The Pikes tackle Mordor

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Jan 04, 2012

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Where I stayed
Affordable Family Holiday Park, Napier

Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Saturday, November 19, 2011

We had checked into the Discovery Lodge after 6pm after scouting out the place in our little free 'Jasons' camping park guide book. They had space for us both on site with a powered connection and in the second shuttle in the morning to the Tongariro National Park. Most of the parks in the area offer this kind of service but the Discovery Lodge is the closest based to the start of the ‘tramp’ or hike and offers the earliest start times. Our shuttle, the second shuttle, would be leaving at 6.15am.

You have got to be having a laugh. We’ve been struggling to get up at 9 and now we’ve got to get up earlier, and then walk 20km across alpine terrain. Well – at least we’re being a little adventurous.

We woke at 5am and cooked a few boiled eggs for breakfast, hearty stuff, and then got dressed in the warmest stuff we had. For me that meant layers. I had to make do with wearing my lengths under my lightweight cargo trousers down below and a vest, a t shirt, a thin long sleeved cotton shirt and a hoody on top. We both have rain macks, but Kate’s shoes are little better than sturdy trainers and neither of us have hats or gloves. When we arrived at the bus at 6.10am we looked around the rest of the group (mainly Scandinavians) with their ultra high-tech windproof, coldproof, waterproof, bulletproof (probably) garments, super-duper shoes and warm looking gloves and hats. A few even had walking poles. We looked like total amateurs.

A saying I was once taught by a friend of mine when describing a company I used to work for was "All the Gear, No idea". This pretty much seemed to sum up the remainder of the walking group. As soon as we set off after being dropped off by the shuttle Kate and I found ourselves head of the pack and storming forth leaving the majority of the group arranging their toggles and what not’s.

We walked along the winding brush track slowly gaining altitude from the 1100m high car park. Although it was early we warmed up quickly and our meager layers were more than enough to keep us going without any problems. After about 40 minutes we found we were catching other people that must have been the first shuttle drop off – the mountain wasn’t too busy otherwise.

At the ‘Soda Spring’, a waterfall leading to a stream running down the volcanic terrain, we hit the start of the ice and snow under foot. It was only light at this point but the signs were ominous. Within another 15 minutes of much steeper ascent past the toilet hut it began to snow. Not really equipped for this we both re-arranged our clothing, swapping jumpers for rain macks to keep out the snow and wind but to allow us to cool down a little. The steepness was pretty hard going for us both after a couple of months of near procrastination.

We reached the top of this stretch and overtook another couple of Scandinavians in yeti gear. They must have found it tough wearing all those clothes as I was sweltering under my coat but my hands and face were freezing. To keep out the cold Kate had resorted to wearing socks on her hands at this point. She started by only wearing them when no-one was near, but she quickly lost all shame and wore them continually.

The top of this stretch of ascent rewarded us with views across an icy flatlands marked on our map as south crater, and for our pleasure the sun broke through the clouds warming us nicely. To our right one of the volcanoes of the area (Mount Doom on LOTR) towered up into the cloud a further 600m in altitude, but we would not be attempting this – we’re not stupid, even if we do attempt an alpine crossing wearing socks on hands.

We walked across the crater and towards another steep ascent to the highest point on the Tongariro crossing, just above Red Crater. This stretch was in shadow behind some volcanic rock and with the winds that had picked up on turning north at the edge of south crater we found ourselves very cold. The going was pretty tough as we both were aching a little in our calves. It was a pretty slow plod.

We reached the highest point at the same time as a group of walkers who must have been from the first shuttle again. We seemed to be pretty much alone at this point bar a couple of guys from our shuttle who overtook us when we stopped back at the toilets and another couple of Scandinavian gents who took a photo of us when I asked. We traded places with them for the remainder of this section of the walk as we took breaks alternately.

On our descent from overlooking Red Crater, the slope was covered with sands and ice making the going a bit unsteady, but the views offered meant that you didn’t want to descend too quickly anyway. The slope opened out to the right with three lakes, the Emerald lakes, glistening in the sunlight. The mineral residues gave the lakes a greenish tinge and with colours on the slopes from the sulphur and other minterals that were clearly exposed it was a little spectacular. We slid our way down and stopped for as long as we could to take in the view before the smell of off eggs just was a little too much. Onwards.

Across a freezing crater landscape we walked, the snow and ice in this area more present and the cloud cover moving in. It was at this point pretty cold and a little miserable. The wind chill alone must keep the temperatures cold enough to maintain the snow. We were nearly on the way back after passing the 9km marker on the icy flats and a short climb which re-awakened the tired calf muscles painfully brought us level with the Blue lake shrouded in cloud. I waited long enough for the sun to peek through to take a few photos and then we walked on. Over half way now.

The path crossed a short stretch of ice which had gobbled the path and so we had to scramble across some loose sand to regain the path. We watched one of the Scandinavians wearing trainers struggling, looking like he would fall down the slope at any moment. Kate went next following him and then I decided to take a lower route where the footing looked slightly steadier. I passed in seconds and Kate seemed to be stuck in the same rut as the Scandinavian, looking like a baby deer who didn’t know how to use their legs properly. She was sliding about and very uncomfortable. I advised she crossed lower down and so she backtracked and used the stronger footing. The last few steps required some hand contact with the ice which left our gloveless hands a little bit frozen. That was the hardest part on the track.

From there on the path just gives wonderful views and very little testing. We got to a point where we could see the next few km of the track winding its way back and forth down the mountainside, which is very demoralizing. It seemed to back on itself 15 or 20 times. We had about 2 hours to the first shuttle pick up, and a 2 hour journey down the hill, according to the advice given to us at the start of the trek. We stomped down the hill, and with the easy laid out track it was a sinch. Passing a geothermal area with all the steam rising (off the path and no trespassing) we quickly descended until we reached the tree line. From here on down it was just a case of bumbling through the wooded track.

Watching people going up from this direction, I would advise against it. The ascent from the north (where we were descending) is a hell of a lot longer. Our starting point was from a higher altitude, and is the ‘true’ starting point of the crossing. Walking up that bumbling winding track must be hugely consuming and spirit breaking. I felt sorry for those starting the walk with big packs on their back having chosen to do the route in reverse.

When we finally came out into the sunshine it was into the pick up car park. We were half an hour early for the shuttle and so sat down for some lunch – which we had carried the entire way. We were the second and third people back. One person from the first group had been faster over the hill. When the shuttle driver did pick us up I think he was a little surprised we were from the second drop off and had made it back before the majority of the first group- there were only 7 of us on the 12.30 pick up. Speedy ol’us.

We sat on the shuttle pretty shattered and then had a shower before starting back out onto the road. 3 hours driving down to Napier was my reward for crossing the plains of Mordor in less than half the filmed time of Frodo. Kate got some rest on the beautiful drive round the massive glistening blue Lake Taupo, through some logging forests, a along winding road through sheep littered hillside and a few vineyards before we reached Napier. She had a little nap, but stayed awake for the majority.

Kate cooked dinner and did all the dinner duties although shattered with very little fuss and we chilled for the rest of the evening.

The journey was a hard slog, was unplanned when we arrived in New Zealand, and was totally worth it. The Tongariro crossing is one of the world’s best one day hikes. It isn’t technically difficult, it isn’t too long. It’s got the right amount of effort for some spectacular walking rewards.

Note: Staying overnight at the campsite and paying for the both of us to get shuttles to and from the crossing cost $106 NZD, about 53 quid. We felt doing it this way would leave us feeling that the vehicle would be more secure as it was being kept on a proper site during the walk.- the camper was fine when we got back.
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