As the days go down in the West, behind the hills and into shadow, I’m going to be reflecting (i.e. catching up) on some of Ariel and mine favorite travel memories from our adventures. I figured I’d start with what is probably our favorite hike together of all time, finding the filming location for Edoras from the Two Towers.
Right off the bat, know that you do NOT need to be a Lord of the Rings nerd to appreciate this incredible place. At just about two and half hours from Christchurch by car, this is not the most remote location I’ve ever visited. But it sure felt like it was…
While planning our trip to New Zealand, Ariel and I had a list of places we really wanted to see, either because we really thought they were beautiful or because we wanted to re-create a scene from one of the films. Edoras fulfilled both of those items, but it was a bit out-of-the-way based on our planned travel route. Plus, the directions called for about an hour-long drive on a dirt road. Ugh. Ariel was a little skeptical, but I had come across an excellent article at the Dangerous Business blog that had me convinced it would be worth it.
First of all let’s talk location. “Edoras” is actually Mount Sunday, in the Ashburton Lakes region of New Zealand. Getting used to be something of a challenge due to poor signage, but if you just put the coordinates into Google Maps, you can follow turn-by-turn directions.
Our journey actually started for us, as most of our travel days do, about a five and a half hour car ride from our destination. We started our day at Lake Wanaka, which is surrounded the Southern Alps, AKA the Misty Mountains.
After stops at the Mount Cook overlook and Twizel we continued on. Eventually we came to the turn off the highway that led to the dreaded gravel road. It was only about 20 kilometers or so, but the slow going was a great example of why you should always do a reality check before trusting time estimates on your GPS when going to remote places.
The unexpectedly-longer-than-expected drive meant that we arrived as the sun was beginning to come down out of the sky. This was a benefit and a detriment as it meant we had to be a little rushed, but also that we got some amazing lighting and atmosphere. We were also nearly completely alone, only occasionally running into a few hikers on their way out.
After parking at the parking lot (believe me you really can’t miss it), we set off on a hike. This was a little tricky because the trail itself is not so clearly marked and you have to cross a few shallow streams without the benefit of bridges. I’m not sure if we veered off-course or not, but there were definitely some wet feet – so wear some waterproof hiking shoes if you have them.
Eventually we did find our way back to the trail (assuming we were ever off it) and had the benefit of bridges for the last two, much larger streams.
About 20 minutes from the parking lot, we stood at the bottom of the hill.
While this was no Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we were still nursing our wounds (and bruised egos) from that fiasco, so it took a little bit of resolve to push up the last 10 minutes of the hike. And really it was no big deal. Just a little huffing and puffing, one little stop and we were there.
And wow… Immediately, this became one of my favorite places on the planet. Maybe it was the incredible 360 degree, uninterrupted majestic views. Maybe it was the fact that we were there completely alone. Maybe it was just relief that we didn’t chicken out at the last second. I can’t say for sure what it was, but I was overcome with a euphoric feeling, that I have only experienced in a few places in the world.
No pictures, no video, nothing could truly capture the feelings we experienced in this moment.
More than anywhere else we visited on this trip, this was the most fantastical experience we had. Even our amazing sidequest to Poolburn could not compare – mostly because of how isolated and unspoiled all the views were here. Everywhere else we went, from the Hobbiton on the North Island, to Milford Sound on the South Island, but either had distractions from other people or buildings that occasionally took you out of the moment. Not here. Even if you have never seen any of the films, read the books or have ever heard of Rohan, I assure you that you will have a spiritual moment here. Seriously, go here. Now.
Of course, we had to (poorly) re-create our favorite Edoras scene while we were up there.
Look we weren’t going for realism here. But like, you travel 10,000 miles or so to get somewhere you might as well take advantage.
Anyway, we only got to stay at the top for about 30 minutes because we still had another 2 hours in the car (including the aforementioned accursed gravel road). I could have stayed there for a year.
After a quick descent and hike back, we were on our way to our final stop of the day at Lake Tekapo, where we got to see the Milky Way.
To sum it up, the movie set may not still be there anymore, but this is without a doubt one of the most “real” film locations out there. While the castle is gone, the surrounding landscape is identical to what you see in the movie.
And I tell you this, as someone who has been all over the world, there are few places as magical.
So go. Find Edoras. And share your experiences.
For more on our incredible trip to New Zealand check out our other posts!
So we got home late last night after an extraordinarily exhausting 53 hours of travel, including some borderline time travel that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. Consider this, our flight left Auckland, NZ on Saturday at about 11:30 pm New Zealand time, crossing the international dateline shortly afterwards. We landed in California (after a 12 hour flight of nonstop turbulence) at 2:30 pm. On SATURDAY. That’s about nine hours BEFORE we departed.
We went to sleep in California at about 9:30 pm. So we were sleeping in California TWO HOURS BEFORE our plane left New Zealand. Go get your mind to grasp that.
