Exploring New Zealand Part 3: My Doom in Mt Doom?

This is what happens when you’re alone and you have a car. Spontaneously, I made up my mind to extend my route or, if you will, to completely change it.

I was now on my way to the Tongariro National Park for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike. What I was about to experience had been labeled as the world’s greatest single-day hike even though it’s quite demanding in terms of fitness. The dramatic, breathtaking and awe-inspiring natural scenery of this place with its unique landforms, including the volcanic peaks makes it a world-renowned trek. This route is “only” 19.4 km long, but there are a lot of vertical meters or even more if you decide to climb one of the volcanoes. It was my goal as well.

The crossroads

I aimed at ascending Mount Ngauruhoe which I am sure you have all seen before as Mount Doom (the fateful mountain where the ring was thrown into the fire) in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I didn’t have a powerful ring to throw but I thought a snowball would suit just as much. It’s also the place to find some snow during the midsummer in New Zealand. As long as the clouds don’t hang too low this place gives tourists stunning views.

There are three volcanoes in the National Park: Mount Ruapehu (2612m), Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro (both about 1700m). All of them are still partially active. The Ruapehu erupted in 2007 for the last time.

Mount Ngauruhoe, still from the distance

The track goes mainly through a desolate scree landscape with crater lakes of amazing colors. Before I set off for the hike, I’d had to borrow a pair of good-quality hiking boots and a warm jacket. Make sure you do that as well (you’ll understand why a little later). I had also bought some food, booked and paid for the shuttle bus which had to take me to the beginning of the track and pick me up at the end. The track doesn’t make a loop but ends on the other side of the plateau, so one can’t go by car. I suppose nobody would want to walk all the way back 🙂

My Tongariro adventure began the next day and it was full of very wrong decisions. To cut the long story short, I didn’t finish the Tongariro Crossing. I only did about 1/3 of it, but climbed Mt Ngauruhoe and experienced a very uncomfortable descent.

The steep and slippery path

But let’s take the events in order. I got up at 7 am that day and the shuttle bus arrived at 8 am. It brought me to the start (or finish 🙂 but it’s the start for most hikers). I asked if it was possible to do both the Tongariro Crossing and Mt Ngauruhoe within 8 hours and the shuttle bus driver agreed to pick me up at 4.30 pm. This would probably be possible for people in very good shape, and, of course, I considered myself one of them. You don’t need muscles or fitness to hike but you need a strong will instead. Actually, according to the signs, the crossing takes 7-8 hours, and the Mt Ngauruhoe is another 3-hour hike if you do it right.

Anyway, we started at 8.30 am, along with a couple of other hikers. There were even families with small children among them. Owing to my long legs I left them all behind relatively quickly.

The beginning of my adventure

First the way led across the plain until at some point it started to rise gently. Within an hour I already noticed that my beating heart was bringing my endurance to an end. I got warmer and decided to have a break to tackle the more challenging part of the track. It’s called “The Devil’s Staircase”. This section of the track is steep — climbing from 1400 to 1600 meters above sea level. I again overtook a few hikers and after 1 1/2 hours I was already standing at the “crossroads”. It meant that the turn to the fateful mountain, Mt Ngauruhoe, started there.

Since I was quite fast and still felt reasonably fit, I seriously considered climbing the mountain. The weather was quite good and a lot of other hikers wanted to try it. There, after 6.4 kilometers, I had already reached the end of my “Tongariro Crossing”. I hadn’t thought of this at that point. After all, it was only 600 additional meters of altitude!

…Well, it turned out I had made a mistake yesterday — the volcano’s almost 2300m high!

Initially, the ascent was quite easy, but soon the ground started to consist of extremely slippery gravel and black volcanic ash, which made the ascent unbelievably long and strenuous. Not only once did I slip and fall, my hands on the sharp stones.

Red lava stones

Moreover, the ascent to “Mount Doom” was not marked — one had to find one’s way up. But I was at least half right because I was overtaken and others followed me — and those hikers who had already reached the top and were then descending, slid down the mountain only 10m away from me. At one point, a loud warning rock about half a meter in diameter swept some 10 meters away from me. Smaller stones were sliding down quite often. The ascent became more and more exhausting and demanding — I now know exactly how Frodo and Sam must have felt when they were climbing up this mountain. When I still had maybe 400 meters of altitude difference ahead of me, I took a short break every 5 minutes. I had to rest every 3 minutes for the next 200 meters of altitude difference and the last 100 meters were so difficult that I was forced to stop almost every minute. You can’t even imagine how exhausting it was (not for the heart and lungs; the legs were already heavy but still fully functional, and my will immediately rejected any thought of returning). The most difficult thing was, as I had already mentioned, the extremely slippery ground, where you had to crawl on all fours or at least extremely crouched holding on to often loose rocks, etc.

