Kiwi Explorations: A Day in Mount Doom
By Max Milano (Travel Writer) *
The gas station was located near the town of National Park, but the open country was so beautifully desolate that it was easy to imagine it as the last gas station on earth. It was the only man made structure for miles (apart from the narrow country road). A 360 degrees shot of the spot would reveal only a desolate intersection, the gas station’s shack-like building and snow capped mountains covering the horizon. That’s why the sudden appearance of the Maori man was such a surprise. He was six foot tall and muscular, in his mid 40’s or whereabouts. He wore a woollen lumberjack shirt and would have looked like just another guy filling his tank at this gas station at the end of the world, if it weren’t for his elaborate tattoos.
I’d been in New Zealand for a week by this point and had already noticed the trendy Maori tattoos the youth wore on their forearms as a form of cultural pride. I’d also seen the 19th century portraits of fierce Maori warriors with tattooed faces at the Auckland Maritime museum. They even sold T shirts with prints of an idealized warrior’s face lined with tattoos. I just never expected to meet one in the flesh. But there he was; acting like just another bloke filling up his petrol tank in this windswept intersection in the middle of nowhere.
I approached him gingerly and asked him if I could take a picture. I mumbled my words nervously, I too had seen “Once Were Warriors”, Lee Tamahori’s bleak portrayal of Maori life in contemporary New Zealand, and wasn’t sure what to expect from this big guy. “No worries” he said, breaking into a semi -toothless grin that was pure genuine pleasure. I snapped away like a paparazzi chasing a starlet. This guy was surely the last in a long line of warriors stretching back to the beginning of time. The last of his kind, because surely, no one walked around downtown Auckland with warrior tattoos on their faces nowadays. I thought of Melville and his chief harpooner Queequeg, heavily tattooed and powerful. I had come to New Zealand to explore Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but had found Melville’s Moby Dick at the foot of Mount Doom.
To Mount Doom or Bust
National Park is a very small hamlet at the foot of Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand’s highest stratovolcano and one of the world’s most active. It appropriately stood in for Tolkien’s Mount Doom in some shots of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings. The town of National Park has a very apropos name and thank goodness for that. I had started my day at the crack of dawn from the Rainbow Lodge in Lake Taupo by pointing my GPS to it, thinking that it was referring to Tongariro National Park. Fortunately the road had only one mayor intersection and a helpful sign pointed me towards the Whakapapa Skifields, the largest commercial ski resort in New Zealand (my intended destination). The drive from Lake Taupo that morning was spectacular. The road skirted the lake for miles, offering spectacular views of the snow capped mountains with the sun rising behind them. I hadn’t seen anyone or anything since the road had left the lake a few miles back and climbed onto the high plateau of the Tongarino National Park. I drove along the skifield road until a chateau loomed in the distance. It looked just like the hotel in “The Shining”, the same classic Alpine style and a snow capped mountain as backdrop. The Lonely Planet E-guidebook on my Iphone said that it was called Chateau Tongariro, that it was built in the 1920’s, and that it had made an appearance on a New Zealand stamp.
I was determined to frolic in the snow on this trip. I was mid June and the novelty of a southern winter was too good to pass up. A sign announced that cars without chains were not allowed to continue. I bundled up and boarded the ski shuttle with a group of brightly dressed snowboarders who eyed my all black, Doc Martins and leather jacket getup with suspicion. I have always found rides up mountains to be magical, and this was no exception. The road twisted trough barren rock and lava fields until everything turned from gray black to pure white snow. The snow banks were thick and almost taller than the bus. We were almost in the dead centre of the north island but I swore that I could smell the ocean. We gained altitude slowly, below us were New Zealand’s green fields, forever stretching into the horizon.
We jumped off the bus at the top of the mountain. The wind almost blew us sideways and I wondered how anyone could ski in these conditions. I hiked up the icy car park towards the shelter of the gift shop. This was the largest ski resort in New Zealand but it consisted of just a few isolated chalets and ski lifts. But perhaps what’s what made it grand. Its treeless slopes were grandiose, wide open and wild. You were literally ridding a volcano in the sky.
Once inside the gift shop I was reminded of the mountain’s power. A large glossy print of a spectacular photo of the 2007 eruption filled a back wall. Plumes of smoke and red hot lava tentacles soiled the pristine white snow and I was very glad that it wasn’t happening right now.
I ordered a latte and a hearty New Zealand breakfast. The coffee was served by a girl from England on her two year work holiday for citizens of commonwealth countries. I asked her if the staff lived on the top of the mountain and she said that they bused them up and down every day from the town of National Park. I remembered seeing the town on the map, it looked lonely and isolated.
I asked her what it was like living in such splendid isolation. “The pub is nice” she said, as if describing the local museum. She may have been bored with her social life, but as I sipped my coffee on the top of that mountain, I suddenly realized there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be.
I had finally reached the highest point on the North Island and, like the rest of New Zealand, I found that it was brimming with raw natural beauty.
Next Week Part 2 A Visit to Hobbiton.
* Max Milano is the Author of “The Mechanicals of Recoleta”. Available at Amazon.