February 4, 2010

The Things We Carried

Almost a year ago, Manfriend and I went on a hiking trip. This trip, a three-day trek through New Zealand's Tongariro National Park, was supposed to be for my thesis project (at least, that's what I thought when I spent student loan money on it). I have never prepared for a trip so thoroughly. I researched the best foods to take on a days-long hike. I spent hours reading up on Kiwi mythology. I bought a pair of hiking boots. Then we walked off into the rocky wilds.
A week after we returned from said trip, my department decided it didn't want me to write travel articles about my hike, preferring that I put together a dry piece of academic nothing (because, let's face it, what is a grad degree without a certain level of frustration? We wouldn't want to make it about, say, my priorities and interests. No, no. Of course not!). But I digress...

I've decided that the time has come to sit down, whip out my notes, and write that article I so wanted to write. Here, I will share some of my thoughts as I look back on the experience. (And so I can show you my pretty, pretty pictures.)

We carried Camelbaks, thermals, candles and sunscreen. We lugged powdered drinks, prepared rice meals, cheese, salami, and cans of tuna. We carried slabs of chocolate and notebooks. More than anything else, we carried hopes that we would make it through three days and 22 miles with all of our belongings clinging to our backs.

22 miles doesn't sound like much, does it? In Tongariro, it is enough. Those 22 miles go over a rocky moonscape and around three snow-capped volcanoes, one of which served as The Lord of the Rings's Mount Doom. This park- situated in the Ruapehu District smack in the middle of the North Island- does look a lot like Mordor, but more beautiful and lush and complex. The weather is just about as dangerous.

Everyone we encountered- from the Visitor's Center staff to our hoteliers to the guy who picked us up from the airport- told us two things (with serious shakes of their heads). 1) That we were in for cold and snow, and 2) that people died somewhat regularly up in those alpine hills. Jackie, who drove us to our starting point, put it this way: "It'll be bone-chillingly cold, up there. You'll be playing the alpine game." The 'alpine game' means rapid changes in weather, fluctuating from dry heat to rain to sudden blizzard before you can think protective gloves. As we headed to the start of the trail, we felt apprehensive. We'd brought all the right gear, but did we really know enough?

Tongariro National Park is the oldest park in New Zealand; it is also the fourth national park established worldwide and has been established by UNESCO as one of the 25 mixed cultural and natural World Heritage Sites. It was given to the government by a group of native Maori people. The chief of that group, named Te Heuheu, knew it was the only way to save the land from farmers and developers. He knew that the land had to be saved, because his people believed that the three volcanoes- Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu- were sacred. I wanted to immerse myself in a landscape that someone found so inspiring that they gave it to the Queen.

Our first day's hike traversed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, heralded as one of the best day hikes in New Zealand. It is one of the most exciting and most dangerous, especially for day-hikers who assume that 'day-hike' = 'relaxed hike we can do in jeans and t-shirts'. We began by hiking uphill through vast expanses of grassy terrain. The lichen and tussock grass were highlighted by purple bursts of invasive heather. The effect was a rippling expanse of otherworldly beauty that Manfriend dubbed as 'fairy mold'.

Even with other hikers flanking us, the landscape was eerily quiet. We heard nothing but wind and trickling streams carrying snow melt down into the valley behind us. We climbed up the Devil's Staircase- our first big upwards push- scrambling over black and volcanic boulders, and inching along on ledge after craggy ledge. I leaned forward to counteract the weight of my pack (I had never hiked with weight before), feeling as if I might go tumbling backwards. Before we knew it, we were tramping through snow.

We passed the North Crater, a vast expanse of snow and rock, inching around the base of our first volcano. The wind was so strong that it pushed us sideways, but we were grateful for blue skies and clear-ish weather.

We struggled upwards over blackened, shifting scree for what felt like a long time. Manfriend made sure to make time for a quick geology lesson (nerd).

Then we emerged at the top of the world.

On one side, the volcano loomed. On another, the Red Crater glistened in the sun, dropping off into a darkened abyss.

In front of us, down a long slope, were the beautiful Emerald Lakes.

