Adventure: Tongariro Crossing (AKA: Simply Walking into Mordor)
After seeing the Meme so many times, “One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor,” then discovering that there’s a hike right through the middle of it, I knew I had to go!
The challenge: it’s winter, and while the winters are pretty mild in NZ, this is the week that a surprising amount of snow showed up on the mountains. The guides seem apprehensive about doing the hike, so we’re postponing it for a few days.
The REAL challenge: SNOW?? And ME?? I came prepared for a cold hike, but not a snowy one. Shopping list: winter socks, rain gear (to wear as an outer layer, holding all my heat in and keeping the frozen water out), another hat, heartier gloves, another base layer, and borrow some boots. …none of this is going to fit back into my bag.
Shopping done and bags packed, it’s time to head for my ride down to National Park, New Zealand… on the NakedBus. Now, NakedBus is marketed as a “no frills” transportation option… but if that’s true, what in the world to the regular bus lines have / do? A clean,
comfortable, accommodating, and entertaining ride (have I mentioned that folks in the service industry here really excel at the service and personality parts of their jobs?). At our lunch stop, I hit up a local diner — scrambled eggs and beans on toast, plus more coffee! — then back on the bus! We reach National Park by sundown and it’s dinner at the pub around the corner — vegetable soup, toast, and a couple of NZ beers — right next to the roaring fireplace with plenty of locals to entertain me. (Yes, the kids are in the pub at 10pm, too!)
This is also when I realize I’ve neglected to bring a towel. The hostel clearly said “bring your own towel.” Oops. Apparently, this happens a lot. Often enough for the petrol station down the street to carry towels. Well played, National Park, well played. It’s cold and dark, though, so I’ll buy one after the hike.
The Swedish and German kids staying in the hostel are absolutely delightful. One plays music for me on her laptop and another tells me about her backpacking holiday — “career break” — and how she has to go home in about a week. These kids really seem to have their heads on straight, too. It’s a nice contrast to what I’m used to.
The kids are still asleep when I get up to get dressed for the hike (younger and wiser, I wonder?), so I try to be quiet… but these damn rain pants are really noisy. I do as little damage as possible and head downstairs. Since the mountains are covered in snow with some of the drifts being waist-deep, what would typically be a play date (drop us off, pick us up) has to be a chaperoned event, complete with crampons and an ice ax. This makes me nervous, but what the hell, right?
Being the first hike after the snowfall, it’s a popular day to be on the mountain. Roughly 45 hikers (not counting the guides) amass at the trail head. We split into groups of 15 and head out.
One thing I hadn’t considered was elevation.
I live much closer to sea level than this, I’ve been staying at sea level for the past week, and I’m going to need more oxygen than usual to get over this mountain. I’m also wearing about seven extra pounds of clothing and shoes for the occasion… plus the crampons and ice ax… make that 10 pounds.
There’s only one more climb after “The Devil’s Staircase” followed by about 4 hours of downhill on the sunny side of the mountain. Wanting to see the sunny side of the mountain isn’t enough to get me through, though… halfway up the Staircase, I have to turn back. I just can’t breathe. A little embarrassed and a lot relieved, I head back down the Staircase where another guide and a delightful older gentleman named Gerry are waiting for me.
Gerry is a Kiwi nearing his 70’s and recently retired. He ran a hotel for over 40 years and spent all 40 years being told by guests that he should definitely hike the Tongariro Crossing. As anyone who’s ever run a hospitality business knows, he never had the time to do it before today. To be honest, he hadn’t looked into the difficulty level of the hike and nearly fainted when he saw the Staircase.
About thirty minutes into our trip back to the trail head, we pass a group of hikers whose guide mentions they had just left a hiker at a rest stop another thirty minutes down the path, so we pick her up, too. A really sweet young French lady wasn’t really prepared for the hike to begin with, then their bus driver drove like a maniac on the way to the trail head, stopping along the way to let 4 of the passengers get out and vomit, Angie being among them. Now that’s a rough way to start a challenging hike!
