A Climb to the Mountain of Fire in New Zealand — Page 2
By Debi Goodwin

foot of the mountain

Finally, the climbing seemed over. I stopped to eat some lunch with a woman I'd walked with part way. We sat by a crater that overlooked "Mount Doom." Its dry, cratered top looked nothing like the computer-altered, fire-spewing mountain of Lord of the Rings. But I had made it to its base and felt a twinge of satisfaction, even though I was less than half way through the pass.

The woman I ate with looked at the flat land ahead of us and said, with some relief, "I think the climbing part is over." But I pointed to the distance where another, very steep climb waited for us. We turned our back to it and savoured the spectacular, volcanic view.

The second climb was shorter but sharper. Beautiful lookouts provided ample excuse for stopping along the way. The so-called Red Crater was a brown and red hole with high sides and a vast landscape beyond it.

When I reached the peak of the steep climb, I thought the worst was over but the ridge downward looked daunting. As soon as I stepped onto the loose rock, I felt my feet slip and knew I'd have to take this descent very slowly. All around me, hikers were falling and bumping into others bringing them down. Athletic men attacked the slope with the confidence of youth only to tumble forward. I moved with slow side steps closer to the edge so I wouldn't be knocked over. And I took that whole descent sideways, bent over like Gollum.

To one side of me lakes dotted the volcanic rock. They held water so turquoise it would appear color-corrected in my photos; I tried to imprint the beauty of those lakes on my brain, but my focus was on the gravel-like surface beneath my feet that sent me sliding if I didn't concentrate. It was on that slope more than anywhere else that I wondered why I was doing this hike, what I was trying to prove.

mountain lakes new zealand

To the End of the Quest

At the bottom, I felt instant relief. Another flat section greeted me and I knew the rest of the descent would be gentler as it snaked around the mountain. When I got to a point called Ketetahi Hut, the card said I had approximately two more hours to go. If I hurried, there was a chance I could make the second bus, the one that left at 3:00 p.m.

Artichokes in Rome Huh! I didn't account for my fatigue, the effects of the sun that was now searing and the pull on my knees as I wound around the switchbacks. I had lost my walking companion somewhere along the way and my pace slowed. When I realized I wouldn't make the 3:00 bus and would have to wait for the 4:30 one, I lost the incentive to move with any haste. I did, however, keep looking for a forest we were supposed to cross in the last half hour of our walk, a forest that would provide relief from the heat. But all I saw below me, for what felt like hours were seemingly endless switchbacks. "Where's the damn forest?" I kept saying to myself.

I sped up a little when I finally did spot the forest and then I lingered in it a little, fondly noting the trees I didn't know by name but recognized from my easier hikes. But when I came to a river, I sped up again because I didn't understand the danger sign there. The sign said it was a "lahar" zone and if I heard a noise upstream I should not go forward. Even if I didn't hear anything, the sign warned, I should move fast through the zone. I didn't know what a lahar was; perhaps it was Maori name for some river creature. It was only later I learned it was a geologic term for a mass of wet volcanic fragments that could flow quickly down a river. But then, when I didn't know what it was, I glanced repeatedly at the tumultuous waters looking for any dangers that lurked in them. At least fear gave me the adrenaline I needed to finish.

view on the way down

At the endpoint, as I waited for the 4:30 bus with other hikers, I felt triumphant. None of the others had found the trail easy; all of us were relieved to be finished.

For months after the hike, I carried my souvenirs of that day with me: a purple big toenail from the constant knocking of shoes against rock, the stillness of those mountains, and a sense I could accomplish more than I believed I could.

Debi Goodwin is the author of the non-fiction book, Citizens of Nowhere. Her memoir on grief and gardening, A Victory Garden for Trying Times, will be published by Dundurn Press in Canada in September of 2019.

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Related Features:
Mount Whitney or Die - Sherry Shahan
Crossing the Creases of Wild Kyrgyzstan - Tim Leffel
Long Range Traverse in Newfoundland - Tony Robinson-Smith
Tasmania's "New" Ancient Walkabout - Bruce Northam

See other New Zealand travel stories from the archives

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