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all that was missing was a party of Hobbits to make me second breakfast

Aimless is the word I would use to describe these past few days.  When I left Sandy’s place in Gisborne, I knew two things: 1) I was driving around the East Cape and seeing the sunrise; 2) I was going to go hiking in the Tongariro (Tong-ah-rear-roe) National Park (located in the very middle of the North Island.  Everything in between was up in the air.  After my last post, I ended up at Lake Tarawera, a gorgeous but relatively unvisited little scenic reserve just east of Rotorua (the hugest tourist area in the entire country – but more on that later).  Camped out next to my car, and spent a mellow sort of evening swimming in the shallow lake, lying in the sun, reading, cooking, and enjoying the fantastic spread of stars once the sun went down.  The lake’s in the middle of a forest that’s owned and logged by a private commercial company, meaning that it’s miles from civilization.  Towering over the camping area (basically a big field on the lake shore) is Mt. Tarawera, an old, flat-topped volcano that last exploded in the 1880s.  Did a small hike in the morning out to the Tarawera Falls before packing my life back up and motoring on to Rotorua.

Rotorua is the geo-thermal and Maori capital of NZ, and it is just swimming with tourists.  The backpacker’s I chose to stay at was off the beaten track, small and cozy, but wandering around the city (pop. 76,000), I was quite put off and uncomfortable to be a part of the masses of Asian and European sightseers and bus tourists.  I wanted to believe that I was superior to them all, as if I were less of a tourist because I had my own car, or because I’ll be here for a year, or because I wasn’t going to most of the attractions in town.  The experiences I’ve had and the connections I’ve made make me feel like a kiwi, or at least some sort of honorary, temporary citizen – someone more special than a tourist.  But let’s face it, at the end of the day, as I settled into the backpackers and started boiling my potatoes (I’ve been living on pb&j, potatoes, and dried peas), I was no different from the German cyclist I ate dinner with, or the Swiss, French, Italian, and Australian women I talked with after eating.  I’m still just a traveler, someone passing through, looking in on a culture from the outside.

The main attractions around Rotorua are quite expensive.  I could only afford to pick one.  The Maori villages and concerts were out, simply because I couldn’t bear the thought of wandering through the villages or watching the performances as a part of a huge tourist group.  If I’m going to learn about Maori life and history and culture, I’m going to learn it from the real Maori in real towns in other parts of the country, by invitation, not because I’ve paid $30 to point and stare.  That left the geo-thermal sites.  Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is the most famous, and most spectacular, so early Sunday morning found me wandering the path between steaming rock craters, bubbling mud, boiling, mineral-colored pools and lakes, and inhaling great clouds of gag-inducing sulfur gas that billowed from every orifice.  The $23 entrance fee and the over the top touristy set up made me go all cynical and uninterested.  I was there before the crowds, but I felt like a sheep nonetheless, following the cartoonish signs and reading the placards out of a sense of duty rather than interest.  Warnings were posted everywhere – “Throwing Of Stones Prohibited,” “Do Not Leave The Formed Path,” “Warning: Boiling Substances – Do Not Touch.”  To me, these were like suggestions.  What would happen if I threw a rock into the mud?  Or something plastic?  Would it melt?  What if I poked the toe of my sneaker into one of the sulfur craters and touched a rock?  The possibilities were endless, and far more exciting than just looking.  At one sulfur cave, skeptical and unimpressed by the undramatic pale yellow steaming rocks, I edged around the barrier and gingerly laid a hand on a stone.  It was only vaguely warm.  Bolder now, I pressed my knuckles directly into the smoking vein.  YEOUCH!  HOT!  I jumped back, shaking and clutching my now yellow fingers, but continued on smiling.  Now that was cool.

After the obligatory geo-thermal sightseeing, I drove south along the edge of Lake Taupo.  Familiar ground that I’d covered several times at this point, driving from Tauranga to Napier and back to visit Jasmine and her family, and passing through to spend New Year’s in Taupo as well.  While hiking the Waikaremoana track, I’d met a family (the MacGregors) who invited me to stay with them when I passed through the Tongariro area (south of Lake Taupo), and I’d been in touch with them, but they wouldn’t be home until the following evening (Monday), which meant I had some time to kill.  It was a hot, sunshine-filled day, and I had nowhere to be and nothing to do, so I stopped on the southeastern shore of the lake and found a grassy picnic area to spend the afternoon and the night.  Got a bit bored, just lazing in the shade, reading, having lunch, listening to music, writing, missing friends and family.  Napped, took a trip into the nearest town and bought ice cream, watched the sunset, and went to bed early, nestled cozily in Dr. Gonzo’s plush passenger seat.  Boredom is hard – it inspires loneliness.

