When I sat planning my itinerary for a New Zealand visit, it seemed like a mammoth task. There was so much to pick from. Being a fan of the ‘Lord of the Rings’, I wanted to visit at least one landscape that represented it, and here, thankfully, the choice was easier. While the Shire and Rivendell are no doubt happy, dreamy places, it was Mordor which played the centre stage in the story – being an integral part of Frodo’s odyssey, with its sense of doom, and yet at the centre of all hope.
Most of Mordor was created in computer graphics, but what constituted its base was the volcanic land of Tongariro National Park – a complex with 12 cones, one of which was the inspiration for Mount Doom in the film. A quick search on the Internet told me that the best way to experience Tongariro was to walk through it, and the most illustrious walk was the Alpine crossing – a day trek 19.4 km long, which required a good level of fitness because of the tough climbs. The crossing starts from Mangatepopo and ends in Ketetahi, but you can do it either way.
For reaching Tongariro, our base was Taupo. We started in a coach at early hours of 6:30 AM, and it was nearly 8:15 before we got to the base and started our walk. To begin with, it seemed like an easy walk. The weather was glorious, with the sun shining benevolently (so it seemed), the temperature manageable at 18-19 deg. The first hour passed in a gentle climb along a stream, and I wondered if all my trepidations were overarched.
After the first hour, however, began a very steady climb – from Soda Springs upto South Crater. In a brochure we had received, this section was called the Devil’s staircase – not a very encouraging nomenclature, but then I was in Sauron’s old land. What did I expect?
The next 1.5 hours was arduous. We had started our day on a glass of milk – and I cannot emphasize enough what a rookie mistake that is. We, atleast, had the foresight to carry some food, and somewhere along the way, out came the bread and cheese. And a dose of sugar in the form of candies. Sugar is really helpful for regular doses of energy, but it makes you thirsty, and that is a problem if you are not carrying enough water.
Traversing through the devil’s staircase, there was one stretch of a long plain walk, where Mt. Ngauruhoe , lovingly known as Mt. Doom, was visible in its fierceness.
Mt. Doom stayed looming over us as we reached the South Crater, and at moments I wondered how I was tracing Frodo’s odyssey. Then, a shoe bite began to press on my heels, and all such lofty thoughts instantly vanished. It was a hot day, and my all-weather shoes proved remarkably unsuited to the task of walking on a difficult terrain.
The next stretch – a walk from South crater to red crater is supposed to be dangerous, and should be avoided if the day is very windy (luckily for us, it was a calm day. Hot, but calm). We were walking on a narrow patch, sometimes going on all fours. But it was rewarding, because once, after the arduous walk of 50 minutes, we reached the Red crater, an astounding view spread before us. I first noticed the Blue lake, sitting pristine in a stark brown rim. And then my eyes quickly darted to the surreal Emerald lakes, which dazzled and shone in the bright sun.
It is hard to describe how it felt – not having seen any photos of the place, nor having heard from friends, I was completely unprepared for this. For a moment, I was joyous. Most of the climbing was over, what remained were easier climbs and a long long walk back. And this was the climax.
But, then I realized we had to climb down to the Emerald lakes. It was a steep descent, on a volcanic terrain, which if you have ever walked before, is basically shifting grounds beneath you, which provides little toehold. This time, the much-cursed shoes came to the rescue with their strong grip, and despite all my misgivings, I was at the lakes within 10 minutes of feeling completely out of control, but not once falling down.
We stopped at the Emerald lakes for a few minutes. They are highly acidic, and therefore not the lakes to dip your hot feet into after a tiring walk. Besides, we still had almost 4 hours of walking to go through.
The rest of the walk was a mixed bag – there were plenty of ups and downs, which went on and on for hours. We climbed up to the Blue lake after almost an hour of seeing them first, and it was lovely to sit near it. Some crazy travelers did jump in for a swim, although I later read that the lake is considered sacred and one should neither swim in it, nor eat near it. These must be the Maori believes, who have a much deeper connection to the land than its current occupants.
After the blue lake, there was another interesting stretch – one where we saw the fumes coming out of the Te Maari crater. The volcano had erupted as recently as 2012, and it is advised to walk through this active hazarduous zone without stopping. In this stretch, we could also see the valley spread out before us, with Lake Rotoraira in the distance.
By the time we reached back to the Ketetahi car park to catch the bus, after almost 7.5 hours of walking, I had the skin of both my feet scraped off (!!), was barely able to walk, and was fighting with the water bottle for the last drop hiding in its crevices. I wondered if it was worth it.
And then in the evening, I looked at the pictures and wondered: Was I really there in this surreal place? How could I come back so early?