Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tongariro Crossing: My Visit to Mordor and Mt. Doom

This morning we woke up at the ungodly hour of 6am (very ungodly for those of us who had rafted and skydived the day before), so we could be out of the hostel and loaded onto the bus by 7am. Destination: National Park Village, where those of us doing the Tongariro Crossing would meet up with our two guides from Adrift (the company name). National Park Village is so named after Tongariro National Park, which was established in 1887, making it New Zealand's first national park (actually the fourth national park in the world). The land was a gift of the local Māori iwi Ngati Tuiwharetoa chief Te Heuheu, who saw giving the sacred land to the government (on the condition it be preserved for all the people of New Zealand) as the best way to save it from development. Now a World Heritage site, the park contains three volcanoes, all active: Mt. Tongariro, Mt. Ngauruhoe, and Mt. Ruapehu. Mt. Ngauruhoe is now famous to the world for starring as Mt. Doom in The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies (although interestingly, because the top of the volcano is sacred to the Māori, Peter Jackson was granted permission to film the mountain but not its cone, and instead created a new CGI one in the computer). Mt. Ngauruhoe last erupted in 1975, Ruapehu in 2007, and Tongariro in 1926. Although we did see steaming sulphur vents, the volcanoes were kind and did not erupt during our hike. :-)

And what a hike it was: named one of the best one-day hikes in the world, it was gruelling in places, and definitely an all-day affair at almost 20km. We started at the Mangatepopo Car Park, then hiked 4.4 km over a gently sloping graded path to the foot of the aptly named Devil's Staircase. On the way up we took the newly constructed Devil's Staircase pathway, which featured actual gravel stairs that we took at a snail's pace to accommodate those who are not used to hiking. From then we wandered through Central Crater, created during one of Tongariro's eruptions, then continued on up and out of the crater to the side of Red Crater (so called because it is red from all the iron oxide present in its rocks), and ate lunch beside the Red Crater. From there we had a stunning view of Emerald Lake, Blue Lake, and far away in the distance Lake Taupo. We also had a view of some of the land that stood in for Mordor: barren, and dotted with unforgiving looking piles of rock, I could see why it was chosen for the role.

Start of the Devil's Staircase

The land of Mordor!

The Red Crater

Emerald Lakes

The crater floor steaming. This is a volcano!

The geology of the area was fascinating to me, but having no more than a layperson's understanding I will not attempt to describe it in detail here. Suffice it to say the rock surrounding Mt. Ngauruhoe was very light and full of holes, as Ngauruhoe erupts with fits and starts of gases and ash (it's not creating pumice, however: one of our guides, Dave, told me that), while Mt. Tongariro's eruptions are more violent, sending rocks and boulders raining down on the land below. As a result of all this volcanic activity, the old lava flows are readily visible, and little can grow in the area: the vegetation comprises mainly of grasses, scrub brush, and a few hardy flowers such as the yellow mountain daisy. You can read about Tongariro National Park here: .

Mmm, rock...

Having completed our lunch, we then trekked across the snow (yes, lots of snow, though melting) and up to the summit of Mt. Tongariro. It was amazing how quickly the weather could change; one minute we were sweating our way out of the Central Crater, the next we were pulling on layers to ascend through the wind and swiftly-moving clouds on the way to the summit of Tongariro. At 1967 m tall, the view would have been slightly more impressive had the clouds lifted, but as it was I was able to catch a glimpse of the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe and the valley on the opposite side of Tongariro inbetween snatches of cloud.

Coming down from Mt. Tongariro's summit was a combination of half sledding, half walking: after our guides Chris (short for Christine) and Dave told us to go slowly and dig our heels in to stop ourselves from slipping in the snow, several of us (myself included) simply threw ourselves down the snowy side of the mountain. Several went down on their butts like they were tobogganing, and several others (like myself) rode down on our shoes like we were surfing (I knew my surf lessons would come in handy!). The remaining cautious ones held hands and walked slowly down; ultimately, I think it would have been easier if they had just opted for wet bums and allowed themselves to slide.

The hardest part of the descent was the Devil's Staircase: just for variety, Chris took us down the original Devil's Staircase, not the nice path (with actual stairs) that we ascended. This "path" (and I use the term loosely) was nothing but gravelly igneous rock and scrub brush and dust, with some boulders to weave our way carefully through lest we fall head over heels. I've never had problems with my knees before while hiking, but after fifteen minutes of solid downhill, picking my way and jumping like a mountain goat, they were definitely starting to get sore. Apparently I wasn't the only one: many of the rest of the group took a good fifteen minutes extra to get down the cliff, and when they did arrive opted to head straight for the base of the Devil's Staircase instead of detouring as I and several people did over to see Soda Springs, where we filled up our waterbottles with sparkling spring water freshly falling over a pretty waterfall, after exiting from the side of the mountain moments before.

Just looking at this photo makes my knees ache.

The hike back down to the parking lot seemed to extend for ages for my tired feet, when in reality it was only 4.4km (and most of it downhill). I kept myself distracted from my increasing tiredness by seeing if I could recite an entire episode of "The Addams Family" from memory... yes, I know I'm a nerd. But I did recite it silently, not out loud, as I figured that would cause distress in those walking ahead of me (I was the last one of our group off the mountain). By the time I was three quarters of the way through we were back in the car park and boarding our bright orange Stray bus that had come to pick us up.

We are staying for the night at Park Traveller's Lodge in National Park Village, a spiffy joint with spa pools (which I did not partake in) and a nifty on-site bar called "Spiral Bar" (after the Raurimu Spiral) and decorated with all sorts of railway signage and memorabilia. Hoff (our bus driver) watched me with some amusement as I ran around the bar with my camera, taking pictures of all the locie drawings and such.

After a dinner of a rapidly-devoured hamburger and fries (for some reason I was rather hungry after walking nearly 20km...!) I am now situated in my four-bedroom loft with three other girls (Senna, Jenny, and Emma), and sitting here on my twin bed on the upper part of the loft, I am absolutely exhausted and am wondering if I even have the energy to spell-check this before posting, let alone stumble blearily down the stairs to brush my teeth before bed. Goodnight!


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