As with all of our trips, the contents of my backpack includes several books. I’m currently reading The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam, which tells the story of how the United States became involved in Vietnam. It’s an interesting book although I have found that I’m lacking, or have forgotten, much of the prerequisite knowledge of U.S. history. Normally Wikipedia would be my constant companion for a book like this, but reasonably priced internet access has been hard to find in New Zealand. This is actually my second book of the trip; I first attempted to read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace but the seemingly aimless musings about tennis and wind in Illinois didn’t quite capture my attention. However, the title of the book is a perfect description of our experience with one of New Zealand’s most beautiful day hikes, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19 kilometer walk through the Tongariro National Park, on New Zealand’s north island. The hike passes two volcanoes including Mount Ngauruhoe, the perfectly conical Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies. We woke to rain on the morning of our hike, which subsided during our drive to the trailhead. A dense fog unfortunately persisted and obscured the views for the first half of the supposedly beautiful scenery. Although disappointing the comparison to Wallace’s work actually stems from the hoards of fellow hikers as well as our experience near the summit of Ngauruhoe. The most beautiful day hike in all of New Zealand is also the most popular day hike in all of New Zealand, and much of the trip was spent stepping on the heels of other hikers. As we approached the summit the winds gusted to 55 kilometers per hour, challenging our footing and cutting through our fleece and thin jackets. Incidentally we later learned that the locals don’t hesitate to attempt the hike until the winds reach about 75 kilometers per hour, and actually appreciate a stiff breeze at the top. Apparently the summit can get quite hot when the air is calm.
Conditions improved markedly after we passed the summit and in hindsight my comparison to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again may have been premature. The clouds parted to reveal spectacular views of the barren volcanic landscape and the sun on our backs actually made for a pleasant afternoon. We walked past emerald colored lakes, a bright red crater, and active steam vents. We descended through alpine brush and native forest, finishing the hike in a little over six hours.