New Zealand/Aoteora’s Tongariro is the world’s fourth oldest national park. Managed and operated by the Department of Conservation the site holds world heritage status for both cultural and geological reasons. The park is well visited and most known in hiking circles for its Northern Circuit which stretches 43.1 kilometers around Mt Ngarahoe. The park was also used by Peter Jackson as the setting of Mt Doom and Mordor in his Lord of the Rings film trilogy. One of the 9 official ‘Great Walks’ the circuit represents for me more than just a journey across a landscape; It was the first time I really touched upon a now lifelong love of hiking. It was in this park that I first felt real excitement in the simple pleasure of multi-day tramping.
Distance: 43.1km Ascent: 1750m Recommended time: 3-4 days When Best to go: October - April
TREKKING INTO MORDOR
‘Looking like something from Lord of the Rings’ has become a bit of a cliche in travel writing, but the jagged primeval red and black rocks of Tongariro were literally used to portray Mordor in Peter Jackson’s films; Mt Ngarahoe which towers like a perfect cartoon depiction of a volcano is now more commonly known as ‘Mt. Doom’ To trek, or as the kiwis call it ‘tramp’ through a real life movie set had not been my idea. I had arrived with my cousin Suzie to hike together for 4 days across the trail – for me it was a good way to regain some confidence after a recent disastrous attempt at overnight hiking.
One month prior I had set off on my first ever solo multi day hike. Inexperienced, unprepared and downright delusional I had set off on a remote and disused trail near Rotorua. Ambitiously planing an 80km round trip in just two days even with unfit legs and a 25kg pack. To cut a long story short I made about 30km; nearly fell down a gorge, broke my pack; lost all my food and water and cried myself to sleep inside my tent; Although at least I saw my first wild kiwi. The next day I set about bushwhacking my retreat through 30º sunshine – I was beside a volcanic lake but was too afraid to drink the water convinced it was probably poisonous. I collapsed onto the road after almost two days without food or water, I was left hallucinating and my confidence was utterly shattered. Since then I had become convinced I wasn’t a hiker, had moped around youth hostels and stuck to the more organised tourist activities.
Arriving back in a national park felt re-assuringly good; perhaps because I was with someone I knew and trusted. This time I had taken heed from my mistakes; my pack was lighter, I knew what to realistically expect of my pace and timings, I had spent an unnecessary fortune on expensive freeze dry meals ‘Just in case I ran out.’ The track was wide, well marked and well walked, behind a large group of fellow trampers we set off on an adventure.
CARRY NO BURDEN UP MT DOOM
Walking in company made all those fears and doubts I had been harbouring seem to fade; in such blazing sunshine and with Suzie’s characteristic infectious energy and excitement we set off in great spirit. Singing the lord of the rings theme tune we wound through shattered lava flows and bounded across boardwalks toward Mt Ngarahoe ahead.
‘DUM dum DA DA dum, DA DA dum, DA DA dum, DOOBIE dum…..’
It was a landscape unlike any I had ever seen; arid and barren save the few tussock grass and alpine plants it was a whole new world to the misty moors of home. The air was saturated with the strange smell of burnt plasticine and eggy wafts of sulphur, we could see steam rising in veils from the summits ahead.
Soon arriving at the ominously named ‘Devils Staircase’ our pace slowed considerably; a wide and well made track the climb is would be an easy tackle for a fit walker but not I. ‘10 more steps….then rest….10 more…then rest’ I hobbled painfully slow step by step up the trail; every 50m I would stop and pretend to take photographs so as to hide I was panting heavily from a fitter looking Suzie. My pack seemed so much heavier with each stair.
‘I can’t carry your burden, but I can carry you’ a tramper shouted; Struggling to lift his friend and almost falling over he grabbed instead his mates backpack. Running uphill he shouted back ‘I can’t carry you, fatso. but I can carry your burden.’
Determined to climb ‘Mt Doom’ Suzie and I hid our packs behind a boulder and set off. A 40º slope of knee deep scoria towered 600m above us. Every three steps forward we would slip back two; without the weight of our bags it didn’t seem to matter quite as much. I took pleasure in watching the brilliant myriad of red, orange and coal black rock wallow around our feet in each step. As we rose the cloud started to draw in to swirl around nearby steam vents oozing from the mountainside. With every sulphurous lunge my inner child was screaming with excitement: I was on a real life volcano!
After an hour and a half ascent we sat and perched over the lip of a tremendous unfathomable crater. We had no ring to cast into the mist and Suzie refused to let me bite off a finger so we settled instead on lobbing an ashen snowball into the steamy depths of Mt.Doom.
