The Waihohonu Hut was advertised as a hut. On the website, in the pamphlets, on the map, H-U-T is clearly spelled out. Clearly a case of false advertising or terrible spelling! With all the lavish amenities, a more appropriate name would be Waihohonu Palace, P-A-L-A-C-E. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Jack and I had been planning a winter subalpine tramping adventure, actively monitoring the weekend weather forecast for the past year. At long last, the empty spaces on our calendar collided with a bluebird day and we were off. Despite following my own advice, packing took hours. Fortunately, we’d done most of it the night before so we could still make an early start. Sadie and Dan (4- and 7-years-old) were excited to gather their snow gear instead of rain gear and we all wondered whether we might find snow on the track, secretly hoping a better question was, how much snow will we find?
Though we knew the track to be fairly flat and wide, we weren’t sure how long it might take the people with the shortest legs to get to the hut. The kids had never before gone tramping in their snow boots and we didn't know how much snow or mud there might be on the track to slow us down, so we chose the shortest route into the Waihohonu Hut. From the Desert Road entrance of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, it is only 5.6 kilometres and less than 200 metres elevation gain to the Waihohonu Hut, a distance that shouldn’t take our crew more than 3 hours even with lots of breaks. From the carpark, we faced Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Ruapehu to the West, with the snow-kissed Kaimanawa Range behind us to the East.
Within our first few metres from the car, we encountered a lot of slippery, sticky mud, the kind that tries to pull your boots off with each step. The mud stayed with us for much of the tramp and soon we also began to encounter some unique frost. Undisturbed, this frost looked like a layer of freshly fallen snow, but as Dan quickly found out, after the top layer is gently removed (by kicking it, if you’re 7), a wall of tiny icicles was revealed. Anne of Green Gables has recently become one of our favourite family bedtime stories. For those unfamiliar with the tale, Anne has the habit of using poetic, exuberant language to describe the breath-taking scenery in Prince Edward Island, Canada. For example, she renamed Barry’s Pond to The Lake of Shining Waters, The Avenue to The White Way of Delight, and part of a nearby woods to Violet Vale. Inspired by Anne’s lavish names, we called this fascinating frost The Erupting Mini Matchstick Ice of Ruapehu. A name that Anne herself would surely be proud of.
The Erupting Mini Matchstick Ice of Ruapehu proved to be all the motivation that Dan needed to get to the hut. The rest of us were aptly inspired by unobstructed views of the giant peaks of Tongariro National Park gleaming white in contrast to the brilliant blue sky. Other highlights included short forays through beech forest, inventing grand names for unfamiliar plants and moss, and passing along and over the Waihohonu Stream. Sadie's favourite part was foraging for the M&Ms scattered along the patches of snow closer to the hut.
Three hours and one minute after leaving the carpark, we were at the glorious hut-palace. The windows are double glazed, the walls are insulated, and there was a massive stack of dry firewood waiting to be lit in the stove in the cavernous kitchen-lounge area. The picture windows afforded us twilight views of Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe over dinner. Then, at sunrise, both mountains were painted a pastel pink. The solar panels on the roof meant that we had light even after the sun set just before 5:30pm, extending our evening of playing board games and affording us the unprecedented luxury of brushing our teeth without our headlamps strapped to our foreheads.
Despite the outside temperatures reaching -15C overnight, we were toasty warm inside. For more details on the hut design, read this. Jack braved the frigid temperatures, and set up a makeshift tripod with some rocks and a precariously balanced picnic table to take photographs of the spectacular night sky. The amenities offered over the summer and during the Great Walk Season are even more extravagant, but we won’t complain when, on top of it all, we had the normally packed place to ourselves.
The next day, we found the ground had changed from sticky mud to a semi-solid dirt that seemed to hug our feet and coax us along the way. It was soil unlike any we had walked before and we wondered if there was something special about the way the mixture of pumice, sand, scoria, and ash interacted with the water as it changed from liquid to solid overnight to make such a unique texture. The return trip was punctuated by the sound combination of "crack-squeal" as Sadie and Dan couldn't resist testing the strength of every patch of ice that was now stretched across yesterday's puddles. We walked the 5.6 kilometres from 1120 metres back to 980 metres in three hours and one minute, oddly the same amount of time it had taken us to reach the hut. This time we took a long lunch at the Waihohonu Stream bridge, soaking up the sun, feeling blessed to be breathing in the mountain air wearing just our base layers, and already fondly remembering the night we were the royal family of the Waihohonu Palace.
A variation of this story was published by Spinoff Parents with five ways to get started tramping with your kids.