Monday I drove into Turangi (TOO-rang-ee), where the MacGregors lived, but it was Waitangi Day, a national holiday to recognize NZ’s sovereignty from England, and most places were closed.  So, I kept driving, another 40km or so, down to the actual Tongariro National Park.  This is the place I’ve been waiting for.  It’s the most famous park in the North Island, home to three incredibly impressive volcanoes as well as a ski area and a hike that’s considered the best one-day hike in NZ, if not the world (The Tongariro Crossing).  Most of you have probably seen it, actually, though you would know it as Mordor, home to the evil Lord Sauron in The Lord of the Rings.  Oh, yeah, this is the place where Peter Jackson did all of his filming.  Most of the park is wide open, flat, and barren, covered in tussocky grass and scrub brush, a landscape decimated by countless volcanic eruptions and explosions and lava flows.  Rising high above the plain, though, are Tongariro, Ngaruhoe (Nah-rah-hoe-ee), and Ruapehu (Roo-ah-pay-hoo).  WOW.  Tongariro is smaller, older, and has been well eroded into a shapeless sort of mound rather than a peak.  Ngaruhoe is the youngest, and still retains a perfectly symmetrical cone shape that makes it look fake – this is the famous one, as it played the role of Mt. Doom in LOTR.  Ruapehu is HUGE, snow covered, jagged, and still active, its most recent explosion only ten years ago.  If you know me at all, you know that I’m in heaven just driving through the plain, watching these peaks get closer and closer.  No hiking today, just info collecting, trying to suss out the weather and the trails.  I am excited, again, though, for the first time since leaving the Richmond’s vineyard.  Yay mountains!  The MacGregors finally get in touch – they’re home, and I’m welcome to stay as long as I like.  Thanks be.  I wave goodbye to the mountains reluctantly, and get myself settled in with the family – Bruce, Lynn, Lara (10) and Rangi (9).

Now that I’m staying in a good spot, near the national park, my purpose has been restored: hiking!  I waste no time.  Tuesday morning I check on the weather and get the go-ahead from the national park officials, and drive back into the park to tackle the Mt. Ruapehu Crater Climb.  Oh man.  A gorgeously clear day, but chilly, especially as I drive the last ten km up to the Whakapapa (Fahk-ah-pap-ah) ski field, where the hike begins.  Oh, so exciting.  Crazy heaps of black rock all along the road, scattered and thrown by the volcanic blasts of the mountain through the years.  Dr. Gonzo crawled, the pitch of the road gradual but relentless.  Rode the chairlift as high as it would take me, over brown and red stones and uneven, jagged ridge lines.  I was just pumped to be on my way up the face of the mountain.  This is the biggest of the three volcanoes, and though the climb is shorter than the two I have planned for my time in the park, it’s not marked, which creates an interesting challenge.  I am pointed in the direction of the best route by the lift attendant, and start climbing, picking my way along the steep red rocks and soft ashy ground.  The landscape is incredible – violent, bleak, and quietly warning, full of the threat of imminent chaos and upheaval.  The rocks are huge and streaked with silver, the two colors blended into a smooth surface, melted by heat and unfathomable pressure.  The scree and scoria I’m climbing over is much like the top of Mts. Washington or Jefferson, or any of the Presidentials, except these rocks have been laid in place by vulcanism rather than glacial movement.  There are a few other people on the climb, and it’s entirely open and exposed, so it’s not too difficult to pick out a route.  It’s mostly a matter of taking a bead on a point, reaching it, then scouting out another rock or ridge.

Reached the edge of the crater surprisingly quickly.  BAM!  Suddenly I was on the top of a thin, steep edge, gazing down into the snowy, black and rust-colored gaping expanse.  Walked along the ridge to the Dome, the highest point (2797 meters).  AMAZING views, though the swirling clouds and sulfur-smelling steam (yes, the crater floors are actually steaming) made it difficult to take in the full panorama at one time.  From the Dome, I followed another ridge into the center of the crater, and half walked, half slid down the snowy pitch into (into!!) the crater and up to the edge of Crater Lake.  Holy God.  Gray-blue water with neon yellow-green swirls.  Steep, jagged hills, again, arching up and leaning over the lake.  There are several of us, perched on the near edge, eating, taking pictures, just staring down the snowy bank into the lake.  Another world.  On the way down I tagged along behind a guide and his group, and followed them, sliding down the better half of the peak on our bums in the snow.  So much fun.  We kept sliding into each other, laughing hysterically, standing up here and there to rub our numb rear ends and to shift out of the way of rocks.  It took us thirty minutes to descend what had taken ninety to climb.  Mostly I was laughing out of disbelief – here I am, sliding in the snow down the side of an active volcano in NZ??!!  To quote Sian, jeebus.

At the bottom of the chairlifts, I followed signs to Mead’s Wall – the place were specific scenes from LOTR were filmed.  Got all giddy and smiley again.  Ian McKellan stood here.  Right here!!  Gollum climbed down that wall.  THAT wall!  AHHH!!  Mead’s Wall is massive and black, and looks man made, though is actually the edge of a crater from an ancient explosion.  Huge, rocky, vicious-looking valley on the other side that was used for some huge battle scene.  Went a bit snap-happy with the camera, but I couldn’t help myself.  I’m sure you’ll all appreciate that, anyway.  Fantastic day.

That was Tuesday – yesterday and today I’m just hanging out, taking care of business, and waiting for the weather to clear so that I can do the Tongariro Crossing either Friday or Saturday, with Lynn MacGregor.

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