After the initial depression of leaving transitioned rapidly into the depression of “I wish this miserable, never ending travel day was over” – all I wanted was to be home. Unfortunately for us, we had one last adventure left in this trip, when our baggage return carousel at Newark airport decided to jam, stranding us with 2 out of 3 bags for over an hour while the feckless Virgin America employees tried to figure out how to get 10 suitcases out of the machine.
By the time we got home, I was thrilled. Ariel wasn’t too excited, but there’s something about coming home to your own bed, your own sofas, your own TV and clothes and dining room table and refrigerator and everything else that just feels good. While New Jersey is pretty freaking far from Bilbo and Frodo’s Shire (although in some ways it’s more similar than you might think), to us, it’s our home. And there is real comfort in being home.
As I got up this morning though, I had a very strange moment where I was highly confused about when and where I was exactly. After two weeks of never sitting still, never spending more than two nights (and usually only one) in the same bed, plus the incredible amount of time we spent in travel limbo, I’m in a strange place. Yet I’m also home. I’m back at my familiar desk in my familiar office. I drove my familiar car, with its familiar annoying noises, on the RIGHT side of the road (although now I’m struggling to remember that my LEFT hand is the turn signal hand), through the familiar New Jersey traffic to my familiar parking lot with its familiar lack of parking spaces. I went up the familiar elevator and said hello to my familiar receptionist.
This isn’t the first time I felt this way – in fact, this is always the way it feels the day after getting back from an extended trip away from home.
You see when you’re on the road (whether driving or taking public transport), there are certain routines you fall into. Every day you get up, pack up your stuff (don’t forget to check the bathroom and fridge twice in case you forgot something), arrange the cooler and BOOM you’re out there. When you get to wherever you’re staying for the night it’s a similar routine but in reverse. Unpack the cooler, freeze the ice packs, connect to wifi, put your stuff in the bathroom – but don’t spread out TOO much or you’ll waste time in the morning getting it all back together.
Then, after a bunch of plane rides and grueling travel you suddenly find yourself at home. No road routine. No new bed tonight. Just up and go to work like the last two weeks (or months or years in some cases) never even happened.
I also find air travel to be completely disorienting. You get into a tin box and magically, a few hours later you’re in a completely different place with different temperatures, different scenery, different times, different people speaking different languages. Plus the whole routine of checking in, going through security, wandering around in the nebulous zone between airport gates amongst other dazed travelers from all over the world, who themselves have no idea where they are really, is just so strange.
It creates such a break from everything that preceded it, that when it’s over, no matter where I am, it feels like that’s where I’ve always been. For two weeks in New Zealand, it seemed like my whole life in New Jersey was nothing but a dream. Now it seems like New Zealand was nothing but a dream.
But then I realize that my sand fly bites are itching. And that I haven’t shaved in days. And I think about where those bites came from or where it was that I shaved last or cut my nails…and suddenly it’s all very real again and I’m back in Milford Sound or Wellington or Lake Tekapo or Matamata and it just takes me right out of it.
This is how it always is. Because even when you come home – it’s the same home and the same life and the same people – it’s you that has changed. It’s the fundamental beauty of traveling to far off places and why it makes sense to spend lots money on limited experiences as opposed to permanent items. Because while the travel ends, a good trip really stays with you for the rest of your life in a way that no 4K TV or leather sofa ever can.
Our experiences on this trip will be frames of reference for future experiences that we otherwise never would have been able to compare. Even in New Zealand, with all of the wild scenery and radically different lifestyle than what I’m used to on a daily basis, I was drawing on past experiences in the Rocky Mountains or Patagonia or other places I’ve gone. It was these past experiences that better helped me to digest what I was seeing around me and have better prepared me to deal with out of the ordinary experiences even in my daily life.
That’s why getting out of your comfort zone is so important. Because while it may not always be pony-rides in May-sunshine, real travel is the time we are most ALIVE.
They took the hobbits to Isengard. The question was, would we find WHERE they took the hobbits to Isengard from?
Anytime I’m going off on the road, I like to take on some side quests.
This comes from years of playing games like Fallout and Zelda and can range from simple things like finding the world’s biggest ball of twine (that’s in Cawker City Kansas, also near the geographical “center” of the lower 48 states) to more off-the-beaten path stuff like the original Joshua Tree from the U2 album cover (hint: it’s NOT in Joshua Tree National Park).
It’s usually not about the actual items – I’m not much of a U2 fan and I really don’t care about twine – it’s about the challenge of finding odd things that are outside my usual comfort zone. And anyway, if your only goal is to simply get from point A to point B, that’s a really poor use of the time you are given, isn’t it?
For our New Zealand trip, Ariel and I wanted to re-create the most famous of all Lord of the Rings memes. You know of what I speak…
THEY’RE TAKING THE HOBBITS TO ISENGARD
The trouble is, finding the precise film location(s) proved highly elusive and it appeared, shockingly, that no one had successfully recreated even a portion of the scene anywhere on the internet. After sifting through endless home recreations in random locations, as well as images from people’s trips on organized tours, it became clear that no one had managed to find the place.
