When Peter Jackson brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to film, it was not just the storyline that mesmerized me but also the geography. The landscapes were gorgeous, topologically a far cry from the Illinois flatlands I was familiar with. Despite the admiration, it wasn’t until four years after The Return of the King released that I realized how much mountain air mattered to me, and only a chance trip with friends fourteen years afterwards did I get to visit New Zealand, home of Middle Earth. I arrived in NZ on a Sunday after two twelve hour flights with a wearying border control in between, a seven hour layover, and a ten hour time zone adjustment. After a day of flying and during which I literally left winter for summer, Auckland welcomed me with bright and sunny skies and a quick check of my hiking boots to make sure I wasn’t bringing in foreign soil.
The first friend to arrive and I spent the first day wandering around Auckland while we waited for the third in our group to arrive. The trip to Auckland from our Airbnb was our first hint that this island country was unlike many countries we had visited previously: no fewer than three strangers offered to help us while we bumbled around looking for alternatives to the train service that was not running that day. As we bounced our way into Auckland on the bus, a passenger struck up a conversation with us, revealing that she, too, was headed to Auckland. She was fascinated in a gentle, bemused way that we were visiting her country in the span of a week; for her such a visit needed substantially more time. We assured her we were only visiting the North Island, which didn’t seem to appease fully her curiosity. The next day, all parties accounted for, we began the journey at an oddly hipster café in Papakura. I was so impressed with the food that I ended up having two sandwiches for breakfast, and combined with the alleged weather forecast for where we were headed I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave.
Our initial plan was to head straight from our Airbnb in Papakura to Tongariro National Park, but we were convinced after hearing the (misread) forecast from the representatives at the Auckland i-SITE Visitor Information Center that it might be best to burn one day on the west coast before turning toward the national park further inland. So it was that rather than head due south into National Park we headed slightly west toward New Plymouth. It was surprisingly fortuitous: first we happened to drive by the Otorohanga Kiwi House, where we watched kiwis peck the ground in a dark room. Other birds, such as the New Zealand falcon (kārearea), were similarly not monotone but perhaps more majestic.
A few cages down was the yellow-crowned kakariki, which was decidedly more colorful.
The kea, the world’s only parrot living in alpine environments, wasn’t doing much in its cage as it watched us, but in the wild this relative of a parrot is both curious and fearless.
Not all of the inhabitants at the Kiwi House had beaks, however. We also watched the House’s eels get fed and later on, tuatara, who have a lifespan rivaling that of humans and who first appeared on the planet around 200 million years ago.
Despite our best efforts to stick to our initial plan of a one-hour stop at the Kiwi House, somewhere around two hours later we returned to the car and continued our journey. We had seen a sign posted for the Whitecliffs Walkway, which we thought might be a good photos pullover on the side of a road. Instead, a few miles into the drive along the coast we had still seen no cliffs and instead ended up turning on a small road that led to Wai-iti Beach, where we were greeted by an intrepid pet goat named Hermione. She was friendly but exceptionally frisky.
The light and shadows dueled as the sun began to set, and taking the impending twilight as a hint we continued on our way to New Plymouth, leaving Hermione and the black sand beach behind.
If our transit to and from Auckland showed that there was something different about New Zealanders, it was the day of driving that confirmed the suspicion. For lunch we ate at a roadside café, where the waitress patiently explained to us how best to continue our drive and also marveled at spending so few days on such a large island. Between the stop at the Kiwi House and Wai-iti Beach we refueled the car at a gas station — not exactly the conventional pinnacle of friendliness in the U.S. — where again we received chuckles of incredulity at our itinerary and some admonishment for trying to make it to National Park by nightfall. At every junction we seemed to run into locals genuinely interested in offering help and suggestions. As such, we were taken aback by a people who seemed to be nicer than the Canadian stereotype while loving life more than the Californian stereotype. Where were we again, exactly?
We had no real activities planned in New Plymouth, exploring briefly only the Te Rewa Rewa bridge and the Wind Wand, and with Mount Taranaki shrouded in cloud the morning of our departure we grabbed brunch at yet another rather eccentric café (where we saw Michael Ian Black’s “A Child’s First Book of Trump” prominently on display) and headed toward National Park Village. Part of the reason the gas station attendants had recommended we overnight in New Plymouth rather than continue directly was that the road we intended to take — innocuously marked simply as State Highway 43 on a map — is known as the Forgotten World Highway, which made its way to the top positions of “Blackspots,” an interactive map showing serious accidents on the nation’s roads. Parts of the road are unfinished, and hairpin turns were scattered throughout its 150 km length. We approached cautiously during the day, and although one itinerary we saw suggested taking a couple days to explore all its intricacies, we emerged at its east terminus after about five hours.
We stopped a few times along the way to stretch our legs. Seeing the lush growth along the entire route was a reminder that our plan to head west to avoid one day of rain seemed to be a good one. If we had no other activities planned than driving, the Forgotten World Highway could indeed have consumed two or three days.
