The Tongariro National Park in New Zealand IS Mordor in the Lord of the Rings films and a dual world heritage site. I am not sure which accolade is cooler.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19km trek renowned for its beauty and its unpredictable weather. Indeed, I should feel lucky, as I stand in the car park, bleary eyed in the 5am half-light, that the weather is deemed good enough to make the hike at all. But I don’t feel lucky, I feel sleepy and a little sick. After two months of hostels with a fair bit of alcohol consumed, I’m not at my fittest. Mount Doom starts to take on a literal meaning.
Nevertheless, buoyed by the brisk air, my two fellow-trekkers – Grace and Lauren – and the sturdy pair of walking boots I’ve just rented; I set forth (feeling rather intrepid).
The first part of the walk is largely horizontal, which lulled me into a sense of security so I channelled my inner Frodo and sprang onwards. My inner Frodo is rapidly replaced by my inner Gollum as I approach The Devil’s Staircase – a 300m climb that is hell on earth for the unfit. I stare upwards at the achingly steep ascent of stairs zig zagging into the mountain. Climbing it (for me at least) involves multiple pauses, a lot of air-rasping and being over taken by an elderly couple. But, it is worth it as the black-red volcano of Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) rises out of the mist in front of me, signalling the end of the Devil’s Staircase and leaving my jaw on the floor.
Taking the sensible decision not to do the extra few hours climb up the volcano, we head for the Red Crater – an eerily flat lake of solidified lava. Across the burnt and beautiful wasteland we hike until we come to yet another steep incline: the route to the summit. The mist descends as we climb and the fear sets in. We can barely see each other and the walk turns into a scramble. We cling to the rock face and edge onwards. Emerging to lashing wind at the top, we stand jubilant and freezing as the landscape tumbles away beneath our feet.
Cold to the bone we gingerly set off on the scree slope down, still cloaked in mist. I smugly enjoy my sturdy boots as Grace surfs the wave of rubble in her gripless tennis shoes. The inevitable delays this causes though results in the high point of the hike. As we reach the Emerald Lake at the bottom of the precipitous scree the mist lifts, illuminating our world again. And what a world to illuminate. The lake, stinking of sulphur, is the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen. Emerald by name and emerald by nature, it is a bright green oasis in this volcanic terrain. The Blue Lake comes next which makes up for a lack of creativity in its name by being EXTREMELY blue.
Brisk sunshine lights the rest of the way down, alongside mats of heather, stunning views and a lingering smell of eggs. One in-depth life discussion and plenty of tired groans later, we emerge from the forest at the bottom of the valley, shiny eyed, exhausted and proud. The only thing left to do is celebrate, eat lots of pick and mix and maybe have a beverage or two.