This only hardened my resolved more. Now I turned to my old friends at theonering.net which I had last been to about 20 years ago. They recommended I purchase the Lord of the Rings location guidebook from Amazon. This was a great move because it gave us all kinds of other cool locations – and allowed us to at least pinpoint the general area we needed to head to. This book is a must for any fan of the movies going to New Zealand.
This is really a must-have for anyone on a Lord of the Rings adventure in New Zealand.
But it still didn’t give us the specific location of that scene.
So I took the next logical step and reached out to some really awesome bloggers who had been in the area. One of which, Amanda from dangerous-business.com (which is where I learned about how awesome the Edoras location was) recommended I reach out to a tour operator. The other one, Rikka from Deviating the Norm actually tried to reach out to people she knew from the area.
No luck either way.
At last, I just started reaching out to local hotel/motel owners. They too were unsure, but finally someone pointed me in the direction of the actual landowners where the shots were filmed. I reached out to them and…paydirt! Sharon Falconer, one of the landowners, not only knew the area but offered to take us there for a relatively small fee.
But still, my semi-OCD about the whole thing (this had now become a huge challenge that I was determined to overcome) was gnawing at me during the whole lead up to the trip so I tried reaching out to others in order to get some kind of secondary confirmation.
No one was able to guarantee anything and I’m sure everyone I asked thought I was completely nuts. Even on our tour of the Wellington film locations our guide (who himself was obsessed with showing us exact spots used in exact screen caps) didn’t seem too confident about anything. Worse, he painstakingly showed the tour how often multiple locations were used in creating certain shots, sometimes from locations hundreds of miles apart.
The morning of our tour arrived and Sharon picked us up from where we were staying. Her confidence and encyclopedic knowledge about the movies and region in general was very encouraging right from the start. Still… this was literally our only chance at this and at this point it had nothing to do even with the movies… I just wanted to WIN.
As we crossed over onto her property though, that feeling quickly faded. The whole Ida Valley and specifically the Poolburn Reservoir/Bonspiel Station area is simply magic. More than anywhere else we went, the landscape is utterly fantastical. Nothing was changed for the movies, aside for a few road improvements and the removal of some fences. This was really Rohan, home of the horse lords, with the unique rocks sticking out of the ground in all kinds of crazy formations.
Like hundreds of other places in New Zealand, you don’t need to be a Lord of the Rings geek to appreciate the amazing landscape. Who cares about some stupid video clip when you’re surrounded by views like this? I mean, really.
And Sharon proved to be an excellent guide. She took us to specific locations used in the filming and shared with us all kinds of interesting stories, not just about the movies, but about life in the Ida Valley in general. It was really cool.
It also didn’t take long for her to deliver on her confidence. One of our first stops was one of the exact spots where Legolas uses his “elf eyes” to see.
There was no doubt about it – we were there. This is where they freakin’ took the hobbits to Isengard.
The other locations in the clip were really just random rocks on the property, so we just picked a few that looked like them and did the rest there. Here’s the finished product:
Note: we weren’t exactly going for an exact representation (we didn’t use props or try to stay in character or anything). This was just for laughs. The point of the exercise was finding an elusive place. We’ll leave it to the true fans to go back there and do a proper recreation.
Sharon also took us into a few other shooting locations, which were maybe even cooler. We went to the canyon where Pippin drops his leaf pin and Aragorn does his whole “listening to the rock” routine. We did some more videos there, with Sharon’s help.
NOT IDLY DO THE LEAVES OF LORIEN FALL YOU GUYS
Finally we went out to the Poolburn reservoir itself for another cool movie location. This was also precisely as it looked in the movies and a beautiful place in and of itself. Of course by this point it was starting to rain so it was time to pack it in for the day and move on.
In the end, I was really happy with the day and the tour itself. We ended up being with Sharon for over two hours and she was really cool, taking pictures and video of us even without us needing to ask. She also knows EVERYTHING about the region. She also apparently got questions from every tour guide and hotel/motel operator in the neighborhood about the location… since everyone I asked had to ask her… since it’s her property…
Well whatever, at least I can save you the trouble if you’re going to the neighborhood without a tour and want to find this most elusive of meme locations.
Side quest: COMPLETED.
And while it didn’t help us find the place they took the hobbits to Isengard…the Lord of the Rings location guidebook did help us find tons of other really awesome places. Must-buy for anyone going to New Zealand who has ever seen the movies.
They’re taking the Kapoanos to Isengard… AKA back home to New Jersey
Well, I’m sitting here now at the lovely Emperor Club at the Auckland Airport. We had a three hour drive today followed by a 90 minute flight from Queenstown to here. Now we begin the real journey home, via California.
Since our last update, we’ve continued having some really wild experiences.
