“AH, SON OF A BI***!”
I’m waist-deep in cold water, fins attached to my feet, wind nipping at my gooosebumped flesh, trying to affix the final vestige of my underwater apparatus—a mask—when it breaks. The damned thing breaks, when used for the first time! The same mask I bought in Sydney, carried over 2,000 miles to Cairns, then back to Brisbane, then across the ocean to New Zealand, and now, trying to use it for the first time on a breathtaking bay on the northern-most tip of New Zealand, it breaks. The plastic mechanism that attaches one side of the rubber headband to the mask itself has snapped clean off. What a piece of junk.
Frustrated, I stand, hesitating, shivering, trying to devise quick fix solutions. None spring to mind. But then my mind, or, more precisely, a distant voice in the back of my mind, murmurs “Maybe that happened for a reason, Nick. Maybe you should take that as a sign, and not go swimming.”
“Nawwwww” says the other, more stubborn part of my brain. “After all this effort? You kiddin’? I’m going in!”
Employing the most elementary of fixes, I hold the broken mask haphazardly to my face with one hand, take a deep breath, and plunge face-first into the navel-deep ocean.
The bubbles clear, my eyes focus, and I jolt in terror. Jelly fish. Big, purple, pulsating, tentacled, translucent jelly fish, not ten inches from my face. They are everywhere; it’s a miracle they did not already sting me while I futsed with my mask. I back away, on the double, and retreat to shore.
Ten feet safely out of the water, I look down at my broken mask, dangling sadly from one strap.
“Alright,” my inner, stubborn voice says. “Point taken. Next time, I’ll try harder to listen to the signs!”
Mount DOOM (Aka, Tongariro Northern Circuit)
My father, the STUARD OF GONDOR, kept the forces of Mordor at bay. BY THE BLOOD OF OUR PEOPL
E ARE YOUR LANDS KEPT
Ooooops, wait a minute. Let me start over. I meant to say, my father, when I was quite young, used to read J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings to me and my siblings on a nightly basis. It must have been during the nineties, before my years had reached double digits, because all of this occurred years well before even whispers of the epic, to-be Peter Jackson films.
This nightly storytime, likely at first just a way for my father to unwind after work, became a much-anticipated ritual for us children. I found myself day-dreaming of balrogs and valiant deeds and rings that made you invisible during long, tiresome first-grade days. Often, during that free time after dinner but before bed, I became excited, hardly able to wait for tonight’s installment of Middle Earth.
My father, over the span of a few years, patiently read The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and finally The Return of the King to us. His voice was deep, and it cast gentle, calming vibrations within a 10-foot radius. His voice, telling the story, carried me far away, across distant lands where armies and mountains and heroic deeds flowed across my imagination.
With this introduction, it should therefore come as no surprise that, while in this beautiful land of New Zealand, I stumbled across more than one Lord of the Rings film sites. The first one I visited—Tongariro National Park—happily coincided with a three-day hiking/camping trip I had already planned before entering the country. In fact, someone in Australia had highly recommended it just on sheer beauty, so I had booked a few camping spots online beforehand without even knowing it was home to the volcanic mountain used as the sinister Mount Doom.
In New Zealand, there are literally thousands of beautiful, breathtaking, scenic outdoor sites, hikes, and panoramas. The country is fraught with ridiculous beauty, and often I’ve found myself driving around corners saying “Come on, seriously??” before pulling over yet again to take yet another picture.
The quite helpful New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) does an excellent job building, maintaining, and developing outdoor activities. Of the thousands of different places to visit and hike, the DOC has appointed and exalted nine different “Great Walks,” which are generally multi-day hikes that showcase New Zealand’s finest. While planning my trip, I spent a good deal of time on their website, finally decided to hike three: The Tongariro Northern Circuit, the Kepler Track, and the Abel Tasman.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 30-odd mile trek, generally done over three or four days, that leads through Tongariro National Park’s forests, valleys, waterfalls, tundras, natural springs, lava flows, ancient volcanoes, emerald lakes, volcanic craters, and one particularly nasty mountain precipice. I carried a 40-pound pack and trekked 50 miles in the span of three days, camping two nights within the park.
Day one found me with a stiff neck, not from the pack, but from admiring the large, impressive volcanoes on each side. To the right, Mt. Ruapehu, a wide, sprawling mountain, tipped with snow and deeply veined in its sides. To the left, Mt. Ngauruhoe, the primary Mount Doom site, tall, sinister, illusive with its cloud cover. I marched maybe eight hours that day, and swam in a freezing, fast-flowing mountain stream that felt like a liquid breath of life.
Day two dawned without a cloud in the sky. About two hours into my hike I strayed from the path (never stray from the path!) and climbed all over the mountains. I hiked though empty stream beds, down a valley where all the rocks seemed to have faces, up the back of a jagged mountain, and foolishly strait down it’s craggy front. In the late afternoon the clouds came in and the wind increased, so that I was dead tired and bone-cold when I finally arrived at the campsite after 12 hours of hiking.
Day three was a long-distance day. Up to the Emerald lakes, over the Devil’s saddle, past the Red Cater, up to the (foggy) mountain summit. On the top of the cold, windy Mt. Tongariro I shouted “Gandalf, this will be the death of the hobbits. We must turn back!” and chuckled to myself. I walked and kept walking, 22 miles all the way back to the starting point.
Walking has a way of stimulating thought, and by thinking I remembered back to the happy evenings when my father used to read passages of the Lord of the Rings. Throughout the three days I found myself quoting different scenes from the trilogy, and after a while I started recording them. Somewhat sheepishly, I’ve mashed them all together, and put them here.
Watch at the risk of my embarrassment!
And, here are some lovely photos:
Having rented a car for 37 days (at a very good deal, I might add. $25 USD per day!), I have the freedom and flexibility to roam as I will. Generally I will camp for a week or so, and then book an Airbnb for a few days to recover and recharge. This methodology allows me to stick pretty closely to my $100 per day budget, since flights and gas and other costs must be averaged out.
In New Zealand, camping is very popular, so much so that you can hardly drive 20 miles without seeing campsites and holiday parks. Most of these spots have decent facilities and amenities, including kitchens, bathrooms, showers, and wifi. One invaluable free app I’ve made good use of is called “CamperMate.” If anyone is planning a trip to New Zealand or Australia, this app will help find the best, and most convenient accommodations for your style and budget.
Now, I must be off–the Kepler Track is waiting!