Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Albert Park Backpackers, Auckland, NZ

While I was in Taupo, one of my roommates, dubbed “Canada” for obvious reasons (or “Canadia,” when we were feeling cheeky) asked where I was going next, and I said Taurangi. When he asked what I was planning to do while there, I said I was thinking of doing the Tongariro Crossing, a day-long section of a 4-day hike through, you guessed it, the Tongariro National Park. “Don’t people usually do that from here?” he asked. “Um…” I very cunningly replied.

Turns out you can do the Tongariro Crossing from Taupo, but you have to get up about an hour earlier to catch the shuttle bus. I don’t like getting up early regardless, much less for a 18.5 km hike.

Did I not mention it was 18.5 km? It was 18.5 km. 11.49 miles. 1,967 meters, 6,453.4 feet up. Over volcanoes. Did I not mention it was over volcanoes? It was over volcanoes. Hiking. 11.49 miles. 6,453 feet up. Me. Seriously.


If you mention that you’re interested in going you get buried by various pamphlets that make you think that maybe this hike isn’t such a good idea. There are delightful snippets like “steep volcanic terrain,” “It is important to have appropriate outdoor clothing, equipment and fitness,” “be ready for any conditions,” “weather can change with alarming speed,” “there is no drinking water available between Mangatepopo and Keteahi huts,” “accidents can occur on tracks when trampers misjudge loose rocks or go sliding down the volcanic slopes, so watch your step,” – I could keep going, but I’m pretty sure you get the idea.


You also get a giant list of things to bring, including “gloves or mittens.” It being early summer I didn’t bring those, but my hostel supplied me with some red, waterproof over-pants. I tried the pants on, and if I pulled the elastic waistband up all the way I could theoretically go out with nothing else on and not get arrested. I didn’t, though. I also decided that my sneakers were good enough (they recommended sturdy boots), brought a band-aid in place of the first-aid kit, and neglected bringing a compass, but I did have 3 wool shirts and lots of food and water. (In the winter you should also bring an ice axe, crampons, and snow gaiters, and you can also consider – in any season! – bringing an avalanche probe/snow shovel and/or an avalanche transceiver).


I settled into my hostel – Extreme Backpackers – one of the few in New Zealand with its own climbing wall. It has a nice courtyard for lounging, so long as it isn’t raining, and some of the most sterile dorm rooms I’ve seen so far. I had a nice chat with a couple who had done the crossing that day, and were celebrating with fish and chips for dinner, They highly recommended it. The dinner, I mean. Well, and the walk, too, but emphasized the fish and chips.


One $35 shuttle booking later, I climbed into bed early and chatted with a roommate who was also planning on tramping his knees off the following day. We woke at 5-fucking-30am, and grabbed some breakfast before climbing into our shuttle bus. We ended up doing the first section of the walk together, noting that the first bit of the hike was supposed to be the worst. I had no idea.

At 6:57am we started our trek.


See this?


That’s a rather far view of the climb. The BAD climb. Unfortunately I was too busy trying to get oxygen back into my lungs to take too many photos of what I later learned is called the Devil’s Staircase, but here’s an idea:


That’s the view down. See how tiny those people are? It should give you some idea of perspective and steepness. Maybe. But it’s a bitch of a climb over loose rocks and dirt. My climbing partner stuck with me for a while, before finally taking off. As I climbed I decided that I probably could’ve lived without the little bit of character that would inevitabely follow the hike, but was too far up to go back.

When you finally (finally) get to the top (they recommend allowing 45 minutes to an hour to get up the Devil’s Staircase, and I won’t tell you how long it took me) you get greeted with this sign:


Volcanic Gas Hazard. Due to the increase of seisemic activity you are warned Not To Enter the Mt Ngauruhoe Craters.

Mt Ngauruhoe is a side walk up the side of Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom (really!). It takes about 3 hours return (purportedly), climbing up a path of loose rock and dirt, combined with warnings of falling rocks kicked down by climbers up ahead. When the weather is clear there are, rumor has it, spectacular views, as well as the crater of Mt Ngauruhoe itself. Because it was cloudy (ahem), I decided to bypass the extra climb.


