Walking into Mordor

If you have ever read or watched The Lord of the Rings(LOTR) Trilogy, you would easily realize what the title means. We all remember the dialogue that Boromir of Gondor says in The Fellowship of the Ring, “One does not simply walk into Mordor!” Well I decided to do the unthinkable and walk into the kingdom of the dark lord, into Mordor! Albeit, in the real world where the land is not ruled by dark lord and is not covered by poisonous fumes and teeming with orcs. Nope, I am talking about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, claimed as the best day hike in the world. Winding its way through the fictional kingdom of Mordor, Tongariro alpine crossing is a 19.4kms hike traversing barren plains, volcanic peaks, Sulphur lakes and lush green forests. It is one of the most recommended walks you would come across in New Zealand and its beauty is parallel by none other.

It was the Easter long weekend, a band of my friends and I decided to hike the crossing. Now this alpine crossing can be attempted in a day or can be walked as a part of 3-5day Tongariro Great Walk. We decided to walk only the day hike part and since it was going to take us at least 6hours to finish the whole crossing, we had decided to start early at around 8am. Now the Tongariro Alpine Crossing(TAC) is a single way hike starting at either ends with shuttle services running between the 2 ends to pick up or drop our personal vehicles. We were going to start the walk from Mangatepopo car park end and walk towards Ketetahi end car park. Solely because Ketetahi end was closer to the lake town of Taupo, where we were going to lodge for the night.

We drove out from Auckland at 4am in the morning and drove through the wee hours halting at couple of spots to catch the dawn before reaching our start point of Mangatepopo Car park at 08:15 am. The weather was warm when we left Auckland but by the time we reached Mangatepopo it had become quite chilly and cold owing to high altitude. The sky was overcast with occasional bursts of sunlight coming out.

Dawn somewhere on the road to Tongariro

Now a warning is always issued to all the hikers to take adequate supplies and proper clothing since these mountains and crossing are prone to frequent and rapid weather changes and if caught off guard can very well be fatal. I had taken my hoodie along with an inner thermal layer and a tee. We filled up our pockets with nutbars and bananas and packed sandwiches for lunch in along with some first aid equipment, cameras and a bottle of water for each. There was a sign board posted right at the beginning of the track detailing track times and distances to be covered. 19.4kms to Ketetahi road end, phew it was going to be a long walk!

Mangatepopo roadend sign post

We set off from Mangatepopo end at 8.30am, walking through alpine shrubs and tussocks. The land was devoid of any trees and I could see for a long way nothing but barren land covered with shrubs. The track was flat with occasional ascents and descents. Apart from making few stops to click pictures and admire the beauty around, we comfortably made it to Soda Springs under an hour. Soda Springs are a series of water springs gushing down the mountain cliffs and take 30minutes return detour from the main track. We decided to skip the detour and continued on the track.

High altitude plains covered with tussocks and shrubs

The track from soda springs ascends quite steeply through series of staircases carved in the stones known as ‘Devil’s Staircase’. These steps keep on climbing up all the way till the foothill of Mt. Ngauruhoe. It takes quite a considerable amount of energy to climb up on this section of the track. Our task was further cut out by a long queue of people climbing up at different paces, the more athletic ones trying to side step their slower counterparts. Once at the top, the landscape is magnificient. On a clear day, barren plains stretch out as far as eyes can see and if lucky Mount Taranaki, a lone mountain, can be spotted with naked eye lying far off to the west. On the other side is the looming volcanic mountain of Mt. Ngauruhoe, more famously known as Mt.Doom from the LOTR trilogy. It is still an active volcano with last known eruption occurring in 1975 and one can spot wisps of smoke coming out of the crater at its top. Just to stand under the shadow of a volcano is an overwhelming feeling.

Barren plains stretching out far and wide
Mt Ngauruhoe a.k.a Mt. Doom

We took a break after reaching the top to catch our breath. After about 20mins we continued back on the track. It was getting warmer as noon approached and the track was filling up with more hikers. Just after the Mt.Ngauruhoe signboard is a diversion, a sidetrack to the summit which is approximately 60-90 minutes return journey. While it was very much within our time limit, it was still a dangerous climb and all of us decided against climbing the summit albeit one who I must say did a very good job of climbing it and making it back in time.

