, which we had a few times. To your left (to the east) lie the Kaimanawa mountains.

We dawdled all day, only seeing a few other trampers in the morning. The overcast weather with just a light breeze made for a very pleasant walk to start off with. This all changed before the day was over.

The day’s walk can be described as fairly easy/flat to undulating, although you go up little bits and down little bits all the time, over a ridge, through a valley and over the next. In fact, the whole of the RTM track is like this: undulating to hilly in places as you stay more or less in the foot hills, but the difference between the highest and lowest point is only 500 metres. Albeit half a kilometre in altitude gained or lost, borders on hilly to me.

After passing through another ravine, we decided to stop for lunch up on a ridge. As the morning progressed, the wind became colder and by lunchtime it was freezing. We wore three layers of clothing with the outer one being rain and wind proof, and my fingers were still numb and slow from the cold.

Dark clouds were closing in all around us as we made our way to and through a lahar (volcanic mudflow) valley that is rated as a dangerous area. The terrain gets increasingly more rough and rocky and we made the trek across the lahar valley as quickly as possible, crossing the first of about 5 one-person hanging bridges. Scary stuff.

Reaching the hut at 4pm, we filled our water bottles and soldiered on in the very windy, inclement weather. Our plan with this tramp was to gain a few kilometres each day, walking further past each hut every day. This would make our final day a little shorter, since we still wanted to drive back to Palmy directly after we finished.

Not even 30 minutes after we left the hut, the mist worsened and it started to rain. We went from dry to soaking wet in 10 minutes. After continuing for another hour in sleet, ice cold winds, rain and mist, we realised it’s not going to get better and decided to search for a tent spot. On the ridge right next to the very impressive Waihianoa Gorge, is where we made our home. The rain eased for a bit, giving us time to quickly pitch the tent. No sooner did we pile everything inside, or it started to rain again.

With soaking wet packs, shoes, clothes, hats and socks, we huddled inside the tent listening to the rain. Luckily the tent has a bell in front where some of the wet gear stayed and where we cooked supper. By 9:30pm we were in bed wondering what the next day would bring.

27 December 2013

Rongipo Hut+ to Mangaehuehu Hut

All night long it rained and in the morning it was still pouring. Sleeping bags were starting to get wet from condensation and the wind was forcing rain underneath the fly-sheet making the sides of the tent wet as well.

We tried to pack everything while still inside the tent, but with limited space and wet packs, it took some gymnastics. We ended up rearranging everything between the two of us to be able to pack the tent last. So when we finally stepped out into the cold, wet, misty morning, it was just the tent that needed to be propped up into it’s bag and tied to Gerry’s pack.

We started at the ridge of the gorge that was all covered in mist. Not knowing how deep or how far to go, we could only hear a river rumbling way below. And then the mist suddenly cleared for two seconds before closing in again. What a magnificent view. We were truly in alpine terrain where little grows, above the tree-line.

A fairly steep rocky downhill takes you to another one person swing-bridge to cross the river before scrambling up the other side.

The rain and mist continued, while we were getting colder by the minute. Despite three layers of clothing, the wetness seems to seep into your flesh until it is no longer possible to keep your hands or anything else dry. Being surrounded by mist, rain and gale force winds, just two people, in alpine conditions, is a surreal experience. Your mind starts to play tricks on you, creating visions of you wandering aimlessly around the snowy mountain, lost, cold and dehydrated.

The going is tough on rocks, but coupled with the extremely trying weather conditions, this day must rate as one of the tougher days I’ve experienced on a tramp. By lunchtime I looked like a prune and felt like Sir Hillary – feeling as it I’ve just conquered Everest, but also feeling a little sorry for myself.

At last the rain stopped for a bit, making it possible to quickly grab a bite to eat before continuing through the mountain beech forest. It still drizzled on and off throughout the afternoon, but for the most part, water wasn’t streaming down my hood, sleeves and jacket hem so much anymore, and the wind was also less in the forest.

Shortly after two we reached Mangaehuehu Hut. Dropped our packs to get water again to last us through the night and next day. While sitting on the little bench outside the hut like wet chooks, it started pouring again. And right there and then we decided to rather stay at the hut, which turned out to be a great decision as it kept on raining till late at night. Finally we could let everything dry out. We made a fire in the solid cast iron Pioneer stove and unpacked and hung up everything that needed drying. We had the hut all to ourselves which was just awesome.

What a lovely relaxing evening by the fire it turned out to be. Cooked supper and went to bed early knowing we’ll start the new day with mostly dry gear.

28 December 2013

Mangaehuehu Hut to Mangaturuturu Hut+

Blue skies! Well, almost. We could see a bit of blue through the clouds early in the morning and Mt Ruapehu at certain times throughout the day.

As is always the case on multi-day tramps, things start to fall into place from day four onwards. Your body gets used to the weight and feel of the pack, the pack starts to fit the contours of your body, and packing and unpacking and finding stuff gets easier. For five days you live out of your pack; your house, your bed, your food, your stove, and clothes, everything lives on your back, wherever you go. Isn’t it amazing?

We left the hut shortly after 8am on a partially cloudy day. The path meanders through shrub-land, tussock and mountain beech again. For two days we haven’t seen or heard a living soul. But after about three hours walking, we reached the Waitonga Falls (39 metres) that proved to be popular with day hikers. Shortly after, your pass through a tarn; Rotokawa, with several alpine wetland species and on a clear day, beautiful views of Mt Ruapehu.

Another hour’s walking brings you to the Ohakune Mountain Road. The 3+km slog on the road goes uphill all the way. Very steep uphill – over the 3+kms, you gain about 400m in altitude. Admittedly this wasn’t the most pleasant part of our tramp.

