New Zealand

Climbing Mount Doom

Mt. Doom (more commonly known as Mt. Ngauruhoe) is a steep, slushy, scree-riddled volcano located along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on New Zealand’s north island. A peak where two steps forward feels like two steps backward on your slog to the interminable summit. Nonetheless, it's a hardship that seems appropriate for the task of climbing Mt. Doom. If there were gondolas up to Mt. Doom or I hiked Mt. Doom and it made me feel good about myself, it wouldn’t quite sit right with me. Mt. Doom really needs to make you hate yourself a little bit and to its credit, it did.

19.4 KM = 12ish miles, but you don't need to do all 12 miles to complete the Mt. Doom experience. You are looking at a 6-7 hour hike though. 

19.4 KM = 12ish miles, but you don't need to do all 12 miles to complete the Mt. Doom experience. You are looking at a 6-7 hour hike though. 

To begin your journey up Mt. Doom you have to head to Tongariro National Park and seek out the Mangatepopo Car Park at the end of Mangatepopo Road. Climbing the peak is a detour on one of New Zealand’s most popular day hikes, the Tongariro Crossing, where trampers traverse a patch of Mordor like terrain, winding past volcanic pools, geothermic vents and lava flows in New Zealand's oldest national park. You will follow the Tongariro Crossing trail for about two hours, after which you will be given the opportunity to split from the crossing to begin the formidable chore of climbing to the top of the infamous Mt. Doom (Mt. Ngauruhoe) summit.

At the turnoff for Ngauruhoe, you're looking at about a three hour roundtrip from sign to summit back to sign. 

At the turnoff for Ngauruhoe, you're looking at about a three hour roundtrip from sign to summit back to sign. 

Let’s just get this out of the way. This hike sucks at times. The déjà vu of hiking Mount St. Helens was not lost on me while I was doing this trail. And the day I attempted Mt. Doom, it was hot. Probably in the high 80s. The breeze that arrived with the elevation gain was welcome at first, but eventually just became another force of nature battering you back down the mountain as you crawled your way up its quicksand-like exterior.

Mordor-lite landscapes as far as the eye can see.

Mordor-lite landscapes as far as the eye can see.

It wasn’t the museum of false summits and broken dreams that Mount St. Helens was, but as I mentioned, it’s in the same ballpark. Ngauruhoe is more akin to a compact version of Helens. You can clearly see your endpoint, even if it seems impossible to reach once you start sloshing your boots into the Mars red scree fields.

Blood red scree fields as far as the eye can see.

Blood red scree fields as far as the eye can see.

At some point on your climb up Mt. Ngauruhoe, it becomes apparent that the best ascent route is to abandon any sense of a path and gravitate toward the sharp volcanic rock clusters that you were previously avoiding. These razor sharp outcroppings provide something solid to pull/crawl yourself up the mountain with, even if it’s like grabbing a hand railing made of broken glass. This is the portion of the hike where gardening gloves become invaluable. Because I am an excellent planner, my gardening gloves were still in an amazon delivery box back in Seattle when I set out for Mt. Doom, having arrived the day after I left for New Zealand. Still, having climbed Mount St. Helens and seeing the aftermath it had on gloveless hands, I had a backup pair of regular gloves on hand for this climb.

No, Amazon Prime didn't let me down. I let myself down.

No, Amazon Prime didn't let me down. I let myself down.

As I inched my way up this big dumb volcano, I saw plenty of people lose faith and give up on the quest like a bunch of Boromirs. And I don't blame them. This climb was taxing. And while I certainly wouldn't classify it as a dangerous hike, it's somewhere in the range of difficult to sketchy. Either way, the novelty of saying I climbed Mt. Doom was too powerful to really give any thought to turning around before I reached the summit. I wasn’t going to fly to New Zealand to hike some of Mt. Doom. No one would have cared if Frodo did 2/3 of Mt. Doom, buried the ring under a rock and then called for his eagle uber. So, I pushed on with my blister riddled feet, passing into the muttering stage of the hike. The muttering quickly disappeared when I finally, after a metric forever, reached the summit and turned around for one of those “oh, right,” views, where you immediately understand why people climb this mountain outside of the perceived novelty value of reaching the top of Mt. Doom. It's gorgeous.   

Okay, fine. I get it. The view is awesome. This doesn't mean we're friends though, Mt. Doom. 

Okay, fine. I get it. The view is awesome. This doesn't mean we're friends though, Mt. Doom. 

The summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe provides a stunning panorama of the crossing, its volcanic pools dotting the landscape like translucent puddles, the clouds gliding over the plains like wistful guardians, the Neapolitan strips of farmland leaning endlessly into the horizon. It's breathtaking. Turn and peer into the massive cranial summit crater, which looks as vast and unforgiving as you’d expect from the top of Mt. Doom. 

The vine equivalent of climbing Mt. Doom in a minute.

