A lot of our trip through the North Island has been checking off the classic “NZ Must Dos.” One of those is a 19.4 km day hike – the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Three active volcanoes define the geography of the national park – Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe, which starred as Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. Given their eruptive nature over the last few few thousand years, the landscape is eery and desolate. The grassy plains at the outset of the trail give way to rocky, jagged ascents. There were times when our legs dragged up the mountainside, just like Frodo and Sam. Fortunately, we were not bearing the weight of all evil in a little golden ring. Foggy clouds came in waves, hovering over us and then dissipating to reveal the desert valleys and charcoal grey volcanic fields we just traversed.
I didn’t climb to Ngauruhoe’s rusty peak; I decided to stay with Georgia, and in truth I plain missed the turnoff (Georgia would have me add that our shuttle driver strongly discouraged it, since there are lots of dislodged boulders and someone has already died this year. Meanwhile, I’m still regretting it). Even without side trip detours, the main track boasts some impressive highlights: emerald lakes, scree slopes, red ridgelines, and steamy sulphuric springs. At its highest point, we broke cloud line and skirted our way along windy precipices. With nothing but brilliant blue skies above, it really felt like we were floating on the doorstep to heaven.
If you’re looking for peace and isolation, this is not your track. With 60 to 70,000 trampers visiting each year, this is far and away NZ’s most popular day hike. Hazy dots plodded along ahead and behind us. The string of people stretching the length of trail I could see strongly resembled purposeful little carpenter ants.
Except ants are strong; they can carry up to 5,000 times their weight. Some of the people that take on this hike looked seriously underprepared. The shuttle driver asked a group boarding in cotton t-shirts whether they had raincoats. You don’t need the most top of the line synthetic outdoor clothing to go into nature for the day, but hiking in jeans and Converse shoes has never been a good idea. On the other side of the spectrum, one mom had her whole family wearing disposable rain suits that made a swoosh swoosh sound every time they took a step. She was prepared, but they looked like a set of ridiculous Michelin marshmallow men. Other inexperienced trampers carried their food in plastic grocery bags, and whatever ignorant optimism that convinced overweight visitors that hiking this trail was a good idea dissipated with their heavy heaving on the first long set of stairs.
When we left the hostel that morning, there was a man in an orange raincoat who we both noticed. “He’s your type,” Georgia whispered as he boarded the shuttle. When we passed him on the trail and I avoided eye contact, Georgia was disappointed with my utter lack of game. “Come on, Jessica! Get your flirt on. I completely expected you to start a conversation with him.” On our lunch break Georgia was eating painfully slow. I kept pestering her to leave.
“Just relax. This is beautiful. I don’t know why you’re in such a rush to wait around in the carpark,” she sassed back. “If you really want to leave, go on.”
She had a point. But I was annoyed. Plus, Mr. Orange Raincoat had passed us during our break.
“Fine,” I snapped. So I left and caught up with mystery man. Georgia wasn’t far behind.
We started hiking with Florian, or Flo for short, since we sure couldn’t pronounce the “r” in his name correctly. Professionally, he is an engineer with the luxury of a long German holiday. Like many people I have met these last few months in NZ (especially the Germans), he is solo backpacking. Georgia and I (read: Georgia) thoroughly interrogated him about his personal life. The first of G’s questions: “Flo, how old are you?” Old. (32; my interest is already gone. But Georgia and I still enjoy getting to know people. Plus we were getting sick of each other). “What’s the longest relationship you’ve ever been in?” He made her guess first and she aimed high – 8 years. Answer: 13 years (they started dating when they were 15.) “What’s the weirdest date you’ve ever been on?” There was a Ukrainian woman who was… “interesting.” (eg they fought a lot but right afterward she also had a high sex drive). I’m not sure if he was more freaked out by our (Georgia’s) forward inquisitions or entertained by our consistent shock at his responses. Who knows how he felt, but by the time we reached the trailhead, our legs were well spent, and we had a new friend.
In truth, volcanoes are not my scenery of choice. Underground lava may create a lot of activity, but ultimately, with so many rocks and very little plant life, it feels really dead. Until the last few kilometers of the trail, which returns to a hillside of tussocks and low lying forest, everything an eruption has once affected is such a dreary wasteland. Given the lifelessness, I was surprised that this is “the” tramp in New Zealand. I’ve definitely been on others here that are far less traversed and that I much prefer (probably in part because of the solitude). Even with the droves of people, even though it was not my favorite scenery, the unique landscape these volcanoes create still made the trek well worth it.
STAY TUNED: If I can get my writing act together, updated encounters with Flo will be continued. It is good. I sleep with him. (That one’s for you Mama)