Tongariro National Park is well known for its natural beauty and for trekking the Tongariro Crossing, but for many people it will be heard of from being used as the landscape of Mordor in Lord of the rings.
It was rightly used for the scenery of Mordor as it is based around a volcano and large lava flows, looking like a very desolate place in parts.
Upon hearing of the hiking you could do there I knew I had to go. A walk through desolate volcanic places? Great! Sign me up.
Learning that the weather was rather bad upon arrival, being the start of the off season, and mountainous areas in general being rather fickle with changing conditions, the first day was spent just doing a short walk out for a few hours to some small lakes. A recon mission if you will, to check out the area.
Even on this low level walk you could see why the local park office didn’t want people going up higher into Tongariro National Park. Just standing on a smallish hill the wind pounded hard almost knocking you over, with clouds obscuring the view in many places.
To go up higher, which you must do if wanting to cross over the whole national park, there were more hazards of snow and ice.The next day was a totally different scenario, waking up to glorious sunshine and clear blue skies. This was it!
The perfect weather window and time to get going. I am pretty sure that all us hikers out there are basically amateur meteorologists! Always banging on about the weather.
The Tongariro National Park can be done in anywhere between 2-4 days, depending on how fast you like to go. Personally at this time on my visit to New Zealand I was at the end of my trip and time was not on my side.
I also like to hike fast covering as many kilometres as I can, it is like a mission I set myself. Knowing this I set a limit of walking the whole park in 2 days.
There are 2 ways to do what they call the northern circuit walk around Tongariro, the northern circuit being one of the ‘great walks’ of New Zealand. The first is to go clockwise, which most people do. The second surprisingly enough is to go anti-clockwise, which is what I did, partially due to weather plans.
With it being a sunny day that first day, it should help melt some of that snow and ice on top of the higher parts. Or so I hoped.
The Start of the Tongariro Crossing Trek
So starting the walk with a friend, we soon separated from each other due to different walking speeds, and the fact that I planned to do an extra side trip during the day that she did not, meaning I at one point had to accelerate on ahead.
The official time for the stretch between the park HQ and the first hut is 5 hours.
You can sleep in various huts based around the park on your walk, you just have to carry your own sleeping bag and food. Anyway I completed that first stretch in under 4 hours. Great progress already.
That first 4 hours of walking partially covered what was seen the day before, with views of snowy mountains and wild grassy marsh spread around.
But this day you could see the mountain.
Just to give a quick background on Tongariro, it was the first national park in New Zealand, established in 1887, and some of the sites around the area are sacred to the Maori people.
Reaching the first hut I took a quick break to devour some energy bars. I swear one of the reasons to go hiking is just to have an excuse to eat lots of chocolate! Feeling motivated and energised it was time to move off quickly, daylight was not on my side.
The official time to the next hut was around three hours. How long do you reckon I did it in?
Along this stretch was where you entered more into the volcanic area. With a short walk through some forest, you emerged climbing steadily upwards along volcanic sand. The terrain got even rougher, with old lava rocky outcrops all around you, desolate and tougher going was the feeling here.
It was great being in different scenery though and I rocketed along to the next hut, reaching it after only two hours.
This hut was looking more the worse for wear than the previous one, being older, but it would do for the night. With only around two hours of daylight left, I couldn’t resist having a walk up the valley to the base off where I would have to climb the next day.
For now I had truly entered into Mordor.
Yes, this valley where the hut was located is exactly where they filmed Mordor in Lord of the Rings. You could easily see why. If you have seen the movies it doesn’t look totally like that,as they some used CGI, but you should have a rough idea of how it looked like.
Watching the sun go down behind the volcanoes, peacefully alone in Mordor, I then set back to the hut for the night, with thoughts off scaring some of the other hikers in the hut the next day, by jumping out behind the rocks while they were hiking, pretending to be Gollum! Precious…
There were six of us in the hut that night, thankfully my friend who I had set off with earlier had arrived, and after some social chat people started going to sleep. I wandered back outside, wrapped in my sleeping bag for warmth, to enjoy the full moon spread its light across the scenery.
Standing out there in the peace, I got that familiar feeling I always get in those situations off being closer to nature. That’s why you go hiking after all. Well that’s why I do anyway.
Waking the next day earlier than I would have liked, due to others getting up (the hut is very spartan), it was time to get out off the warm sleeping bag and get ready for the long day ahead.
To get warmed up I went straight for a quick ten minute run across the rocky terrain, to the bemusement of the other people at the hut, who were saving their energy.
Later on you could see what they were saving their energy for. Grabbing my backpack I headed out again by myself, leaving the others to go at their own speed, and strolled along the same route I had taken in the evening the day before.
One hour into the walk, with all the rocky lava outcrops eerily surrounding you in the dim morning light, I reached the bottom of the first climb for the day. This was different from the relatively easy walk before, and it went up vertical for quite a way.
Needless to say I wanted to get this part 9over with quickly and set out at full pace upwards. Enjoying the great view on the way up, I finally reached the top after about 30 minutes. Here I had reached the emerald lakes, sparkling in the sunlight.
Lakes being a rather over the top description I thought, as they were more like over-sized ponds to me.
From here you could see the top off the pass that had been covered with ice just the day before. On this side it was just loose volcanic sand to scramble up to reach the top, seemed easy enough.
