There I was, a German man and a Czech man in tow, approaching the crest of the hundredth hill I had climbed in the previous 8 hours. “Just one more, guys. Then we’ll see our campsite!” Peering over the top, I was greeted with yet another rocky valley with a steep hill to mount on the other side. “Okay,” I breathed deeply, “don’t hate me but there’s another one.” A long sigh of “UUUUUUGGGGGGGGGH” came from behind.

This was the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Sounds like a nightmare—and perhaps that’s the right description considering we were tramping all day in the shadow of “Mt. Doom” through film locations for Mordor, the dark, treeless setting for the evil enemy Sauron’s base in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) films. As 1 of 9 New Zealand “Great Walks,” the Tongariro circuit turned out to be equally as beautiful as it was challenging to hike.

Preparing

“Most people complete the hike in 3 or 4 days.” The woman at the information site in Palmerston North was pointing at the map of Tongariro National Park. “But I know someone who ran the whole circuit in 14 hours.”

From doc.co.nz brochure

Harald and I turned to each other. We figured we could do it in two days to decrease our chance of getting caught in bad weather and to save money on the pricey huts along the trail. We’d book the hut at the halfway point where we’d pitch our tent for one night. The Oturere hut was free on a day the weather looked descent so we booked ahead.

The morning of the hike, we chose which direction to walk—backward (or counterclockwise) along the Northern circuit instead of the Southern circuit. Going this direction meant the wind would not be as strong when we reached the summit on the second day.

Regardless, we were about to discover the hike awaiting us was not meant to be condensed into two days. The person who ran the track in 14 hours must have been an Olympian.

Morning naiveté

We camped at Mangahuia down the road from the start of the track. In the morning, we woke to frost on the outside our tent. I had no winter coat with me for the higher altitudes. Instead, I made sure to dress in every single article of clothing I brought with me in my one bag. I had 3 layers of pants, 10 layers of shirts/sweaters, 2 pairs of socks, hiking boots, a waterproof rain jacket, gloves, hat, and scarf.

At around 9am we began the walk. The air was cool but the sun was hot against my face as it blazed down brightly from a mostly clear sky. A long stretch of flat land eventually turned us up through some bush to a great waterfall before steepening steadily upward. The snowy, craggy slopes of Mt. Ruapehu loomed to our right.

About 1.5 hours into the hike, we turned toward Mt. Ngauruhoe ("Mt. Doom").

Our campsite was almost a 22km hike to the opposite side of it. The trek would circle around the volcano taking us over the Tongariro range.

Tongariro National Park has dual World Heritage Site status holding both cultural and natural importance. The summits of the volcanoes Ngauruhoe and Tongariro are held sacred by the native Maori people. Additionally, these volcanoes are regarded by the World Heritage Committee for their frequent eruptions and explosiveness.

A fellowship of three

By 12:30pm, we stopped for a lunch break. I gazed up at Ngauruhoe with my back leaning against an outcrop we used as a shelter from the stiff wind whipping across the desert-like volcanic wasteland surrounding us.

Ngauruhoe looked like a tall pastry dusted with icing sugar. Trampers finishing up the walk from the opposite direction had told us we would have better luck than they had since a terrible snowstorm had blown through during their trek just the day before.

The next 2 hours of hiking led along a winding river—mainly run-off from the higher altitudes—then through a thick forest. Out of the forest, we mounted one of the steepest climbs of the day.

Harald and I both collapsed at the top. I stripped off at least 5 layers of clothing all soaked through with sweat. Hilariously, Harald pulled out his phone and started playing old music from the Backstreet Boys. We laughed deliriously and sang along between breaths.

Suddenly, I looked over and there was a man with a huge pack and hiking poles reaching the top of the incline. He looked over at us lying sprawled out, clothing and bags thrown in disarray around us, singing along to Quit playing games with my heart.

“Hey you! Want to come listen to the Backstreet Boys with us?” We all laughed. His name was Marek. He’s a Czech hitch hiker who was also doing the circuit in 2 days and camping at the same hut as Harald and I. We decided to continue the walk together.

The pain and beauty of Mordor

For the next 2-3 hours, we walked up 50 meters and down 50 meters what seemed like two dozen times, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Oturere hut. The tendonitis in my feet had been raging like an alien trying to tear its way out of the inside of my feet. I cursed the hiking boots I had recently bought as I was certain my feet had turned into one giant blister each.

The setting was the only distraction. I was instantly reminded of the landscape of Mordor in the LOTR films: Loose pebbles and dry reddish brown vegetation spread between huge, uneven boulders and dark rock formations.

“Frodo and Sam!! WE UNDERSTAND YOUR PAIN!!!” I shouted in earshot of my companions. This was perhaps the nerdiest thing to say at this point, but they nodded in agreement.

Finally we reached the hut at 1,360 meters altitude. I pulled stiff hiking boots off my feet to find 4 blisters on each foot. I had only brought band-aids to tend to them and no other footwear to relieve them further. Dumb.

If I was in a different situation I would have chosen to stay off my feet for a few days. But tomorrow I would have to continue the second half of the hike—about 22 more kilometers and up the steepest inclines yet. How, in the middle of the hell of Mordor, was I going to continue this trek tomorrow?

My solace was arriving to the hut in time for a most spectacular sunset view of Mt. Ngauruhoe.