Jan, or “Grandma,” is our guide for the rest of the day, and I really think we got a better end of the deal than the other 42 hikers. “You paid good money to be here. Just because you didn’t get to finish the Crossing doesn’t mean you should be disappointed or have a bad experience. Let’s go get a coffee!” Let the coffee-banter begin! I love coffee, but I’ve never wanted to love a coffee more in my life. Gerry and I are of like mind (though, his may be cheekier) and we cannot stop talking about coffee… except to stop and take photos.
Jan points out photo ops and we take them. Always patient, always cheerful, always glad to see us smiling, Jan keeps everything lighthearted. Each time we pass a group of hikers, she chirps “Good morning! Lovely day for a hike, eh? Where are you lot from? Do you have everything you need? It looks dreary on this side, but once you cross over the top it’s nice and sunny over there. You’re going to have a beautiful hike!” Even the group of three guys wearing flip-flops (?!) got a warm reception. “Good morning! Lovely day for a hike, eh? I’m not sure your shoes will take you much further than about 10 minutes up the path, but it’s a beautiful day for a hike! Just be sure to turn back in about 10 minutes, ok?” This is when it hits me: even when pointing out one’s daftness, she does so cheerfully and with encouragement. She’s not ignoring it, but she’s being kind about it, and encouraging the guys to make a good choice. This is art indeed.
Now for the Best. Coffee. Ever.
“You need to come back and help run our Government. We’ll support your VISA.” ~ Gerry and Grandma, after a spirited political discussion.
Sufficiently warmed and caffeinated, it’s time for another hike. We’ve got about 3 hours before the other groups will be off the mountain, so we head toward a shorter hike out to one of the waterfalls. Beautiful. Jan and I get to talking about how much undeveloped land there is in NZ, then she lets me in on the double-sided sword that is public sentiment toward the Maori. They keep the land the way it is, which frustrates people, but they keep the land the way it is, which is the only way it will remain as beautiful and healthy as it is… and that delights people. It’s hard to do the right thing when it’s contrary to what others want you to do, but in hindsight, it’s generally appreciated.
Lots of photos later, we’re heading back to the bus so Jan can begin dropping us off at our lodgings before picking up the other hikers. Front-door service. She’ll have it no other way. Angie and I both get big hugs from Gerry upon our exit, and Gerry tries to get me to commit to a date in the summer when we’ll try the Crossing again. “I will,” I promised, “but I’m not sure what the date will be.” Accepting my promise, he gives me another hug.
Must. Shower. Which also means: must buy a towel. Ok. I’ve got a little more walking in me.
Dinner brings me back to the pub for (what else??) Fish & Chips! …and fire. …and entertainment. …and OMG my feet hurt. Despite the entertainment, I’m in bed before 9pm and sleeping like the dead.
Best compliment: “You have a very pleasant English. It’s nice to listen to. Not like most Americans.” ~ Austrian pub-dweller
For the trip back, I need to be marginally presentable since I’m riding the train. No worries. I have hats. I also have a little coffee house between the hostel and the tracks that has coffee (duh), grilled sammiches (”toasties”), free wifi (yay!), and THE most cheerful and helpful barista, yet! The three hour wait for the train just became delightful.
You know what else is delightful? A quaint train station like those that only exist in movies, which also has (…wait for it…) another coffee house! Yes, please.
The train itself has as many windows as they could reasonably install on a train — you’re intended to see the countryside, and boy do you! I’ve never seen happier cows or sheep. They nap, run from the train, climb the hills, eat the grass, play in the streams, nap some more, eat more grass,… and the countryside is breathtaking. Watching each and every farm go by until the sunset.
Only then do I visit the dining car, which exceeds my expectations. Rice pilaf with chucks of actual, identifiable chicken bits and mushrooms, with a decent red wine. Or two.
“I am excessively happy. The kind where you get full-up and spring a leak.” ~ AJB