Bird’s-eye view

I was often in the midst of clouds and could only see 10 meters around me, but the further up I got the more it was clearing up. At some point, a great view of the valley and the path I had already covered was opened behind me. I also saw those who had already reached the top and were now descending. Most of them were going down the scree slope as if skiing. One of them came towards me from above and said that he had just started 3 minutes ago. Well, too bad, it took me over an hour to get up there…

Eventually, I reached the top, after a little more than 2 hours, but still within the time frame, since the descent could actually be quite fast. Then I walked around the crater and took countless photos of it, as well as of the whole surrounding landscape, which was partly cloudy. At least I could see a little bit of Lake Taupo in the north, and Mt Taranaki, an even bigger volcano about 100km away. I didn’t throw the ring into the fire for there was neither ring nor fire. And it would have been considered as environmental pollution — especially since throwing away the garbage is prohibited in the national park.

Greetings from the top!

The Ngauruhoe volcano is rather unspectacular. Anyone who has ever seen the crater of Vesuvius knows what I mean. No fumes, magma or seismic activity. The smoke was regularly rising from smaller secondary peaks.

The valley under the clouds

It was almost 12 o’clock and I wanted to finish the crossing. So I started the descent and made a momentous mistake. I took the path I thought was the right one to descend. Well, it looked so… later I regretted that bitterly! It wasn’t the right one. As I said, there was no marking anywhere, so it was not so easy to find the right way down again. It got pretty slippery the moment I stepped on this “path”. Almost too steep to slide down safely. So I sat down and slid down the slope like I was sledding. It was extremely painful to slide down over all the small and big, hard and sharp stones. They literally got into my pants. At some point, I realized I’d been wrong and made another wrong decision. I couldn’t and didn’t want to go back anyway, it would have taken too much time and energy. But instead of keeping to the right, I drifted further and further to the left, which was the wrong direction as well.

I kept on going down, sometimes painfully on my backside, sometimes on both feet. At that point, my hands and fingers were bleeding as well as my left leg, which was sprained, swollen and hardly moveable. My trousers were torn to pieces. It was stupid of me to go on like that — but what should I have done? I did not want to starve or freeze to death in the mountain.

I did it!

I was really happy to reach the trail again, I wasn’t really afraid — but it soon became quite clear to me that this was where my Tongariro Crossing adventure ended. In total, the descent did not take the estimated half-hour, but about 4 hours, which I had to walk in a complete solitude down the lonely and slippery slope. I tried to keep to the right, and at some point, I reached the trail, but a good 3km and 200 meters lower from where I had started — and where I actually wanted to return to. It would have taken another 5 hours.

It was already 3:30 pm and I would have ended up missing the shuttle. But I reported to the driver that I would miss it in the end and was kindly picked up at the start at no extra cost.

That’s how the Tongariro Crossing turned out to be the failure! But at least I conquered Mount Ngauruhoe and survived the whole thing. I missed the really great parts — emerald and blue lakes, steaming craters and so on. But let’s be honest, it was an adventure to remember.

But my journey continued and this time I finally headed for Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand. I arrived relatively early in the morning.

The roads in the suburbs are really steep but they reward you with a fabulous view of the city and the bay. You won’t be able to cover the highest parts of the road unless you have an SUV. I was driving in the direction of the Wellington Peninsula, where the airport and the suburb of Miramar, famous for its film industry, are located. The capital of New Zealand is not only known as the “Windy City” (which is so true) and the “Harbour Capital” but also as “Wellywood”.

The view over Wellington City

It is no wonder that New Zealand has become a top filming location for some of the world-famous blockbusters with its unspoiled rural landscapes and incredible scenery. This country is home to several world-class directors and a top production companies including Wingnut Films, Weta Workshop, Weta Digital, Stone Street Studios, and Park Road Post.