As I alluded to in the last post, on Wednesday morning we had our tour of “Rohan” AKA the Poolburn Reservoir area in the Otago region. This place was unreal. Moreso even than Hobbiton or Togariro, this was without a doubt the most Middle Earth-like area we found. They changed basically nothing for the movie. You just drive out there (with the local land owner) and BOOM you’re in a movie. We’ll have a full review of the area, including a bunch of pretty hilarious videos we got of us clowning around as Aragorn and Legolas. Really great experience.
From Poolburn we continued on to Queenstown. On the way we made a stop at the Kawariko Gorge suspension bridge which was where they shot my favorite scene in the entire series – the Great River, which is the only time in the movies where you hear the full “ring” theme in its entirety.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on what you’re into), the bridge is the site of a bungee jump facility. This is not our thing. However, a lot of people really love it and if you are into bungee jumping good on ya. For me though, the blasting electronic dance music didn’t exactly evoke the kind of mood I was hoping for. Oh well!
Queenstown is a great city – I wish we could have spent more time there. We took the gondola to a really cool overlook where you can participate in more extreme sports, including more bungee jumping (what is it about New Zealand that makes people want to jump off of bridges so much?), luge and what appeared to be a really aggressive downhill mountain bike track. You can also watch a Maori Haka, which I was really excited for.
From Queenstown we proceeded to Te Anau which was to be our base for exploring Fiordlands and Milford Sound. The entire park is a must-see attraction and I highly recommend taking a cruise out on the water. It’s incredible. After our miserable weather luck in the beginning of the trip we were blessed with one of only 14 average days of clear skies they get in a year. The cruise, hikes (think Fangorn Forest type of scenery) and underwater observatory will probably be the subject of their own post as well. UNLUCKILY we were actively pursued by sandflies everywhere we went – I came down with some nasty bites on my right index finger which really made steering the car a chore.
That night, after we got back into town, we went on a glow worm tour. This was quite the experience. After a 20 minute boat ride, we reached the entrance to the caves where the glow worms live. We then walked through a dimly lit tunnel to a pitch black cave. We then boarded ANOTHER boat on an underground lake. I’m pretty sure if we lingered there long enough we would have been challenged to a game of riddles by Gollum. Anyway the glow worms were pretty cool but there was no photography allowed.
The last day was our last full day. We drove down the Catlins in the hopes of maybe seeing some Aurora Australis. Fat chance. But the scenery was really beautiful on the coast again and at twilight the hills were truly beautiful.
Today we came all the way back up to Queenstown. After a couple of last-minute adventures where we nearly ran out of gas and were treated to a speeding ticket (going 116 KPH in a 100 KPH zone) a mere 90 minutes from returning the car, our driving experience came to an end. All in all driving in New Zealand wasn’t nearly the challenge everyone made it out to be. But a full review and write up of that experience is coming as well.
Now we’re just waiting to board our flight to California, so this is going to be the last post I do from inside the country. We’re a little depressed, but we were never going to move here sooooo this moment was inevitable before we even left. However, you can expect a load of detailed reviews and write ups of our various excursions and experiences to come. Final thoughts will be coming as well once we’re home.
Over the past few days we’ve been driving in the South Island of New Zealand. And
While the North Island had a lot of cool sites to visit, the South Island really is like being in a fantasy world. It is all it’s cracked up to be.
We also got an upgraded car thanks to Ariel haranguing Budget for all the issues we had with the GPS and the crappy car in general. It’s been a major difference since we’re able to spread out. This is a key thing to keep in mind, the size of the car may hurt you a bit on gas mileage but when you’re spending 5+ hours of your life in it everyday, the most important decision you’ll make on one of these trips is how you are getting around.
Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve been up to over the past few days.
On Saturday after dumping the rental car, we traversed the Cook Strait via ferry. Unfortunately it was pretty grey and dreary but it’s still a great experience. If you are doing the rental car thing MAKE SURE you take the Interislander ferry, not the Blue Bridge like we did. More details on this in our upcoming detailed review of renting a car in New Zealand. From the ferry port of Picton we then took a quick drive around the Marlborough Sounds region and then drove across the longest winding mountain road I’ve ever seen. Some of it in the rain. Fun.
After what seemed like hours (because it was) we finally emerged onto the West Coast highway of the South Island. Wow. Imagine the Pacific Coast highway in California…but maybe better.
We went on to see the pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki. At this point, the sun was teasing us coming in and out of the clouds – this time with a rainbow. The whole place was awesome but we were exhausted (especially me – at this point I was really not feeling well and driving was getting to be a real chore).
Finally we arrived at the west coast town of Greymouth just in time to crash in our motel bed.
The next morning, we continued on to the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers. I wasn’t feeling too hot so our hikes were really limited. Also limited was the visibility. Apparently they get five meters of rain there a year. That’s a lot. It was rainy and foggy and we were only able to see Franz Joseph. Pretty disappointing but it was still cool.
