The Road to Mordor - New Zealand

The day after the adrenalin-filled bungy jump, or rather bungy fall, we woke up quite tired and were fairly slow getting ready. The fault: a mixture of the come down after the jump, a bottle of nice NZ sparkly wine (belated birthday celebration), and some stupid guys filling up our adrenalin tanks for a second time by suddenly, in the middle of the night, show up and start driving in circles on the gravelled parking were we had found our 'haven' for the night.

Wakening up by a loud noise from someone working the gas pedal, followed by small stones being spluttered onto our camping van, and a feeling that 'they're out to smash into us from the side' - is fairly heart thumping. I felt very pleased that we weren't the only ones parked in this area, but also quite scared. What do these people want? 

Well, it turned out they didn't want anything really. Other than having some stupid fun scaring tourists that is.  Soon enough though they tired and stopped to continue drinking for another hour or so.

My heart was thumping away unnecessarily is seemed. And the next morning I was paying the price as I had hardly managed to sleep the rest of that night.

Still, the journey had to go on and it wasn't because of some nightly scares that Frodo packed up his bags and turned back home. No. Mordor was looming only a few hours drive away and albeit the fairly cloudy morning, we were destined to follow this path in our fight against the dark side... 

The land of Mordor, Middle-earth is placed right in the middle of earth, or at least of the North Island. Surrounded by three volcanoes in the story, as well as in real life, it's the place of darkness with the volcano of Mount Doom, or for the non-Lord of the rings fans Mt. Ngauruhoe, looming high above. Mordor/Tongariro National Park is actually the oldest national park in New Zealand and also includes the two volcanoes of Mt. Ruapehu and Mt. Tongariro. As the baby in the threesome, Ngauruhoe is the most impressive as no ice age has smoothened its perfect volcanic cone. It's the perfect background for any picture, or why not, any film. 

And it would be our background for the day. As we finally reached the hiking shop, at the base of Ruapehu, it was still fairly early for our habits, but at close to midday it was fairly late for organising the hike up to the crater lake that we had planned. The last guided tours had already left, but the shop attendant reassured us that the crater was easy enough to reach without following any guides. In fact, many people had already gone off that same day for the 3-4 hours return hike from the top of the chair lift up to the rim of the crater lake and back again. 

However, it was getting late, she said, as the last chair down returned at 4p.m. But we could of course walk down the last part if necessary. That would only be an additional 1-2 hours or so.... 

The clouds had opened up by now and a beautiful blue sky had shown itself to be the perfect backdrop to this picture-perfect region. And this was only from down the valley. How much more beautiful would it not have to be once we got up to the 2'000 or so meters of the arrival of the chair lift. And as we would climb higher... 

Still filled with adrenalin from the previous day, we spurted to the van to get some extra snacks, water and warm clothes, bought our tickets for the lift and off we went. The idea was that we could always just walk a little bit and check how it seemed. And if it was too difficult we could always just backtrack down again. 

Yeah right! Like if I would ever give up halfway to some place.

The view was indeed amazing and we very much felt like we were in the middle of earth. Autumn had started to descend on NZ and to turn the world into techno colours. The harsh black of some of the rocks, the earth-toned red of others, it was a world of savage beauty that we were entering. Rocks just everywhere, as long time volcanic eruptions have created rock 'avalanches' for us to climb on like mountain goats. No nice, easy path to linger along here. Instead what we were facing was a day of real serious workout. That and an increasingly cloudy sky. 

The first half an hour or so, we came across several groups of hikers on their way back down. Some even included children, or young teenagers rather. With the information on the best path to get to the crater provided by these successful returners and with some additional motivation from the feeling that 'if all those people had made it, well, then so would we', we continued the climb. 

For a while it really felt like we were making good time and that we were walking along the best path and would hence make up for our late start by not walking around lost for an hour or so as one of the groups we came across had done. We should for sure be able to get to the top and back down again before the last chair departed.

And then suddenly the feeling changed. We realised that it had been a while since we had seen anyone coming down the stones and the path I was making us follow was becoming less and less secure. Were we on the right path? With the clouds looming overhead, a path that had suddenly 'disappeared' and an uncertainty if we would make it back in time, Nuno suggested that we turn around and give up. We had already seen the view of the valley, the view of Mount Doom, and probably the view over the crater lake would be obscured by clouds. His was the voice of reason. 

Mine was the voice of stubbornness. I hadn't walked this far. Sorry, make that climbed! Hadn't made all this effort, to just turn around now. He could turn around if he wanted to. I was going to go and see that crater lake. 

Stupid, stupid girl. 

Perhaps it was the Mordor evilness that had captured me in its throngs. Luckily, after trying to persuade me for a good moment, succumbing to a few nice words that I'm not so proud of, Nuno decided to come with me. The most dangerous choice to make would be for us to split up. As it was obvious I wasn't going to cave in, he chose to make sure I would be ok. And he made sure to find the right path again.

So on we went for another half an hour or so, and then we finally reached the crater! The visibility up there was close to nil. But we saw enough to find the path longing the ridge - a real path this time and not an invisible one over stones - and followed it until we reached its end next to a small hut. Tired, thirsty and fairly hungry, we sat down and shared the apple we had left, drank some water and became friends again, while hoping for the clouds to part enough for us to spot this supposedly magic lake. 

The hut made us feel a bit better as in the worst case we could hide out in it while waiting for the next day. The worst case being if the clouds would continue getting darker and turn into bad weather. Instead, after a few minutes, there it suddenly was. A small opening, some turquoise colour and ahhhhh we saw the lake. Right then it did feel quite magical after all. 

Considering that the weather was not getting worse, but actually seemed to improve, it was high time to turn around and try to catch that chair lift. We still had an hour or so before the last one would leave. So off we went. Longing the ridge, back down big rocks, smaller stones, a mixture of both. We tried to move quickly, but so did the rocks. It was a fairly slippery hike down as small stones would suddenly start rolling under our feet, and the bigger rocks sometimes shifted. This had of course happened also on the way up, but both the gravity and speed are different when hiking uphill. I must admit I was quite slow. I'm always slower downhill than uphill in relation to others. I'm worried I will twist an ankle or so, and I like to be in control. Well, most of the time...

Still I tried to hurry as much as I could. Tried to keep up with the mountain goat in front of me. But of course we missed the last chair anyway. Although we only arrived some ten minutes after the lift should have closed, the whole area was dead. There was no one left working the lift system, nor in the cafeteria. We were tired, thirsty and really really didn't want to have to walk the rest of the way down. So we went from building to building, hoping that perhaps somewhere, someone... 

Maybe they had closed early because of the weather? Or maybe they were just very efficient in packing up and closing all down. Whatever reason, we were on our own again and the only way down that day was by foot. 

Our poor feet. In our hiking shoes we were fairly protected, but still we had managed to hit ourselves quite a few times on the uneven surface. And the constant downhill.  Boy, did we wish that we had cut our nails the day before.

We walked. And walked. And then we walked some more.... It was shorter and easier than the hike from the crater. At least it should have been. But psychologically it was much worse. And the eternal question of the day came back to haunt us: 'were we actually on the right path?'. We tried to stay close to the cables of the lift as they were for sure going to the right place, but we also tried to find some little road or something. Did they really bring everything up in that chair system? The visibility down here was perfect at least. Not a cloud in the way any more and at least we weren't cold. Thirsty, yes. But not cold.

And we were safe. The dark side had been defeated and our good friend Lennon was patiently waiting for us on the parking far below. Ready to soon take us off for more adventures as we continued our drive South.  


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