Through The Land Of Mordor

I found myself on my hands and knees at a pass that slopes sharply upwards to the rim of the Red Crater. At an altitude of almost 1,800 meters, near the highest point in the track, the weather had rapidly changed and I’d been caught out in a low, passing cloud. It obscured visibility beyond three meters, and carried fierce wind gusts. I was forced to crawl and be as close to the ground as possible, lest I get blown away and tumble down the rocky incline. Trekkers have been airlifted in the past after breaking ribs or limbs in a fall.  My jaw muscles twitched and tightened. It was the first day of winter and, while not accompanied by snow, the temperature was close to 0°C given the elevation and wind chill. The cold temperature triggered spasms in my jaw—an outcome of TMJ syndrome, a condition I suffer from. Though mindful of this, I pressed on at a deliberate pace, measuring my slow progress by means of the poles that marked the way to the top. 

I was midway through the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, described frequently as New Zealand’s finest one-day trek. Covering 18 kilometers, this hike is a slog primarily through the barren wasteland that passes through Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, two of the three active volcanoes in Tongariro National Park. The ring of fire officially starts here. Hardly surprising at all that this was Peter Jackson’s choice for the land of Mordor in his visual epic The lord of the rings. Spectacular yet bleak and grim all at once, it was just the place I imagined a dark lord would settle in quite nicely. The arresting Mount Doom was depicted by the conical Mount Ngauruhoe (which resembles an enormous pointed mushroom with its lone leg severed from underneath it). 

When I finally hit the summit, the cloud-cover lifted—as if on cue—and exposed the sun and a clear blue sky. With the scale and grandeur of the hike now on full display, I did a 360-degree-spin to soak in the magnificent scenery. Probably half of the North Island was visible, including Mount Taranaki’s solitary peak, which jutted out in the Western horizon. 

I like to think we pay tribute to nature by braving the elements and going the extra mile to admire her beauty.

There are destinations such as the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, where one can disembark a comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle, walk several steps to a lookout point and be spoiled with an impressive view. But there are places where one must be willing to batter the ground and wear out the boots to experience the extraordinary. I like to think we pay tribute to nature by braving the elements and going the extra mile to admire her beauty. She deserves nothing less. 

The South Crater was grand, a massive soiled washbasin fit only for behemoths. From afar and above, trampers on the plains I had traversed earlier were merely specks. Against this backdrop, my existentialist persona could not help but consider man’s utter insignificance. Mount Ngauruhoe, loomed imposingly above the basin. Its majestic, nearly perfect symmetry had a sinister quality. Red lava stains dominated the top of the cone, similar to how the area around one’s lips would be smudged after a bloody fistfight. I pictured Frodo and Sam exhaustedly negotiating the scoria in their effort to deliver the Ring of Power to its molten fate.

After scaling the aptly named Devil’s Staircase—a steep climb through huge lava boulders and the most difficult segment of the hike—relieved trekkers often pause to catch their breath at Mangatepopo saddle. The saddle also serves as a foyer, welcoming and ushering new arrivals into the main hall that is the South Crater. From the saddle, one can look out beyond the valley to where the track begins. 

As I stood near the rim of the Red Crater, I saw that the inner walls of the hollowed space were dyed the color of rust and other shades associated with decay—charcoal gray, black, and dirty white. The crater’s breath wasn’t pleasant—a distinct acrid smell permeates the air when sulphuric gasses are discharged from the enormous cavity. The remainder of the course, to the North, was no less spectacular. The Blue Lake, filled to the brim with acid, shimmered straight ahead adjacent to an elevated ridge. Below the edge, the Central Crater stretched out like a bleak and desolate lunar-wilderness, characterized by rugged and harsh terrain. Vestiges of prior histrionics by nature—molten rock bombs and boulders—were strewn in the solidified lava-flow layer. Here, Neil Armstrong could wax nostalgic and maybe sing a line or two: Giant steps are what you take/I hope my legs don’t break/We could walk forever/We could live together/ Walking on the moon... The main track descended to the bottom right section of the Central Crater, where three celadon-tinted soda-pools rest. The color is a result of mineral deposits and sulphur seeping from the ground and mixing with water. The Emerald Lakes, equally as striking as they are lethal, provided a stunning contrast to the otherwise monotonous rough brown carpet of the terrain. 

Though the wind intensity had gone down several notches, the intermittent bursts of air currents made me uneasy. I carried on to an unnerving descent of a steep skree where the ground constantly unraveled beneath me. I took short baby steps, moving sideways, not only to break momentum but to ease the strain on my knees. I landed on my backside twice before reaching the flat, levelled surface of the Central Crater. 

From there, the journey continued up a 30-meter ridge traversing a blue-hued lake en route to the North Crater. An hour later, the trail flanked the side of the massif, sloped downward, and rounded a bend. Behind the corner, the landscape took on a completely different form and a new world emerged. The dour wasteland gave way to a dramatic, open vista—Ketetahi Valley, Lake Rotoaira, Lake Taupo, and Mount Pihanga all came together in a refreshingly picturesque scene New Zealand is famous for. 

This is where the crossing distinguishes itself from other day-walks. The sheer diversity of the terrain, vegetation, and panoramas packed within 18 kilometers is without rival.
The whole gamut of visual treats—sub-alpine tussock, wild countryside, thick beech forests, lush valleys, serene lakes—was served in this walk. 

The experience made us kin. Although I had ventured out by myself, I discovered I was not alone. 

I zigged and zagged through a weaving path to Ketetahi Hut where I enjoyed a can of soda I had reserved for that scheduled stop. With the last leg of my journey predominantly downhill, I could afford to unwind a little. A crowd had already gathered on the deck and the mood was jolly. Three young women from London exchanged tales of trail misadventures with me. The experience made us kin. Although I had ventured out by myself, I discovered I was not alone. 

Lifted up as one could be when human interaction was at its purest, I departed Ketetahi Hut in high spirits and meandered around Ketetahi Hot Springs, where steam billows out when released from fumaroles in the ground. Water from the hot spring discolored the rocks in the brook. The hissing noise gave me the notion that Sméagol—or Gollum in The lord of the rings—was hidden behind the sub-alpine shrub, chanting his famous mantra: “My precioussssss...” 

The last leg of my tramp was a leisurely but long downhill walk along tussock and dense vegetation. Then I entered a verdant forest of podocarp and hardwood trees, highlighted by the tranquil Mangatetipua Stream and a charming waterfall. Wooden bridges took me across the twisting streams and only the sound of running water kept me company as it broke the utter stillness. I emerged from the woodland to the car park, where my bus was ready to shuttle me back to my inn. 

Crossing the Tongariro was a staggering experience of beauty because it mirrored the life journey. The promise of better prospects ahead sustains us, eggs us onward as we contend with the daily grind and pit ourselves against adversity and a slew of trials—deadlines, illnesses, disappointment, and more. But the outlook does get better. All within a single day’s sortie, I witnessed the aftermath of nature’s fury and its eventual vital rebirth. Hope is a virtue not when things are easy. But with the world exhibiting its capacity to heal itself, certainly, there is hope for us yet.

Inside the bus, it was silent; each was to his own private reflection. I was fully spent and my knees were shaky. But I was completely fulfilled nonetheless.