After the glaciers, we barreled across the Southern Alps (AKA the Misty Mountains). Once we got across into the valley, the sun came out again – this time for good. We took a short forest hike down to the Blue Pools before continuing on to our final destination of the day – Lake Wanaka. It had been a few days since we stayed somewhere with air conditioning…apparently from Wellington on south, it’s not really common to have AC. This was the first night we badly needed it.
On Monday we went from Lake Wanaka to Twizel, where the famous battle of Pelennor Fields took place in Return of the King. After a pretty sad attempt at a drone flight over the area we continued to a Mount Cook overlook (AKA the Lonely Mountain only in real life it’s not so lonely). This place was really breathtaking. Unfortunately, it would become the site of a minor disaster the following day.
From there we went all the way up to Mount Sunday across a 20 mile stretch of not-so-smooth gravel road. This was where they filmed the outdoor Edoras scenes in the Two Towers. The hike up looked like it would be tough, but we powered through and aside from a couple of mishaps crossing a stream, we got to the top with no incidents.
Full review of the area coming in a separate post.
From there we drove back down the way we came until we arrived in Lake Tekapo where we stayed the night. But not before taking a trip up to the Mount John Observatory after dark for a stargazing tour.
Absolutely incredible. And also worthy of its own post.
Finally at about 1:30 am the longest day of the trip (and one of the best) came to an end.
YESTERDAY we had a bit of an incident. From Lake Tekapo we returned to the Mount Cook area – this time to a different overlook. Here I got it into my brilliant brain to try and take the drone out for a spin again. It…didn’t go well…
Immediately after takeoff the wind just took it away from me. Immediately I had to go running after it just to try and get it to respond to my commands. Eventually I managed to bring it down on the wrong side of the street. After sliding down the side of the cliff I was relieved to see it stayed together in one piece. All I needed to do was reach for it…and… I stepped, through what I thought was grass right into a knee-deep swamp. Disaster. And what made it worse was that I still couldn’t even reach it so now I had to put my other foot into the swamp in order to get it.
Now my shoes, socks and shorts were soaking wet, covered in mud and slime and Lord knows what else… and we had about five hours of driving before we got to our next stop.
So that sucked. Luckily I was driving around with practically an entire wardrobe, so aside from the fact that I had to drive in flip flops for the whole day it wasn’t too bad. At least there weren’t any leeches.
But in that moment… man…
The rest of the day wasn’t too eventful, we made some cool stops along the Waitiki Valley and on the east coast but I was just relieved to arrive at our home for the evening – the Millfield Cottage in Omakau. This place was great, but again no air conditioning and no screens on the windows.
Yesterday morning we had our tour of Rohan and spent some time in Queenstown, but that’s going to be the subject of its own standalone post soon.
That’s all for this update, stay tuned for more, including the resolution of one of our primary missions for this trip. Would we be able to find the location of this famous scene?
One does NOT simply walk into Mordor… Or traverse the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
On Wednesday, Ariel and I traversed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Or in other words, we attempted to simply walk into Mordor.
We had known this day was coming for months and even made some half-hearted attempts to “train” for it by doing a few hour-long hikes around New Jersey.
We were unprepared.
Our bus picked us up from the Park Hotel where we were staying at 7:30 am and dropped us off at the start of the trail around 8 am. We began our trek surrounded by hundreds of people of varying ages, from children all the way to their literal grandparents. Most of the people were in their 20’s. Disappointed to be surrounded by so many people but excited to get going, we embarked on our journey into Mordor.
We were told the bus would meet us on the other side at 3 pm and that if we were running late, we could catch a later bus at 4:30. If we needed more time than that, we could make arrangements for a private pickup for $150. No thanks. Generally it takes people about 7-8 hours so we had nothing to worry about.
The first kilometer was really easy. We were both thinking that the whole thing would be no sweat and that we’d easily make the 3 pm bus.
Somewhere between the first and second kilometer the trail began to turn uphill. It was still pretty easy, but there was a definite change. Ariel and I both have some respiratory issues, with her having full blown asthma and me having…something like asthma that I’ve never really gotten properly diagnosed.
We began falling behind people at this point. But still, no big deal. Nothing we hadn’t already seen on short stints on the Appalachian Trail or other hikes back home.
Then we came to this sign…
…which we had precisely zero respect for as you can see from Ariel’s expression.
Unfortunately for us, it wasn’t lying because this is where the real ordeal began. For the next two hours it was a nearly 45 degree climb of stairs. With our aforementioned breathing issues, that meant stopping every 20 steps or so to catch our breath. Now anyone who has ever gone uphill will tell you that is an absolutely disastrous approach to climbing. We knew this. It didn’t matter though. We had to keep stopping as our hearts were pounding in our ears.
To be sure, we weren’t the ONLY people suffering, but we were definitely among the worst. People were hopping and skipping along past us as we sat, panting. Some people even jogged and RAN past us. Lord how I hated those people.
