There are not many places in the world where you can safely walk around an active volcano but in New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park, you can do exactly that.
One out of New Zealand's nine listed Great Walks, the Tongariro Northern Circuit winds its way past Mount Tongariro and around the active volcano of Mount Ngauruhoe, the perfectly-shaped volcanic cone known to movie buffs as the imposing Mount Doom in the Lord of the Ring films. Although currently dormant, Mount Ngauruhoe is New Zealand's most active volcano with the latest eruption being just over 40 years ago in 1975.
The stand out feature of the walk is the contrasting landscape you find yourself traversing. The walk itself takes between 2-4 days, depending on your fitness levels, and covers 43kms.
Day two is definitely the hardest day of the circuit. Not for the faint-hearted, you will complete a challenging 12.8 km trek (5 hours), including trudging 700m uphill then 500m down. You will also be sharing the first part of the day with those people doing the popular day walk of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, so expect crowds unless you set off extremely early.
It starts with a steep incline up what is aptly named the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ - a series of seemingly never-ending switchbacks and rocky stairs, where each step brings not only bodily pain but also ever increasing magnificent views and a huge sense of achievement that you are actually conquering a section of the track deemed tough enough to warrant having its own (not so complementary!) name.
With lungs burning and legs aching, you finally reach the pass between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe where you'll be treated to views of the Red Crater and the three Emerald Lakes. This is the stage where you really realise it was worth all the effort. No filters will be needed when posting your photos of the vibrant colours of these lakes, made even more prominent by the stark contrast to the surrounding grey, volcanic rock.
It is here that you will say goodbye to the day trampers doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as they head off to their pick up point further north and you descend steeply into the Oturere Valley.
With an endless variety of unusual jagged lava forms from early eruptions from the Red Crater, Oturere Valley is a magical place to visit, especially on a misty day. For those who have watched Lord of the Rings, it is here that you will find yourself glancing breathlessly around for a sighting of Golem or for Orcs crouching behind the rocky outcrops. Nestled at the far end of the valley is tonight’s accommodation, Oturere Hut.
It is well worth getting up early on the final day to watch the incredible sight of the sun rising in the east, changing the colour of Mount Ngauruhoe to a deep red as the moon slowly descends behind it.
As the early morning mist lifts, today’s 21.8 km (8 hours) journey begins by traversing a number of stream valleys and open gravel fields as the track sidles around the foot hills of before descending into a beautiful beech clad valley. Climbing up to the exposed and windswept ridge on the other side of the valley you are faced with, for the first time on the trek, spectacular views of Mount Ruapehu and a sense that you are definitely on the home stretch.
For those of you who can still muster the energy there are two very worthwhile side trips to be taken on this final leg of your journey. The first is to the Historic Waihohonu Hut and is only 10 minutes return from the main track. Built in 1904, this was the first hut built in Tongariro National Park and is the oldest example of a typical early two-room mountain hut in New Zealand.
The second side trip takes you to the striking Tama Lakes, two infilled explosion craters. The lower lake is only 10 minutes from the junction, while the upper lake is up a steep ridge, taking 1 hour 30 minutes return.
The final push back to your starting point of Whakapapa Village takes you past the pretty Taranaki Falls before following the Wairere stream through beautiful mountain beech forest and back to the village.
As with all Great Walks in New Zealand, advance booking through the Department of Conservation is essential and proper planning is crucial. Be aware that the weather can change at any time; as long as the appropriate preparation has been undertaken, a memorable experience awaits.