One of the things I love the most about blogging is being able to connect with people all over the world. And not just digitally, but in “real life” too.
Around Christmas, in Wellington I made the conscious decision to start meeting up with you guys. If an email or message reached me letting me know you were in Welly, I would try to make time for a hang out.
And let me say that was one of the best decisions I’ve made this year.
I am happy to report that I have made many new and wonderful friendships this way, and only one person was a total weirdo. Phew. I am trying to continue this tradition down in Wanaka, so if you pass through, be sure to let me know!
Early one weekend morning, I got up early and drove out to Maranui Cafe in Lyall Bay, one of my favorite (and all of Wellington’s favorite) cafes. They do an epic brunch and I was there to meet Jenna and Jordan, the guys behind Living a Kiwi Life.
Let me just say, Jenna and Jordan are really inspiring. Leaving their lives behind in Canada, they made the long journey to New Zealand to start a new chapter, and they have been taking advantage of the beautiful lands here much more than I have.
Active, fun and curious, they’ve been tackling New Zealand’s Great Walks with abandon, along with many of the fabulous outdoor pursuits available here. In short, they were *actually* doing all the things I was hoping to do in New Zealand, but hadn’t started yet, for different reasons.
I think the biggest reason was that A. I was by myself and I didn’t know how challenging these hikes would be, and B. New Zealand doesn’t make these activities super accessible ONLINE for the average human, in my humble opinion. Before meeting Jenna and Jordan (can I call you Team J?), I had no idea how to go about planning these adventures and actually making them happen.
Image via Living a Kiwi Life
However, they were just the kick in the pants I needed to get out of Wellington’s cafes and get back into nature, inviting me to join them for a two-day hike around Tongariro National Park with Jordan’s parents, aka Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. Perfect.
This would be my first big hiking trip in New Zealand, with more than just a day pack and for more than just a few hours. I was giddy.
It also helped that they are kindred spirits and fellow Lord of the Rings fans, a requirement, in my opinion, for hiking in Mordor. Right?
So while following in the footsteps of Frodo and Sam into Mordor and up Mt. Doom, I learned some valuable lessons. Check out my 10 best tips and things I learned while hiking for 2 days around Tongariro.
1. “One does not simply walk into Mordor”
Well in New Zealand you actually can. However, there is nothing simple about it, nor should it be taken lightly.
I’ll take this moment to point out that the NZ Dept. of Conservation lists the Crossing as “challenging” and you should have a “reasonable level of fitness.”
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Kiwis do NOT exaggerate, in fact, their definition of “difficult” is very different from the rest of the world, in the sense that they are more hardcore and made of sterner stuff than the rest of us. So when DOC describes a New Zealand hike as “challenging” you better listen. It’s fucking hard, i.e. be prepared and don’t make light of it.
We elected to spend two days in Tongariro National Park, and walk part of the multi-day Northern Circuit in addition to the famous Tongariro Crossing. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is New Zealand’s famous day hike, clocking in at 19.4 km and around 7 hrs to finish.
Because the Crossing starts at one end of the park and finishes at the other, you have to arrange transport, but don’t worry, there are heaps of companies that do that, with varying pick up times from either the Mangatepopo Carpark or the Ketetahi Carpark.
So I guess Boromir was right, you don’t simply walk into Mordor, you have to get a lift.
2. It’s both geographically and culturally significant
Plunked smack in the middle of the North Island, suddenly the beautiful green rolling hills dotted with sheep disappear and turn into desert, ashy and dark terrain, all lorded over by three volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu.
You will most definitely recognize Ngauruhoe as Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings, with many other scenes shot around the area as well.
I had been living in New Zealand for 6 months and I’ve driven the famous Desert Road past these monster volcanoes three times, hoping for a glimpse of their peaks but was always disappointed. They were always covered in cloud. Can you imagine my bliss when we had perfect weather for both days of our hike? I was giddy! I can’t even begin to describe how happy I was to see them for the first time.
Māori knew this wild plateau area in central New Zealand as Te Kahui Tupua, which means the sacred peaks.
According to their beliefs, the sacred New Zealand mountains were once great gods and warriors. Ages ago, there were seven mountains around Lake Taupo, all of them male except for the beautiful Pihanga, and all of whom loved her.
One night all the mountains fought for her, creating violent eruptions with smoke and fire and hot ash and rocks in the sky and with the earth shaking for days. Finally when it was all over, Tongariro was the victor and the rest of the mountains moved away. Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu transition a respectable distance away while the rest fled further afield.
So bow down before the almighty Tongariro, people.
Image via Living a Kiwi Life
3. Watch out for orcs, I mean tourists
Since the Tongariro Crossing is marketed as New Zealand’s most beautiful day hikes, this means that you get (how do I phrase this delicately?) a fuck-ton of tourists attempting it. In fact, in peak months in summer, there can be up to 2,000 people attempting it, especially on a long weekend with good weather.
Go ahead and guess, how many of them do you think are experienced hikers and are prepared?