The views though…
Absolutely spectacular. And truly otherworldly. This WAS Middle Earth.
At times the trail actually leveled off and we had bursts of energy and excitement. Highs and lows (literally) is the name of the game. We even got to take some fun pictures along the way when we weren’t feeling crushed by the experience.
The trouble was that after two hours, when we were in the midst of what I was calling the “plains of Gorgoroth” there was still one more major ascent. This time with no steps. We literally needed to pull ourselves up by chains.
Absolutely brutal. More than once we both thought about turning back. I was trying to keep it together and push us both across what I thought was the finish line. We took our last break, had our lunch in a rocky outcropping that was our only shelter from 30+ MPH sustained winds and pushed forward.
By this point it was clear that the 3 pm bus was never happening and that even the 4:30 bus would be a long shot.
Then, after one last push, finally, we were at the summit. From here we had an incredible view of the blue lakes, emerald lakes, red crater and of course Mount Doom or Mount Ngauruhoe for people who prefer real world names for their deadly volcanoes.
Unfortunately for us, what goes up, must come down. And unlike Frodo and Sam, there were no giant eagles to come and fly us back to Rivendell. Or in this case, the car park.
From the top it was a steep (around 30-40 degree) descent, on thick brown sand. Poor Ariel fell a couple of times, but luckily the ground was really soft so it was no big deal. And still people of all ages kept zooming past us, just casually jogging down, looking like they were skiing past us.
At this point I had developed some knee cramps, a heel blister, some pain in my groin muscles and thighs on the ascent, so going downhill was a relief for a while. Eventually though, the “downhill muscles” started acting up too and I started developing a blister on my right pinky toe.
The landscape also changed dramatically from the ascent as well. Whereas on the ascent, we were surrounded by volcanic rocks, on the downhill portion the landscape turned green, with some steam geysers emanating from some places on the mountain. It was very atmospheric and cool looking. At this point we were doing pretty well as the trail eventually leveled off and began lazily winding down the mountain at just a few degrees.
By the time we arrived at the next rest area, we felt great. With just a few kilometers to go – all downhill – seemingly at a leisurely pace, we felt like we might even make the 4:30 bus. Just to be safe, we called to find out if there was a later bus and lo and behold there was actually a 5:30 bus we could take for free.
Feeling great, we continued on down.
After about an hour of easy descent, we entered what I can only describe as Mirkwood. No this was not the film location. And no, Mirkwood is not a real place. But man, did it feel like we were trapped in an endless, enchanted rain forest with no way out. The air was utterly still and stifling.
And the stairs. My God, the stairs. Hundreds, thousands of stairs going down into the green gloom. Visibility varied from 50-100 feet at most as the trail made sharp 90 degree turns every few dozen steps. And all stairs all the time.
After about an hour of this, Ariel’s knees began locking up. I was barely in better shape. Our water was mostly gone. Feet were rebelling with every step. With no markers along this stretch we had no idea if we were even making any progress at all. Our pace slowed to a crawl, as Ariel was nearly unable to put any weight on her left knee and I tried to support her weight by having her lean on me as we trudged down, one step at a time.
By now it was becoming clear that we were among the last people left on the trail as we were all alone for 5-10 minutes at a time. At last we came to (what was unbeknownst to us) the last round of stairs. Ariel had to stop a few steps from the bottom and for the first time I started ACTUALLY worrying we wouldn’t make it. As people walked by I was asking them for pain medication and basically decided we would just hitchhike back to the hotel whenever we got to end. Instead of catching the bus, my only goal now was to beat the darkness.
But in the end, Ariel rallied and we got down the last few steps. From this point on the trail leveled off a lot and the last 20 minutes could even be described as pleasant if we weren’t both limping across the finish line. One of the couples that passed us (and graciously offered to drive us to our hotel) reached the end a few minutes before us and called out to us that it was almost over.
Suddenly the trail turned to the left and DAYLIGHT.
It was 5:40. The bus had waited for us. I had to take a selfie by myself at the end of the trail because Ariel just couldn’t stay on her feet anymore.
And just like that it was over. We won. A few days later and we are mostly healed. Ariel’s knee pains faded with some Ibuprofen and my only continuing injury was an absolutely disgusting pinky toe blister and a sunburned neck and face. Whatever, I’ll live.
So would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It really seemed like we got the worst of it when compared to everyone else. It seemed like if you had ANY climbing experience or were a regular hiker it was no big deal. But for people who are mostly used to hiking/walking on flat ground this was no picnic. You need to be prepared for a tough time. And if you can, spend some time building up your leg muscles in advance of the hike.
But if you’re up for it, the views are really and truly amazing.
In terms of supplies, I felt like we had brought about enough food/water to get through the nine hour journey. We had about five liters of water between the two of us, so we probably should have had another liter or so for the last stretch when we went into overtime. I packed two sandwiches, an apple, a granola bar, some carrots and a cucumber. Ariel did the same, minus a sandwich.
