Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hiking to Mordor

One of the things New Zealand is known for in the eyes of visitors is Lord of the Rings. I will attest that it is uncanny how many times I notice places I've been in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie, its quite cool. One of the biggest draw cards is Mordor, or Mt. Ruapehu, a volcanic mountain which Peter Jackson based Mordor on. WARNING: Many Lord of the Rings references to follow, if you are annoyed with this constant reference, I wouldn't read any further. :-)

While I was on the north island of NZ,  I was passing through Lake Taupo and really wanted to hike this mountain. Unfortunately, the first time I came around with my friends from Australia, the weather was too bad to attempt the Tongariro Alpine Crossing; a hike that traverses the mars like landscape around "Mordor" and leads you to the path to climb it if you so choose. Luckily, when I revisited Lake Taupo a week or two later with my friend visiting from the states, the weather was predicted to be good even though they'd had a hail storm the day before. Well that's all I needed to hear, let's pack the bags!

The surrounding mountain range

At the beginning of the hike

The hike was estimated to be 7 hours, 19 kilometers (almost 12 miles), dropping and climbing to reach heights of 1900 meters (6,200 feet), and passed through active volcanic zones. We began by hiking by a creek which was sourced from above in the mountain, the landscape was barren, dry, and cold, as alpine as it gets. I could see other snow capped peaks in the distance, but Mt. Ruapehu remained hidden behind cloud cover. We reached the base of our first big ascent and this looked all too much like the hike Sam and Frodo did to enter up the back entrance of Mordor. OK maybe not as dramatic, but there were certainly tons and tons of stairs. So it began, step after step. Maybe I should of considered my backpack (full of water and food) to be my ring, but I certainly wasn't planning on throwing it into the volcanoes once I reached the top, so I think that would of been a stretch. The ascent up the stairs takes about 2 hours, but once at the top you are  rewarded with beautiful views of the mountain valleys, and finally the cloud hovering above Ruapehu had cleared and I could see the volcano. It was amazing how much it looked like the one in the movie, it didn't take much imagination, add a few orcs and a big eye and I was practically a stunt double.

MORDOR! Do we look orc-ish?

Active volcano zone

It was here that you can turn off for the turn to climb the gravel-rock sides of the conical Mt. Ruapehu. However, the top of the mountain had been hidden by a cloud all morning and the ascent was supposed to take an extra 3 hours minimum and there was a storm heading in that afternoon. So, we decided to pass on the ascent and appreciate it from the base. You then cross the south crater and begin another ascent to the edge of  the range. The wind was freezing cold, but the weather was remaining nice enough; no snow, rain, or hail. From here you see volcanic activity, a crater full of red, green, and black sediment or whatever it is that volcanoes create.

The cheesy pose begins
After the craters I headed down to another valley and this one was full of volcanic lakes. These crystal clear lakes appear in volcanic areas and they always have unreal colors. First was the larger Emerald Lake and second was the equally beautiful Blue Lake. To follow the path and get down there you had to run down a hill of loose rock/gravel, doing it that way ensures that your shoes get full or rocks but your tailbone remains unbruised.

Ciao ~ you can have the ring! To the Shire, Frodo!

Emerald Lake and Blue Lake, active volcano steam in the back
The descent from the top was over two hours and I went from snow-capped peaks and cold hard winds to lush hot forest and river crossings. The descent was tough because it was so constant and hard impact, but the views of the wildflower filled valley below made it worth it. On the way down we ran in a few school groups doing part of the hike as a field trip. Almost every single one of them said "Hi," "Hey," "Kia Ora," and "Hey, where are you from?" They were all very funny and good humored for being on such a hard hike; that is a pretty cool field trip in my opinion! We finished the hike in 6 hours and 22 minutes and ate all of our food, exhausted.

We felt accomplished, Frodo and Sam don't have anything on us!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

"You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska": A taste of the south, you can see Antarctica

OK well I'm not in Alaska, but I am at the edge of New Zealand, the very southern tip in fact and I may or may not be able to see Antarctica.
You see that? That's Antarctica. OK....not really, it is a cloud. 
In reality, Antarctica is quite far away from New Zealand, but I was able to get a taste of the cold arctic weather while in Dunedin, Invercargill, and Catlins National Park. This area on the southern most point of New Zealand's south island, I found seals, sea lions, penguins, albatross, and all sorts of other cold-weather animals. New Zealand is home to some of the world's rarest penguins and rarest sea lions. The natural and harsh beauty and environment of this region is perfect for these animals to flourish and I was lucky enough to spot some of them.

I know it is a cheesy photo, but bear with me, we were excited

Yellow-eyed penguin, one of the world's rarest penguins

So darn cute! 
To give you an idea of where we were, we found this conveniently located sign on Slope Point, the southern most part of the south island. We were in between nowhere and somewhere, and it was awfully cold. We camped here for the night and looked out over the beautiful sunset on the ocean as the wind howled through. I did take a wee off the "edge of the world"...but I figured that picture might be a bit too much information for most.

Even though it is cold in this part of the world, the sheep seem to have no problem with it. 
Baby got back

In case anybody was wondering, there are sheep everywhere here in New Zealand. The government claims to have 40 million in the country, and after 2 months here, I believe I've seen about 35 million of them. No joke. The south of the south island is truly a treat and it unfortunately seems that not many visitors take the time to get down here. One of the beautiful things about this time of year is that there aren't that many visitors because holiday season doesn't start til mid-December; on top of that, many baby animals are walking around and the whole country is covered in spring flowers. 

Camping down by the river in Fiordland