"Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to Tongariro we go!" The kids sang gaily in the backseat as we made the 3 hour trip from Tauranga to Whakapapa. Destination: Whakapapaiti Hut.  

Just kidding! The whinging and urgent requests for the estimated time of arrival started approximately 11 minutes from home. Over the years, we've heard incredible testimonies about the silencing power of in-car movies, but we are stubborn, Jack and I. And everyone suffers. After 4 hours of driving (and complaining), including one playground stretch, an urgent Macca's drive-thru stop for 13 packets of ketchup (hut dinner topping), and an unexpected spotting of Mount Taranaki 200km to the west, we arrived in Whakapapa Village at the base of Mount Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park. 

The track to Whakapapaiti forms a loop, connecting with Bruce Road on each end. From the visitor's centre, it's 9km into the hut, which includes the sometimes hazardous crossing of the Whakapapiti Stream. From the top of Bruce Road, close to the ski lifts, it's only 3km into the hut. Though there aren't any rivers to cross on the shorter trail, it is more exposed and the track is rugged scoria, marked mostly with poles. 

Having arrived at Whakapapa Village at 1:30pm, we were conscious that we only had a few short hours until sunset at 5:02pm. In the Southern Hemisphere, June 21st is the shortest day of the year and it was just the next day. The Department of Conservation Ranger let us know that the Whakapapaiti Stream was considered to be safe to cross that day, though with the water at adult knee height, we may consider piggy-backing the junior trampers across. We grabbed our hut tickets ($15 each for adults, free for children under 11), took our customary group photo at the start of track, and got going.

Spirits were high at the beginning of the tramp. Sadie (5) energetically alternated between dancing and jogging down the track. In the dimly lit forest all of my photos of her dance moves are blurry.  The excitement continued as we crossed the Golden Rapids, coloured by the minerals in the water, and rediscovered the Erupting Mini Matchstick Icicles of Ruapehu, as dubbed on our trip to Waihohonu Hut last year. The kids were intrigued by the ice covering the boggy water and harvested chilly chunks to carry along the way.

It felt colder as we made our way throughout the afternoon. Though the sun was high in the sky, the air was still and crisp. There was frost and snow on the benched sections of the track in the shady areas and Dan confirmed for us that "Slippery Gully" was an apt name for one particular section of icy rocks. We crossed five bridges along the way, the pending Whakapapaiti Stream crossing weighing on our minds. After the fifth bridge, the track meandered through an unbenched section of tussock. Along the valley ahead, we could see a long stretch of countless poles reflecting the sun setting at our backs. We continued as quickly as we could towards Mount Ruapehu, which was beginning to turn shades of pale pink in the sunset. Dan joked, "Ruapehu looks best in his pyjamas!" This was the bleakest part of the day for Sadie as she lost her steam and needed extra cuddles and dried fruit.

The mood was high again when we finally reached to the Whakapapaiti Stream and clambered over the field of boulders, sussing out the best place to cross. Dan led the way, confidently jumping between the rocks just visible above the noisy water. Jack and I found stable positions for our feet in the icy water to help Sadie to reach the other side. As we walked, the line of darkness extended further and further away from us. We were losing our race to beat the darkness to the hut. Even the persistently optimistic Dan lost his stride, stating he was disappointed that we hadn't yet made it to the hut. Determined to get there, Dan and I decided to go as fast as possible. At last, we spotted the hut, barely visible in the shadows and the dusky light. We waved our arms, shouting to Jack and Sadie behind us, "The hut! The hut! The hut!" From there everyone made a mad dash splashing through the shallow water the remaining 400 metres to the hut. 

We reached the empty building, surprised to find it still warm from the sun or the previous night's fire. Wet clothes shed, fire started, and dinner on, we took our spots on the hut mattress in front of the fire, utterly exhausted. Vegetarian sausages with Macca's tomato sauce (aka ketchup) never tasted so good. Sadie put our hut tickets in the box and we filled out the intention's book, disappointed to find that it was a new book with only 5 previous entries. Reading the intention's book tells a fascinating tale of the previous visitors. The rest of our sometimes food feast included Pringles, Kahlúa-flavoured marshmallows, peanut butter cups, dried fruit, hot chocolate, peppermint tea, carrots, and apples. 

Sadie and Dan carefully unpacked their belongings and set up our sleeping bags in a row on the top bunk. We chatted together in the dark before drifting off to sleep in the cozy hut. Until 4:30am when the unexpected visitors arrived! 

In the wee hours of the morning, we heard the gentle rustling of trampers. It was clear the newest arrivals were doing their best to be silent. But who tramps into a hut at 4:30am? It wasn't until the morning that we met the two hunters, keen to catch a deer and win a prize. They eagerly described cheering for Canada at the Ice Hockey Classic in Auckland the night before, which caused them to be so late in their arrival to the hut.  

When the sun came up, we breakfasted on cereal in tiny boxes: Another sometimes food and a runaway culinary hit with our junior trampers since the January 2018 Pinnacles trip. After cleaning up the hut, restocking the firewood, and taking our customary group hut shot, we started along the slippery track, sliding along the frozen puddles and treading carefully over the patches of icy boardwalk. Still marvelled by winter, Dan and Sadie gathered giant icicles to snack on. We soon reached the junction with the Round the Mountain track and a series of poled switchbacks (zig-zag track) leading to the top of the ridge. The kids set their sights on the top pole and made a beeline up the boulders and scoria. Energised by the challenge, the glee level hadn't been this high since the dancing at the start of the track. 

From the top of the ridge, we could see the cars driving along Bruce Road in the distance. After a short snack break, sheltered against a large boulder from the whipping wind, we continued down, then up, then down, and up once more to the tiny carpark. We all giggled when two of the boulders pulled one of Sadie's boots off and Jack wrestled to set it free.

At the carpark, Jack shed his pack and jogged 5km down Bruce Road to our car still parked the visitor's centre. The kids and I gobbled up a celebratory dried mango and staked our claim to the castles nestled amongst the rocks. Dan's castle had a rock slide and curvy rock couch. Sadie's castle sported wall-to-wall moss carpet. "Take your boots off!" She exclaimed when you knocked at her front door. 

Soon enough Jack was back and we were on the road again. After a restorative dip in the Tokaanu Hot pools, it was back to Tauranga for us. On the return trip, happy fatigue had set in leaving no reason to wonder about the merits of the in-car movie. Who needs screen-time when you're filled with mountain love?  

Whakapapaiti Hut, Whakapapaiti Valley, Tongariro National Park
Leaving from: Whakapapa Visitor's Centre - Silica Rapids Walk
Distance: 9km
Time: 4+ hours 
Difficulty: Moderate – Difficult for 6 and under 
Buggies: No. Child carrier backpacks okay.  Front packs probably not as you'll want to be able to see your feet.   
Toilets: At the hut.
Dogs: No.

Whakapapaiti Hut, Round the Mountain Track, Tongariro National Park
Leaving from: Bruce Road carpark (about 1km from the ski field)
Distance: 3km
Time: 1.5+ hours 
Difficulty: Moderate – Difficult for 6 and under 
Buggies: No. Child carrier backpacks okay.  Front packs probably not as you'll want to be able to see your feet.   
Toilets: At the hut.
Dogs: No.