By the end of the journey I started feeling like I do at the end of a day of starving myself on Yom Kippur, but I’m not sure if that was due to lack of food or general over-exertion. Other people we saw definitely packed less than us.
You will definitely want a first aid kit with some band aids, anti-bacterial cream, pain medication. If your lips often get chapped, you’ll definitely want to bring something for that too. Also, don’t be an idiot like me – wear sunscreen on all exposed skin.
We both wore backpacks with water bladders and easy access straws. I really liked mine, an Osprey pack with the optional 3 liter bladder attachment. It was light and I barely even remembered I had it on. With all the pains I experienced, back pain was not one of them despite dragging around at least 20 pounds of gear (including 6.5 pounds of water). Highly recommended.
Most importantly you’re going to want to bring lots of layers. We went from thermal fleeces to t-shirts, back to fleeces and back to t-shirts by the end. The temperature changes were nuts.
Also something to keep in mind is the fact that there are only a few places to stop with toilets on the entire journey. That means unless you can hold it for 3+ hours at a time, you’ll either want to limit your water consumption or get used to doing your business in the field, often with little to no privacy. Although I suppose there is some novelty to being able to tell people you took a leak on Mount Doom.
Finally, don’t worry about making your bus. That’s a great way to panic, rush and get yourself seriously injured. And don’t waste your money on “making special arrangements” – first of all there are constantly buses taking people back so that even if you miss yours you can probably hitch a ride with a different bus. They’re not just going to leave you to die. And people who do these treks tend to be really friendly – I have absolute confidence that we would have gotten a ride back from someone who had a car in the lot.
And on that note, we didn’t come across any park rangers at any of the rest areas or anywhere else on the trail. So if you run into trouble like we did (hopefully not worse), you’ll have to rely on your own wits and/or the kindness of strangers.
I’d suspected, despite continual reassurances from local New Zealanders that we would be “fine” and that it would be no big deal, that we actually would be way in over our heads. It was that nervousness that had me asking everyone we met here what it would be like. The response was always something along the lines of “don’t worry, you can do it.” Well that was technically true, we DID make it and we did live to tell the tale. But if either of us had any kind of chronic knee or other leg/foot issue we would have been doomed.
In retrospect it was absolutely worth it. In the moment, it was a nightmare. Would I do it again? Not really – at least not without building up to it with a year or so of regular uphill hikes. Having said all that, if I could do it you can definitely do it. Just know what you’re getting yourself in to.
Because Boromir was absolutely right, one does NOT simply walk into Mordor.
Bilbo was sadly reflecting that adventures are not all pony-rides in May-sunshine…
–The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
So this isn’t a vacation.
We knew this. You knew this.
It’s an adventure.
What’s the difference, you ask? Well, it’s simple really. Vacations are relaxing. Adventures are awesome. But occasionally adventures also suck. And like the word “awesome” sometimes it means amazing, sometimes it means intimidating. When you’re trying to cram an entire country into 13 days, you’re going to experience a lot of highs, but also a lot of lows. Like our friend, Bilbo Baggins, we’ve experienced quite a bit of both over the past few days.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, while incredible and awe-inspiring, did a real number on both Ariel and I. Two days later and we’re still sore. I’m sunburnt, my thighs hurt and I have blisters on my feet. Her knees are painful. On top of that, yesterday, in addition to taking a relaxing yet amazing flight over the very same route we trekked a couple of days ago, I insisted we trek up to the Putangirua Pinnacles, which was the film location for the Dimholt Road (pictured at the top of this post).
It was a really cool experience (also to be fully detailed in a later post), but it did add an extra two hours of hiking on rocks to the 10 miserable hours we did the day before. On a normal day it would be no big deal, but in light of the grueling prior 24 hours it definitely set back our healing time.
Then yesterday, during our all day tour of the film locations around Wellington, whoever it is that rules the weather in New Zealand decided to dump about 3 inches of rain on our heads.
Whatever, it was still awesome. Just exhausting.
Today, we have a ferry to catch at 7 am, have to return our garbage rental car and transfer all of our damn stuff into a the new car they’re giving us. And it looks like more pouring rain. Fun times!
Highs and lows. Pony rides and grueling slogs. We could slow down and miss out on stuff we want, or we can decide to maximize the time that has been given to us. Which would you choose?
Well, it certainly has been a pretty nutty first few days for Ariel and I on our trip. Our goal has been to combine the Tolkien stuff with some of the, you know, actual real New Zealand. Renting a car (or taking buses) is a great way to see how the country really works. This is a major reason why we didn’t just book ourselves on a Lord of the Rings type of tour. Also, we want to see what we want to see.
