Our main plan for the North Island was to complete the famously incredible, famously difficult, and famously weather-dependent Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the world’s most well-known day hikes, and also familiar as Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. With clouds, wind, rain and even snow all possibilities, we were checking the weather forecasts hourly in a desperate attempt to both predict the future and convince ourselves to fully believe online weather forecasts. Arriving on Monday, our research seemed to conclude that while Tuesday was going to be pretty good, Wednesday was going to be our best bet for clear views and gentle winds that wouldn’t threaten to buffet us from any high, slippery passes. And so begins…The Day They Just Walked Right into Mordor (some photos courtesy of clever Tahnni Dupre).
6:15 – Awoken to the dulcet tones of the iPhone alarm, the same one everyone has. Spent a couple minutes grouchily scratching random bodily locations. Finally ran out of itchy spots, gave up and got out of bed.
6:32 – Discovered the communal kitchen in rather less than spotless condition. Despite no evidence of a connection, I couldn’t help flashing back to family from previous night tromping up and down the hallway boisterously speaking French.
6:57 – Waiting for shuttle in Skotel lobby, glancing groggily around at the wood-panelled walls, dated carpet and faded furnishings, I was once again strongly reminded of the ski lodge from Hot Tub Time Machine (the original, of course, the one starring John Cusack and Megan Draper’s breasts).
7:02 – On board the shuttle to Mangatepopo trailhead, a fittingly ancient school bus filled with fellow hikers prodigiously layered in warm clothing, the atmosphere a mix of determined solemnity and taut eagerness eminently suitable to a looming date with an imaginary Kiwi version of Sauron (presumably wearing shorts and watching cricket).
7:14 – Watched the sky begin to lighten, illuminating the beginnings of a crystal clear blue sky. Looked at each other and cackled smugly.
7:27 – Patiently sitting through a safety lecture provided by our bus driver. The highlights:
“This is a hard hike, up over two ridges and then down a long hill that is murder on the knees” – not exactly a pep talk, but sure.
“It’s cold up there, stay warm” – good advice, although specifics on whether this should be accomplished through clothing, activity, or sheer force of will could also have been helpful.
“Take enough water” – it’s important to stay hydrated.
“There are bathrooms half an hour in, then not again for another 4 or 5 hours” – so take water, just don’t drink it.
“If you get hurt you can phone us and we’ll send a helicopter. But don’t call for one just because you’re tired. Better to rest a bit then keep walking” – wise financial planning advice.
“Remember, it’s 20 kilometres, so don’t be late for the last bus” – our inspirational send-off.
7:44 – Speed-walking up a gradual incline along a nice wide path, knowing it would be hours before we reached the summit, yet unable to show patience in the face of deep-seated fears that clouds would envelope majestic Mount Ngauruhoe before we could reach the best viewpoints. Plus, we had just forced that group of Aussies to let us pass them, and now were struggling to stay ahead.
7:49 – Passed group of young Germans as they took a photo.
7:55 – Passed by group of young Germans as we took a photo.
7:59 – Passed group of young Germans as they removed layers.
8:06 – Passed by group of young Germans as we removed layers.
8:07+ – Never saw group of young Germans, or the mesmerizing hole in the ass of the girl’s jeggings, ever again.
8:35 – With fellow hikers always following close behind, I frown at Laynni in response to her unscheduled photo stop.
8:36 – Laynni frowns in response to my frown.
8:37 – Nothing is resolved, and we continue on.
8:49 – Still climbing straight up the side of a really large hill, in case you were wondering.
8:58 – Reached top of first crater rim and gazed back with satisfaction at distance travelled, with wonder at panoramic view, and with unbecoming superiority at the long line of hikers we beat to the top. Not that it’s a race.
9:04 – As a steady stream of arriving hikers and ominously massing clouds off to the north cut short any thoughts of extended relaxation, we set off across the haunting desolation of the South Crater, gigantic Ngauruhoe looming over our shoulder like an overbearing waiter who just can’t wait to find out what drink you’d like to start with.
9:11 – In the face of such timeless geology and humbling immensity, we immortalize the moment forever in an array of humorous photos.
9:17 – Commence ascent of second crater rim with a deep, heartfelt sigh.
9:24 – Sudden accumulation of clouds ahead on summit of Red Crater causes unpleasant twinge in rectum, and corresponding increase in hiking speed. Also, more frowning.
9:38 – We reach the summit, and are immediately enveloped by thick, atmospheric cloud cover. Views are minimal, although I had absolutely no problem taking a piss on the sly.
9:45 – Suddenly stunning views of the Emerald Lakes far below are abruptly unveiled as, against all odds, the clouds unexpectedly drift and part. Possibly because of my urine.
10:02 – Even up close the Emerald Lakes are a heavy, luminescent green, the kind of green you normally only find in long-neglected backyard swimming pools, or hot dogs that have spent too much time in the sun.
10:22 – We combine first lunch with some whimsical birthday photos, then Laynni climbs a rock in an extremely ungainly fashion, like she is still working out the kinks of her new, entirely prosthetic, body.
10:33 – Pondered the parallels between our overly popular – yet still epic – journey, to that of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gangee, but gave up when I was unable to adequately determine which was the more preferable comparison. Frodo is selfless and has that magnetic leadership quality that is so rare among short men, but he also has really girlish hair. And while Sam is admirably brave and exceptionally loyal, it seems like he would just be way too quick to give Frodo a blow job if he asked.
11:01 – Reached Blue Lake, although thanks to more clouds we have no way of proving either the colour or the accomplishment.
