Swagman #23 – Finishing up on the North Island, New Zealand

I took an afternoon bus from Rotorua to Taupo and arrived at the Action Down
Under YHA around 3pm. The hostel is extremely comfortable, with two separate
TV rooms, a wide selection of movies, centrally located tent sites and
hammocks slung between trees with long branches to provide shade. I quickly
set up my tent and walked to the Pak ‘N’ Save supermarket, which was probably
originally called Pak ‘N’ Save…In the Event of a Nuclear War. Everything was
sold in the kind of bulk necessary for a family of ten. It is difficult to
shop for just one or two nights because one cringes at the thought of having
more to carry to their next location. You usually wind up having to leave
perishables like milk and butter behind, so it is always best to check the
‘free food’ shelf of your hostel before setting off to do your shopping.

I settled on some pasta and loaves of bread, since I would be hiking the
Tongariro Crossing the following day. And I stocked up on supplies, because
spending even a few minutes in Pak ‘N’ Save can make you delusional – you
begin to suspect that you may actually really need a 48-pack of muesli bars.
Just in case, you never know, better full than hungry.

It became painfully clear to me early on in the hike that I had over-packed.
Two large sandwiches, dried fruit, candy bar, raisins, an apple, banana, and
two large bottles of water, all for a hike that amounted to about five hours of
walking. But I was prepared. If a nearby volcano suddenly erupted, at least
I would die with a full stomach.

Emerald Lakes

Emerald Lakes

Among the many gizmos you might think you need for a day of hiking (“GPS
Sunnies – so you can always see your location!”), the most obvious and often
overlooked is a good, comfortable pair of walking shoes. I saw one woman
walking in what looked like open-toe slippers. My shoes were the type that
are well worn, perfect fit, blister-free until you suddenly get into a
situation where you depend on them and they turn on you. I was wearing two
pairs of socks and several times at the outset of the hike still found
myself pondering why New Balance would place razor blades in the heels.

You do not have to be in peak physical condition to tramp the Tongariro Crossing, but you can expect to be frequently reminded that you are, in
fact, pretty far from it. The mind can trick the body, but not long into the
hike you can feel your legs wake up and say “what do you think you’re
doing?” For the uninitiated, this also marks the outset of the civil war
that rages between the “we don’t want to do this” and the “yes we do” parts
of your brain.

The first leg of the hike is a path that runs more or less consistently
horizontal and smooth. Then you reach the climb, which takes about an hour.
It basically consists of a seemingly endless vertical climb over rocks and
boulders. I’m a bit of a stranger to pacing, so I would climb at an
impressive rate for about 5-10 minutes and then stop, sucking in air and
admiring the scenery. I was not alone – I tended to see the same exact
people whenever I stopped. We’d all look at each other with mutual

View from the top

View from the top

The climb has about three false peaks, which basically means that you can
see the top, and when you reach it joyously you see that there is in fact
another climb to the actual peak. Once you reach the top you head across the
South Crater, an enormous flat expanse of dirt and rock that looks
extraterrestrial. From here it is another steep climb to the highest point
of the hike, around 6,200 feet, before you begin the descent down to the
beautiful Emerald Lakes.

From here you make another small ascent and skirt around the edges of steep
valleys. Vegetation emerges and you are soon walking through what looks like
acres and acres of thin reeds. You can see the Ketetahi hut, the next
resting point, but the path constantly runs parallel to it so the walk still
takes about a half hour to get there. From the hut you continue into a very
dense forest, past waterfalls, until you finally reach the pickup car park.

Back at the hostel I cleaned myself up and assessed the situation – I had
only eaten the dry fruit and one of the sandwiches, and my ankles looked
like they had been massaged with a cheese grater. It feels about as pleasant
as it sounds. But I had hiked, had pushed myself, and there comes with that
the sense of prevailing. I bought myself a beer, and it never tasted so

I was up and out early the next day for the long bus ride to Wellington,
which was pleasant and uneventful. The scenery along the west coast of the
north island leading into Wellington is stunning. Much of the Lord of the
films had been shot in the area, and the city was in the midst of
Tolkien induced hysteria.

I had missed the premiere of The Return of the King by a day, but the city
was still hungover from the celebration. The signs and pictures where
everywhere – even barber shops had posters of Gollum in their windows. The
theater where the movie was shown was being straddled by a large dragon of
sorts that leaned its long sinewy neck down towards the entrance. Since it
is the biggest cinematic achievement to ever take place in New Zealand,
travelers must feel it is their duty as visitors to watch the films. Every
time I entered the TV room of a hostel, one of the movies was on. I must
have seen The Two Towers ten times. It was hard to not get caught up in the

Wellington is a very easy city to navigate, and has somehow managed to at
least resist the mass market culture that overtakes cities worldwide. It is
full of independent cafes, bars and shops, most of which line Courtenay
Place and Cuba Street. I had forced myself into a strict time situation, so
I passed on the major sights of the city and just wandered around all day,
stopping to eat and drink consecutive cappuccinos. I managed to take in the
Te Papa museum, which has amazing exhibits on everything New Zealand, as
well as a very informative area devoted to how the earth works. But after a
few days in the city I booked myself onto a ferry and set off for the South