Fire and Ice

Enter the otherworld of The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park.

This story appears in the July 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

As you contemplate the heart of Tongariro National Park— three peaks that rise in one of the most beautiful places in the famously beautiful country of New Zealand—you may well find questions of aesthetics intruding on your appreciation of the spectac­ular scene before you.

To the south looms the craggy mass of Ruapehu, at 9,176 feet the tallest peak on the North Island. Built by 250,000 years of volcanism, it's still active today—waking every few years to send up enormous columns of steam and ash. To the north is Tongariro, even older, a sprawling complex of ancient craters where vents continuously and ominously exhale sulfurous clouds.

In the middle stands Ngauruhoe. Less massive than its companions, Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy) forms a wondrously symmetrical cone, capturing your attention with the simple perfection of its form. The mountain lacks only a few streaks of vivid red crayon above it to be every child's drawing of the archetypal volcano.

What (you ask yourself) is this anomalously sensual shape doing in such a rough neighborhood? And further: What does it mean that you're so irresistibly attracted to it?

"Age, I do abhor thee; youth, I do adore thee," the Bard wrote, and there you have it—an expla­nation and a justification, if you need one. This peak was born just a couple thousand years ago. The Ice Age glaciation that tore and scarred Ruapehu and Tongariro happened long before Ngauruhoe was born. Rain and fiery explo­sions have not yet marred its face. In the geological world, too, the beauty of youth works its seductive power.

The Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, look on all three volcanoes with awe and consider them tapu, a word whose diverse meanings include both "sacred" and "sanctity." When Euro­peans began settling the central North Island in the mid to late 19th century, divid­ing the land into towns and farms, the Maori feared for the integrity of the peaks. The para­mount chief, Horonuku, or Te Heuheu Tukino IV, came up with a farsighted solution: He transferred the volcanoes' tapu from himself to Queen Victoria, and in 1887 he entrusted the mountains and the land within a mile of their summits to the government and people of New Zealand. The tract became the country's first national park and has grown to the current 194,270-acre protected area.

Maori tapu explains why Tongariro holds the rare distinction of having twice been named a World Heritage site, both for its physical features and, later, for its cultural importance. The park's fire-and-ice combination of active volcanoes and glaciers easily won it the natural-her­itage status of sites such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Everglades. But the United Nations committee that decides such matters originally turned down New Zealand's proposal to accept Tongariro as a cultural site, having previously given that rank only to human-built sites (think of Chartres Cathedral and the Egyptian pyra­mids). After a new presentation from a delegation including Maori elders, though, Tongariro in 1993 became the first site in the world to receive heritage status under a new criterion called asso­ciative cultural landscapes, for the ter­rain's spiritual importance to indigenous people.

The 12-mile-long trail called the Tongariro Alpine Crossing begins in tussock grassland, then climbs past lava cliffs and glacial moraines (heaps of debris piled up by former glaciers) to the base of Ngauruhoe, where hikers willing to endure a couple of hours trudging up scree can make a side trip to the top of the volcano. The main route ascends the slopes of Tongariro to the top of Red Crater. Steaming like the gate to hell, Red Crater is named for the rock around its mouth, given a chestnut hue by oxidized iron. Surrounding swaths of black lava testify to the crater's long history of eruptions, continuing through the late 1800s.

On the downslope from Red Crater, three lakes fill explosion pits stained by minerals in shades of emerald that gave them the Maori name Ngarotopounamu. Soon after, the crossing passes another lake, Te Wai-whakaata-o-te Rangihiroa, or Blue Lake. Indeed, on a clear day its water seems torn from the sky above. The trail then descends grassy hillsides and passes steaming volcanic vents to finish in dense forest along a tumbling stream called Mangatipua.

On the southwestern slope of Ruapehu, ancient woodlands of a different sort survive by a quirk of geography. The great bulk of Ruapehu sheltered this forest from the massive Taupo volcano blast of A.D. 186, while trees for miles in all other directions were flattened. An easy trail winds under soaring rimu, matai, and kahikatea trees laden with ferns, while below, tree ferns spread their lacework fronds, and kamahi trees seem to be frozen in the throes of a hula-like dance.

This lushness, like Tongariro's innumerable rocky streams and waterfalls, is fed by clouds that drift from the Tasman Sea to release their moisture against the mountain slopes. In the North Island's highlands you'll have ample opportunity to perfect your own definitions of fog, mist, drizzle, sprinkle, light rain, and rain, and the subtle distinctions among them.

Coexisting with Tongariro's beauty are serious conservation and cultural issues. Like the rest of New Zealand, the park's ecosystem suffered terrible losses from the introduction of alien species, from rats brought by the earliest Maori to rabbits, stoats, Australian possums, and cats brought by Europeans. Native birds, which evolved without mammalian predators for millions of years, were devastated and survive today at only a fraction of their former numbers. Even as the kiwi, the bizarre, flightless bird, became the beloved symbol of New Zealand, it almost died out in the wild, its eggs and young devoured by stoats.

Plants, too, cause problems for park managers. An early ranger introduced grouse from Britain as game and brought heather to feed them. The grouse died out, but heather spread as a lavender-hued plague, displacing native vege­tation over wide areas. Lodgepole pine came from North America as a timber tree; its wind-borne seeds carry far beyond plantations, making it exceedingly difficult to eradicate.

Only the widespread use of traps and poisons to fight intruders has prevented the decline of species such as the rare blue duck, which still inhabits Tongariro streams; the parrot known by the Maori name kaka; and the absurdly fearless little New Zealand robin, which hops around the boots of hikers, searching for insects in leaves stirred by their footsteps. Thanks to intensive poisoning and a program of raising chicks in captivity until they can defend themselves, the kiwi's eerie whistling calls still echo through Tongariro's woodlands, thrilling those who venture out along trails on quiet nights.

Incongruously, the North Island's most popular ski areas sit on the three slopes of Ruapehu, with their associated shops, lifts, and roads. No such blatantly commercial development would be allowed in a national park today, but the ski runs date from 1913 and, for better or worse, attract a half million visitors a season. Department of Conservation (DOC) staffers constantly try to find compromises in park management that will keep skiers satisfied while protecting one of the planet's most wondrous places.

Decisions about Tongariro's safekeeping have grown ever more complex. In recent decades Tongariro's Maori neighbors, the indigenous iwi (Maori communities)—long excluded from such matters by the ruling Pakeha (people of European ancestry)—have regained polit­ical rights and influence. Some believe that Te Heuheu—­who was, after all, chief only of the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe—had no right to give away the three volcanic peaks on behalf of all Maori and would like to reclaim the park as sacred tribal land. Others, less radical, would close the mountaintops to climbers or restrict access to those accompanied by a local Maori guide.

Bird-eating stoats, parking-lot construction, profound spiritual and cultural values—all these issues crowd the desks of DOC managers. And one more: Theoretically at least, the park could blow itself to smithereens at any moment.

A visitor can put these concerns out of mind for a while—long enough for a hike that in a single day can encompass barren volcanic rock and rich, complex forest, the sound of waterfalls and the whoosh of native pigeons' wings, the smells of sulfur from deep underground and of moss and ferns and earth after rain. And above it all, the sight of the three great peaks of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro, the creators and destroyers of this land.