After I ate some lunch and tossed my metaphorical ring into the crater, I took a few pictures to prove I was foolish enough to climb this mountain and started back down, exhausted, but happy to have completed the task at hand. Somehow, I had managed to condense the entire plot of Lord of the Rings into a single day. I left the Shire the day before at 4pm and made the summit of mountain by 2:00 pm the next day. Eat your heart out, Frodo.

But the fun was not over yet. The mountain is so steep that the endorsed method of descending is to literally plant your feet and slide down these lightly channeled paths of rock and scree. Most of the time when you see someone unstably boot skiing down a mountain, you remind yourself to not follow any part of that soon to be seriously injured climber’s route. But in this case, it is the way to go. There are no easy outs on Mt. Doom. Much in the same way that there are no pleasant means to make your way up this mountain, there are no pleasant means of descending either. Everything must be terrible. By the time you hit level ground again, your boots with be so filled with rocks, they cease cutting into your ankles and congeal into a solid mass rock liner, becoming more of a quiet discomfort than any sharp jarring pain.

Rocks in the socks. 

Rocks in the socks. 

After you have completed your descent, make your way back to the trail split and pay close attention to retrace your path back toward the Mangatepopo Car Park. Do not proceed to the right and continue on the Alpine Crossing trail. It does not loop around to the Mangatepopo Car Park and you will find yourself stranded in another carpark, at the mercy of tour bus operators who may take pity on you and shuttle you back to your car back at Mangatepopo. I managed to finally hobble back to my beater rental in just under six hours total for the trip. All and all, it was a difficult but rewarding hike. Definitely one for the books. 

Next. A quick stop in Waitomo to see the glow worm caves and then onto the south island where Christchurch and Mt. Cook await. 

 

Mt. Doom Trip schedule:

Left car: 10:15 am

Reached turnoff for Mt. Ngauruhoe summit: 11:50 am

Summited Mt. Ngauruhoe: 1:50pm

Summit turnaround: 2:00 pm

Boot skied back to trail turnoff: 2:50 pm

Back at car: 4:00 pm

 

Getting there: Mangatepopo Car Park. The car park is often filled with hikers attempting the crossing, so you may have to improvise parking on the gravel road leading up to the carpark by using one of the cone designated makeshift shoulders. Prepare yourself for the possibility of adding anywhere from a quarter mile to a half mile walk to your trekking plans. After locating parking, you will follow the Tongariro Crossing for about two hours, after which you are given the opportunity to split from the crossing to take on Mt. Ngauruhoe. The signage for this trail is very thorough, so as long as you pay close attention, it should be a relatively intuitive route.

 

Stray Observations:

- Listening to the LOTR soundtrack while climbing Mt. Doom is the way to go. Howard Shore put on a masterclass with that soundtrack.

- Staying at the Plateau Lodge National Park Village before my Mt. Doom run was one of my favorite accommodations on the trip. It's nothing extravagant, just a small family run lodge with paper thin walls, the best Kiwi accents around and a great community kitchen, but I got to hop in a hot tub and soak my butchered feet when i got there, so it gets a glowing recommendation from me. 

- One does not simply walk into Mordor. They drive two to three hours from Hobbiton to get there. Just in case you were wondering. 

There and Back Again: Visting Hobbiton

So secretly or not so secretly, one of the major driving forces for getting me to New Zealand has always been my love of the Lord of the Rings movies. Peter Jackson’s trilogy essentially introduced me to the north and south islands and sparked my initial interest in the country. And even though there were computer generated flourishes added to New Zealand’s many natural landmarks in the movies, it did very little to diminish the actual grandeur of these locations when you see them without cinematic alteration. Mt. Doom, Isenguard, Rivendale, Edoras. All these places exist in some form in New Zealand. The country has a palette of landscapes so diverse that it can pretty much double for any terrain needed for a fantasy epic like LOTR.

“  In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...  ” 

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...” 

But for me the one location that has always tugged at my wanderlust, calling me to the southern hemisphere has also been one of its simplest. Hobbiton. The idyllic bucolic lifestyle of the Hobbits appealed to me as a sort of perfect sleepy agrarian utopia where the tenants till the land, regularly have elevenses and second breakfastes, and find cause to celebrate even the most trivial events. It's basically an Amish community where everyone drinks a lot and doesn’t wear shoes.   

Bulletin board down at the old mill. 

Bulletin board down at the old mill. 

So when I learned that Hobbiton actually existed beyond the film sets in Peter Jackson’s Wellington based WETA facility and could be visited by the general public, I knew I had to go. Hobbiton is my mecca, at least until they build the Mos Eisley Cantina (which they strangely enough actually appear to be building). The movie set is located in Matamata, a small farming town located about two hours south of Auckland, tucked deep into the countryside amongst the endlessly green rolling hills of the north island and the wandering masses of grazing livestock that occupy them. 