Passing the car park, where more day hikers made the outing to the hut, you cross over a lava ridge. We stopped for lunch. Further downhill over rocky terrain, you reach the Mangaturuturu Valley. The path passes over the Cascades where a mountain stream tumbles over rocks that are covered with whitish silica. These must be extremely slippery and dangerous when wet or in icy conditions. Luckily they were mainly dry when we passed through.

We reached the hut a bit further down the valley, at 3:30pm, where we filled our water bottles once more for the last nights stay.

Right next to the hut is the Mangaturuturu River which we’ve been stressing about all week, because it may not be possible to cross after heavy rain. Fortunately we could still rock-hop mainly dry-footed across. A scramble out the other side of the valley brings you to Lake Surprise, a shallow alpine tarn. From there, a staircase that was built to protect the fragile alpine environment, takes you to the ridge. Another 30 minutes on, we found the lovely waterfall with tent spot that a family (doing a two day tramp) told us about. Rain was looming again, so we quickly pitched the tent and started supper.

No sooner had we finished our supper and a last cup of coffee, when it started to rain again.

As I expected, it turns out (when chatting to the friendly family who seems to know the area quite well) that the water in the streams is as clear and potable as anything. We were told by officials not to drink the water at all, as it contains minerals (the mountain being a volcano and all) that purification tablets or boiling can’t remove. Some of the streams have this problem, but not all of them. The problematic ones are smelly (sulphur) and the yellow rocks are further indicators that the water might be bad if swallowed. But we’re sure to go for the streams next time. Mention was, however, made of a bacteria that could be present in some of the streams that causes severe diarrhea, so boiling or purification tablets might not be a bad idea.

29 December 2013

Mangaturuturu Hut+ to Whakapapa Village

Have I mentioned how much I love NZ hikes/tramps/treks? Well, if not, let me just say again how much I like the fact that you can start where you want to, go in any direction, stay in huts as long as you please, camp if you like, basically plan your own trip to suit your needs. No fuss.

It rained right through the night and the whole of the last day. Needless to say, we and everything we had with us, were soaking wet again. Not only that, but gale force winds and sleet turned this into quite a memorable experience. Luckily it was our last day of the tramp and we didn’t care too much anymore about the wet gear. Apart from the fact that it’s much heavier!

Coupled with less desirable weather conditions, the seriously eroded track made the going really tough on this day. In places dongas are carved out head high. And with little streams trickling down the mountain, these dongas are mudslides and a real challenge with a heavy pack. Aside from the mudslides and dongas, the path consists mainly of stone, gravel and scoria. It is difficult walking terrain at the best of times and hard on your feet and body, but in rain and wind, just so much worse.

As we pass through valleys and crossing streams, we could see water tumbling down the mountain and every stream-crossing became more of a challenge. The final few we went through nearly knee-high, boots and all. The pull of the water was so strong that I had to hold on to Gerry for balance.

With hands that were once again numb, arms and legs that was starting to lose feeling from the wet pants, my feet were now also frozen stiff inside my boots from the icy mountain water. We were forced to stop quickly to wring out socks and pour the water out of our waterproof boots after each river crossing. I say quickly, but in actual fact my hands could only move at a snails pace no matter how hard I tried to make my fingers go faster, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether it could be the beginning of hypothermia?

With the hour and a half extra we covered on day four, it would have taken us 7 hours to complete the trek between the two huts. Some guys en route mentioned it took them 8 hours, because of the eroded path. According to the brochures, it’s supposed to take five and a half hours.

Which bring me to the distances between huts – I truly believe that the distances and times given are a bit questionable. Yes, the terrain is tough and one progresses slower than you might expect, but to be on the safe side – if you’re an average go-slow like myself – plan extra time for this. The sign boards at three different spots indicate the distance between two specific huts to be 4 hours, 4.5 hours and 5 hours respectively. That makes a huge difference if you think you’re almost there, but then have another hour’s walking.

We took the route straight out to Bruce Road and walked the last 5km on the road back to Whakapapa Village, instead of the detour past the last hut (Whakapapaiti Hut) and through the valley. Whakapapaiti River is also known to be unsafe after heavy rain and we didn’t want to risk taking the detour if we would only have to come back the other way anyway. Besides, the weather wasn’t really conducive to sight-seeing and spending time in the great outdoors.

This is back country and the tramp is tough as! It reminded me a bit about our beloved Fish River Canyon in Namibia which we did every year for 10 years, and also the Drakensberg in SA. Take the toughest parts of both, and you have the Round the Mountain Track. We fell in love with the harshness of the area, the desert, the unforgiving landscape and weather, and I can only anticipate that this tramp could become an institution for us. Doing it anti-clockwise, taking more days, or less days, try to run it (like the friendly family guy did in 14 hours!), or come back in winter time when the weather really will be a challenge, and cover shorter trips as away weekends – the options are many.

And finally our brand new boots: what an excellent investment it turned out to be! Not a blister in sight, just support and comfort over a very rocky and difficult terrain. Hundreds of times we commented on the fact that trail-running shoes (as we planned on using) just wouldn’t have cut it. Yes, if you go light-weight and carry much less, or run the track, maybe, but most definitely not with a heavy pack. The shoes made the world of difference. I realise it was a bit risky wearing new shoes on a 5-day tramp, but I’m so glad we did. So congratulations might be in order to Zamberlan for producing a shoe that feels like you’ve had it for years, a shoe that can go from the box around a mountain and not giving it’s wearer so much as a niggle. Just sturdy support and comfort.

Can’t wait to take them out on another adventure.

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2 thoughts on “Round the Mountain Track (25-29 December 2013)

  1. Pingback: A sorry sight. | Jog around the Blog

  2. Pingback: Round the Mountain: anti-clockwise – Jog around the Blog

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