11:24 – Emerged on far side of the crossing and began long descent to Ketetahi. Toes offer up mild protest. Meanwhile, ass muscles sigh audibly and settle in for a nice nap.
11:36 – While rushing downhill we watch baffled as numerous groups of young people pass us on their way up to face the strong winds and chilling mist that lay ahead dressed like Napoleon Dynamite with colourful hats.
11:49 – A heavy ceiling of cloud hovers oppressively over distant Lake Taupo. Ketetahi Springs disgorge fluffy plumes of steam on the hills off to our left. Menacing Ngauruhoe leers at our backs, shrinking far slower than you would expect from a mountain recently smoted by a couple of hairy-footed midgets.
12:07 – Ahead of schedule, we settle in for a leisurely second lunch at Ketetahi hut. As more earnest and exhausted hikers arrive I strategically remove my feet from the bench set up comfortably lengthwise in front of me, as though to offer them the seat, yet always keeping my sweaty, shoeless feet close enough to deter them from taking advantage of my fake generosity. All while scarfing down buns filled with salami and cheese. And I mean filled.
11:59 – Two camouflage-clad members of the New Zealand army arrive red-faced and panting from apparently jogging down the hill in boots and backpacks.
12:19 – The last of nine soldiers arrives red-faced and panting, apparently from walking rather slowly downhill and struggling to keep his belly from spilling out of his army-issue green t-shirt.
12:55 – On pace to finish early, we take our time at one final viewpoint. Laynni almost loses her gloves. But not her constant amazement at always almost losing her gloves, but never actually losing them.
1:27 – Rapidly making our way down the last section of the crossing through the pretty surroundings and welcome shade of a thick forest, and finding the slope to be the perfect angle to maximize hiking speed without putting undue pressure on tired body parts, and thus extremely pleasing, I inquire as to whether Laynni by chance knows the exact gradient of downhill slope we are currently traversing. She does not.
1:50 – We arrive at our destination, emerging triumphantly from the bush to a motley group of hikers in various forms of repose, from upright and eating to prone and grimacing to gingerly tending to battered feet to fully unconscious and sporting a dream boner. We opt for prone and expressionless, no boner.
2:19 – Board the shuttle back to Hot Tub Time Hotel, gregariously summing up the lengthy and exhausting adventure that will surely etch itself among our fondest memories for years to come to our politely curious driver, “Yeah, it was great.”
From there we made our way to Auckland for three nights of city living and Kiwi decompression. Along with the usual excitement of catching up on laundry, internet, personal hygiene and eating disgusting fast food, we also joined thousands of Easter weekend revellers along the beaches and overlooks of Tamaki Drive, worked off our 3,700 KFC calories on a quick half-hour climb to the strange crater and city overlook at Mount Eden, then laughed far too loudly at the fact that one of Auckland’s prize attractions is a series of spa pools hopefully underselling themselves with the name “TEPID BATHS” (as though all caps makes it sound more adventurously alluring, and less like sliding uncertainly into the graying water left over once the local rugby team finished cleaning up), and enjoyed sauntering around the historically trendy and shabbily posh Ponsonby neighbourhood surrounding our hotel. We took photos, contemplated likely housing prices and ate a meat pie we bought at a gas station. We did not bother with famous One Tree Hill, named for the location of a sacred Maori tree holding a commanding location overlooking the city, and the inspiration for a rather well-known U2 album, and a less well-known TV show about overly sensitive men and interracial dating. But, apparently in the 1860’s some European cut down the Maori tree for firewood, then years later other European immigrants replanted a couple different trees as though they wouldn’t notice (either the number or the fact the new ones were pines), then about 20 years ago, after multiple attempts, some Maori cut the tree down to prove a point about injustices, or saving whales, or something of that sort. So One Tree Hill is actually now None Tree Hill, a fact which somehow seems to have done nothing to lower its value as a tourist attraction, but still seemed kind of important to us.
Things Kiwis Love
Travelling within New Zealand
Tailgating, especially while driving way over the speed limit on narrow, winding mountain roads
Puns, and not just in the names of hair salons and cafés
Stocking hotel rooms with outdated celebrity magazines
Asking “Howya goan?”
Wearing shorts – it is seemingly a national pastime for men to wear shorts under any and all circumstances; with t-shirts and wifebeaters, or parkas and hiking boots, or denim jackets and rubber boots while doing chores on the farm. Even the guy pictured on the ubiquitous Outdoor Safety poster emphasizing the need to plan ahead, be ready for everything and respect the seriousness and real danger posed by New Zealand’s notoriously changeable weather, while obviously a big believer in the seriousness of all those warnings, is nonetheless still wearing shorts.
Things Kiwis Don’t Love
Losing to Australia in the Cricket World Cup (or anything)
Non-indigenous species. On the whole, New Zealand’s is thoroughly and almost frighteningly committed to eradicating anything not native to the area. Well, except, of course, for cattle, sheep, or white people of European heritage. But if you happen to be at all rodent-like and a potential threat to birds of any sort, well, good luck to you, friend. Most trails in NZ are liberally lined with possum snares, stoat traps (stoats are like a type of ferret) and a large and intimidating variety of poisons dispensed in all sorts of clever ways. The end goal, apparently, to become, as one park proudly proclaims, “predator-free”. Unfortunately, it turns out the poison kills the birds, too, but supposedly “they bounce back faster, so it’s fine”. It’s like a board game where you get to build your own food chain, but with poison. So much poison. But it’s all for a good cause because, as the Department of Conservation says on posters displayed around the parks:
“The only good stoat is a dead stoat”.
Well, that’s rather chilling.