I don’t know what Peter Jackson’s Frodo and Sam were always complaining about. Mordor is beautiful.
It’s got that extraterrestrial, shiny, molten look to it that makes it enticingly tactile but still so untouchable. Like plastic.
This is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a trip that we, like our dear hobbit friends, found ourselves unexpectedly thrown into by a well-intentioned but somewhat distracted older fellow. Except in place of a beard and pipe, this one came armed with only a couple days’ worth of stubble at best and a fistful of marmite on toast.
We set out intending to simply explore the trails around the Whakapapa Village in the Park, assuming that the autumn weather would not make for a good alpine crossing. However, the sun was shining and the sky clear and our friendly Kiwi shuttle driver sped right past the turnoff for Whakapapa and dumped us—and five others—at the start of a 19km trek through the mountains. So our Fellowship, numbering seven, set off.
One thing I learned from Sir Peter’s glorious films is that you never enter a mission… quest… thing without plenty of food. Since we spent the weekend in the adjacent National Park Village, a town so reminiscent of the small ones back home that I felt as if I must have nodded off on the bus for longer than I’d thought, I had packed enough meals to take us through breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper.
Sidenote: As a kid, I’d always grumble a bit when my mom pulled out a bag full of homemade sandwiches and snacks for road trip lunches instead of stopping at the slightly mysterious, always enticing fast food restaurants that fluoresced along the highway. They tell me that I’m an adult now and so I can eat whatever food I want, but for some reason I have (very happily) become my mother in this respect, packing homemade food en masse because it’s HEALTHY and AFFORDABLE and JUST AS IF NOT MORE CONVENIENT, REALLY.
While we were all well-provisioned, we seven, it soon became apparent that as in the Jackson/Tolkien epic of our dreams, we too must split up for our journey. As the unassuming and wildly unprepared (never mind short and perpetually hungry) characters in our narrative, my brother and I set off ahead, the wide-eyed Frodo and solid Samwise, trudging persistently to our goal. Two others came behind us in a parallel journey, and it felt good to know that they were there as a sort of protection (in case anyone decided to take a little tumble off the cliff). Three more we did not see again until we were back at the hostel, but we shared an unspoken bond of having all done something incredible.
That we were in an area of volcanic activity only enhanced the feeling that we were really somehow in Middle Earth, and we had romantic visions of Mount Ngauruhoe exploding and giant eagles rescuing our stranded little bodies from the resulting lava flow.
The variety of landscapes within that 19 km was what struck me the most. We walked through low hills that bled into marshes. From the marshes grew mountains, and the mountains held hands through wide, silty plateaus. Alpine shrubs melted into a warm, green forest, and we emerged on the other side refreshed and astonished that we had completed this journey that we had never intended to take.
In turns, the sun shone. It rained. Volcanoes smoked. There were stairs. And tunnels. Misty lakes and quiet forests heightened sounds. The rock was spongy red and shiny, shiny black carbon. The crossing fulfilled everything I wanted Mordor to be. It was haunting, yes. A little bit frightening. And completely, terrifyingly beautiful.