Trials and Tribulations on the Tongariro Pass

Over the course of a month traveling, I admit I’ve resorted to hyperbole to keep the blog fresh. Even so, on the Tongariro I encountered my first big challenge of the trip: a sprained ankle.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. After a few angsty days in Rotorua, I was excited to move on to Taupo, a town popular for tourists doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. As North Island hikes go, Tongariro is one of the most infamous — it’s a bit more difficult than the standard hike here, and the mountain itself starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As you could imagine, Tongariro is pretty hype.

I met up with my friend Maarten (who I’d met in Whangarei) at Finlay Jack’s, another solid YHA hostel. Almost immediately, Maarten and I claimed a couch in the courtyard and caught up on our adventures, aided by a few beers.

After running out of beer alarmingly quickly, we made the jaunt to Countdown to pick up more beer and wine to drink while we made a stir fry dinner. On the way we passed a cemetery, which I take to be a perversely good sign on any journey.

Maarten is the type of human I could talk to for hours, or maybe days, while still being perfectly happy sitting in pensive silence. As someone who’s been traveling for nearly two years, he’s an excellent travel companion for a Molly who’s touristically overwhelmed. I was relieved to have someone to vent to — and maybe have a good cry. What can I say? I have overreactive tear ducts.

A quick side note: I’ve carried a small tarot card deck with me, and this was the first day I decided to pull a card for myself. It ended up being The Tower, a card representing crisis and unforeseen change. Fitting. Since then, I’ve pulled a daily card, which acts as something of a daily meditation.

The next morning I had intended to do the Tongariro, but the crossing was closed due to weather. What else was there to do but once again find the courtyard couch and waste away in the sunshine? Although I’ll admit to doing one productive thing: Maarten records himself narrating the Lord of the Rings and (very romantically) sends them to his girlfriend Sonne in the Netherlands. I narrated part of a chapter, which made me feel somewhat useful — though my American accent doesn’t exactly elevate Tolkien’s language.

Getting hungry, Maarten and I walked to Suncourt Indian, which has $10 lunch specials. We ended up exploring the shops of Taupo a bit. I picked up a pair of sunglasses and a quick-dry towel, and he got a collapsible camping pot.

And then we saw some folks carrying ice cream cones — the siren song of the tourist. Luna’s Gelateria serves up a solid scoop of tiramisu. We sat on an outside bench watching afternoon traffic as I happily introduced Maarten to the Enneagram. Though he’s suspicious of the personality system, he thinks he’s a 3. I’ll refrain from commenting here, as I’ve given him enough flack.

We ambled down to the waterfront of Taupo Lake, taking advantage of the cloud coverage.

On the way home we got kebab takeaways, talked to a very loud man from Virginia about the coronavirus and Elon Musk’s satellites, and watched the sunset from the hostel couch once again. As the weather forecast looked clear, we got snacks in preparation for the next day’s Tongariro crossing and I was conned into getting a $5 Pizza Hut pizza for no reason at all.

And then it was Monday, the fateful day on the Tongariro. We departed at 6:30am to drive an hour to the carpark where we’d catch our shuttle ($30 NZ) to the start of the trek. At 19km, they estimate the whole Tongariro Alpine Crossing should take around 7 hours with a few breaks included.

And we were off! The first hour or so involved walking across a flat, mostly barren landscape and looking at Mount Doom in the distance.

And then we ascended the Devil’s Staircase, where conversation became a bit harder and stairmaster practice became more relevant. Also where I had to tell Maarten to slow down, as being 6’3” is a clear advantage over my hobbit legs.

So far, the views were great and I felt like I was truly taking an Elijah Wood journey across Middle Earth, accompanied by hundreds of other travelers with expensive Kathmandu backpacks and 4L water jugs.

From there, we encountered a highly windy ridge and a pretty steep descent from the Red Crater into the Emerald Lakes — the humor of sliding down a giant, dangerous mountain of rocks and sand with dozens of other people was enough to get me through the actual perilousness of the journey.

The lakes were probably my favorite view on the whole journey, reminding me of Taco Bell’s cherished Baja Blast Mountain Dew. I felt thirsty.

We crossed another barren-looking pass and sat at a lake for awhile, seeing that we were about three hours in and would likely finish earlier than the 7-hour estimate. Famous last words.

Beginning a gentle descent into the valley, the most difficult climbs were over. We were bouncing around the rocks, literally singing songs and feeling in pretty great spirits.

And then, on an unassumingly flat path, I felt my ankle buckle underneath me. Down I went, trying to keep myself from rolling down the hill into a giant pile of nothingness. I couldn’t immediately get up, so Maarten (a real-life actual nurse) sat beside me and kept me from hyperventilating with panic at the realization that I just injured my ankle with another 10km till the end of the Tongariro trail. Oops.

Maarten did a cursory inspection, figuring that despite the pain, nothing was probably broken. But we couldn’t know until I stood up, which was dramatic and painful.

For about a kilometer or so, I hobbled down the (relatively flat) trail, attempting to ignore the pain but also at some point stopping to cry with hopelessness. Mentally and physically, I got my shit together enough to maneuver up and down stairs, rocks and dirt paths. A lot of kind travelers offered me ibuprofen and ankle wraps, which was humiliating but very sweet.

As the time passed, I got more comfortable on my bum foot. Maarten, a living angel on earth, kept me company despite my having to move at a geriatric pace. A few hours later, we finally completed the whole 19km (half of which was me limping and awkwardly laughing/crying/working through the stages of grief). I made Maarten take a dramatic photo of me at the finish line.

We caught the shuttle back to the carpark, and thankfully my ankle was well enough for me to drive us back to Taupo. On the way back we listened to Kanye West, mostly because I needed a bit of a pick-me-up.

As a proper medical professional, Maarten didn’t want to diagnose whether the ankle was broken, sprained or something else — but after a little digging on Google, I’ve concluded it’s probably a medium-severity sprain. I can put weight on it, but for the first 48 hours it wasn’t too fun to walk on.

We drank a few beers (helping to numb the physical and emotional pain) and chatted with other hostelers before getting some Indian food in town, effectively raising my spirits.

The next morning, I bandaged my foot with gauze given to me by a Czech couple on the trail. All things considered, the foot was healing all right — but my ankle had ballooned significantly and begun to bruise. I tried to take it in stride. Pun intended, I guess.

With that, it was time to head out to Napier, a coastal Art Deco town where I hoped to heal up and wind down my nerves. Despite the tribulations on the Tongariro, I was thankful to find a true friend in Maarten — and to remember that shit happens when you travel, and that’s how you learn. It’s what I asked for, after all.

Next stop: Napier.

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