The Tongariro Northern Circuit – 3 nights ; 4 days – was our first experience of life in the famous NZ “Doc huts” (DOC = Department of Conservation).
If you’re a first timer to hut life too, I’ve outlined a few bits of info below (actually, it started off as a few and is now an uneven 19 points…). Please bear in mind that huts vary from trail to trail so while there may be some overlap, my experience is specific to the Northern Circuit and in particular the following huts: Mangatepopo; Oturere and Waihohonu. Due to the popularity of this walk, these huts had to be booked in advance – check before you hike. There is a charge for staying in the huts.
- On arrival: leave your boots outside and bag your bed. I say “bed” – I really mean, mattress and 75cm of width space on a shared wooden platform.
- I was really blasé about carrying evidence of the booking: “I won’t need to show this but hey it says print it off so I will, ‘cos I’m good like that”. You definitely DO need your booking on the Great Walks. Once you’ve bagged your bed, you need to fill in the form with your name, bunk number and booking number.
- When you’re choosing your bunk, if the Ranger is around, you might want to ask him for tips. One bunk in particular in Oturere gets wet if there’s loads of rain in a short period. The reality is though – it’s luck of the draw; after all who knows who’s sleeping around you. Choose a smaller dorm and you might be less likely to get a snorer; but then maybe the snorer chooses a smaller dorm because he/she thinks they’ll disturb less people… it’s a lottery.
- Little luxuries you may want to take if you’re a light sleeper – ear plugs (block out the snorer) and an eye mask/cover (there are no curtains, although in our experience most people were awake before daylight). You may also want to take a light pair of shoes or flip flops since you can’t wear your boots in the hut and the floor can be cold and/or wet if you’re just in socks.
- There’s nowhere private to change – other than the toilet. And pit toilets don’t often smell so great. I tended to hop into my dry allocated “hut clothes” as soon as we arrived. Nip into the toilet… get changed quicker than the flies buzzing around you… and get outta there. The only other alternative is getting changed in your sleeping bag, preferably once night falls and it’s dark, assuming you’re not into flashing too much skin.
- Lay out your sleeping bag and sleeping stuff and head torch on your bunk once you arrive and be considerate that a lot of people are sharing a little space. If you’re sleeping in a bunk room, the only light in there is the light of your head torch once dark falls. In Oturere Hut there are a lot of bunks in the kitchen area too so there’s a bit more light, but either way, get organised while daylight is around.
- Cooking – we carried a stove around not knowing what to expect, and thinking there could be big queues for the gas (note: off season there is no gas in these huts and I have read that other Great Walks and huts never have gas so you always need your own stove). In the end, we always used the gas burners in the huts. Super easy. Just take your turn and clear your stuff away as soon as you’re done to make room for the next person.
- You can store your kitchen utensils and some food in the kitchen on empty shelves, where possible. We also took washing up liquid with us and a cloth – definitely needed in some huts. I just popped small amounts of washing up liquid in a little plastic container and stuck it in a freezer bag (plastic nightmare; I know).
- Warmth – I thought I was going to be freezing at night. Im used to Queensland heat after all. However, lots of people = lots of body heat and in the first two huts where we were packed in, I just slept in leggings and a merino wool tee. In Waihohonu with less people in the bunk, I wore a long sleeve Merino wool. Still not that chilly. I do have a pretty good Rab sleeping bag to add to the mix.
- The huts are centred around gas or log wood burners. We only had these burning in Waihohonu and Oturere (March 2017). Another warmth factor. It’s pretty cosy in there.
- Drying clothes – the huts all have clothes pulleys hanging from the ceiling where you can hang up your wet gear – don’t forget it in the morning!
- Water – the huts have proper sinks and taps (some pump action taps) which rely on rainwater. It’s advised you treat the water, although not essential. Most people appeared to be boiling it. We used our SteriPEN which was really quick and easy – review here.
- Intentions book – the Ranger will explain this in the hut talk (generally held around 730pm) but make sure you jot down your details and intentions for the next day in the hut book. If Search and Rescue were required, this could be the only indication of where you planned to walk. If you pass a hut and stop in for lunch or water, you can fill out in the Intentions book while you’re there – giving an update to a potential Rescue operation of your whereabouts. Even if you think conditions look great and there’s no need to worry, just fill it in – it only takes a few seconds. No harm done.
- Rangers/Wardens. These guys live in the huts on a weekly rotation. They’re a font of knowledge and you’ll no doubt be told some history of the area and some entertaining stories at the evening hut talk (like, strike a pose if the volcano erupts and you’re closeby, because you’re too close to run and it’ll be entertaining for the people who find you….!). They’ll also update a whiteboard in the hut with the weather forecast and any other hut info. They have radio comms.
- Phone signal – you may get mobile signal in these huts on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. To be honest, I relished the chance to not look at my mobile for four days and there’s definitely not free wifi, so I didn’t check. I did notice others using their phones in some places though. Should I go on a walk without manned huts, I would definitely buy a New Zealand SIM card so I could check the weather forecast each day if there was signal.
- No, there are no showers. Not even hot water unless you boil it yourself. And careful how crazy you go with the baby wipe shower plan – remember you must carry all your litter out with you along the trail.
- No, there is no electricity. Other than some small solar powered lights in the “entertainment/kitchen” area. Headtorch is essential. We took Goal Zero solar panels to charge our camera batteries.
- Toilets are located in a separate shed, which can be a little walk away from the hut.
- Don’t be surprised if the huts are full on the Great Walk. Mangatepopo is the first hut if you walk in from Whakapapa Village (pronounced Fakapapa thanks to the “Wh”) and it’ll be full at this time of year (March); so I’m told by the Ranger. Oturere may be bypassed by people doing the walk in 3 days, 2 nights (but it was packed full for us), and Waihohonu is massive in comparison to the other huts so you may find more space there – certainly in the entertainment area. It does link with the Round the Mountain trail though so it could also be busy depending on the day.
I’m told by other trampers that in particular the Oturere and Mangatepopo Huts are a lot smaller and more basic than huts they had experienced on other NZ Great Walks. These were my two favourite as they were so cosy. I guess we’ll have to walk the other tracks to find out.
A few pics of the huts:
Mangatepopo Hut – two dorms with a central cooking area. You can see the width of the sleeping area in the picture below.
Oturere Hut – one of my faves, even though we were sleeping in the kitchen area, it just had a good feel to it and you get a great view of “Mount Doom” (only call it that if you want to irritate the Ranger 😉 )
Waihohonu Hut – by far the “swankiest” and largest hut of our trip:
Main message: huts are an incredible, unique asset on the mountain and a dry roof over your head at the end of a long day. They’re a small space you’ll be sharing with a bunch of likeminded strangers. Be respectful of others and enjoy the experience.
Don’t hesitate to comment below with any questions you might have if you’re thinking of hiking the circuit!