Monday, 14 November 2016

Into Mordor - The Tongariro Northern Circuit

Mt Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) from Whakapapa village. 

So I arrived in Whakapapa village in the pouring rain and had two days of doing nothing in a very wet holiday park.

The holiday park was so wet that pools of water were starting to form in the tent sites. Even after setting-up a tarp over my tent, things were beginning to look decidedly dodgy, so I called in one of the staff to take a look to see if there were any better options, as a flooded tent in the middle of the night was not really my cup of tea.

After a bit of subtle persuasion, I managed to wangle a cabin for the same price that night. Result.

The next day, and the weather was just as bad, but the boss was about and she could not be so easily persuaded. I made a passing comment about how it seemed unfair to pay 20 something dollars for a flooded campsite and off she went.

Apparently I was stupid for planning to stay in a tent in such conditions and her husband had put in a lot of effort to make the sites drain better, and I had offended her with such a statement.

Well, never one to pass-up an opportunity for an argument - and suffering from cabin fever and a horrible mouth ulcer, which made me a little less controlled than normal - a full-blown argument ensued, with the really helpful and nice chap, who helped me the night before, stuck in the middle trying to calm us both down.

To summarise what I had to say, I basically told her that if her husband showed the same levels of professionalism as her, it was no wonder the sites didn't drain very well. I didn't use any profanity, but to be fair, I was pretty rude and so was she.

The next morning, I decided to apologise and she did so in return, so it was all good in the end.

Anyway, eventually, it was time to set-off for what promised to be a pretty awesome hike, in the part of New Zealand where they filmed the scenes for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.

I spoke to a young lady in the national park office and she basically told me not to attempt the full hike without an ice axe and crampons. I told her I needed to hire an ice axe, and she said the hire shop wouldn't hire me one if I was doing the hike on my own. So basically I couldn't do it (according to her).

Obviously I ignored her and tried to hire an ice axe anyway. I just said I was hiking with a friend who had one. They didn't ask any questions.

So despite being told not to, I thought I'd give the hike a go and just turn back if things got a little dodgy. As this turned out, however, I was in luck with the conditions.

First of all, the weather was fantastic, which afforded amazing views of the iconic volcanoes on both days. And secondly, all the rain over the previous few days had thawed a lot of the ice and snow, making things less treacherous underfoot and pretty much taking away the avalanche risk, which was my main concern.

It really was a spectacular hike, which I completed in less than two days.

I stayed overnight in a hut at the base of the ascent to the volcanic plateau. New Zealand's backcountry huts are very well serviced, even in winter, and have the advantage of having plastic mattresses to sleep on. Very comfortable, and saves space in the bag, not having to pack your own sleeping mat.

Beautiful hut to stay the night in.

The idyllic volcano in view in my pictures is Mt Ngauruhoe (as with many place names in NZ, impossible to pronounce). This was the volcano Peter Jackson used as, "Mount Doom", in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In summer, when it is bereft of snow, it is totally black. I suspect the landscape is an interesting colour in summer, however, that's when the crowds gather, so I was quite happy with the place to myself in the snow.

Gorgeous views up at the Tama lakes.
In fact, throughout the vast majority of the hike, I saw no one. I shared my hut with two under-prepared Frenchmen, who were quite lucky the weather had made things easier on them. Even so, I think they might have struggled in the snow and ice that was left on the plateau the following morning.

I left the hut very early in the morning, as I thought the clouds might build up later and obscure the view somewhat. Turns out this is exactly what happened. I had perfect weather at the top of the plateau, with not a soul in sight. Absolutely breathtaking.  Not only were the volcanoes magnificent, but I could see for miles around, even as far as Mount Taranaki on the West coast.

There were some tough sections in the approximately 50km hike (if you include the side trips). I was glad of having an ice axe climbing up to the top of the red crater (see picture below), as it was incredibly steep and very slippery. Although much of the snow and ice had disappeared, there was still some to contend with here.

Apparently a couple of inexperienced hikers fell into this crater a month previous and had to be rescued.

Only as I was on my way down did I see anyone, and ironically the first person I saw was the nice helpful chap from the campsite. He, like everyone else, was coming up from the nearest car park, about a 5 hour walk to the plateau.

This was the easiest path to the top, and as I descended, I began to see more and more people, some kitted-out terribly for a potentially dangerous hike. No wonder the park office were trying to dissuade me from hiking, I guess that is their default position to assume that everyone was as stupid as these people.

As I passed these people, I was getting funny looks, the reason being is that I had a big bag and all the correct gear. Perhaps they thought I was over-prepared, but I was also doing a much longer hike than they were.

Started to see people from this point on the plateau, and they would've been in serious trouble if the weather took a turn for the worse.

It being a fairly warm and sunny day, most people were hiking in shorts and t-shirt and weren't carrying much warm clothing. They would have been freezing at the top, especially as the cloud was rolling in, as I predicted. Not long after I left the plateau, I looked back and could not see the top of Ngauruhoe and cloud was covering much of the plateau.

The view of Mt Ruhapehu, the biggest and most active of the volcanoes in the park.

I heard many stories of people getting themselves in trouble up on the plateau, and it was fairly easy to see why. One should never take mountains lightly, especially in winter/early spring.

"Gollum's Pool"
This was the centre-piece of the first leg of my tour and it didn't disappoint. A truly iconic place that had an eerily familiar feel to it because of its scenes in Lord of the Rings. It certainly wasn't hard to see why it was chosen to be Mordor, a spectacular and unique landscape.

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