If your answer was few, then you would be correct.
It had rained solid for a week before we hiked, combined with the fact that we were there on a weekend meant there were a million people attempting the Crossing, most of whom clearly weren’t prepared.
I couldn’t believe what some of the people were wearing, or better put not wearing or carrying with them.
I saw tons of people in shorts and tank tops, carrying a single water bottle, wearing all kinds of shoes except for hiking boots, even a girl in skirt, sandals, jeans, carry shopping bags with snacks. Go back to point 1, DOC lists this hike as challenging, which in kiwi English translates to “really fucking hard.” Dress accordingly.
Wear boots or at least really good sneakers (don’t climb Ngauruhoe in sneakers, just don’t – you need boots and gaiters), wear long pants and long sleeves with layers, especially a coat – it is freezing in the alpine part and it even snows in summer, and bring sunscreen and plenty of water. In the winter, you need an ice ax and crampons and a guide. Of course, kiwis are exempt from all this thanks to their genetic hardcore nature.
To be honest, I would say at least 50% of the people doing the Crossing shouldn’t be up there. But there is one way in and one way out with nothing in between and no phone service which means you’re going to finish no matter what, but I bet half the people are miserable on that hike.
I’ll take this opportunity to say I probably shouldn’t have been up there but I like a challenge and I don’t give up.
When we climbed Ngauruhoe, a side-trip from the main Crossing, one thing that surprised me the most was the amount of couples, specifically with the guy basically dragging the girl up the mountain. Not cool. Men, leave your ladies at the bottom if you insist on conquering Mt. Doom if they don’t want to come. Girls, if you don’t want to climb a volcano, put your foot down and don’t go. Though that being said, if I can do it, anyone can do it.
4. Take more water than you think you need
“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink” Rime of the Ancient Mariner-style.
That is definitely true on Tongariro. Once you start the track, there is no water, there’s nothing. There are two huts at the beginning and end of the Crossing that can have water, but aren’t guaranteed. The Mangatepopo Hut had water when we were there but the Ketetahi Hut didn’t. That means you bring your own water.
On top of that there are plenty of crater lakes and volcanic water holes, but obviously you can’t drink or treat the water there, as they likely would burn your tongue off.
Image via Living a Kiwi Life
My advice is pack at least 2 liters of water with you (remember this is a 6-8 hour hike) or you’ll end up Frodo and Sam-style with totally parched lips crawling your way to the end. So take 3 liters. Better safe than sorry.
I packed 2 liters each day which was enough for the first day, but not for the second when we climbed Mt. Doom. I ran out of water on the descent and had about 2 hours to go before the end. Needless to say I was not a happy camper.
Luckily the Mangatepopo Hut was open and we were able to refill before getting to the parking lot, but I was at the point where I could have drunk out of the streams, never mind the fact that they were orange.
Image via Living a Kiwi Life
5. Look for beauty everywhere
One of the things I love the most about New Zealand is the diversity of and beauty to be found here. It is stunning, it really is.
Tongariro is no exception.
On the outside it looks like Mordor, with a raw, barren landscape unfit for life and where nothing grows. It is harsh, it is jagged, it is sharp, but if you can really look at it and beyond the initial glance, you realize just how stunning it is.
So just like that scene where Sam is cradling Frodo, asking him to hold on, and they look up and see a bit of pink sky and sunset in between the stormy clouds, it’s up to us to look beyond the facade and really appreciate the true beauty of Mordor, I mean Tongariro.
6. Sleep in a comfortable hut instead of outside like Frodo and Sam
Why sleep on the ground when you could sleep in a bed? Well on a mat at least.
Because New Zealand is such an active outdoor destination, wherever there is fabulous hiking, there is usually a hut to go along with it. Picture a cabin, with bunk beds, some kind of toilet, heater, running water and a stove (sometimes, depends on the hut).
One of the best ways to experience the real outdoors in New Zealand is to stay in one of these backcountry huts. It’s one thing to experience these amazing hikes in the day time, but it’s quite another to experience the sunrise, sunset and sleep under the stars in such a magnificent, remote area.
We decided to spend two days on the Crossing venturing off the main track and down onto the Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks (a 3-4 day hike around Tongariro) and sleep in the Oturere Hut. Nowadays, at least on the Great Walks huts, you can book them online in the high season and you need to reserve in advance.
You just need to bring a sleeping bag, overnight stuff, food and cooking utensils for the hut. Everything else depends on the hut.
Watching the sun go down behind Mt. Doom was incredible and watching the moon rise over the distant cliffs was even more breathtaking. The hut might have been my favorite part of the hike.
7. When climbing Mt. Doom, leave everything behind
When hiking Tongariro, a lot of people attempt to climb Mt. Ngauruhoe aka Mt. Doom, the perfect conical volcano on the path. This is a 3 hour detour (2 hours up and 1 hour down) and it’s really, really hard for the normal person, i.e. me.
