After passing through a series of anonymous, forgettable towns, the bus routes converge on Turangi, after which the ride becomes interesting. As congenial as my time spent in Northland had been, the landscape was not my true ideal of New Zealand. Here, on the Central Plateau, is the New Zealand that I first met and subsequently fell in love with. This is a land where tiny villages have indoor climbing walls, where volcanic vents steam with ostensible serenity on distant peaks, some of which still bear snow even in the peak of summer. It’s a landscape where the muted colours are somehow made intensely vibrant by their modest harmony, where quails with coiffed, rockabilly hairstyles urgently guide their brood across the road into the primordial shade of a stand of pines. This procession of postcard scenes scrolled by the windows, a majestic backdrop dominated by the squat, crude profile of Ruapehu and the conical elegance of Ngaruhoe. There lay my next objective; The Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of nine “Great Walks” of New Zealand.
At the risk of flogging an extremely dead horse, this area is famed for its connection with the Lord of the Rings film franchise, Mt Ngaruhoe having been the earthly muse for Mt Doom. This fact alone brings thousands of visitors to the region every year, some of which occasionally die on the trail. On a bright, clear summer day, it’s easy to underestimate the volatility of alpine weather. Two people carked it in 2006, a year that saw over 65,000 people on the trail. With numbers like these, it’s inevitable that you’ll see the full bell curve of experience levels, from the seasoned veteran to the slipshod tourist. I myself was the recipient of a few incredulous stares and offhand comments about my diminutive backpack which nonetheless carried everything I’d need in the eventuality of disaster.
Saddled with my near-weightless pack, I set foot on the trail at 9am after a free lift from a lovely young couple I’d met at the lodge the night before. The sky was initially marred by patches of cloud, but this soon cleared as the day warmed and the brutal New Zealand sun burned the moisture away. This cleared the way for sweeping views of the alpine meadows, the rolling hills clad with tussocks and low shrubbery. The terrain became decidedly Mordor-esque as the trail ascended the main ridgeline, passing jagged ramparts of stone. I was originally somewhat undecided on whether or not to climb Ngaruhoe, but I began to hear the siren song of the mountain growing louder with each step. After weighing up the time constraints, I decided to go for it, ascending the peak’s north face via a rocky spine and a series of slippery scree slopes. The view from the summit was simply amazing, well worth the effort. Behind me lay the hulking mass of Ruapehu, in front of me the martian landscape that formed the remainder of the crossing. At the crater, I briefly considered shouting “Cast it into the fire, Isildur!” and after overhearing some un-witty banter about Orcs, was quite glad I didn’t. With the Dad Jokes dispersed with, I scree skied back to my pack and resumed the walk.
From this point, the trail crosses the flat wastes of the southern crater before climbing another steep ridge at which point Tongariro’s colour pallet goes apeshit. Red crater, with its warm and aptly named hues, and the Emerald Lakes all need to be seen to be believed. The photos simply don’t do them justice. Each lake as a distinctly different colour and even the grass lining the edge of the pools has a suspicious pink and green gradient, making the lakes look like a set from the original Star Trek series. At this point, my camera decided it had had enough, but luckily I met a friendly French tourist (yes, they exist) who emailed me a photo.
From this point, the trail passes by the lakes, leaves behind the steaming hillsides and plunges down a steep, tricky ridgeline to thread its way through an immense rock garden composed of thousands of lumps and fingers of volcanic refuse, brown like aggressive chocolate sculptures. After a short walk through this scene reminiscent of a spaghetti western, I arrived at the hut. A cosy, modest structure, the hut was set amongst the very same rock formations and was populated hikers who represented a wide mix of nationalities. Not many of them were particularly friendly, which puzzled me initially. Generally speaking, outdoors people are often warm and welcoming, but this group seemed to largely keep to themselves in spite of the intimate nature of their accommodation. I realised though, that these were not True Mountain Folk, and certainly not representative of the tone and culture of such people. Some of the characters were mildly interesting, though largely in a voyeuristic capacity.
After a good old sleep, I hit the trail again to complete the 42km trek. By this time, my boots were on their last legs and a war of attrition was underway to determine whether they or the trail would give out first. The second day was largely similar to the first, traversing a barren moonscape formed by the rain shadow, then an isolated patch of beech forest with clear, pristine creeks and finally returning to the alpine meadows. Once the trail threaded its way between the two monolithic peaks on either side, it descended past a sublime waterfall and ended in an ethereally lit tunnel of beech trees. It seemed that my trail luck was still holding strong. As I completed the trek, I noticed a collection of mare’s tails, those harbingers of inclement weather, were wisping their way eastward across the otherwise blameless blue sky. By the time their prophecy of rain would be realised, I’d be far away.
Many purists would turn their nose up at an undertaking such as the Tongariro Crossing. For many, it’s too crowded and commercial. An elitist attitude might help you sleep at night, but you do yourself a disservice to abstain from experiencing one of the world’s most beautiful places in support of your delusions of grandeur. I’d highly recommend the trip to anyone, but the crossing is chronically underestimated and not too be taken lightly. I saw many of our more ample-framed brethren resting along the steep sections of the trail, weezing inconsolably with the twin spectres of shock and disbelief etched on their faces. Whilst it’s true that many people are woefully unprepared to traverse the crossing, it has to be remembered that these people are often beginners in the outdoor world and that education and mitigation of risk by Park Authorities can and does keep serious incidents to a minimum. We often forget that driving a car is one of the most risky activities we engage in, and we still let new drivers on the road every day. You have to start somewhere. If by encouraging new participants into engagement with wilderness areas we are able to raise awareness and thereby stewardship of the world’s wild places, I see that as a good thing.
In summary, if you’re ever in this neck of the woods, you can do a lot worse than spending a few days in Tongariro National Park. Whether on the shorter 19km day hike or the 2-4 day circuit, you’ll experience sights that you’re unlikely to ever forget. The sum of one’s life should be measured neither by the acquisition of time or currency, but rather by the moments which stop our breath by exceeding our capacity for belief.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.