The South Crater soon follows up after Mt. Ngauruhoe. It is a huge crater with occasional pools of water and lava flow tracks. It marks the crater site of last eruption. It is one of those flat stretches which gives a relief to climbers after ascending approximately 1600m asl. On the left side of the track, if the weather is good, one can see perfectly formed volcanic cone of Mt. Tongariro. The track soon again ascends uphill towards Red Crater before making a left turn around the crater to head towards Blue Lake. Another side track arises here to summit Mt. Tongariro and is worth doing if one has got ample of time.

South Crater

As soon as we hiked over to the top of Red Crater, we were met with a magnificent view of mountain cliffs bathed in Red and Black. They glistened in bright sunlight and offered me a view that I had never ever seen in my life. Behind them the valley spread out giving views of Rangipo Desert and Kaimanawa ranges. Absolute masterclass. I was awestruck and the entire landscape felt like another world experience with barren cliffs and volcanic mountains falling down into deep valleys. By all fair means, I thought I had seen the best, but I was to be proven wrong, very soon!

Red Crater
Black Cliffs

After taking in all the beauty and landscape of Red Crater, we hit the track again which veered left around the crater, and started climbing up again. The climb was again a steep one with huge steps but quite a short one and soon enough we were at the top of the crater view. Now what I saw from the top is beyond words. For myself, it was the zenith of Alpine crossing, a surreal moment where all I could do was look down with my jaws open and mind blown away. Below us the track dropped down again through slippery steps and hit a series of lakes. Each of those lakes are emerald in color with shades of yellow, blue and green at the lake shore. What kind of sorcery is this? Is it really Earth or have I been teleported to another planet. The way those lakes shone from the top and captivated minds of not just me but all my fellow travelers was astounding. It is a kind of thing that one would hike 20kms for and feel all their tiredness healing instantly. The science behind those lakes is that various chemicals in these volcanic terrain leach into the water which is hot and react with it leading to deposition of salts and giving them their color. I stayed on the top for quite a while trying to live in the moment and make the most of it. After a while I started hiking down, which was quite risky, since the track was made of loose rocks and stones which were quite unstable and one wrong step would have sent me sliding down before I could hold onto something or crash into the massive rocks at the base.

Emerald Lakes

We sat around the emerald lakes and decided to have our lunch. There was a stench of Sulphur in the air which rose from the steam vents near the lakes. There was also a diversion towards oturere hut, a part of Tongariro northern circuit track. After adequate rest we headed out on the track again which was quite flat now heading through a crater which was covered with alpine shrubs and pools of water and mud. The track again climbed up to reach a cold, acidic lake called the Blue Lake. The lake is sacred to the Maori tribe and should be respected. The weather around the lake suddenly turned chilly and cold with fog enveloping around us, making it harder to see. Such a contrast from the hot weather at the top of red crater to this sudden cold at the Blue lake. We did not loiter around for long and started walking towards Ketatahi Hut.

Fog engulfing the Blue Lake

For next hour or so we walked completely engulfed in fog with only few metres of track visibility in front of us. The track was well made by DOC and went gently downhill with switchbacks which took us through mountains and valleys. Occasionally the engulfing fog would depart to reveal stunning views of Lake Rotoaira and Mt. Pihanga. Soon the Ketatahi Hut came into view and we could now see the tree line which separated the sub-alpine terrain from the lush green forest below. The hut was now redundant and only a emergency shelter for hikers. After a quick toilet break, we headed down again below the tree line into the forest. We had been on track for almost 6 hours and all of us were exhausted. A series of bridges over waterfall and streams, more switchbacks, constant bird calls and we finally hit the Ketatahi roadend. We dropped down like a heap of clothes on a nearby lawn meant for resting. Soon our shuttle bus came over dropping me to Mangatepopo car park end. I came back to pick up the boys and after waiting for around an hour, we were joined by our last remaining friend who had opted for Mt.Ngauruhoe side track.

The track opening up to beautiful views of Lake Rotoaira

We had set out on back of lot of hype surrounding the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but now we know all that hype is nothing but plain truth. Volcanic mountains, emerald lakes, steam vents, harsh barren terrain and an experience of a life time. There will be other tracks competing with this legendary crossing, but until I have walked them I can say this has been the best day hike I have ever tramped on.

“One simply does not walk into Mordor, one lives through it and comes out smiling for the experience is beyond our imagination!”

 

 

This blog is dedicated to Vignesh Srinivasan, Dishan Chougle, Uddhav Khapre and Jasnoor Singh, without them the walk wouldn’t have been possible. Cheers guys!

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