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The Mists of Mount Doom: J.R.R. Tolkien’s New Zealand

By Alan McMonagle

It is a misty morning, just after six, one week to Christmas. There is a stinging bite from the cool morning air. An early bird gnaws worms, trapped in frozen ground. We stand around in clusters. Teeth chatter, bodies quiver, hands rub rapidly together. Gusts of foggy breath mingle with the morning haze. I zip up my cozy fleece purchased the evening before. Fionnuala kneads her swollen ankle damaged the previous week.

‘Look, look, it’s Gandalf,’ somebody calls out, and through the swirling fog materializes a tall slender man with a white speckled beard. Our transport has arrived.

Fionnuala and I had done well to make it this far. The night before last, halfway between Auckland and Wellington, on the northern shorelines of New Zealand’s largest lake, the daytime repose of Taupo had been in revolt. A sleep-preventing storm crashed throughout the night. Deep thunder spooled from the lake. Steam rose from rainwater gullies. And, to cap it all, Fionnuala’s foot had started to inflate. It looked as though a tennis ball had been stuck inside her ankle. A friendly local doctor diagnosed a hemorrhaged cyst–burst nerve vessels lathered into a festering puss–infected, painful, temporarily immobilizing. He plunged a needle, screwdriver-thick, into the swollen ankle. Fionnuala winced deeply as the syringe filled with ruby red spicules. Painkillers helped her sleep through the storm. I had felt like raiding the stash myself.

The following morning the infection had subsided with the storm. We were able to make the short bus trip down to Taurangi and take on the Tongariro Crossing–mooted by everyone we met as New Zealand’s finest day walk.

Dominated by three active volcanoes, the Tongariro Crossing spans a section of North Island’s Central Plateau and served as chief location shoot for the very fine “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy. Seeing the movie versions of this high-fantasy epic instantly took me back to childhood and to my first encounter with the humble Hobbits and their ambitious quest. My best friend offered me a loan of his copy. My arms were skinny, I could hardly hold aloft the brick-heavy tome let alone plunge inside its strange world.

What I remember most are the names of characters and places. Frodo and Samwise. Bilbo Baggins, Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took. Aragorn and Legolas. The twisted Gollum and Dark Lord Saruman. How did Tolkien think all this up, I asked myself.

Much later, I remember reading that Tolkien used to wait until his wife and children had turned in for the night before turning his attentions to his imaginary worlds. Then he would settle in for the night, spending hours meticulously mapping out his mythic landscapes and deciding who belonged in them and how they would speak and, all the time, painstakingly plotting how their stories should progress. His commitment and passion is at once inspiring and intimidating. He must have wanted his creations to leap off the page.

This pre-Christmas morning, however, we encounter no welcoming Hobbits, nor carefree Elves. And thankfully, no menacing Orcs. There are no waif-like princesses softly spoken, no dashing warriors with heroic convictions. Castles and basilicas carved out of valley rock; fortress dwellings and peaceful abodes; ephemeral existences and poetic language; Rivendell, Middle-earth, the kingdom of Rohan and The Shire all dwell within the pages of an epic novel and the imaginations of those who have read it.

The spirit of what the great wizard Gandalf represents, however, is palpable. The mythic superstructure of Tolkien’s creation, its vivid landscapes and meticulous detail, its mood of mystery and dream-like almost hypnotic beauty, sweeps before us.

We are brought to the car park at Mangatepopo Roadend where the crossing commences. A gentle gradient takes us through the Mangatepopo valley, skirting running water and old lava flows. We hike for maybe two hours along the blacker porous surface of newer lava. Its dark coloring absorbs the heat from the  sun, rendering the terrain hostile to subsistence or flourish. Thrusts of cloying moss and fiery green lichen thrive among the faded tussock grasses and copper bracken. On to Mangatepopo Saddle, the ascent climbs steeply and visibility continually thins. Constant movement combats biting temperatures. A steady procession of hikers stretches out along the trail. Everyone parades the latest line of winter wear from brand-name stores—luminous jackets, fleece-lined and thermal; hats, goggles and mittens; hardy gaiters and chunky walking shoes tramp along the ashy path. Many hold walking poles.

The trail takes us across South Crater. Reaching an altitude of five and a thousand feet we pass the foothills of Mount Ngauruhoe, Mordor’s Mount Doom, the eventual home of ‘The Ring.’ It is eerie and the mist moves down its screed slopes and surrounds and invades the walking path. If you peer closely enough you can almost discern patterns in the mist, formless, without shape, beyond definition. People are leaving the walking trail and disappearing into the ghostly vapors.

