3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

Mordor for the Holidays

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Despite my thorough and detailed account of a true tramping experience, Rory shared a few choice words when he went down on the slip n’ slide hill.

“You should’ve brought your crampons!”

He declined to laugh as he wiped the mud from his face and cleaned the cut on his wrist. I was only half-joking.

We had left Dad in Taumarunui, and headed off onto the 42 Traverse. Though the weather held over Christmas – calling for tubing down the Whanganui River – Boxing Day was clammy and cold.

Our climb up the eroded clay slope was slick as snail snot, as the saying goes. After two days, we broke free from the forest where a familiar view met our sun-starved gaze: Mordor.Or, more appropriately, the Tongariro National Park. The Alpine Crossing is one of New Zealand’s iconic Great Walks, but it is strikingly out of place. A vast volcanic desert rising above the sea of dark, primordial forest. A desert island hardly deserted. Dad met us at the trail head and along with Jaz and Cody, we joined some 1,500 other hikers in the park on this overcast holiday weekend.

Rory on lookout duty as a cloud moves across the scene.

Rory on lookout duty as a cloud moves across the scene.

Jaz and Cody on the long climb into Tongariro.

Jaz and Cody on the long climb into Tongariro.

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Red Crater from a distance.

The Tongariro is an all too live version of New Zealand’s tumultuous past. We would be walking through an active volcanic field for the next several hours. Just two years ago, Mt. Tongariro had a wee eruption, firing boulders and ash across the park. The Ketetahi Hut bares the scars, like it was torn apart by shrapnel.

Mist mixing with sulphur clouds billowed across bleak mountainsides. We climbed for two hours before reaching Blue Lake. Under the right light, it’s a rich blue hue, but today it was a hot mirror in the chill air. To the South, across the barren valley floor of the Central Crater was Red Crater and in the distance Mt. Ngauruhoe, aka Mt. Doom. Until now, we had seen relatively few hikers, but across the great crater came hordes of them in flip flops, heels, and treadless sneakers – with and without water or food.

Te Araroa crosses the Tongariro in reverse, so we dove headlong into the waves of tourists. When at last we climbed to the Emerald Lakes, Jaz and Cody had well-enough convinced Rory and I to make a side-hike out of Red Crater. Dad napped next to the lakes with our packs while we scrambled up the scree slope to the top. This climb is an experiment in chaos. Throngs of people lug their bodies up the slope, while overzealous conquerors of the mountain run down the hill threatening to take flight with the slip of a rock.

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When at last we returned to the lakes, a wind-whipped thumping echoed across the valley. A helicopter emerged over the Blue Lake and headed our way. It landed at the base of Red Crater in a crowd of tourists, cameras at the ready, myself included. The medics packed away a teenage boy with an injured ankle – presumably from running down the scree slide – into the helicopter and took off.

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The whole ordeal couldn’t haven taken more than ten minutes. It made me think this sort of thing happened quite often.

Our little jaunt up Red Crater had eaten up nearly two hours. It was time to be getting on. The five of us set out around the Emerald Lakes and stopped. The trail went away. We had just seen a sign pointing to the Mangatepopo Hut. The trail had to be here somewhere. Maps out.

For some reason all of the maps, compasses, and GPSs indicated that the TA went over Red Crater. Where we had just been. No. There was no way. We didn’t just hike up and down Red Crater, mistaking it as a side hike, only to have to do it again.

Jaz hunted down a park warden.

Cody said, “No way.”

But I could tell he didn’t believe it. I sighed. Of course it was the trail. Dad started walking. Jaz returned with an affirmative, so we heaved our packs on for our second summit.

The view was slightly less spectacular the second time around. However, fresh from his nap, Dad didn’t seem to mind. From Red Crater the trail plunged into the South Crater, a black swath of land with an unnaturally straight path disappearing over a grim ledge in the distance. Dark clouds and a wind blew into the valley. Jaz and Cody, along with two other American thru-hikers Kenzie and Cam who had overtaken us at sonic speed, were long gone. My camera wouldn’t let me leave. This place was just too cool.

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Our destination for the evening was the ski village of Whakapapa. We hit the open tussock fields at magic hour, and thus made this the longest day on the trail yet: nearly fourteen hours. We set up our tents on the last patch of grass available at the holiday park and crashed.

6 Responses to “Mordor for the Holidays”

  1. Larry Gill

    The adventure continues’ and you are having fun, working hard, and seeing once in a lifetime stuff. Thanks for sharing. You are doing great! LG

    Reply
  2. Rob

    From Mangetepopo hut, on a clear day, you can see Mt. Taranaki in the distance. It’s glorious. The hut is also home to approximately 350,997,456 sandflies. Fortunately they don’t seem to be able to fly much higher than knee level (there – elsewhere they can) but the bites are terrible. Before I figured out to put socks on with my sandals I got enough bites that I was in low-grade agony for several days with the itching.

    Reply
    • Margaret

      Oh my gosh, the sand flies are merciless! But yes, the views from Mangatepopo are incredible! Actually, that entire day through the Tongariro and on to Whakapapa was just fantastic!

      Reply
      • Rob

        Your blog is driving me nuts. You’re reminding me of all the things I’ve seen over the years.. I have my Te Araroa guidebook ordered from an NZ bookstore just to add more torture to my life.

        Autumn 2017!

        Reply
      • Rob

        Also, just down the road from the Whakapapa holiday park is a nice pub with great beer and fish & chips (if I recall correctly..)

        Reply

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