While I was taking a break, trying to regain control of my lungs I ended up in a political discussion with two Irish chaps. We complained together about the state of the American government (and, interestingly enough, what they said wasn’t nearly as harsh as things I’ve heard Americans say). They gave me some shortbread, I said I’d see them later, and took off down this way:


Believe it or not, this picture has not been sepia-toned. It really does look like that. And when I was in the middle I stopped, realizing that no one else was around (I might’ve also been a little concerned that I wasn’t going the right way), and realized it was completely silent. I’ve never been somewhere so quiet.

As I was getting to that short climb at the back, a chap who was doing the four-day hike encouraged me up. I asked if it was worth it. He said yes.


The view back over what I’d done was pretty good, too.

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And then I saw that there was more climbing ahead.


Damn it.


After some more astonishing views

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is the aptly-named Red Crater.


It’s surrealistically red and has an opening that would make Georgia O’Keefe proud. I just stood with my jaw dropped that something natural could make something like that, and that I was standing so close to it.

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Then, of course, having climbed so far up, the only logical next step was to go down. Way down.


The ground is so loose that every step sinks about four inches into the dust and silt. I only fell once, and was pleased that no one seemed to see it. For the first half I took all my years of skiing training under Hans Ze Skiing Instructor (my dad) (who is not, for the record, named Hans) I turned my body towards the mountain, and slalomed back and forth down the hill. When it got a little more stable I was able to stride down.


See the ground in the bottom right corner? That’s the grade and consistency of the trail. But once I did, finally, make it down (and without killing myself!), I got to see the Emerald Lakes.


It being cloudy it wasn’t quite as spectacular as it would be on a sunny day, but it was still pretty good.


I caught up again with the Irish chaps and spent the rest of the hike with them.


It being foggy there wasn’t too much to see.

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Once we got under the clouds again the views opened up again.

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We stopped for lunch at the Ketetahi Hut, which is near some more volcanic (or at least thermal) activity, where I ran into a woman that I’d met in Taupo.


She eventually joined the two Irishmen and me for the remainder of the hike down, down, down the hill.


And down,


and down.


We made it down in good time, half an hour early for the 3pm bus, and sat and chatted for a while.


But OH! Let me just tell you about what happened on the bus ride home. Well, first I couldn’t figure out which bus was mine because I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the outside of the bus I’d climbed into at 6am looked like. How could I possibly be expected to remember that?

I did manage to find the bus, and found myself behind someone who I can only guess is from Europe somewhere (he may have told me from where, but I can’t remember). He got into a conversation with the gentleman in front of him, an American. This, it turned out, was a mistake. Y’see, they started talking about the environment, and it turned out that the American was a stereotypical caricature of an American. Not by looks, per se, but certainly in attitude. He wasn’t sure that global warming existed, and if it did, he wasn’t entirely sure that it was due to humans, and if it was due to humans he wasn’t entirely sure it was a bad thing. Not only that, but he read this book, and it turns out that species aren’t going extinct as fast as they (“they” being scientists, I suppose) say they are – it is, as he put it, “bullshit.”


The chap in front of me tried to disagree, and eventually the American decided he couldn’t continue the conversation, and even put his hand up to show he was done. When the European tried to bring up sports as a safer topic, the American held his fist up, said the name of some (American) football team, and refused to say more. The European tried to ask the American’s young companion (either daughter or girlfriend) her opinion on the environment, and she smiled, shrugged, and said she didn’t know.

When they got off the bus I told the European that he’d done an admirable job. He told me that all the Americans he’d encountered had been like that. I assured him that I wasn’t, and promised that there are some people in my country with some sense in their heads, or at least a capacity to disagree civilly.


I would also like to note that the American couple went on the trip with just shorts and fleece jackets, no food, and one bottle of water between them.

I always like knowing I’m not the least prepared.

And the fish and chips were delicious.


Janice in GA said...

That sounds like an awesome hike, though it reading about it made my knees hurt. :)

And jeezopete -- Ugly Americans, making us look like a country of idiots to the rest of the world. Thank Og there are rational folks like you out there too!

Heather said...

1. I am still reading all your entries though commenting seldom...
2. You are hilarious. I love the vision of red wind pants and not getting arrested.
3. Are you crazy? I did a similar type hike at Pike's Peak on bad advice of the camp ranger and was reprimanded by the Mormons that drove me back down for trying to do a day hike like that with no hiking mate, even though there were other people on the trail.
4. Are you coming back? If so, to where? Will we ever see you again?

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