In Which we trek through Mordor to Mt. Doom

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Panoramic view of Ruapehu on the left, Ngaurahoe on the right

After months of anticipation and training, it was time for our Northern Circuit hiking trip! The Northern Circuit is a three-day hiking and hut trip through Tongariro National Park, which is in the center of the North Island. Its big star is Mt. Ngaurahoe, better known as Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies. You can’t climb Nguarahoe itself, but skirt all around its base and get some amazing views.

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Starting out on the hike, full of energy

As we are not particularly skilled outdoorsy types, nor did we bring any of our camping gear with us (which, let’s be honest, we don’t own any backcountry stuff) we chose to go with a guided tour group, Walking Legends. They deal with the food and arranging accomodations and we had to carry our own clothes, water, and sleeping bags for the trip. 10 miles on day one, 5 miles day two, and another 10 on day 3, staying in rustic huts along the way.

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Heading into the valley

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Intrepid hiker unafraid of the looming clouds. Why he’s rocking a half style LL Cool J one pants leg rolled, I don’t know.

 

I obsessively checked the weather before the trip, and nervously saw that it was slated to rain the entire time. As much as I was looking forward to the hike, I didn’t really want to have three soggy, cold, squelchy days in the backcountry.

 

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Looking back over the valley from Devils Staircase, all you see are old lava flow

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Up Devils Staircase over rocky lava scree

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Touching a cloud. Pants mode: Full LL Cool J now.

The day before the hike, the weather cleared at least for the first two days. It started off foggy but soon cleared to a stunning blue sky and long distance views. Nguarahoe remained shrouded in mist that day, however, and wasn’t revealed to us until the second day of our trip. 

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Rock scramble!

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Super windy here! Check out the boy’s pack strap fluttering in the wind. Pants: back down. It’s cold here!

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Almost at the top! By far the most challenging part of the hike. The kids had to kneel at times when big gusts of wind threatend to blow them off the ridge

 

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View from the top, as the fog lifts over the Emerald and Blue lakes below

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We made it!

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Distance view from the top with Blue lake just peeking out in the distance.

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Pondering by the sacred Blue Lake. To touch the waters is Tapu, as is to eat or drink by it.

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Red Crater, from a volcanic eruption and still an active volcano

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Wine and cheese happy hour was much enjoyed after the 16km hike

There are resident rangers at the huts along the way, who give a nightly chat about the surrounding area and safety information. They’re required to give information about what to do in case of a volcanic eruption, and in both instances the “safety talk” was basically a shrug and a recommendation to a) pull out your camera to record the event and then b) make sure you strike an intriguing pose so that when they dig your body out of the ash a la Pompeii, you will confuse the future archaeologists.  Not exactly reassuring, but we escaped unscathed and eruption-free from the valley.

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Mt. Ngaurahoe unveiled in the light of sunrise

 

The stars of Tongariro Park are the active volcanoes along the way, especially Mt. Ngaurahoe, best known as Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies. Fun fact about Mt. Doom – Peter Jackson approached the local Maori tribe about using the mountain in the movie, and they initially declined as the mountain is considered sacred, but eventually agreed as long as the top of the mountain was not shown on screen as that is the holiest part. Therefore all of the top of Mt. Doom that you see in the movies is CGI! None of the scenes with people were filmed on Nguarahoe either, only external shots, the people scenes were filmed on nearby Ruapehu, in what becomes the beginner ski area in winter.

The volcanic valley between the mountains is Mordor, and it’s easy to see why – a dark rocky lava strewn landscape, with occasional bursts of steam emanating from geothermal vents makes for an eerie trek.

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Mordor awaits

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The trek through Mordor. Fortunately, no orcs were spotted.

 

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Ngaurahoe in the distance

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Taking a break by a little stream on our way to the second hut

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Out of Mordor, into the forest

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Light filtering through the trees into the mossy greens

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A chilly yet refreshing bath in a local stream

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The dam had been knocked over by recent flooding so the kids spent some time building it back up again to create a bathing pool

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The second hut was so beautiful!

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Hand carved boat from pumice and woven sail from reeds around the campsite

 

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I taught the kids how to play blackjack, and we used scrabble tiles to bet. Great parenting.

 

The last day of the hike, we awoke to a drizzly and windy morning. Our guide advised that 10 miles of hiking in winds and with wet river crossings and with children would prove to be a miserable day, and so we bailed out and took the three mile exit track to where a van picked us up. I’m disappointed we weren’t able to finish the last leg of the hike, but in hindsight it was the right move, as having six miserable hours of hiking in wet boots would have meant cranky and unhappy kids and where’s the fun in that?

 

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A wet, drizzly last 5k hike to get off the track

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Erosion at work from rains

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Happy, wet, tired hikers. They rocked it.

 

Such a great trip overall, Walking Legends was incredible for making everything easy except the walking itself. Moreover, it was so peaceful to be unplugged and removed from the rest of the world, and something I think we should all have the ability to do more.

-s

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