Crossing Mount Doom

 

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings―

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Marlon – the journey begins

Are you fit enough? The sign demanded us to check on our ability to complete this one day walk. I looked at Marlon, my 10 yr old with his spanking new trainers bought for the occasion and at myself, a 42 yr old with my charity shop slightly ill fitting pair of shoes, and think, yes, we can do it. It may take some cajoling up hills at times, but we can do it. I look around at the steady stream of people marching in rhythm past us, they range in all ages, some looking seriously equipped, head to toe in Gortex, whilst others look like they are going for a casual Sunday stroll. I spot one other family with kids bouncing from rock to rock, and an old lady with a cane being guided by a patient partner. If they can do it, we can too.
Marlon and I had a wonderful, exhausting and fulfilling day on our long walk, and he did not complain or need pulling along once. At last we’ve hit the sweet spot; an age where walking can be shared and enjoyed. Admittedly I kept the flow of sweets going, and we stopped regularly for breaks, but nothing more than I would have liked.We set off at 7am to begin the long 19.4km walk before the harsh sun became too cruel. The Mangatepopo stretched before us, a glacially carved valley filled with lava flows from Mount Ngauruhoe. This mountain, sacred to the Mauris, looms above us, a classic peaked volcano shape, streaked in red and black silently watching. It is said that Ngauruhoe erupts every nine years but the last eruption was actually in 1975. It felt appropriately ominous and scary.
 
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I have to admit that I kind of sold the idea of walking the famous Tongariro crossing, an epic walk across New Zealand’s oldest and bleakest National parks, as a walk across Mount doom.
Marlon had watched The Hobbit on the plane over, when we landed we were greeted by a massive Gollum at the airport, and we just had to go and see the Hobbit 3 in it’s homeland when we got to Auckland. I was so worried that our whole wonderful drive around New Zealand would be dominated by a Tolkien themed experience; that everything would be Hobbitish and quaint, that we would never discover anything about Maoris or settlers or the incredible environment due to Lord of the Rings fever. What a relief to find it wasn’t like that at all. We did indulge in it a little, pointing out places where certain scenes were filmed if we were passing and doing an enjoyable tour of Wellington by finding some brilliant costumes on display in a trail of various high end hotels, but even the kids chose to give Hobbiton a miss when it was on offer next to surf lessons.
Here however the film scenes playing in our heads added to the dramatic atmosphere of the place.
Much of Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor, was filmed on and around Tongariro National Park in 2000. It’s eerie barren landscape, strange jagged rock formations and black streams lend themselves well to being the strong hold of the dark Lord Sauron. 15 years on and we’re walking in their footsteps, perhaps as brave as Frodo but certainly not as isolated.This walk is one of the most popular one day treks in New Zealand, and a staggering 60,000 complete it each year. We were not alone. It was a day of fine weather so we found ourselves taking our place in a steady tramping crowd that snaked it’s way up and over and through the volcanic landscape. The path is well marked and easy to follow as so many have trodden before us, though I’m assured it can be snowy and treacherous on a winters day.
 

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We begin climbing towards the rim of the Red Crater, the highest point of the crossing. There is no softness, no birdsong, no greenery. Everything is bleak, starkly barren. Red gashes gape where the black crater has shrugged. a delicate white flowers surprises me with its singular bravery.
 

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As we walk up a flight of rock hewn steps I’m reminded of my childhood in Nepal, and how aged 7, I really hated all the steps. There were always so many steps on any walk out of Pokhara and up into the hills, and having run and skipped to begin with I would always flag and need carrying soon into the walk. My Dad would hoist me onto his shoulders and the countryside would appear beautiful again as I could enjoy the view. Maisie is at that stage now, bursting and burning, failing to grasp the concept of slow and steady despite being told the story of the hare and tortoise on many of our walks or runs. Across Tongariro I’d find myself reminding Marlon to keep it steady, find a good rhythm and stick to it, sometimes berating him for pacing too fast. Then, as he managed to keep up his fast pace, wondering what has happened, have I grown older and slower without noticing?At the top the view holds startling colour. Surprising jewels in this scorched landscape. The Emerald lakes, three water filled explosion craters shimmer in different shades of turquoise blue. Their brilliant colour is because of minerals such as sulphur leaching from the thermal area.
Beyond these lakes, and another steady climb up, lies a bigger mass of water, The Blue Lake. It looks dark and cold, it’s strange inky colour also given by the dissolved minerals of the area. To the Maori this lake is sacred; no swimming or eating of food here.
 