However, if you are mentally strong and like challenges (like me) you can totally do it. Or if you just really really want to climb Mt. Doom. Just be warned you will be in suffer city.
It is a solid 2 hour sludge uphill, so do not bring your overnight pack. Just hide it somewhere at the bottom. We hid ours behind a bunch of huge boulders well off the path.
Image via Living a Kiwi Life
Most of the hike is scree, loose small stones and ash, basically the equivalent of climbing a steep sand dune. You slide backwards half a step for every full step you take. Not fun, especially for 2 hours. Brutal on the legs and really frustrating. Eventually you’ll get to bigger rocks you can grab onto before you hit the harder, tougher red scree at the top.
If you’re like me, you will be on your hands and knees scrambling for a good part of it, so gloves would be a good idea. I wish I had thought of that.
Also if you have walking poles, use them. I wish I had them too.
Image via Living a Kiwi Life
8. Don’t hesitate, cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom
Don’t pull a Frodo. Don’t be weak. If you’ve made it this far, you have to throw the One Ring into the fires of Mt. Doom and end evil forever.
I know it’s tempting to keep it and have total control over humanity, but don’t forget the Ring only has the power to corrupt and destroy. We don’t want that.
You’ve come on an epic journey, so get rid of the burden and toss it in.
9. Get rescued by Gandalf and the giant eagles
“Fuck, I’m dying, go on, save yourselves.”
I have never felt more like a hobbit than trying to get down from Mt. Doom. Granted, it’s much easier than coming up but basically you’re sliding down the entire way. If you’re graceful or can ski, you can just run down the scree slope, but let’s be honest, nobody has ever accused me of being graceful.
While going up was physically more challenging, going down was frustrating because there is no solid ground. You sort of step down sideways, sliding a good foot or two with every step. Depending on the stones, you can sort of ski down on your boots. Lucky for me I don’t know how to ski.
With the group drifting further and further ahead of me thanks to sheer gravity, I was getting angry and frustrated, especially when I kept falling down. Eventually I was rescued by Gandalf and the eagles, i.e. a college kid from Canada and a group of German teenage boys wearing nothing but shorts and sneakers and gleefully running down the scree slopes laughing and who tactfully asked me if I was falling down on purpose. Jerks.
Though with their encouragement and stories, I eventually made it off the volcano in one piece, absolutely filthy and covered in bruises.
There is a joke about these kinds of hikes in New Zealand, that basically you slide down on your feet and empty your boots at the bottom – this is what I mean about wearing gaiters with your boots.
10. Be happy and proud you accomplished something epic
For me, there is nothing more glorious than arriving back at the car after an epic adventure. You can pull your boots off, drink fresh water, and most importantly, sit down without your pack on.
You’re free from the orcs, you’ve probably been rescued a few times, and you’ve made it out alive. Be happy!
The Tongariro Crossing is truly epic, and it’s a must-do for anyone coming to New Zealand who wants to experience the raw nature for themselves and who has an open mind and who likes a challenge. Just be prepared.
Image via Living a Kiwi Life
At the end of the day, no matter how hard or challenging this hike was, I am so so so happy I decided to not only go, but also proud of myself for finishing it in one piece. These are the kind of travel experiences that are priceless.
Don’t forget to watch Living a Kiwi Life’s epic Tongariro video here featuring yours truly.
Do you enjoy hiking or challenging yourself on the road? Would you tackle the Tongariro Crossing if you had the chance?
88 Comments on “Following in the footsteps of Frodo up Mt. Doom”
This brings back great memories! We weren’t brave enough to attempt to climb Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) but loved the hike. Yes, very challenging, but we just kept reminding ourselves that this was STILL better than sitting at work staring at a computer screen 🙂 And we were very proud at the end of the day when we ‘conquered’ the hike. Best feeling ever. Lovely photos as well!
exactly, best feeling ever!
Wow, this sounds so great! As a LOTR fan, this is definitely something I want to do once in my life!
My parents took me hiking every year when we went to England for holidays, so I got nice Meindls and a walking stick. But apparently my contition sucks, because every time I climb a hill I get all dizzy and shit 🙁
Do you have any training tips?
Uh oh, I think you have to acclimatize and get used to it. Tongariro is very high so you might want to spend a few days there first. Maybe even talk to a doctor because that sounds a bit strange
This is an awesome post – the Lord of the Rings analogies had me laughing the whole way down! I think it’s so cool that you’re meeting up with readers and such – I recently met up with a girl in London. It’s really humbling to know that people like your online persona enough to want to meet in person! Loving your work, Liz.
Thank you! Glad someone can appreciate my nerdiness
Hi Liz. Loved your Tongariro blog!! It brings back fond and inspiring memories of our hike together as a fivesome!!! Wishing you fun future travels. Warmly Jeanette (Jordan’s mom)
Thanks Jeanette! I am so glad we got to meet and hike together, you all are so inspiring and that weekend was the boost I needed to really get out in the New Zealand outdoors! Hope all is well!