Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Samantha Johnson is HECUA’s student blogger for New Zealand: Culture and the Environment this spring. She is a student at Hamline University, majoring in Environmental Studies and Global Studies, minoring in Chinese. Read on for her first post!
Over the past few weeks our group has been able to connect with place through experiential learning, discussion topics such as Māori treaty rights, co-management, conservation, sustainability, and more. One of the ways we were able to see these teachings exemplified was through Tongariro National park. A park that is a world heritage site and considered sacred to many, is currently in transition from national government rule to a more equitable co-management style between tangata whenua (people of the land) and the Department of Conservation. Mount Ruapehu and other mountains and rivers within the park are spiritual sites, so hikers like ourselves are encouraged to tread lightly and with respect.
Our journey to Tongariro National Park began promptly at 7 am, later than it should have begun, with rushed last-minute preparation and adjustments to packs. It was the first morning of three in our backpacking trip. Tensions were somewhat high as many of us have never been on a hike longer than 5 hours, let alone three days! As everyone was rushing around the kitchen grabbing trail mix, snacks, and distributing whatever remaining food we would need for the next few days, a sense of excitement rushed over me. We were going to hike up mountains so awe-inspiring that they were set as the scene for Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest LOTR fan, but that fun fact made me anticipate the hike with a little bit more wonder.
After going through our hiking essentials checklist (food, water, rain gear, layers, toilet paper, boots, etc.) one last time, all 21 of us crammed into two vans and set out on our journey. The ride was filled with laughter and 2000s pop songs which was a positive contrast to the foggy gray weather we were driving through. Upon getting closer to the park, I noticed that the tops of the mountains were not visible, shrouded in ominous looking clouds (this did not help my nerves).
For our first day we had about an eight-hour (19.4 km) hike ahead of us; starting at Mangatepopo Road, moving onward to hit the sites of Soda Springs, Devil’s Staircase, Red Crater, and Blue Lake, then switching off the Alpine Crossing trail onto the trail for Oturere Hut, where we would end our night. Our group gathered in a circle as Ngārangi (our program co-director) said a quick karakia to wish us well on our hike, mentioning that the light mist falling over us was a sign of good luck. We would later find out that it would not be the only sign of good luck on our journey.
The beginning of the hike started out flat and mild. The terrain was gravelly with shrubs and bush flowers bordering the trail, creating a beautiful mix of yellows, purples, and dark greens. As we ascended higher into the mountains, the volcanic terrain became more apparent due to lava flows being present at higher density toward the top of the mountain. It looked like we were walking in another world as the volcanic rocks took bizarre form and the plentiful flora we saw at the bottom became sparse. While walking on a plateaued section of the mountain, the first form of life we had yet to see appeared; a dragonfly. It came whizzing over and hovered in front of us. We were shocked that this small creature had survived in such strong winds and wondered how it reached us at our height. The dragonfly took shelter underneath our classmate Cecelia’s hood and stayed with us until we reached the top. Perhaps it was acting as our guide seeing that we made it to our destination. At that point the winds had really begun to pick up and were coming from the side, pelting us with rain, and making it harder to see. I began to understand why the ascent up to the crater lakes was referred to as the Devil’s Staircase because of the way the rocks slip beneath your feet as you climb up steep ridges overlooking stomach dropping depths. Quite a fun section!
However, as we trudged our way to the top, something incredible took place. We hadn’t been able to see more than a couple hundred meters ahead of us the entire journey, up until we reached the lookout. As if we were rewarded for our hard work, the winds swept away the mist and we could finally see the terrain that lay ahead of us. Beautiful teal and emerald steaming lakes lit up the landscape, while jagged mountains jutted out of the earth and rolled across the land for miles. We stood in complete awe; I couldn’t help but smile at the surreal beauty we were so privileged to see. A stunning white seagull appeared and circled around the emerald lake closest to us, another rare sighting of life amidst the unforgiving terrain. We half-walked, half-slid down a gravel hill to reach the lakes. Feeling the warm sulfur mist against my face was something of a treat after facing the cold rain. We regrouped past the lakes by the trail sign, marking where we would switch to our new path toward Oturere hut. I peeled off my soaking rain gear and laid it to dry in the warm sun, enjoying some trail mix during the wait. As the rest of our group trickled in, sounds of laughter and relief grew as we reflected on each of our experiences.
Moving onward, we descended the mountain into a desert-like environment. Dark sands gently swept over stark rock structures and we kicked tuff (a light and airy rock) while walking down our path. The rain was on and off as the sun peaked out of the clouds. Our last sign of good luck was the rainbow that appeared against the western-facing mountains. It shone bright and picked up our spirits while we carried our sore feet and hungry stomachs. By the time we arrived at our hut for the night, everyone was tuckered out and ready for dinner. We feasted on pre-made dinners (the kind where you just add hot water) and enjoyed each other’s company. The sunset left a beautiful haze of purple, pink, and yellow over the flat landscape, later giving way to a sky full of stars. I felt quite proud of the accomplishment our group made hiking the Alpine Crossing together and looked forward to the two days ahead of us.