Because the set is on privately owned land, you can only access it through a tour that departs from about ten minutes away at The Shire’s Rest. You can also start tours from Matamata or Auckland, but I’d recommend driving to the Shire’s Rest if you have a car, as it is the most convenient starting point. The Shire’s Rest is the main hub for the attraction and has a café and a well stocked (but expensive) gift shop where you can douse your travel budget with gasoline and watch it burn as you load up on more Hobbit merch than you could possibly fit in your suitcase, all while you wait for your tour to depart.  

All sorts of expensive things you don't need but can't resist...besides, it's in NZ dollars. I'm sure after you convert $165 NZ, it can't be more than $20 or $30 US*....right?...    *(It's actually $110 US, so it's still expensive)

All sorts of expensive things you don't need but can't resist...besides, it's in NZ dollars. I'm sure after you convert $165 NZ, it can't be more than $20 or $30 US*....right?...    *(It's actually $110 US, so it's still expensive)

Once you are loaded onto your bus, you pass through a locked gate and your tour begins. Winding down the road we were lucky enough to catch the owner of the farm herding his sheep down the road by motorbike while his sheep dog trotted along, nipping at any strays that fell out of line. It was a nice touch to kick off the tour, a sort of contemporary vignette of what you expected to see down the road. And after a few quick bends down the road and a brief general history and overview of the farm, you finally arrive at your destination. Hobbiton.

Departing the bus, I saw the wreathed Hobbiton sign and immediately felt a nostalgic gawkiness wash over me. It reminded me of going to Disneyland as a kid. The sort of experience where you plod along the entire time with a stupid grin plastered on your face, making any subsequent pictures taken of you unusable because of your inelegant look.

And Hobbiton did not disappoint. It was filled with pleasant surprises. I thought at most the grounds would be Bag End, the Green Dragon and a few other shoddily propped up Hobbit house fronts, but I was wrong. It far surpassed my expectations in that respect. There were over fifty intact Hobbit home fronts (none of them are functional in the sense that you can go inside, but the exteriors are so meticulously crafted and maintained that you can’t help but feel that this is a real living, breathing village) and a sizable grounds staff sprinkled around the shire, tending to the gardens, changing clotheslines and touching up the paint on the doors.

One of the many Hobbit doors. 

One of the many Hobbit doors. 

It’s an impressive operation. Along with the existence of Bag End, I was excited to see the Gamgee estate with its iconic trilogy ending yellow door, the celebration grounds for Bilbo’s birthday and a functional Green Dragon tavern (the Green Dragon is an especial delight, where you can enjoy pints of shire brewed ale and even rent out the tavern for private events).

The Gamgee estate. 

The Gamgee estate. 

Even with the Hobbit movies out of theaters and interest arguably waning for the franchise, Hobbiton is still packed with tourists and the upkeep of the grounds reflects the demand. There is not a shoddy corner, nook or alcove on the grounds. They’ve done a superb job with the upkeep and maintenance. And the tours were especially informative. I consider myself at least a mild Rings nerd and I still learned a lot that day. So, if you’re on the fence about visiting Hobbiton, do it. I mean, it’s the Shire, man. Come on. 

The board at the Green Dragon. 

The board at the Green Dragon. 

All and all, Hobbiton was easily one of my favorite stops in New Zealand. I loved every second of it. It's not just a quick cash grab tourist site. It's the real deal.  

Next stop. Mount Doom to destroy rings of power and wreck my feet even more! Onward!

Stray observations:

- Originally when they constructed the shire sets for the original LOTR movies, they built them with materials that were not meant to last and tore them down after finishing principle photography. It wasn’t until Jackson shot the Hobbit movies seven years later that the crew erected a Hobbiton that could withstand the elements and linger as a sustainable location that could be visited. So, you may not like the Hobbit movies, but you can thank them for the existence of a tourable Shire. But yes, while we’re on the subject, Battle of the Five Armies was pretty terrible. There, there. I know. 

- 95% of the greenery and gardens you see in Hobbiton are real, tended patches of land. That’s pretty cool. The other 5 % are mostly objects that have been exaggerated and manipulated beyond natural means for the purpose of scale. The most notable is the tree that stands atop Bag End. Once upon a time in the LOTR trilogy, it was a real arboreal object, but for the Hobbit they were forced to fashion a fake tree, painstakingly hand tying each individual leaf to the branches. The reasoning being that they needed a much younger looking tree for flashbacks in the Hobbit that predated the LOTR shots of the Bag End. Now that’s dedication to the details, folks.

- I want to be a gardener at Bag End. Seriously. How do I get that job? I’m willing to take a pay cut and relocate. 

- I know many people disliked, tolerated or simply shrugged off the first Hobbit movie, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit because of the large portions where they revisited Hobbiton. There was a lot of grumbling that these sections were slow, stuffed with too much exposition, character introductions and frivolous sing-songy compositions, and they’re not wrong, but I would have watched a whole movie of Bilbo going to buy fish at the market. I know, it’s weird. 

- I didn't get to take it, but I hear the private evening lantern lit tour of Hobbiton is supposed to be a must. It even includes dinner at the Green Dragon.