Knowing that this should be the last hard upward climb for the day (oh how little did I know), I gave it everything and made the top off the pass in only 15 minutes, and came across a staggering view.
All around you could see clouds covering the lower valleys, with Mount Doom in one direction and other snowy peaks in all the others, with the Mordor valley stretched out below, and a red volcanic crater, as well as another volcano far in the distance. Perfect.
Sitting down for 30 minutes to savour the views, I then went up a side trail towards a mountain summit, until a though occurred that the plan was to walk out today all the way back to the start from the day before, and there wasn’t much time for this little side trip.
So after 10 minutes I turned back and upon reaching the main trail, ran into someone I knew from the hostel a few days before. He had told me about how he had climbed Mount Doom. ‘Really?’ I said, knowing full well that I most likely would try it myself now, as I enjoyed a challenge!
Descending down a few hundred metres to the terrain below, I could see what all the big deal about ice on the pass had been. It was not a problem on the side coming up, but the side going down was full off slippery ice.
I took my time, being very careful as this was tricky, and if I slipped I could easily slide down a relatively steep rocky drop.
Making it to the bottom safely I ran full speed ahead, with new invigoration, as I reached the base off Mount Doom. It looked a lot bigger from down here! But lets do it, I said to myself. So off I went slowly scrambling up the first stretch, which was mostly rocky terrain and easy enough to walk along.
Then you reached it. Pure hell! Loose volcanic sand covered in loose rocks, going all the way up to the top. It’s hard to describe what it is like trying to climb up what was now becoming a very steep slope, over this sand and rock. Lets just say I had full respect for Frodo here!
For every one metre you climbed, you would loose 20cm. On the near vertical slope, your legs sank into that warmed sand, while loose rocks fell around you, as the sun glared on hard.
This was tough. But the view was absolutely amazing, even at only half way, making it worth all the effort.
Meeting a few other people who tried climbing it, around twenty in all, half said they made it no problem, the other half said they gave up because it got to difficult.
Having reached halfway up by this point, I again realised about the time and decided to come back down. It would take around 1.5 hours to climb it in all, and I didn’t have that.
Upon reaching the bottom however, that niggling feeling off wanting to complete the climb set in, and upon getting some encouragement from some people who had just come back down (although they did look like very fit people to be fair to myself), I thought fuck it, lets do this.
Giving up on the plan to meet the others at the car by the end off the day, as there was no way I would make it, I planned to sleep in another hut at the bottom of the last valley walk off the day. So up I went again!
This time I got higher than I had previously, cursing the tough going and myself for not just continuing on the first climb, I slowed to stop for a while. This was when two of the people from the hut the night before showed up.
They were also very keen to get up there, but had not counted on how hard it would be either. The thing that wasn’t helping was the fact that there was no set route to reach the top.
There was a generally agreed rough area that everyone would stick to, but there was slightly different routes in that area. Getting various versions on what was the best way to get up didn’t help. Being told that to scramble over some harder rocks that were there was the easier option than scrambling up in the sand, I agreed.
The problem was that it was hard to see where exactly you should turn off to get over those rocks!
At this point it was getting very late in the day, and with the three of us being almost the last people up there, we realised we didn’t have enough daylight to finish the climb,and the fact it was hard going didn’t help either. It felt like shit having to come back down for the second time having reached halfway again!
Then I figured that Frodo in Lord of the Rings had technically only climbed about one third up Mount Doom in the movie, or so it seemed anyway. So I made it further than Frodo! Ha! Well that was what I said to console myself anyway.
In the fading light I let the two others walk on by themselves so I could go at my own pace behind. The last stretch descended down into a beautiful valley, shaded from the sun by the cliff walls on one side, and Mount Doom looming large on the other, as you walked through the remains of old lava flows, making it seem very bleak.
This part of the walk was the easiest off the day, and I wandered into the last hut in around 1.5 hours. That’s when the surprise came. The hut was full!
Some locals had decided to take their children to the hut for a birthday party! ‘What the fuck!’ I believe I said out-loud, being rather tired at this point. The remaining few beds in the hut after the big group of children were taken up by some other walkers, who had come in earlier.
With no camping gear with me, except my sleeping bag, and knowing full well how very cold it gets at night without a mattress underneath you, I decided the only real option was to walk to the car park nearby and just hope to catch a ride with some people still leaving. Otherwise a rather bad night of sleep lay ahead.
Luckily I overheard two other people who had just arrived say that as the hut was full, they would just drive out for the night and find somewhere to sleep in a hotel. When you’re tired you really don’t care about behaviour too much, and I quickly jumped up and asked for a ride. ‘No problem’ they said. Great!
Being dark now, we donned our head-torches and walked out to the car park, not so far ahead. Starting the car once we had arrived, we drove off into the night, leaving Tongariro National Park and Mount Doom behind.
I was sad to leave what had been one of the most interesting hikes I had ever done, albeit a short one. We arrived at a hostel just outside the park, where I grabbed the last room for the night. Meeting the friends who had gone ahead earlier in the day, they were happy to see me after I hadn’t shown up at the car.
A lovely hot shower, cleanish clothes, a good meal, and I was ready to sleep, being absolutely knackered. Laying my head on the pillow, I thought of Mount Doom and scenes of Mordor from Lord of the Rings, and drifting away, thought that one day I will return and finish that climb of Mount Doom. I would climb the precious!