Lego and tramping. Probably not two activities you'd naturally piece together, but it turns out tramping is more fun when Brickman comes along.
Dan (10) and I were stoked to finally get back to the Tongariro Northern Circuit again after turning back due to poor conditions earlier this year. As we started out from Whakapapa Village, Dan said excitedly, "I've brought a surprise on the tramp!" A giant grin spread across his face as he pulled Brickman from his backpack, "Don't let anyone see him. I want it to a surprise for when we get home and show the photos!"
With Brickman secretly in tow, we began the Tongaririo Northern Circuit in a clockwise direction.
Day 1 - Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut - 9.4km
As you set off from the chateau in Whakapapa Village you can see Mount Ngauruhoe, Mount Pukekaikiore (on the right just in front of Mount Ngauruhoe), and Mount Pukeonake (on the left) in the distance. The first part of the track is shared with the Taranaki Falls track. When you cross the Wairere Stream bridge, it becomes a true tramping track, pretty rutted out and slippery in wet conditions. The track takes you through tussock and forest, undulating between Mount Pukekaikiore and Mount Pukeonake before joining the well-trodden highway that is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and reaching the Mangatepopo Hut.
Highlights for the 10 year old: Stealthy photos of Brickman at the hut. Identifying the grasses in the tussock. Spotting an unfamiliar bird that appeared to have the body of a sparrow and the tail of a pīwakawaka. We christened it spantail. Fantail + sparrow, get it?
Alternate route to Mangatepopo Hut: 1.4km from the Mangatepopo carpark. Perfect for little sisters and injured fathers to join in the delight of sleeping at the hut. Also helpful for easily getting back to the car for restocking. Note that parking in this carpark is limited to 4 hours in the Great Walk season. Check the Department of Conservation and shuttle websites for up to date information about parking and shuttles.
Day 2 - Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut via Tongariro Alpine Crossing - 12km
As you start out from the hut, you will join the possibly thousands of other people doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Caveat: In the off season, aka winter, the crossing isn't safe for those not familiar with alpine conditions and the use of ice axes and crampons. In any season, be sure to come prepared with the the right supplies and dress appropriately. Enough with the lecture already and on with the track details.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing starts flat and easy until you reach Soda Springs when the track goes up the Devil's Staircase on the side of Mount Ngauruhoe. There is a reprieve from climbing as you head through the very flat South Crater before the final push upwards to Red Crater. Going down from Red Crater to Emerald Lakes can be challenging over the loose scoria. At the track junction, go left to continue on Tongariro Alpine Crossing, go right to continue on Tongariro Northern Circuit.
The route to Oturere Hut from Emerald Lakes leads down to the valley floor and then onto Planet Rock Formation. Walking through giant lumpy boulders against a wall of snowy volcanoes was the most epic part of the trip, even the 10 year old agreed. Before you know it, Oturere Hut appears from behind the rocks and you've got your boots off watching the waterfall just 25 metres from the front door of the hut.
Highlights for the 10 year old: Snow.* Snow balls, snow tasting, snowmen, snowball fights, snow sliding, photos of Brickman in the snow, snow, snow, snow...
Day 3 - Oturere Hut to Waihohohu Hut - 8.1km
From Oturere Hut the alien rock formations decrease in size until you find yourself in a barren landscape of hills and valleys. The only signs of human life are the countless tramping poles that mark the route. Your destination is the forest you can see in the distance, several ridge lines away. The shelter of the bush is welcome after the exposure on the ridges and after a short tramp through the stunning bush, you pop out onto another ridge where Waihohonu Hut is visible just beyond another small section of bush. Waihohonu Hut is a special spot. Warm and spacious with giant windows with a view of both Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu.
Highlights for the 10 year old: 'Find Brickman' photos, similar to Where's Wally or Where's Waldo? Side trip to Old Waihohonu Hut. Inside there are old books, old photos, and old equipment. Separate quarters for the ladies and gents leads to lots of good discussion.
Alternate route to Waihohonu Hut: An easy, flat 5.6km from the carpark on Desert Road. Also an excellent starting spot for those joining joining in at the hut, but not quite up to the full Northern Circuit.
Day 4 - Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village - 15.4km
Completing the Northern Circuit was a big deal for Dan and we had to be careful not to celebrate too much at Waihohonu Hut with the longest distance still to come. The track between Waihohonu Hut and Whakapapa Village goes between Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu, which means it's often a wind tunnel. A wind tunnel surrounded by beautiful mountains, if they're not covered by storm clouds. It's a longer distance, but not technically difficult so it's the perfect kind of track for distracting games like tramping fartleks, hidden objects, word games, and guessing games.
Highlights for the 10 year old: Beating the time posted on the DOC sign. Spotting the chateau from the track just before Taranaki Falls - nearly there! The last sneaky photo of Brickman on the exit/entrance Tongariro Northern Circuit track sign.
Side track: Taranaki Falls. If you have friends and whānau waiting for you at Whakapapa Village, get them to walk to Taranaki Falls to meet you. It's a beautiful little day walk and a huge burst of energy for tired trampers to see their loved ones.
Looking to build pieces of fun and construct blocks of motivation into your tramping? Bring along Brickman or another favourite Lego dude.
*Snow not present in all seasons.