STRANGE SIGHTS, SOUNDS AND SMELLS
It took less than 15 minutes to return from the summit; the soft scree allowed a run down the mountainside, Suzie even attempted a moonwalk as we went. With the elation of climbing a volcano behind us the weight of our packs didn’t seem to matter so much as we returned to follow a string of marker poles to a plateau.
Every step to Tongariro pass was laboured and slow but well rewarded with a spectacular panorama at the summit. Behind us a gaping red lava dyke carved through the mountainside almost obscene in appearance, ahead behind the steam a burst of colour from the vivid ‘Emerald Lakes.’ I felt as if I had landed into an abstract painting.
Chasing the setting sun Suzie and I scrambled down from the pass into the Oterere dessert. The golden light cast tremendous shadows over a ridge lined with pinnacles, the open desert filled with house sized rocks once thrown from the now distant summit of Ngarahoe paid testament to the power of the earth. We wandered what we would do if it erupted at that very moment; [ I would later find out while working as a hut warden in the park the official policy is ‘Bloody run!’]
FROM BONSAI TO FOREST
Waking before the dawn, Suzie and I stood atop the large rock which shielded our tent; we were shivering but it was worth it to watch the sun creep down the volcanos in blazing orange, the fiery light was as close as we could imagine to a lava flow. As the night had passed we had listened to tremendous booms and rumbles, convinced it was the mountain we often woke each other for the loudest bangs; in hindsight the booms were almost certainly the echoes of a distant artillery range and definitely not the volcanos.
In the cool morning air the Oterere desert was a strange moon like world to wander through. Winding between sandy dunes and giant shattered lava bombs I felt very small in a giant land. We topped our water and said a quick hello to the warden at Oterere hut before travelling on toward a distant ridge. From here the ground became undulated, the boulders replaced with stunted bonsai trees. In the back the dominating ever present Ngarahoe towered across the skyline.
As if stepping through a cupboard door and arriving into Narnia we moved from desert into thick forest in a single step; a wall of trees lined our final valley with only a narrow hole to enter inside. In an instant the heat of the sun which radiated so fiercely from the dark sand was swapped for the cool refreshment of shade; bird call filled the air which had been so quiet for much of our walk. Ahead a gurgling brooke invited us to pause to dip our toes and play pooh sticks with chunks of pumice.
A final leisurely rise and fall over a round ridge brought Suzie and I to Waiohonu hut. We greeted the warden and set our tent in the woods below the hut. With plenty of light left we lazed around camp, paddled in the river and devoured the copious quantities of tea and dried food we had carried so far. All the doubt and worry I had started the hike with had long since been lost to endless laughter fuelled by Suzie’s constant banter.
Our third day started later than the day before. The cloud had swept in leaving little sunrise to wake early for; to our delight by the time we had packed away the sky was already clearing and sun was on the way. A few kilometre later we arrived at ‘Old Waiohonu Hut’ which stood as an ad-hoc museum to the historical skiing culture on the nearby volcanos; a reflection to an age of soft gear and hard men.
WAY BACK HOME
Our trail turned back toward Ngarahoe, we were although a long way off on our way back home. A river which flowed back to Waiohonu hut flowed through the ash to our side, its path cutting a perfect cross section into the many layers left by past eruptions like the rings on a tree. Tussock grass flowed out from the river in gently swaying prairies across the open desert, the wind caressing the fronds into gentle waves. Eager to grasp every opportunity to explore we ventured uphill on a detour to visit the Tama lakes.
Enjoying the afternoon breeze to cool off the sun while we ate lunch, Suzie and peered down to the kidney shaped Tama lake below; the water was deceptively inviting for a swim. Thankfully as we descended toward Whakapapa village along a new river we discovered the tall Taranaki Falls. Here other trampers had beaten us to the punch and dived into the pool for a refreshing dip – it seemed rude not to join them.
We were almost at the end of our hike together, in just three days of wilderness Suzie and I had seen volcanos and deserts lit by sunsets and sunrise, we had dipped toes into steam vents and dived into cold plunge pools; all that remained was a final descent through a vibrant swathe of wildflowers and woodland to finish our first great walk at a sign which read ‘Edge of the lava flow;’ the end of the park. As we came to an end I realised the ember of excitement in travel that I had so nearly put out on my first hike had been rekindled; perhaps by the fires of Mt Doom, but more likely by just getting back out to the tent with the good company of a friend.