Way back when, at the very start of the new millenium, I traveled to New Zealand and Tonga. The purpose was simple- a friend asked me to go to Tonga to avoid the impending Y2K disaster and greet the new year, and I didn’t even know where it was, so I said yes.  To maximize the very long air travel, I took a month extra to travel in the “jump off” country- either Australia or New Zealand.  Since Australia is full of poisonous, venomous, man-eating things, I decided to travel New Zealand.  A now-former friend and I traveled the north and south islands in a campervan, hiking, kayaking, and camping.  One of the early forays being Tongariro Crossing, in Tongariro National Park.

I remember the volcanic plateau on the North Island as a magical place, a hike across the moonscape of an explosion crater up over a ridge to see the angry colors of an earth ripped apart.  It was a long hike, I recall, and rugged, but beautiful dropping over the ridge to Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes.

When my application for the International Conference for Interpretation was accepted, I had the perfect opportunity to go back to the Crossing, this time with a digital camera to capture the magic and colors.  I have pictures of that 2000 trip somewhere tucked away in an album, in a box, in the back of a closet.

And I need to find them now, because something has changed.  I have, surely, 16 years older, with an engineered hip and a decade and a half of wear on a body never built for what I’ve put it through.  But I expected that.  It’s the Crossing itself that’s changed, by people and for people.

The first warning came in the form of signs in National Park Village.  Shuttle rides advertised everywhere.  CrossingAdForgot your gear?  We rent jackets and boots and packs and trekking poles.  BootsForHire





The nice staff at the Park Hotel said, “Oh, you were here when it was a tramp.  Now it’s just a walk, really. But the weather can go quite bad.”

Once you get on the trail, signs let you know exactly how long you’ll take to get anywhere.


And a sign acts as a stern parent in case you’ve forgotten your galoshes- or in the case of the wispy lady who streamed by it, if you’re heading up on a socked in day in sparkly keds, skinny jeans, with your iPod and earbuds and k-pop still audible to the world.AreYouPrepared

The thousands of stairs painstakenly laid to make travel safer caused pain for any of us with old joints and fake parts.  Two tough ladies in their 70’s trooped up the trail, but cursed the stairs on their way out.

I was lucky to be there in the “slow” season.  There were a fair number of travelers, but only a small fraction of the 4500 my shuttle driver said streamed over the trail on Waitangi Day.  “Queues at the loos, lines at the steep bits,” he said.  “It’s the thing you do in New Zealand,” said the nice Irish lady at the hotel desk.  “You check in to National Park one day, do the hike the next, complain if the weather’s bad, then leave the following morning.” The Department of Conservation changed the name in 2007 to the Tongagiro Alpine Crossing to stress the potential danger, but perhaps to no avail.

Well, I’d taken five days to hike, and I could wait for a chance of decent weather.  I hiked it on Day 3. It was socked in at the South Crater, but suddenly a chill wind swept across the crater and the ridge came into view.  The clouds continued to depart in the stiff breeze, unveiling the rich volcanic colors under bluebird skies at the Red Crater.

The descent was indeed a walk- I did it in my runners to give my feet a break.  On the way, I stopped to take photos of the Te Maari crater, the latest eruption site from 2012.  A ranger passing by volunteered the story and pointed out where the lahar had destroyed vegetation in its path.  I commented that this volcano complex was far more angry and volatile than our Mt. St. Helens. “We like our volcanoes lively here,” he said. Traveling through the lahar zone at the bottom, I could see he was right.

I hope the crowds see this terrain for its mercurial power and grandeur, an abstract painting of the earth turning itself inside out.  I hope they look at the view behind the selfie and beyond the congratulatory t-shirt and the Lord of the Rings filming locations. This hike was was a measure of how much I’ve changed, and how much the way we play has changed.  I won’t go back- there are beautiful places more remote and peaceful to challenge my ageing bones, but the amazing volcanic landscape won me over again.