The color of the lakes, which are warm and smell like rotten eggs, is due to the high concentration of minerals washed down from the Red Crater. We fairly flew down the downslope like excited children, ready to sit down and enjoy the strange sights before us.

That night we slept at Ketatahi Hut, which sat on a hill at the edge of a Maori settlement overlooking the distant Lake Taupo.

The cabin had an old-fashioned feel, with its wood-burning stove and rustic wooden tables. Because it was Easter weekend, the place was insufferably crowded- people slept in tight lines on the floor, while the rest of us did some involuntary snuggling on the rustic bunks. (The mattresses were covered with a crinkly sheeting so that every time someone turned, the noise would resonate through the whole place. 'Crinkle-crinkle-crinkle, snore, crinkle-snore.' Silence... sweet silence... then 'CRINKLE-COUGH-SNORE!')

We stayed up talking with a Kiwi couple who'd hiked this part of the trail many times. John, big and loud and gap-toothed, applauded us first-timers for how prepared we'd been. "My goal for this trip," he told us," was to make it over the Crossing without having to haul anyone else out." He told us that on every other trip, he'd had to literally go back and save someone (usually foreign). He told us about an American hiker who'd gotten trapped at the top in a blizzard. "I had to sew up a gash on his thigh myself and carry him over my shoulder," he said. We gaped at this mountain man, feeling like we'd been lucky.

The second day saw us retracing our steps and walking past the Lakes again, this time including the Blue Lake.

We descended down a difficult slope and spent most of the day walking through the strangest landscape I've ever seen.

I felt like we'd been transported to the Moon. The land turned into red-brown silt and craggy rock castles piled up towards the cloudless sky. Melting snow cracked and popped beneath our feet, echoing in the sparseness. The bone-white roots of the tussock grass reached out of the dirt like gnarled, beckoning fingers.

This was the most difficult section of trail for me. I was tired. My pack weighed about one million pounds. My feet were burning inside my shoes, begging me to lie down and be done with it. When I saw the beech forest in the distance, I felt better. Imagine walking through a craggy desolation for hours, and then seeing in front of you a line of trees so distinct that you could draw a line where the forest began.

We hiked up through cool, shady woodlands, tree limbs draped with frothy swaths of moss. The dirt beneath us gave a little as we walked on it. We cooled our aching feet in a babbling brook.

At the second Hut, we met up with the Kiwi couple and about ten other people who we'd talked with the night before. That's one of the great things about these kinds of hikes: you run into the same people, allowing you to get to know them. We hung our socks out to dry and all sat out on the balcony, making dinner over mini stoves. There is such an easy, instant comraderie between hikers. It's as if, by having that one thing in common, you are able to become instant friends. We listened to more of the Kiwi's dramatic hiking stories as I rubbed my aching feet. My whole body ached with a fulfilling soreness. We talked and laughed until the candles burned out.

The next day, our final day, we hiked through more fairy mold with volcanoes on either side. We took our time over the rambling track, stopping for hot chocolate breaks and time to consider how far we'd come.

When you hike, your mind wanders: it was one of the surprisingly pleasant things about long-distance hiking. All of your worries and cares seem far away. There is only your immediate concerns remaining. When will we eat? How far to go? It is both invigorating and incredibly relaxing.

Looking out over the volcanoes, I found myself thinking about the Maori belief that had made the chief want to preserve Tongariro. The Maori believe that every mountain, stream and cave is one of their ancestors, an important part of their blood, their family.

I wondered what it would be like to define your life by the environment around you, to believe that it was a part of you. On that third day, I was given a window into that kind of life. Long-distance hiking brings you somehow closer to the land. The layers of worry and regular life that sit between you and the natural world begin to peel off, making everything seem closer to you. You are able to feel plugged into the landscape, as if you are a part of it. That was one of the discoveries from this trip that I will remember most fondly.

We carried a lot into Tongariro, but I think we carried a lot more out. We carried memories and laughter. We carried peace.


  1. Beautiful article! You write so vividly and those pictures are out of this world amazing.

  2. Kather...No wonder they gave you the job!! The pictures are insane and the writing is brilliant!! Love your ending comments. Love you so! You are GWORIOUS!!

  3. This is really beautifully-written, Kate. Lots of spectacular turns-of-phrase.