Thursday, 20 April 2017

Today was my Frodo day of the trip. I can’t profess to having been a superbly patient reader of Tolkien’s trilogy in written format but I’ve seen the movies and today resembled plenty eerily beautiful scenes I’d seen on the big screen.

At 5 foot 2 inches short, I’m probably not far off hobbit height descriptions, so fit in very well to my movie set surroundings, though I think the expanse of today’s set would make anyone feel hobbit-like in stature. Since today’s tramp (the New Zealand word for hike), is across Peter Jackson’s filming territory and I’m travelling with two friends, I think it’s only proper that we add some Lord of the Rings’ character references to the mix of today’s travel storytelling. The Frodo of our trio is uncharacteristically tall for a hobbit but in spiritual persona, the match is more realistic so for once I’ll take the backseat protagonist position and henceforth refer to myself as Samwise, with a Slovak Stallion taking guardianship of the precious gold ring as Frodo Baggins and our precious little Omani hobbit friend is of course none other than the loveable Meriadoc Brandybuck, fondly known as Merry to his movie friends. For unnecessary extra details on Lord of the Rings character descriptions, you may refer to this link.

The menu for today involves a day hike of 19km, taking us through the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of New Zealand’s 9 “Great Walks”. There are longer walks to do here but we opt for the day hike, which is supposed to take between 6 to 8 hours. We take 7 hours, including stoppage time for toilet and food breaks. Frodo has the legs of Gandalf, so he (although actually she), could probably have done it in half the time were it not for the inconceivably selfish horror of regular photography stops that Samwise imposes upon the group. Thankfully Merry is quite partial to a decent panoramic and selfie for three and he’s (again she) not a bad hand at cameraman for Samwise and his antics.

The crossing, by definition is not a circular route and can be begun in either direction. We start from Mangatepopo walking from an elevation of 1,120m in the foothills of Mt Ngauruhoe (2,291m), an active volcano that traditionally erupted every 9 years, though its last eruption was in 1975, and Mt Tongariro (1,978m) also an active volcano that last erupted more recently in 2012.

There are some challenging uphill stretches along the way but it could have been worse if we’d started the trek in the other direction, as the start (our end point) from Ketetahi is from an elevation of only 760m, so I’m pleased Frodo picked a route that is more favourable for my hobbit legs. The path is also spectacularly well marked, clear and clean, so it’s not too difficult and the diversity in the natural landscape keeps us in a deep trance-like state of visual awe for 7 hours, almost like we are hooked watching the latest season of Prison Break or whatever box set tickles your fancy.

To attempt the impossible visual description, the hike starts in the Mangatepopo Valley which is lush green and yellow fields sitting in front of the jaw-droppingly beautiful and imposing Mt Ngauruhoe (imaginatively named Mount Doom in LOTR), Mt Tongariro and towering above them both, we are also treated to views of Mt Ruapehu (2,797m) that last erupted in 2007. For about the first 1-2 hours of the walk, we are completely without cover on lower ground and whilst the thermometer would suggest it should be quite cool at 10 degrees centigrade, without any cover, under the New Zealand sun, it feels more like 25 degrees. Walking without any breeze and multiple thermal layers makes us feel very hot very fast. Merry is the first to start shedding layers and Frodo being wiser than Gandalf is impeccably well prepared but of course Samwise being a more like Grandma Doris, has worn far too many layers to carry and so concludes that it was nice knowing everyone and that if this is his (her) final resting (sweating) place, it’s not too shabby at all. Thankfully my camel pouch is filled and keeping well hydrated keeps me physically alert enough to take in the views and tread with care.

Once we start ascending, the welcome breeze and shade of the mountain corners quickly require us to put our layers back on. This is the diversity of the landscape here, you can feel all seasons within one day. In the next two hours we climb up more steps than it would take to reach the Covent Garden tube station exit (193) but thankfully that feeling of reaching the summit of the South Crater, followed shortly by the Red Crater is visually more rewarding than exiting a tube stairwell that’s packed full of sweaty Londoners. Once we reach the summit of the South Crater, I think to myself that Rocky Balboa was a slacker, whilst munching on my pockets full of dark toblerone miniatures.

The volcanic ground upon which we are treading becomes much more strikingly apparent here. The previous volcanic eruptions have carved and exposed an inner ring of red and the steam rising from the lip of the crater gives it that eerie feel. We don’t stop here long, not least because our hands are feeling numb from the cold but also because we are on the precipice of the greatest ocular treat of the trek: the famous Emerald Lakes. 

From the summit of the Red Crater, at an elevation of 1,886m, we have reached the highest point on the Tongariro Northern Circuit and from here there is the availability of adding another 2 hours to your hike by summiting Mount Tongariro itself. We can see Gandalf and friends up in the distance but all I can see is scree, devastation and more disturbingly, snack depletion. Frodo wants to go up but after two quick negative shakes of the head from Merry and Samwise, it’s a decisive plough forwards to the Emerald Lakes, following the yellow volcanic rocky road like Dorothy in pursuit of the Emerald City.

If you are of the Samwise clumsy sort of fellow, the terrain upon which you are most likely to fall is the steep downhill pathway full of scree which precedes the Emerald Lakes. It is of course upon said scree where all the best photographic points are and so I force our trio to pose for some death defying snaps here. Behold the travellers in all their tramping glory:

Because of the sulphur, it’s quite smelly here. It’s as though all the naughty eggs in the world were sent for cremation here, so whilst it’s the most beautiful part of our hike so far, our nasal passages do not permit us to stay indefinitely and we move on relatively quickly in pursuit of the promise of fresh mountain air around the corner.

The remainder of the hike takes us into greener mountainous terrain through which we pass little streams and lush green fields. The last hour and a half of our tramp even takes us through a rainforest, winding around until we finally arrive 7 hours, 4 seasons and several terrains later, in the cool embrace of the Ketatahi shelter and car park.

I can’t confirm at this point because there is much of life yet to be tramped, but I think to myself this is quite possibly the most beautiful and diverse day hike I’ll ever witness. I’ll reserve judgement until the end of the trip but it was simply an unforgettable hike and I’m sure those that follow will have stiff competition from Tongariro for time to come.

A fitting Maori saying to conclude today’s adventure:

Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua

As man disappears from sight, the land remains