Green undergrowth soon gave way to clear blue skies as we pulled into Taumarunui for dinner. We ate quickly at the Thai diner in town and grabbed groceries before confirming a spot on the shuttle with our driver (and the owner-operator of the service to bring us from our lodging in National Park to the national park), Tracey. The crux: the two are not affiliated, making it an “aha moment” when we realized that being in National Park Village did not imply being in the national park.
The next morning, we boarded Tracey’s shuttle along with two other groups and headed toward the starting point of the hike, Mangatepopo. Tracey recounted the insatiable crowds arriving after Peter Jackson’s films and how sometimes it was impossible to weave a bus through poorly parked cars. Our morning was thankfully better, but we nevertheless joined hundreds as we set off toward Mordor. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one that crosses several different zones, and when we started off the land had some vegetation and even a small stream next to the walkway.
As the walkway gradually ended and turned into a tamped-down dirt track, so did much of the green plant life and the last vestiges of cool morning temperatures. What were fields of gold and green turned into splotches of brown as the ground beneath darkened into shades of black.
Not all color was lost, however; the area is volcanic (Mount Tongariro erupted in 2012), and every so often we saw evidence of the metals and minerals in the ground.
We began to see fewer and fewer plants, and soon the only vibrant color remaining was the sharp blue of the sky.
The first tenth of the hike was fairly flat, so it didn’t take long to reach Soda Springs, where we started gaining serious altitude. Mt. Ngauruhoe, starring as Mount Doom in the films, began to appear above the dry ground. It’s no wonder that Frodo didn’t really want to go there; it never seemed to get appreciably closer as we headed toward Red Crater!
If the terrain kept changing, the one constant — at least on the day we went, which had brilliant weather — was the snake of people joining us for the hike. Bottlenecks formed at sections where hand-foot coordination was involved, but even on the flat expanses back to the car park it was possible to see people dotting the path far into the distance.
After a few hours of gaining altitude, we reached South Crater and had lunch. We were about 200 m below the highest point of the trip, Red Crater, and decided to forego adding the neighboring Mt. Nguaruhoe to the day’s activities, as our shuttle operated on a fixed time schedule for pickup at the other end of the hike. We summoned our energy and arrived at Red Crater in the early afternoon, breathing hard but not so hard that the smell of sulfur became suffocating.
Cresting a ridge as we continued the march toward our end point of Ketetahi car park, sun occasionally penetrated the cloud layer, illuminating briefly the crater’s namesake.
Perhaps the biggest surprise the day of the hike was the number of people on the trail. The traffic here wasn’t quite comparable to Huangshan in China, but calling the hike “crowded” would be, without too much embellishment, a significant understatement. A steep slope with loose rock and sand made me appreciate having high-cut boots as I slipped down the slope with dozens of others, lending my hiking poles to a French woman and an Australian man before gleefully striding down the loose soil.
The hike was originally named simply “Tongariro Crossing,” but as it became more popular (its views and terrain puts it among the best dayhikes in New Zealand), “Alpine” was added to the name to bring attention to the conditions that should be expected during the 19.4 km trek. Not everyone brought clothing to suit…
As we continued downhill toward our shuttle, we entered the Emerald Lakes region, which despite looking nothing like the crater not far above us still smelled strongly of sulfur.
Fumaroles bubbled and smoked alongside the green pools, making the scene reminiscent of Yellowstone.
Not all was steam and dust, though; even in this harsh climate water still found enough nooks and crannies to be able to flow.
The last stretch of the hike was more or less due north, and before we committed to the path we looked back on Mt. Nguaruhoe. It was already early afternoon, and the trails descending from Red Crater down to the caldera were streaming with hikers seeking to catch their own shuttles.
The rest of the hike wasn’t filled with otherworldly scenery, but in being less inhospitable it was also a return to the familiar. Instead of browns and reds, we began to see yellows, blues, and greens again as Lake Rotoaira appeared over the ridge.
That night, I went to grab my tripod from the car in preparation for the sunrise the next day. Another photographer was shooting the sky, and my excitement when I looked up surpassed any other I previously held for the night sky. I was driving home from pickup frisbee on Mercer Island on I-90 in 2007 when the moon began to rise, and my elation then was met with furious thumps on the steering wheel. This time I had no steering wheel to clobber, so I could only run to the room to fetch my camera rather than deposit a tripod. I wandered a little bit but didn’t find an ideal location, though that took nothing away from the jaw-dropping elegance of the Milky Way. I had seen it bright before, and even commented then on my surprise at its luminance, but not like this. This was astounding. Nothing outside of sky-piercing Alps has given me such a chill of insignificance, and I contemplated whether sixteen hours later on the East coast of the U.S. some kid would look up at this same marvel and shudder at the same sight.
I slept less than I anticipated after the completely clear night sky had kept me up later than I wanted, so I got to sunrise the next morning probably ten minutes later than I should have. The sky was already glowing by the time I ran to the same area I shot the Milky Way the night before, but as I caught my breath the colors began to trickle out. It was still quite the sight — Mt. Nguaruhoe from the day before and Mt. Ruapehu to its right stood quietly as the air began to warm. No doubt the Crossing would be packed for a second day.
