Mordor. The word brings to mind black rocks barren of foliage, a boiling sky, The Eye and Mount Doom. What doesn’t come to mind are aquamarine lakes, bright snow, windswept plains, icy streams, and rocks dyed red with the iron of countless volcanic eruptions. However, these are what greeted me as I explored Tongariro National Park, the place in which Peter Jackson decided to set his Mordor over 15 years ago.
I ended up in the park over a month ago because I wanted to complete the Tongariro Crossing, touted as the best one-day hike in the world. The Crossing is a 19.4km (12mi) trek that takes hikers past still-active volcanoes, lakes spewing sulfur, and over steep hills covered in millennium’s worth of volcanic rocks.
Completing the Crossing is a badge of honor among travels, or so it seems. It’s one of the main topics of conversation in hostels, and those who have done it seem somehow elevated above those who are still waiting for the opportunity. I was eager to give it a try, but also a little suspicious. After all, I’ve found that things rarely live up to their hype.
I arrived in National Park on a Sunday, ready to complete the trek the next day. However, a trip to the Department of Conservation (DOC) Visitor’s Center and a check on the weather convinced me that I would have to wait until Tuesday to see if the Crossing lived up to expectations. Although I was visiting a national park, I hadn’t really thought about doing anything besides hiking the Crossing. Upon asking at the Visitor’s Center, I was handed an extensive list of trails I could complete, ranging from ten minutes to six hours in length.
My first day at the Park I completed the Silica Rapids Trek. This walk is 7km (4.5mi) roundtrip and supposedly takes 2.5 hours. I did it in an hour and forty-five minutes. It’s a relatively easy trail with only a few spots of uphill. Mostly it’s a great walk for the views. You can see both of the mountains that dominate the park, explore the stark alpine climate, and dip into the rainforest.
My favorite part of the hike, besides seeing the mountains, was walking on a boardwalk over an alpine swamp. The clear water revealed the red lava rocks just below the surface, contrasting with the reddish brown and orange foliage.
This hike became my back-up plan when my Crossing was delayed by weather. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this 17km (10.5mi) trek. I packed a backpack with water, food, and warm clothing, and set off early in the morning.
It was a glorious walk, especially since the sun decided to grace the park with its presence. The trail mostly wended its way through the low-lying shrubs and reddish streams that make up this volcanic park. There are two lakes, Upper and Lower Lakes, both of which are stunning. Reaching the Upper Lake was the most strenuous part of the climb because it actually involved some uphill trekking over loose rocks. However, the view was totally worth it.
The DOC says this hike takes 5-6 hours to complete. I did it in 4.5.
THE TONGARIRO CROSSING
At 7:15 a.m. the bus to the beginning of the Crossing left from my hostel. It was 42 degrees Fahrenheit and I was cold. I was also nervous. What if it was too hard for me to do? What if the weather changed? Did I have enough food? Enough water?
However, my fear left me as I started the hike. It was amazing. The sun came out but wasn’t too hot, there weren’t too many people with me, the wind didn’t blow me off of a ridge, and I was in pretty good shape compared to my compatriots (except maybe the British Olympian also hiking).
It was one of those hikes that’s challenging enough to make you feel accomplished at the top of each ridge. It also was stunning, and I gasped out loud more times than I’d like to admit.
I did the entire hike in 5.5 hours, two hours faster than the average time it’s supposed to take. My competitive side was very happy with this result, although I wish I’d taken a few more breaks to appreciate all the landscape had to offer.
(I will post a more in-depth account of the Crossing soon).
The three days I spent in Tongariro National Park were three of my favorite days while touring the North Island of New Zealand. Maybe it was the people I met or the fact that the hostel I stayed at had wifi that cost money so I was forced to do something other than play with my phone. But I think it had a lot to do with the beauty of the park and the feeling of being so connected to nature.
Hopefully one day I’ll be able to return and maybe complete the Northern Circuit.