I’m back from my trip up to Taupo and Rotorua, and boy, was it great! Last Monday, I took a bus from Wellington to Taupo, a small town situated on the edge of New Zealand’s biggest lake, Lake Taupo. There’s not a whole lot to the town itself, so most travelers use it as a base to go on various excursions. It’s conveniently located less than an hour from Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s first, and the world’s fourth, national park. Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 12-mile (19.4 km) hike up, over, and through breathtaking volcanic terrain, is said to be New Zealand’s best one-day trek. I caught a shuttle to the start of the trail at 5:30 am on Tuesday, thankful that the weather seemed to be clearing up.
As I started my trek, I made friends with a fellow traveler from England. Since Tongariro National Park, specifically Mount Ngauruhoe, was used as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings, I thought it must be fate stepping in when he said his name was Sam. Of course, I’d need someone named Sam to make it through Mordor alive.
The first stretch of the trail was relatively flat, but I knew from my map that we were swiftly approaching the “Devil’s Staircase.” Anything with a name like that can’t be easy, and I knew the path would eventually climb about 2,500 feet before reaching the highest point of the trek.
The terrain was extremely varied, with lush greenery in some spots and harsh volcanic rocks in others. This little waterfall reminded me of the scenery during my brief stay in Iceland a few years ago. There surely must have been some mythical creatures hiding out nearby.
We hiked along a winding boardwalk to an area called Soda Springs. Just as we neared the end of the valley, the clouds opened up and we saw Mount Doom and the steep Devil’s Staircase looming before us. I didn’t take a lot of pictures on the seemingly endless climb up, since I was too busy trying to breathe, but here’s a shot looking down from partway up the infamous staircase.
Doesn’t look TOO bad there, but imagine this times 30, and getting progressively steeper.
Finally, the path evened out a bit and we came upon the South Crater. One minute we were surrounded by clouds, and the next, the sky cleared and revealed Mount Doom in all its glory.
You can do a side-trip up Mount Ngauruhoe (I prefer to just keep calling it Mount Doom), but it looked pretty damn steep to me, and I forgot to bring the One Ring anyway. Sam and I decided the main trek was good enough for us. We continued across South Crater and up the ridge that leads to Red Crater.
The footing got a bit tricky in places, and there was even a chain to hold on to at one point so you could keep from slipping on the loose scree. Sam and I found plenty of time to stop and take turns posing for pictures in front of Mount Doom. I guess Frodo and Sam didn’t get the same luxury, but who wants pictures with Shelob or a bunch of orcs anyway?
We took a little side trip towards Mount Tongariro, but the wind got the better of us, and we headed back towards the main trail. Next up was this steep hill towards Red Crater. You’ll have to wait until Part 2 to see what’s on the other side. You wouldn’t think the scenery could get better, but this hike really didn’t disappoint. It isn’t a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nothing, after all.
To be continued…