Greta Umbers takes on the country's most popular day hike.
In the beginning there was darkness. Ranginui (Sky father) and Papatuanuku (Earth mother) held fast in a loving embrace so tight it kept their 70 sons smothered in a perpetual shadow. Tired of being constricted, their progeny plotted to separate the two.
All of their attempts failed, until Tane-mahuta, who would become the God of the Forest, propped his back against his mother and with his powerful legs forced his father skywards and at last created a world of spaciousness and light. It is said that to this day, the broken-hearted primordial parents continue to yearn for each other: Ranginui's tears still wash over Papatuanuku, and in her grief she writhes, and sighs, and strains, sometimes breaking through her quiet skin to cry out to her unreachable beloved.
Although these days we may be less inclined to give romantic spiritual explanations to measurable scientific phenomena, the volatile landscape of Tongariro National Park so perfectly embodies this elaborate Maori myth of creation that you'd be forgiven for succumbing to such emotive folklore. And although traversing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing may expose you to their meteorological expressions of melancholy and sorrowful seismic outbursts, it's all worth it for the transcendence of such sublime beauty.
Its 8.30am and Monday's drizzly dawn is reluctantly rolling away from the Mangatepopo Valley carpark as my parents and I make a last-minute survey of our gear before taking our first step on to the trail.
Even if we didn't find the answers to our existential quandaries amid this spectacular and menacing landscape that Peter Jackson deemed fit for Mordor and Mt Doom, at least we knew the next 19.4km would be positively cinematic.
Often touted as New Zealand's greatest day walk, the crossing is undeniably challenging but well worth the effort. The track begins and ends at different points and requires some logistical preparation.
With a pep in our step, my folks and I set out on the muted valley's gravel paths and wooden boardwalks. Other than the poles marking out distance and direction, we were guided by intuition alone - which is perfectly reasonable in the warmer months, however if you're thinking of undertaking the trek in winter, it's suggested to employ those with the necessary expertise lest you become a tragic statistic.
Quickly passing the Mangatepopo Hut, we willed Ranginui to "cheer up!" as we ascended a sympathetic gradient towards Soda Springs. This polite introduction to the crossing was the silver-tongued serpent to our innocent Eve, charming us to the base of the infamous Devil's Staircase. Thoroughly seduced into scoffing from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we ignored the sign advising us to consider turning back, and continued the steep climb from 1400m to 1600m above sea level. Our muscles began to burn. Our lungs were on fire. Had we made some terrible mistake? Rising above the low-lying clouds, we finally reached the Mangatepopo Saddle, where we were visually assaulted by aggressively contrasting colours, jagged angles, and unusual rock formations. We took a collective gasp at the overwhelming technicolour magnificence of Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom) and felt no regret. Out to the west, Mt Taranaki tipped its hat, but Mt Ngauruhoe was definitely the brooding star of this show. To mount the handsome celebrity of the range is an additional three-hour expedition, and not one I was about to take . . . out of consideration for my parents, of course.
Although we'd love to have lingered longer in that splendour, time was ticking and our close proximity to active volcanoes had induced an anxious desire to maintain a cautious pace. After a brief refuel and debrief at the instructional sign noting what to do in the event of an eruption, we pressed on, joining the steady march of adventurers punctuating a thin ribbon of trail running across South Crater (more accurately a basin than a crater).
The parallels between a certain trilogy are many and inescapable: the episodic nature of the journey; the ever-present watchful eye of "Mt Doom"; not to mention the fact we spotted a hobbit. Well, okay, just some barefooted pilgrim testing his faith in this volatile land, but still!
Next, we made the final scramble up to Red Crater. Despite it being a mild day, this exposed ridge was vulnerable to violent gusts of wind that sent us stumbling like clumsy new-born foals. Tiptoeing around the loose and fragile rim of Red Crater was an unsettling experience. The intense colour - caused by extreme heat sintering and oxidising the iron in the rock - and the interesting volcanic feature or "lava dike" in the centre of the crater, make this, geologically speaking, fresh wound blushingly provocative in its brutal sensuality.
Shying away from that visceral display of solidified passion, we arrived at the highest point on the crossing (1886m above sea level) where you can almost hear Papatuanuku wailing as you survey the space where polarities meet. There are magnificent views over Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert, and the Kaimanawa Ranges, but it's the siren song of the Emerald and Blue lakes that urge you on.
Hesitantly making my descent to the Emerald Lakes, the loose scoria slipped underfoot and I began picking up momentum and confidence as I moved quickly with the scree. It all felt so promising until the ground gave way and my centre of gravity didn't quite keep up with my developing speed. Gracefully tumbling down the rubble, I landed tailbone-first on a large immovable rock. Ouch! . . . or words to that effect. I sprang up and, holding back my molten emotions so they wouldn't embarrassingly flow like hot magma over my wind-burnt cheeks, I fell again. My parents, sensibly using hiking poles, casually forged ahead while I had to adopt a new crab-like manner of walking for the rest of the way.
Thank Darwin it was lunchtime! "Safely" sitting above one of the hypnotic water-filled explosion craters, we ignored the scent of sulphur from nearby fumeroles, and ate giant sandwiches while contemplating the impossibly verdant waters enriched by minerals and mana.
Following the lava flow into the demure Central Crater - the rest between two high notes, the Blue and Emerald lakes - I hadn't expected that particular passage of the crossing to be my most treasured. There, a dormant desire for change and growth awoke and filled me with a desire to charge into the intriguing potential of the unknown.
The poignant path then caresses the edge of the elegant Blue Lake near which, being tapu (sacred), you're discouraged to eat or drink. I would, however, strongly encourage everyone to pause here in quiet reverence and give thanks to Te Heuheu Tukino IV (Horonuku), chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, who in 1887 gave the mountains of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, and Ruapehu to the Crown and the people of New Zealand for the creation of Tongariro National Park - New Zealand's oldest national park and a dual World Heritage area.
The switchback down to Ketetahi Hut is as frustrating as it is pretty. But no matter how tempted you may be to go "off-road" it's important to stick to the trail, as it cuts through private Maori land. I wish I could say it was all downhill from there, but the tricky terrain would prove to fluctuate a few more times before the end, exercising your will far greater than it exercises your body. The final section progresses from golden tussock-carpeted slopes to the deep-green, and seemingly never-ending, native forest.
The hum of engines and analytical chatter grew louder as we limped around the last corner - we'd done it. We'd calculated our journey, economised every step, sip, and snapshot over the eight hours it took to complete, and when we arrived at Ketetahi carpark we found it littered with slumped bodies in varying stages of revelry and relief.
There is something transformative about reaching a physical goal as opposed to the many intangible goals we set for ourselves that are often never met because we deviate, get distracted, or set the finish line ever further away, ever higher. That's why walking from one point to another or reaching a summit, as unproductive as it may seem, is so gratifying: if you follow the path with patience and persistence you will eventually make it to the end.
So, we, the victors of the range, returned to the village triumphant: not conquerors of a mountain range but conquerors of our own impatience and flabby determination. If we could do that, what else are we capable of?
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