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Journey through the depths of Mordor

Travels with Deb

Photo by Debbie Stone

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Photo by Debbie Stone

“It’s the last push,” shouts our guide Connor, with annoyingly, over-the-top enthusiasm. I don’t believe him. And neither does anyone else in our group of six hikers. We’ve all learned by now that Connor’s using what I refer to as “guide speak” – the rah-rah efforts that guides employ to motivate their groups to keep moving when the going gets tough. Basically, if you think it’s the final push, you’ll muster up the energy to make it to the finish line, convinced that it’s just around the bend or over that hill. You want to trust the guide, you really do. But, you know better. You realize that it’s the last push before the last push…You get the idea.

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Photo by Debbie Stone

Superlatives are inadequate to describe New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing, an unforgettable 12.1-mile trek that is often regarded as one of the top ten one-day hikes in the world by the likes of National Geographic. I was leery of doing this walk because everything I’d read described it as strenuous and very challenging. Though I enjoy hiking, such description gave me pause. I knew the hike would push my fitness envelope, but on the other hand, I also knew the rewards would be great. I had practically drooled over the pictures I had seen of the incredible scenery. And the bragging rights would certainly be an added bonus!

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Photo by Debbie Stone

The Crossing, as it is often called, is located within Tongariro National Park. Established in 1895, the park was a first for New Zealand. It’s a dual World Heritage Area, recognized for both its Maori culture and outstanding volcanic features. To the Maori, these volcanoes represent a principal part of their history and are entwined into their ancestry and legends. They are considered such precious treasures that the local Tuwharetoa Maori gave the vast area to New Zealand, making Tongariro the first park in the world created by gift from an indigenous people.

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Photo by Debbie Stone

According to Maori belief, the mountains were once gods and powerful warriors. Tongariro was one of seven mountains situated around Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake. Legend has it that all the mountains were male except for Pihanga. She was a beauty and the other mountains were besotted with her.

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Photo by Debbie Stone

One night, the mountains decided to vie for the right to win Pihanga. They fought violently with eruptions, smoke, fire and hot rocks, causing the land to quake under their force. When their dispute ended, Tongariro emerged victorious, winning Pihanga’s devotion and the right to stand by her forever.

The defeated mountains were given one night to move away from the couple and by the next morning, they would be eternally located at the site of their choice. Two of them, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, opted for positions to the south of Tongariro, while the others headed in alternative directions.

Tongariro, together with Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, are the three main volcanoes in the park. They are part of the long line of volcanic and earthquake activity that extends around the Pacific Ocean as the Ring of Fire. Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe are two of the most active volcanoes in the world. Ruapehu last erupted in 1995 and again in 1996, sending clouds of steam upwards and blanketing the mountain in ash. Ngauruhoe took center stage turn back in 1977, ejecting red hot lava blocks and ash.