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queuing up the mountain

“The Best Day Hike In NZ.”  That's how it's advertised.  The Tongariro Crossing.  It's hyped up to be quite an intense and difficult (but worthwhile) walk, across the ridges and craters between Mts. Ngarahoe and Tongariro, 17km altogether, not including the possible side trips up to the summits of the two mountains.  This was the trail that I came here to do, and have been waiting since Tuesday for the skies to stop pouring down so that I could enjoy the craters and sulfuric lakes in the sunshine.  So, apparently, has half the tourist population of NZ.  Jeez louise!!  I have never, never, seen so many people on one hiking trail at the same time in my life.  This was insane.  Lynn McGregor and I decided that today was it – if we didn't get up it today, we wouldn't at all.  She has to return to work tomorrow, and it's time for me to move on.  The weather report for today was marginal, but better than yesterday and the days before, and did include the phrase “turning fine,” onto which we pinned our fervent hopes for a dry walk.  Yeah, right.

Bruce and the kids drove us to the start of the walk, and we set off into thick drizzle that moved like curtains across the open grassland.  Soaked within minutes, we moved quickly along the first section of trail, slowed down not by the rain, but by the two (two) busloads of hiking tourists who had been dropped off just ahead of us and were strung out on the trail in front of us.  This was to be the trend for the day.  Most were little different from Lynn and me: fit, properly equipped and attired, and accustomed to hiking in all kinds of terrain and weather.  It was the others that made Lynn and me raise our eyebrows and cringe: jeans-and-sneaker-wearing tourists.  I use the word 'tourist' in the most stereotypical sense.  They were sightseers, tour bus passengers, and I wondered if they had any idea what they had gotten themselves into.  The Great Outdoors as a tourist attraction; “hiking the volcanoes” lodged neatly (if incongruously) between observing Maori culture at Rotorua and going on a wine-tasting tour in Hastings.   Most had at least tried to dress appropriately – layers, windbreakers, raincoats, baseball hats, small daypacks with water and snacks – and for the most part I'm sure they all completed the Crossing successfully, if soggily, but the numbers!  The sheer amount of people on this one trail (rated at 17km of 'moderate to hard') was not to be believed.  The two busloads ahead of us were just the beginning.  Lines of people would develop, literally, fifteen to twenty people long, behind the slower walkers who became even slower every time the pitch of the trail increased.  First sign of a tourist (after the jeans, that is): no concept of trail etiquette.  Namely, the realization that you are holding people up and should step aside to let them pass.

Despite the hordes and the rain and the low, heavy clouds that alternately obscured and revealed the passing scenery, the hike was fantastic.  It climbed gently through a green, volcanic-rock studded valley for about an hour, then rose steeply over glistening, coal-like boulders to the South Crater.  It was like being on the moon, or Mars, or something.  An enormous flat waste of yellowy-red mud and pebbles, surrounded by the crumbling, pointy red edges of the crater walls.  The clouds made it even more unearthly, though the rain let up long enough for me to take a couple of pictures and actually cross to the opposite side.  Up again, along the ragged ridge of the crater wall, to the Red Crater.  Bit too cloudy for photos, but it was impressively blood colored and volcanic-looking.  Red Crater was the highest point of the trail, and the walk from there was steep and windy and cold, but the rain stopped for a bit and the mist shifted enough to show us the Emerald Lakes: three milky green jewels in a black, ashy wasteland, steaming and reeking of sulfur.  The craters and lakes were the highlights of the trail, and once we passed those, Lynn and I were interested mostly in moving quickly to keep warm, but the crowds were neverending.  Four hours into the trip, we descended to the Ketetahi Hut in pouring rain, looking forward to a dry place to sit for lunch.  Ha!  The hut was a steaming, swarming mass of humanity – easily thirty people crammed inside, on benches and tables and bunks, and close to another thirty outside, huddled under the eaves, staring mournfully in the windows as rain dripped off our hats and packs.  It felt more crowded than Disneyland.  Needless to say, our lunch break was quite short.  But, the rain began to clear, and actually stopped as we climbed down the last two hours!  Sunshine!  Scenery!  And dozens upon dozens of people.

Still, glad I did it.  I'll be adding it to my list of places to revisit, though, in hopes that the next time I pass through I might catch it on a sunny day.  But if this was the crowd on a gross, rainy day, I shudder to think of the hundreds who'll turn up on a beautiful blue-sky day.

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