The Weta Cave

Sir Peter Jackson, one of the world’s most innovative and famous filmmakers, known for his work directing the films, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit lives and works here. He has a private theatre as well as filmmaking facilities in Wellington. New Zealand has served as the perfect backdrop for a lot of great films, including The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, Avatar, The Chronicles of Narnia, Wolverine, and so on.

The famous character

Once I arrived in the city center, the search for a parking space turned out to be easier than I thought — I just took the parking lot at Te Papa, where I wanted to go anyway.

Perhaps you’re wondering what the Te Papa is? It is the National Museum of New Zealand and certainly the largest and one of the most innovative and interesting museums I have been to. The building alone is huge and the exhibitions are spread over 6 floors with cafes, shops and so on.

The entrance to Te Papa

“Te Papa Tongarewa” can be translated as a ‘treasure box’. Its exhibitions include an amazing collection of Māori artifacts and the museum’s own colorful marae (meeting place); natural history and environment exhibitions, Pacific and NZ history galleries, and Toi Art, a revitalized home for the National Art Collection.

The museum is free of charge, at least most of the exhibitions are. I spent 3 or 4 hours exploring the rooms of the museum. I obviously did not manage to see everything. But at least I learned all kinds of things about flora and fauna, geology and geography, history, Maori culture and art, etc. Among other things, Te Papa has the only (naturally dead) giant squid which is preserved under thick glass. Quite impressive! As well as it has the reconstructions of almost all other still living or already extinct animals of New Zealand. All the things about the Maori culture were also very interesting. What is remarkable is that all the information signs in the museum are bilingual (English and Maori). So you can learn a little Te Reo Maori by comparing texts.

The view from Te Papa Museum

Apart from that, the museum shines with modern design and even more modern technology. Intending to come back the next day for fine arts expositions I left Te Papa and walked along the harbor promenade. I noticed a lot of people standing close to the bridge railing and swimmers fleeing as fast as possible to a nearby island. The reason for it was a quite impressive stingray swimming in the water. Once it had swum 10m further, the bathing life resumed immediately. I didn’t feel like swimming for I was finally in Wellington and I was eager to discover the city.

The giant stingray in the downtown Wellington

Walking along the main street of the capital city I arrived at the New Zealand Parliament, one of Wellington’s best-known landmarks. The building was designed by Thomas Turnbull in the Victorian Gothic style and built between 1883 and 1899. The Parliament House was built in stone in the Edwardian neoclassical style, which was popular for grand public buildings at the time of its construction, WWI. Due to exorbitant costs and materiel shortages during construction, Parliament House was scaled down from its original grandeur. It houses the debating chamber of the New Zealand House of Representatives.

The Beehive, Parliament and the National Library

The Beehive is the most recognizable building in the parliamentary complex. It is here that many government ministers have their offices, as well as the Prime Minister and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. The building is ten storeys (72 metres) high and has four floors below ground.

There is a regular free guided tour through the premises, which I didn’t want to miss. In Germany you have to wait in front of the Bundestag for hours until you get inside. Whereas in New Zealand I had to pass the security check and wait in comfortable leather armchairs for a very short time before the beginning of the tour. No photos were allowed inside, one had to hand in a camera and all other electronic devices.

We went to the above-mentioned “Beehive”, where we were only shown a big conference room. There is not much more to see: the offices of the president and the ministers are not accessible. Instead, we went to the parliament, which was fully accessible, because the members of the parliament all had “holidays” anyway.

It does look like the beehive!

I also visited the museum of the “Reserve Bank of New Zealand”. It had a great exposition of the history of New Zealand banknotes (which were made of polymer). Among other things, there were some bundles of money behind a glazed and barred window. A few bundles of money were already worth 1 million NZ dollars. But one New Zealand invention exhibited there was particularly interesting.

Downtown Wellington

I really enjoyed my time in Wellington. It turned out to be a cozy city with many bridges, tunnels, parks, and squares. Its architectural appearance is diverse: the eclectic buildings of the XIX – the first half of the XX centuries on the streets of the city are combined with modern-style buildings and massive wooden buildings. So I really liked walking amidst all that eclecticism.

I don’t want to make this story too long and overwhelm you with other things I did in Wellington. I believe I’ve mentioned most of the highlights of my stay there. And I’m already on my way to the next destination point so stay tuned …

The sunset to remember