Having said that… NOT being on a tour has its disadvantages as well…
Like hypothetically, if you were a couple of not-quite-in-shape Americans with limited hiking experience, you might want to think twice before doing the Tongariro Crossing… I’m not saying it nearly killed us, but I’m also not saying it didn’t. We’ll have the full story (with some AMAZING pictures) on that later on.
In the end it was worth it both for the incredible views and the sense of accomplishment.
So here’s a quick recap of what we’ve done so far.
On day 1, after stocking up on kosher deli meats at Gray’s Deli in Auckland (where we went straight from the airport), we drove around Auckland and got some pretty scenic views of the city at the Mount Eden overlook. After some pretty awful driving (on the “wrong side” of the road mind you) experiences in the city proper we were off to our first major film location.
This place was pretty awesome and not that hard to get to. We stayed on the road to avoid the ring-wraiths. Actually it was private property. But the wraiths too.
From there we went to Matamata where we stayed for the night after our first decent meal in about 40 hours at the Redoubt Bar.
On day 2, it was time for our tour of Hobbiton.
There’s not much more to say in a quick summary like this other than that it. Was. AWESOME. I’ll do a full post on this later on when we have some more time, but suffice it to say, if you’re in New Zealand, you have to come here. Even if you aren’t so into the Tolkien stuff, what they did with this set is nothing short of incredible.
From there we went to Rotorua where we learned a bit about Maori culture and saw some amazing geological features.
They have a couple of really cool geysers there (not QUITE Ole Faithful, but still…) and the whole area is a smoking, bubbling cauldron of boiling mud pits and steam vents. Really really cool.
We then stopped at Lake Taupo on our way to our destination for the next two days, Tongariro National Park. THE VERY SLOPES OF MOUNT DOOM.
On day 3, we did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
This will be fully detailed in its own blog post. But for now, suffice it to say that one really REALLY REALLY does not “simply walk” into Mordor.
That’ll do it for today. More to come soon!
If you had to bring one book with you to New Zealand
It would kind of have to be The Hobbit, right? Lord of the Rings is too long/big/bulky to bring the entire three-book volume. And anything not Tolkien-related would be silly. This is a trip to Middle Earth after all.
Obviously, we’re not talking about a Kindle situation here (in which case bring whatever you want), but rather a scenario where you’re carrying everything you need for weeks on your back and have to make some hard choices. And if you’re still into actual, physical books, the “deluxe pocket edition” of the Hobbit is a pretty awesome choice. It’s leather-bound, which means “cool” (but also “expensive” and “easily damaged” apparently) and has gold trimmed pages. There are also some really nice old school illustrations, including maps and hand sketched images of locations and creatures from the book.
The adventure and travel themes of the story make it easily adaptable to any journey.
Because The Hobbit itself is such a short book, having a small version like this means it can easily fit in the smallest backpacks or even in a cargo pocket.
And as a fun bonus, when you bring a physical book like this, you can mark up passages or even take notes on some of the blank pages at the end. Pretty cool thing to do while actually being in the actual locations described in the book. Well, not REALLY the ACTUAL locations I guess. But still…
This is me today. Getting ready to go on what is likely to be my last adventure for a while.
Over the past few years I’ve been bitten by the travel bug in a big, big way. For most of my life I was content to live a pretty sedentary lifestyle, spending the vast majority of my time in New Jersey and the surrounding states. Outside of some regular travel to Israel to see relatives, I generally was confined to my own “Shire” – much like Bilbo Baggins, the hero of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I would get up in the morning, go to school, go to work and then go home and go to sleep.
But at the end of 2009, I decided to blow up the quiet life I had built for myself and see what was outside my comfort zone.
Since then, I’ve been to 44 US States, 3 Canadian provinces and 19 new countries. I embarked on an epic 14,000 mile road trip to every corner of the United States, stood on the deck of a ship along the open seas and was blessed to see some of the most incredible sunsets this planet has to offer.
I also met the love of my life, Ariel.
This is Ariel and I this morning.
Ariel has been an enthusiastic partner on my adventures over the past few years. In fact, it was on a road trip together to the Pacific Northwest that I realized I could marry her. We were married in 2015, combining my passion for exploration with her impeccable planning ability, we have become the perfect travel team.
Now, as we begin planning for a future family, we are on the eve of what is likely to be our last true “adventure” trip for a while. This time to New Zealand, or as I like to think of it, Middle Earth.
Even before the movies and before I began my own adventuring, the works of JRR Tolkien always held a very special place in my life. Luckily, while Ariel isn’t quite the Tolkien nerd I am, New Zealand happens to be one of the most beautiful countries on Earth. So it made sense that this would be the place to indulge our wanderlust one more time before making considerations beyond ourselves.
So we hope you will join us on this journey with us and stick around afterwards as I reflect on past travel experiences and try to find a little adventure in everyday life. I’ll also be talking about hard lessons I’ve learned in my travels so that you can avoid making the same mistakes I’ve made over the years.
Now we’re about to board the plane. The trip of a lifetime is about to begin.