All around us the mist is quickly thickening. It descends rapidly down Ngauruhoe’s volcanic rock, an active mountain that tapers into a s symmetrical cone. All but meters from the base is invisible in the silent cold. A few more spirit folk leave the trail and quickly vanish inside the foggy miasma, as though suddenly sucked away by an angry breath anxious to return to the throat of its expeller. Very early risers may scale this mountain’s mystical ascension (though it will add another three hours to the day’s hiking).

After a short rest we move on, forcing ourselves to leave behind the haunting pull of Ngauruhoe. The ancient jumbled slopes of Mount Tongariro are soon visible. Giving the locale its name, the word Tongariro is a composite from the Maori meaning ‘carried on the south wind,’ a reference to their creation mythology.

A steep climb takes us up one of the ridges forming Red Crater, an impossibly large crater basin housing steaming gas, smoking fumaroles and hot water vents. The strong odor of sulphur confirms its ‘active’ status. The track is now ash brown, as we behold the voluminous red bowl hollowed out of this fickle terrain. It could belong to a part of primordial man. Or it could be a snapshot of an impossible existence to come.

Gradually, the snowy blur begins to clear. From the ridge summit, at over six thousand feet and the crossing’s highest point, a clear vista materializes, stretching for miles, desolate as death. To our left, Mount Tongariro (6,500feet), to our right Mount Ngauruhoe (7,500feet). And if you’re lucky, on a clear day, almost one hundred miles away to the west, Mount Taranaki.

The scale of the landscape takes your breath away. It is territory worthy of Tolkien’s imagination (and possibly the other way around). The romance and whimsy and medieval charm of the novel yields much ground to the stunningly rendered action sequences that drive the movies. The humble Hobbits often take a secondary role as Aragorn battles through wave after wave of computer generated Orcs. However, in the novel, it is the landscapes that transport me—the waterfalls, forests, caves, streams, the mountains and unearthly atmosphere I experience around me now. First and foremost The Lord of the Rings is a quest novel, a novel of journeys and encounters, a story of places and of the characters that inhabit them. This wild and beautiful land makes for a remarkable Middle-earth.

The wind picks up. Sensing forms to buffet, it howls without restraint, swirling through the air dusts and brimstones from the crater ridges. Below us, red and black strata dominate the crater.

Stretching further off, dead and active volcanoes overlap, crater after crater packed together, pushing up through the lowering sky, magenta with cloud; mile after mile of remote terrain belonging to forces of nature from another epoch.

Descending the ridge, the lakes come into view. Three of them, Emerald Lakes, turquoise, metallic, vaporous. These are water-filled eruption craters that have filched minerals from the adjoining thermal area. In the distance a fourth appears, clear blue. From our safe perch, these arsenic-contaminated poison-pools beguile us with their still calm, luminous amidst the strata of red-brown and black-grey enclosing them. It is only as we approach that the frenzied chemical activity lurking beneath their opaque surfaces is betrayed.

Reaching the lowest of the Emerald Lakes the Tongariro Northern Circuit track branches off to the right. Our path continues over Central Crater and reaches Blue Lake, also known as Rangihiroa’s Mirror, after Te Rangihiroa, a Maori explorer said to have spent time in the Tongariro Volcanoes 250 years ago. Behind us, the tip of the third dominant volcano, the largest and most active, Maori-sacred Mount Ruapehu (9,200feet) peaks out over Ngauruhoe.

Continuing downward, a contrasting descent towards familiar woodland, our track passes along the bank of a running clear-water stream, a mineral loaded capillary oozing from mountain to vast Lake Taupo. The water is busy, full of surface-smooth pebbles. The lava ash track becomes a bush-lined hardwood forest trail. The woodland thickens and stripes of sunlight leak through the lush green branches. ‘We have returned to The Shire,’ I tell Fionnuala when we reach our destination, and she smiles, happy her ankle has withstood the long day.

We catch the midnight bus to Wellington. The mist clears revealing a stars pricking the inky folds of night. Over to our left, like a beacon, the snow-capped peak of Ngauruhoe watches over our progress through this unforgettable spirit world. Except twenty minutes outside Taurangi our bus breaks down. The mist and cloud returns as though a brooding force does not want us to leave. Mechanics arrive, car wizards suddenly materializing through the blanket fog. We are soon on our way again. ‘Heidi-ho,’ passengers cheer and everyone applauds. Behind us, our saviors disappear. ‘We broke down at this very spot the previous Friday as well,’ the driver informs us.

As the bus draws further and further away, I peer out through the mists for a last glimpse of the land. It seems immune to the charts of progress, removed from pretense.  A place of great mystery and it casts a spell as real as a mountain.