Travel: Conquering Mount Doom
|Words by Simon Harrington :|
As the steam around me dissipates with a swirl into the greying evening sky, a sudden downpour punctures the pristine, reflective surface of a nearby stream. The pitter-patter is soothing and I find myself sinking deeper into the warm, cascading waters of the shallow hot pools. In the distance, intrepid travellers with dreadlocks – and a distinct lack of swimwear – thrash against the strengthening current in a race to reach the opposite bank. Lined with vibrant green trees and large flat boulders, it’s the perfect high-jump spot. With a loud, whipping crack and an explosive flash, the rain starts to heave. Some bathers scramble in panic from the water to save their clothes. Others, including myself, take shelter under a quaint wooden bridge that runs above the small waterfalls of the thermal springs.
Located a short 25-minute walk from the centre of Taupo, the Otumuheke Stream is a popular destination for tourists visiting New Zealand’s Waikato area, and acts as the perfect pre- or post-hike relaxation spot for those attempting the region’s famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Indeed, I’m due to pull on my battered hiking boots and take to this challenging, 20km trekking route the following day. Unfortunately, as is often the way with temperamental Mother Nature, things don’t quite go to plan. “Tomorrow is the day.” These are the words I hear for the third time this week. It has been four days since the heavens opened at the hot pools and the rain continues to relentlessly cascade, bounce and abound. “Are you sure this time?” I respond through the crackling phone receiver, with a hint of repressed irritation. “I’m on a pretty tight schedule now.” Thankfully, they are sure.
As with all of New Zealand’s greatest outdoor treks, hikes and pursuits, it’s integral that it’s undertaken under suitable weather conditions. It’s also essential to be prepared and carry the right equipment. Ignoring the basics can prove fatal. In fact, in 2006, two elderly trampers became disoriented on the track and misjudged the changeable weather conditions. This led to the tragic death of one of the hikers, whose body was recovered from the mountainside after perishing from hypothermia. Today, companies running shuttle services to the track are much stricter, only ferrying eager walkers when conditions are optimal. That being said, fatalities are incredibly rare on the country’s most popular hikes, which are thought to be among the best signposted and safest in the world.
Bleary eyed, I awake to the always-irritating sound of my ringing alarm at 5:15am. I pull on some thick socks, hiking shorts and a hoodie before heading to the front of my hotel, where I join five other early-morning risers, yawning in typical Dawn of the Dead fashion. At this hour, it’s an unwritten rule to stand in silence until the bus arrives. Soon, I’m crammed on the back row of a full-capacity, rickety coach, with a large German man nodding off on my shoulder – a thin layer of drool coating his lower lip. I wince like a shell-shocked veteran to the sound of crunching gears as the driver swears under his breath, willing the struggling vehicle uphill. Admittedly, it’s not how I had anticipated experiencing my first prestigious Great Walk. Alongside the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand has eight further hikes that rank on an international scale, widely considered the best self-guided tramping routes in the world. Spread across the north and south islands of the country, these include Lake Waikaremoana, Whanganui Journey, Abel Tasman Coast Track, Heaphy Track, Routeburn Track, Kepler Track, Milford Track and Rakiura Track.
From secluded golden beaches to giant native trees and waterfalls, each of these routes boasts their own unique, epic scenery and ecology, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists from across the globe every year. After a long hour, I’m grateful to be stepping off the bus in Mangatepopo. Sitting on the fringes of the Tongariro National Park at an altitude of almost 1,120m, this is the most popular starting point for the trek, which meanders 19.4km through arid volcanic wastelands from the west side of Mount Tongariro to the lower altitude Ruapehu region. Taking my first steps on the easiest opening section of the path, the clouds hang dark and heavy, threatening further rain and shrouding the pitted volcanic peak of Mount Ngauruhoe. There’s no more apt setting for Peter Jackson’s smoking, smouldering Mordor and iconic Mount Doom than this. Glowing in the fiery orange sunrise, peaking mountain ranges stretch eternally, surrounded by acres of desolate, lifeless land.
The first section of the walk is relatively flat and breezy, but begins to steepen at the 45-minute mark when approaching the foot of the Tongariro saddle. Negotiating the large crude stone steps quickly takes its toll on my legs, and I pause for a water break – taking time to appreciate the sheer scale of my surroundings between shallow breaths and hefty gulps. I soon reach the eastern base of Mount Ngauruhoe and, after spotting distant hikers tackling the mountain’s ridge, decide to take on the additional three-hour round trip to the summit. After all, it’s not often you get the opportunity to scale Mount Doom. It turns out that the challenge is worthy of its namesake. The scale of my undertaking becomes immediately apparent as the loose, black soil – known as volcanic tephra – begins giving way underfoot. I take two steps forward and one back. This will be more of a desperate scramble than a leisurely stroll.
Fortunately, by the time I reach the summit, the cloud has cleared and I am rewarded with spectacular views across sweeping valleys, deep volcanic craters and desolate plains. Unfortunately, however, despite the volcano’s still-active status, there are no spitting fires, ominous rumbles or weeping hobbits. Although better known for its appearance in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie franchises, Mount Ngauruhoe has an equally strong standing in Maori culture. So much so, that Jackson wasn’t actually allowed to film at the summit. Having absent-mindedly forgotten to bring the one ring anyway, I take the descent at pace and make my way through two enormous craters before reaching my lunch stop for the day: The Emerald Lakes. Aside from Mount Doom, the lakes are perhaps the most iconic – and generously instagrammed – landmark of the Tongariro Crossing. Indeed, standing on a jutting ridge high above the deep green pools, they look otherworldly. The lakes were once dry volcanic explosion craters, before they filled with rainwater runoff from nearby Red Crater. Their brilliant colour is mainly due to dissolved minerals and sulphur from the surrounding thermal areas, making the water dangerous for swimming and drinking. Unpacking my sandwiches on the bank of the largest body of water, I notice that dense smoke still billows from a number of the surrounding craters, reiterating the potential danger and awesome power of the volcanic plateau on which I sit. The last eruption within the national park was recorded in 2012, when the Te Māri crater exploded twice, expelling ash and blocks up to a metre in diameter over the path. At the time there were more than 100 people trekking the crossing nearby. Luckily no one was injured. A short, relatively surefooted hike from the Emerald Lakes leads to another of the crossing’s must-sees: the aptly named Blue Lake. Glistening in the bright afternoon sun like a vivid sapphire, the still waters are breathtakingly beautiful and a photo opportunity not to be missed. This point is just two hours shy of the Ketetahi Hot Springs, which is less than 60 minutes from the end of the traditional route. Thankfully, the final stint is a much gentler downhill ramble.
Here, the scenery moves away from barren, parched volcanic landscapes and is replaced instead with sweeping green valleys, tall trees and bustling distant towns; more reminiscent of sun-drenched Hobbiton – used in Jackson’s films as the location for the Shire – than sinister Mordor. At the culmination of the trail, I board the same bus that I arrived on and can’t help but feel that, unlike Frodo, the arduous part of my journey is beginning where Mordor ends. The coach crunches painfully into gear and, with a characteristic wince, we pull away slowly, leaving the epic scenery behind. As we trundle through the shadow of Mount Doom, I can’t help but think that this trail is undoubtedly one of the most diverse, changeable and epic hikes in the world.
As rewarding as it is challenging, there are few rambling routes that offer so much diversity and variation over an eight-hour period; for any avid walker, this is an once-in-a-lifetime experience, and a must-do.