Visiting Tongario, the real-life Middle Earth

Photo by Blake Ashby

By Alix Soliman

When Americans visit New Zealand, they pretty much vow to take a dorky photo in front of a hobbit hole in Matamata. I have yet to cross that item off the list, but I have checked the box for hiking in the active volcano lands of Tongariro National Park where Mordor was filmed for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

To see the peaks of Mount Ruapehu, my 24-student study abroad group took two chair lifts 7,546 feet up to a lodge. Though there were only tiny patches of snow and ice near the summit this far into the summer, the wind was strong and visibility was low due to the thick fog encompassing the top third of the 9,177-foot-tall volcano.

We waited in a nearly-vacant ski lodge for the weather to clear up, then began climbing the sharp boulder field toward Tahurangi, the highest of Ruapehu’s three major peaks. After climbing out of sight in the unpredictable fog, I was called back to sit with my group among the immense cemetery of andesite, rhyolite, granite and basalt spewed from the bowels of the earth. An artist based in Ohakune, about 20 miles south of Tongariro, handed out charcoal and pencils and instructed us to complete five-minute rough sketches of the jagged rubicund rockface glaring at us from across a chasm.

Ruapehu is the largest active volcano in New Zealand and it last erupted in 2007. A local told us the story of William Pike, a 22-year-old primary school teacher who was staying in a shelter near Crater Lake — located within Tongariro National Park — when a boulder came smashing through the roof, breaking and trapping his leg. His friend, unable to lift the boulder, left him to get help. A lahar, which is a cement like lava flow mixed with water and rock debris, spilled down the mountain and formed a casing around much of Pike’s lower body.

When a rescue team arrived, they broke him free and had him airlifted to Waikato hospital where his leg was amputated.

Though the probability of being killed by an eruption is low, true horror stories like that tend to stick with me.

I searched for any plant life I might be able to draw when I grew tired of sketching barren rock. My efforts were nearly fruitless, but I found a wilted alpine flower with roots lodged between a few skull-sized rocks. Shortly afterwards, we descended on the chairlifts and drove to a stream where locals were kayaking down a translucent aqua waterfall. We stripped our mountain layers down to our thermal underwear, pulled out our sketchbooks and sat drawing under the sun, listening to the strong surge of water and the wind rushing through the mountain beech trees.

Our relaxed, observational experience of Tongariro changed the next day. Without much warning, Andrew, the leader of our host program, lead us on an 11-mile hike along the Tama Lake Trail to a peak viewpoint of Mount Ngauruhoe.

Karl, a seven-foot-tall, seasoned outdoor guide with silver hair and hands the size of baseball mitts bounded up the path before me. His leisurely gait was for me nearly a jog. Although it is not as confronting in person as in Peter Jackson’s on-screen Mount Doom adaptation, Mount Ngauruhoe is an active stratovolcano composed of layers of ash, pumice, scoria and andesite lava flows. It first erupted approximately 2,500 years ago. The most recent eruption was in 1975.

We paused momentarily at Taranaki falls. A threatened kārearea (New Zealand falcon) flew over the rushing water and perched in the last thicket of beech forest canopy before the flora transformed into alpine brush. The kārearea is the last surviving diurnal bird of prey endemic to New Zealand, and our friendly guide made certain to point it out to every passerby on the trail. New Zealand’s kārearea is a point of national pride.

I rinsed my face in the pure blue water until Karl pushed us onward and upward under the blazing sun.

As we climbed in altitude, the hot, muggy New Zealand summer breath thinned into a cool and crisp alpine gale. The lush forest gave way to a landscape of tussock grass and low-lying rosette configured herbfields.

The wind tugged at our clothes more violently as we scrambled up the last rock scree to a 4,725 foot peak nestled between Upper and Lower Tama Lakes. Digging my toes into the loose rock, each step forward was diminished by sliding half a step back. I got jealous of the ankle gators we had teased Karl for wearing as I dumped various forms of igneous rock out of my boots.

“I’m going to blow away!” Madison Kleiner ’18 shouted over the howling winds, crouching behind a boulder on the last crest.

From the crest, we had an incredible landscape view with Upper Tama lake to the North at the base of Mount Ngauruhoe and Lower Tama lake to the South with Mount Ruapehu in the background. The cobalt blue lakes occupy several craters from past eruptions.

As my peers posed for pictures on strewn boulders, I watched threatening clouds engulf the apex of the volcano on their 40-60 mph journey in our direction. I pointed out the impending storm to Andrew and Karl, and by the time we descended from the peak it was obscured in grey mass.

No longer on a mission to beat the weather and maintain momentum in elevation, I took my time to observe the flora more meticulously. A majority of flowers in New Zealand are particularly lacklustre due to native pollinators’ UV vision, which enables them to see a broad range of colors in flowers that look purely white to humans.

Going into the hike with the expectation of seeing mostly white herb fields, I was confused by the overwhelming quantity of tiny cylindrical clusters of bell-shaped, magenta-purple flowers on large, woody shrubs.

Karl explained that they were an invasive species of Scottish heather deliberately planted in New Zealand in 1912 to provide food and cover for introduced grouse. The grouse failed to thrive but the heather has now invaded 50,000 hectares of the central plateau on the North Island. Heather beetles, which are a pest in Europe, have been released in the park in order to control the weed. Conservation in New Zealand is almost entirely geared toward native fauna and there are no legally-protected flora species, making it difficult to calculate the full impact of the invasive heather.

Tongariro was established as New Zealand’s first national park in 1887. Now, about 32 percent of land in the country is protected. During a discussion at dinner, the artist noted how it is economically crucial for the country to host young Americans like us in their national parks because it is difficult to protect a place based solely on an “intrinsic value” argument.

Although it might have felt like an organic experience, it had been manufactured for us to a certain extent to experience the places and species that were important to the locals. Authenticity ideology aside, it is important to consider how the tourist industry shapes distant landscapes, especially in a small island nation with few global exports.

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