Tongariro National Park…. descent into Mordor…

29 Nov


So, a 5:30 start and onto the van for the trip to Tongariro National Park.  A word of warning, here – some of these volcanoes are active, the last eruption of Ruapehu was in 2006.  The mountains we’re going to climb last erupted in 1975, but there’s an uneasy peace – the mountain is very overdue to blow its stack again.  And unlike Hawaii and its gentle yet relentless flow of lava – when Ngauruhoe blows her top, it’s car sized chunks of rock flying through the air.

Ngauruhoe was used for Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings – they wanted to film more in the park but weren’t allowed to (too full of trampers!).

Anyway, the bus deposits us at Mangatepopo and we start to walk.  Already the views are incredible.. huge rock faces rising from the earth to frame the awesome dual volcano behind – Mt Tongariro and its sister Ngaruhoe.  Around every turn something new reveals itself.  Whether it’s a pretty waterfall at Soda Falls (looks pretty, smells of sulphur) or a whole new vista opening up in front of me. The mountain itself is totally stunning, rising as a near perfect cone from the landscape.  The lava has carved amazing features into the surroundings – along with the effects of snow, rain and glacial erosion, the effect is beyond words.  Sometimes I can’t speak.. And sometimes I just want to applaud God for her incredible work.

It’s going to be a hard two days walk, trying to fit a 3 day hike into 2 – but the thought of actually climbing Ngaruhoe is just too tempting.  It’s the hardest climb I have ever done – most of it at a 50degree angle over loose scree, or hauling myself up hand over hand on the rocks.  It’s slow and exhausting work, but around 90 minutes later the slope levels out a bit.  There are steam vents here, blowing hot steamy air from deep within the mountain.  Again, the views from the top of the mountain are incredible – it’s possible to see Ruapehu, and Mt Taranaki, the stand-in mountain for Mt Fuji in ‘The Last Samurai’ – which got the locals very excited.

And if I thought the way up was challenging, I hadn’t really thought about ‘down’.  Turns out the only sensible (and I use the word ‘sensible’ advisedly) is to throw yourself off the edge and scree jump all the way down.  It’s a lot of fun, provided you watch out for the big rocks.

We climb Devil’s Staircase (no surprises for guessing why it’s called that) to cross South Crater, which is really a drainage plain between the two mountains – surreally flat in between so much mountain – and climb across Central Crater to look down into Red Crater – still venting steam and sulphuric deposits, the magma pipe feeding it clearly visible.

Over the ridge we look down on Emerald Lakes – the colour from the feed from Red Crater.  I take a slight detour to eat lunch beside Blue Lake – this one a clear blue lake, fringed with snow.  The kiwi kids are having a snowball fight on the beach.

And now it’s away from the main track of one day hikers, and off into the back country.  I only see three more people that day.  I can see why Peter Jackson wanted to film here – it’s just like descending into Mordor – the lava flows and chunks of rock hurled from the volcano creating an eerily stark yet beautiful landscape.  I find myself strangely moved by this land, formed by fire, and can find so many parallels to my own life. Here the fauna struggles to take hold on the blasted rocks, and there are few birds,

Finally the Oturere hut comes into view, my home for the night.  No electricity, no real facilities, but a welcome bed for the night.  We play cards as darkness falls – but it’s ‘Light’s Out’ when God says it’s lights out.

The next morning I’m up at 4:50 – partly prompted by the cold, partly by the promptings of a need to visit the bathroom (which is about 50 m away) and partly by the knowledge that I have 9 hours of tramping to complete by 2pm.  A peanut butter and banana bagel later (at the end of this tramp I will have consumed 7 bagels and four yoghurt bars) and I’m off.  The sunset is gorgeous, and I’m perhaps not making my best time – so I am rapidly overtaken by Irish girl Claire and a Scots couple from the cabin too.  The landscape isn’t as dramatic, but in England we’d be writing home about this – the heathers and grass tussocks covering gulleys and creeks, with pretty streams running through them – and all the time the mountains of Ngauruhoe and Whakapapa to left and right, dominating the view.  I climb through a strangely out of place birch forest – and run down the other side to the next cabin, Waihohonu Hut.. Just time enough to catch my breath before the last 6 hour stomp.

The ridge here is windy and dust blasted – a previous rainfall has washed the paths and steps away, so it’s tough going. Another detour leads to Lower Tama Lake, a beautiful blue filling an eruption crater – but looking for all the world like a Pacific Island lagoon.

The Whakapapa visitors centre comes into view in the distance – but God has one final treat in store, a last little gem that He’s reserved just for the end – for those who are prepared to just go a little bit further.  Down a steep set of stairs I discover Taranaki Falls, a lovely waterfall in the equally beautiful Waiere Stream.  I’d like to go and stand under the water.. But I press on to the Visitor’s Centre and wait for the bus to recover me to Turangi and my hostel.

It’s been an incredible two days.  I’m physically exhausted, but overcome with the beauty of the park.  The park itself was a gift from the Maori people – the Maori hold land in common, and, resisting the fact that the land would be parcelled up and sold to the settlers, made a gift of it to the nation, preserving its beauty for generations.  I give thanks to the prescience of the Maori leaders, and give even more thanks to the Creator of such an incredible and beautiful land – formed and created by tension, by fire, by upheaval: polished by rain and snow, by ice and wind, and continually changed by new stresses and explosions deep within.


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