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Throughout the descent signs all along the way remind us of the volatile nature of the environment we’re crossing. The last violent eruption of Mount Tongariro was in 2012 but we’re amazed to find ongoing volcanic activity all around us. Rocks breathe steam, streams bubble and burn, and white smoke billows out of the Te Mari crater.
 

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Walking is not an ‘adrenaline sport’ ( though walking amongst smoking volcanoes is getting close to it ) so I cannot persuade everyone in the family to get into it. Walking is not about speed, so it’s not Kian’s kind of thing. It can be exhilarating, but he just doesn’t get it. For Maisie ‘walk’ is still a very dirty word. We only go walking together when there’s an end purpose, a game to play, a trail to follow or a river to jump into. I am reclaiming the joy of walking. It’s a welcome change from having to walk at a slow toddlers trundle, or at a tired child’s plod, or a grumpy feet dragging teenagers pace. For years walking with the children has been something I’ve enjoyed, but with limits. It’s always fun to share pleasure exploring woods or moors, streams and rivers, but a proper long stretch of a walk happened only when someone else had the kids.Earlier in our New Zealand trip I had a wonderful couple of days walking alone up the Copland trail (see ‘Dukes Journey’). It would have been nice to do as a family but I was not sure Maisie would manage it and we just didn’t have the equipment for walking. The kids have been mostly bare foot since we left England, and we didn’t have sleeping bags or a camp cooker. Also it was nice to have time alone. This trip has been a great experience of togetherness but it’s nice to be away from that occasionally and find a bit of ‘Me-ness’.I have always loved walking. I love being alone in a place, absorbing it’s beauty at my own pace and in my own silence. I particularly love long long walks, treks that allow a rhythm and an inner solitude to develop as you walk each day and sleep knowing tomorrow you will walk again. I walked as a tour leader for months on end in Morocco and other African countries, getting to know scenery and places so well but having the refreshing joy of sharing it through new comers first time eyes. I loved the rhythm of a walking life, and although it meant having to often entertain conversation rather than silence, my preferred choice, I loved the job. On another adventure for a documentary I walked 500 miles across the Sahara to Tombuctou. A gruelling walk in soft hot sand with no respite until the cold starry nights, this time our rhythm set by the unstoppable plod of the camel.For many years I have looked forward to reaching an age where we could walk as a family; where it becomes truly enjoyable and not a case of persuasion and distraction. I am also aware of the need to spend more time with my 10 yr old son. When Marlon agreed to walk across Tongariro with me I had high hopes – a new convert to walking and some quality bonding time.I feel like he’s reaching an age now where if I don’t reach out, let him know I’m listening, find a way to open communication without forcing him into a cringing situation, then I might just loose him for a while. It would be good to feel close before the teenage years are upon us. I am so aware of the importance of male role models for Marlon. The importance of his Father, of Kian, and of his Grandad. They each hold a big influence and play a part. But I realise how important my role is to his emotional development too. Woman play a huge part in bringing up boys to be good men. It is important they are equipped with empathy, ability for emotional communication, and perhaps a female world view to balance out the boys. I realize how much I’d been leaning on Kian recently to guide Marlon, enjoying this new support, but also how much I was missing some one to one time with my son. I yearned for a bit of emotional bonding with my funny, awkward, interesting boy….After skirting around a bit of a chat about the future, choices of schools, how friendships work, and the importance of fish, I was given detailed hours on how Minecraft works. Marlon really didn’t notice the kilometres under his feet as long as he was describing how to hunt a chicken, build a house, or avoid the Creeper.

I recall a trek in Northern Kenya I did with my brother and nephew in order to make a documentary about the Gabbra tribe. We walked across the Chablis desert and up into the Huri Hills, 62km over 3 days at quite a cracking pace. My nephew was just 8 and I was amazed and impressed by his remarkable toughness. He was kept going by my brother telling long and involved adventure stories as they plodded along.

After a while I felt I needed to remind Marlon to pause, look at the stunning scenery, try walking in silence to absorb the majesty, feel the land that was literally breathing around us.
We walked on more quietly aware. Sometimes in silence now, sometimes gasping at the puffing dragon, or musing on travel, and our huge world to be explored.

The final part of the track followed a stream through refreshing trees, green and shady after such barren harshness. At the end were the smiling faces of Maisie and Kian so pleased to see us. The best smile was Marlons. I could see pride, satisfaction, and relief. I look forward to us all getting to a point where we want to trek together, for the adventure, the company, the scenery, the connection to our natural world. It was such a pleasure to share this day with my son, and I look forward to many more.

 

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“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

 

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