Diana Clement and her tramping companion Kay Haynes.
Diana Clement and her tramping companion Kay Haynes. Contributed

Escape civilisation at Tongariro

HELP! I want to escape civilisation.

It's something that working mothers of young children everywhere will understand.

So I teamed up with a fellow conspirator, Kay Haynes, and together we donned backpacks and left civilisation to tackle the best tramping tracks in the Tongariro National Park.

Like many, I'd only ever done the Tongariro Crossing - albeit three times - and wondered what the other tramping tracks had to offer. The plan was to circumnavigate Mt Ruapehu in one long weekend on the Round the Mountain track and then return for the Northern Circuit walk, taking in in Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro.

The start and end point for each weekend was Whakapapa Village where we bought hut passes, and left our trip intentions - to ensure someone came looking if we didn't reappear.

Our first weekend's route took us from the village, anti-clockwise around Ruapehu spending nights at Whakapapaiti, Mangaehuehu, Rangipo and Waihohonu DoC huts.

Viewed from the outside, walking the largely treeless mountain tracks could sound relentless. But each day the landscape and flora changes. One day's tramp on Ruapehu, from the Ohakune road to Mangaehuehu Hut, was spent largely under the cover of beech forest.

The starkest landscape comes in the section across the Rangipo Desert. Barely a plant poked up from the rocky ground and by late afternoon when we reached the ice cold Ohinepango Springs, we were parched and desperate for a swim.

The Round the Mountain route was not without adventure. It snowed as we settled into the Rangipo Hut. After rain, some of the streams turn into raging torrents, as we found out.

The other main danger is lahars - or floods of rock debris and water from a collapsing crater rim. The signs said it all as we tramped through the Whangaehu Valley. Don't stop, keep moving and get past the valley as fast as you can. The Whangaehu foot bridge, which towered so high above the small stream below, has been washed out twice in 20 years so we didn't stick around long.

Completing the Round the Mountain track whetted our appetite for more, and we soon returned to do the Northern Circuit route around Ngauruhoe and over Tongariro. The circuit takes three and a half days and passes some of the best scenery in the Tongariro National Park, including the Tongariro Crossing and the aptly named Emerald Lakes. We spent nights at the Oturere and Mangatepopo Great Walks' huts en-route.

The plan on our second day was to climb Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom for Lord of the Rings fans). Sadly we experienced our worst weather conditions that day and picked our way over Red Crater struggling not to be blown over by gale force winds.

With Ngauruhoe off the menu we meandered down to the Mangatepopo Hut, where the remainder of the afternoon was spent playing cards and boiling up the billy. Next morning it was a short three-hour tramp back to Whakapapa to complete our journey. It was lovely to get back to the kids, but Tongariro left us planning our next escape.

Travellers' tips

Getting there: Whakapapa is a four-hour drive from Auckland. It's possible to drive down in the morning and tramp to your first DOC hut on the same day.

On the way: The award winning Bosco Cafe in Te Kuiti (57 Te Kumi Rd) is just over halfway there and well worth the stop for excellent coffee. Other options include the Persimmon Tree Cafe in Pirongia (1050 Franklin St) or the Flax Cafe in Taumarunui (1 Hakiaha St).

Where to stay: If you prefer to spend a night at Whakapapa before starting it's best to stay in the village. There's something for every budget including:Skotel Alpine Resort: Summer backpacker and hotel rates from $40 to $170 a night, ph (07) 892 3719, skotel.com. Whakapapa Holiday Park: Cabins from $79 a night, ph (07) 892 3897, whakapapa.net.nz

Costs: Tracks are free to tramp. Great Walks Huts cost $31 a night and the other huts $15.

Information: DoC's Whakapapa Visitor Centre has experienced staff on hand to give advice, as well as weather reports, maps, hut passes and warm gear for sale.

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