Return to Mordor

From left to right: Tongariro, Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom), and Ruapehu

From left to right: Tongariro, Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom), and Ruapehu

One does not simply walk into Mordor – she hikes, hobbles, trips, slips, gets back up and continues forward. (In the end, it’s all worth it.)

I love that Google even likes to have fun with Mordor. Source

I love that Google even likes to have fun with Mordor. Source

I would give anything for a massage. My feet feel like they’ve been sat on by an elephant, and my eyelids have one of those weird twitches happening from exhaustion. The only thing I could maybe compare this to, is the way my body feels after three days of Mardi Gras weekend… multiplied by 5. My bed is swallowing me up like a marshmallow cloud, but I’m resisting the urge to let go just yet because I want to purge the excitement of the day before tomorrow comes and I’m too exhausted to write.  

Somehow what was supposed to be a long relaxing holiday weekend in Lake Taupo turned into 7 hours of hiking nearly 18km across an active volcano. But I have no regrets!

A bird's eye view of our hike. Google clearly does not account for the terrain when they say 4 hour journey!

A bird's eye view of our hike. Google clearly does not account for the terrain when they say 4 hour journey!

Irresistible views of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro from Taupo

Irresistible views of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro from Taupo

From the road, you can see the crater and steam coming from the volcano.

From the road, you can see the crater and steam coming from the volcano.

Joe and I arrived in Lake Taupo Sunday morning looking to possibly go to a spa and get massages or something relaxing. As we rounded the corner and drove around the lake, we were struck by the view of the snowy peaks of Mount Ruapehu and red tops of Mount Ngauruhoe and Tongagriro clear as day across the water. The weather could not be more perfect for attempting the Tongariro Crossing.

Last time we attempted hiking in Tongariro National Park, the weather conditions were so unpredictable and visibility was so bad that we were forced to turn back. So on Sunday when we saw the weather, we thought, “Screw the massages! Let’s wake up at 7am and hike an active volcano!”

STOP! You are about to enter an area with volcanic risks. If you are not comfortable with this, turn back at the red crater.

STOP! You are about to enter an area with volcanic risks. If you are not comfortable with this, turn back at the red crater.

It's always encouraging to read signs that say "Consider turning back."

It's always encouraging to read signs that say "Consider turning back."

The first hour or so of hiking wasn’t so bad. We walked along a wooden platform, surrounded by the sound of rushing water from a nearby stream, and a very Lord of the Rings-type terrain. To my right sat the snowy peaks of Mt. Ruapehu, towering over us was Mt. Ngauruhoe (also known as Mount Doom), and up ahead lay Mt. Tongariro

Then we reached steps and began our climb to the South Crater (and really began to feel to burn). We reached the top and saw signs for the very steep and challenging, optional climb to Ngauruhoe. Though I would have loved to, we sadly had to forgo the additional 3 hour hike due to time constraints. But we had to make it back to the car before sunset, or we’d be stranded on a volcano in the dark – no thank you! But we will definitely return another day. Baby steps.

 

We trekked a bit further and finally emerged onto a vast, rocky desert-like hole – the South Crater, below Mt. Ngarauhoe. Standing in the center of the crater, not another hiker in sight, we froze listening to the absolute silence. The walls of the crater swallowed up all sound. My ears were ringing. To give you an idea of how large this crater is, it took us about 10 or 15 minutes to walk the shortest distance across it. The incredibly flat surface was a welcomed break before we began our ascent over the edge of the other side and headed toward the Blue Lakes and the Red Crater.

Standing in the South Crater with Mount Ngauruhoe behind me.

Standing in the South Crater with Mount Ngauruhoe behind me.

Climbing to see the Blue Lakes was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. It was very steep with many sharp and unstable rocks. We climbed for another 20 minutes before finally reaching the top. The view was epic!

We could see Lake Taupo in the distance and Mount Taranaki (hours away in the south of the North Island) behind us. Below were the Blue Lakes, Crater Lake and the Red Crater. Steam billowed up from inside the mountain. Beneath our feet, the rocks warmed from the heat of the earth. This is the most active part of the volcano that can be accessed. There are some zones that are restricted due to the most recent eruption in November 2012. I couldn’t help but wonder what the heck I would do if this volcano decided to erupt while I was on it. All over the park are warning signs and ways to be prepared (i.e. – stay out of valleys and get off the track as soon as possible.) But if it took me 3 hours to get to this point, I highly doubt I’d be able to get off the track very quickly!

After admiring the magnificent view from above, Joe and I debated if we wanted to make the steep decent through rocky ash to see the Blue Lakes up close. I figured we’d come all this way; we had to! But the return trip back up would not be easy.

Looking at our return trip from the bottom of the Blue Lakes.

Looking at our return trip from the bottom of the Blue Lakes.

Slowly we slid through the ash and down the hill. We stopped between the two lakes for a snack and sat basking in the sun, enjoying a much-needed break.

In the midst of the warm smoky volcano, the blue lakes had still managed to freeze. It was absolutely breathtaking.

Finally it was time to turn back, or we’d end up hiking in the dark. The hike began to catch up with me. My initial thought of, “It’s all down hill from here,” suddenly didn’t seem so encouraging.

My knees and ankles began to ache, and my toes jammed into the end of my boots as I leaned my body backwards, as not to fall forward down the hill. I’d never hiked like this before in my life!

Golden hour on Mount Doom

Golden hour on Mount Doom

I knew it would be a challenging hike back because we wouldn’t have the “big reveal” of the lakes to look forward to. But it turned out that we were still treated to a beautiful view at the end of the track. Mt. Doom burned an orangey-red color in the golden hour. Then just as the sun fell below the mountains in the distance, Mt. Ruapehu lit up in the most beautiful pink and purple colors.

What a wonderful and unexpected day, and a perfect end to a 3-day weekend!