We wanted a day to relax after the hike the previous day, so we headed east toward Lake Taupo on our second full day around the national park. On clear days, views across the lake show Mt. Tongariro, Mt. Nguaruhoe, and Mt. Ruapehu, but the clouds obscured the view while we were there. They weren’t sufficient to keep the cooler temperatures of the previous few days; the i-Site forecast predictions of single-digit [summer!] temperatures were off by what felt like an order of magnitude. After a long lunch, we drove to Huka Falls along the Waikato River to remember that it was summer in NZ and that it was, in fact, much colder and winter back home.
As we reentered Taupo after the stop next to the falls, we had a coffee and wandered around the town, which, entering its shoulder season, didn’t seem to be too busy. Like many other cities, Taupo has a McDonald’s. Unlike many other cities, its McDonald’s has a DC-3 (whose normal seats are removed to make room for tables for dining customers!). Needless to say, as an aviation geek I agreed with the 2013 assessment that this was the “Coolest McDonald’s in the World.” Now someone just needs to buy a decommissioned 777 for a McDonald’s in whichever city I happen to be living…
The clouds darkened as dinner approached, yet rain still held off. This was appreciably remarkable — every forecast up to my departure called for rain every day of our trip, but so far we had not once been rained on. This stroke of luck only added to our admiration of New Zealand, though were moderately aware this was a stroke of luck and not necessarily representative of New Zealand summers.
While at dinner, we sat with a couple from England who were making their way toward the southern tip of the North Island to meet their son, who had immigrated years ago. It was a warm conversation, dotted with questions about Trump from them and Brexit from us, but after they left we began the drive down quiet, dark roads back to National Park Village. The skies seemed to clear slightly as we left Taupo behind, so we pulled into the shadiest of roads to see if the Milky Way would grace us with two consecutive appearances. It seemed to be as bright as it was the night before, though the clouds didn’t entirely dissipate, leaving only the summit of Mt. Nguaruhoe visible. Slightly creeped out by the complete darkness and howling wind that rushed by me, I got back in the car and we headed back to National Park Village for our final night in the New Zealand Central Plateau countryside.
I had wanted to get up for sunrise again but turned off the alarm, deeming sleep more important as my flight back to normality loomed closer. We were headed away from the national park now, and ended up driving by Taupo again, where this time the three summits were visible over Lake Taupo and paragliders were enjoying a third day of balmy temperatures.
Our destination for lunch was Rotorua, where we had a long discussion over burgers and fries. We then headed toward Sulphur Point on Lake Rotorua, where we walked along the shores for about an hour, soaking in the abundant sunshine and musing to ourselves whether it would make sense to buy houses here like some other Americans had been doing. There’s indescribably beautiful scenery here, and we quickly forgot about the potential for earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, and landslides as we wondered again under brilliant blue skies how it could possibly be winter somewhere else. We were catapulted back to reality when we remembered none of us were among the super-rich (or even the rich, frankly), and we decided to let the New Zealand home builders tend to serious buyers as ducks squawked away in the warm waters of the lake, oblivious to the sulphuric water eating away at the webbing on their feet.
Buying a house in New Zealand wasn’t altogether a new topic, as we had all considered at some point whether it made sense to settle down in our respective corners of the U.S., and it was one that had drawn more and more attention as we found out how pleasant its people are and how incredible its landscape is. Granted, the discussion was never serious to the point of actually intending to immigrate to a Pacific Island, but I don’t think that any of us expected the country to be in parallel so welcoming and so relaxing. Typically remote locations are one or the other; having both this time was a mix of lucking out with phenomenal weather, meeting friendly strangers, and seeing sights only possible in such an untarnished environment. On the other hand, in my head at least, the discussion increasingly begged the question of privilege, provoking further analysis on the values we placed on where we traveled and how we came to get there. As we watched a seagull pluck an unlucky fish out of the water, as if to make a point about the sheer chance of life, we pondered our last two days on the island and gradually headed back to the car, driving that night to Papakura before spending the day on the beaches of Tauranga.
Sometimes, my trips remind me of my relative insignificance on the planet, that I am far less a gear in a transmission and more a knob of an off-road tire. Yet here, on this most distant of islands from all my loved ones, I felt somehow connected to the planet and humankind. On our last night, the neighbors of the host family of our Airbnb happened to grill out at the house, greeting us before anyone could introduce herself or himself with how we voted in the election three months prior. From them we later learned the rules of cricket and of rugby; talked about how we came to stay in Drury, among the most country of Auckland’s suburbs; and what we could possibly have hoped to accomplish in less than ten days on an island that most locals take up to a month to explore. It was a fitting end to our journey, being able to interact with locals so interested in us and our ways that our own interest in the country we were visiting seemed to fade in comparison, and yet one that cemented a bittersweet idea I had been suppressing — that New Zealand might have become my new favorite country. Maybe with more time I would have thought differently (and maybe this is why the locals say six weeks are necessary to get to know NZ), but I don’t think I’ve been to another country that can match its charm, its warmth, its unpretentiousness, its purity, its innocence. Now about that house there…