Volcanoes in the Mist

Our pre-Christmas family adventure this year took the form of a week on the North Island. One of the many things we did was to hike the Tongariro Crossing. The track climbs the slopes of Mt. Tongariro passes between Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe. The volcanoes are active–the last eruption was in 1975, and they have a history of erupting about every nine years before that–so the landscape near the top is stark and raw, with sulphurous steam rising from fissures and craters, tumbled rock, and dark lava flows.

The area is tapu, sacred, to the local Māori, and it’s no surprise. Power and violence are written on the landscape, the lush lower slopes of the mountain only accentuating the devastation near the top. The awesome forces that shape the face of the planet are on display there. It is a place for gods to live.

Unfortunately, it has also become an incredibly popular tourist destination. The day we hiked it, there was a constant stream of shuttle buses arriving at the start of the track. We spent the day hiking on others’ heels, with hikers on our own heels. When we stopped for lunch, we counted sixty-eight people pass us in just 15 minutes. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, and we estimated that there were 1600 people on the track at the time.

It seemed to me that most of the people were treating the excursion as nothing but a physical challenge–a race to be completed or 19.4 km to tick off their to-do list. A large group of twenty-somethings all but pushed us off the track in their effort to pass us as they chatted loudly to one another, oblivious to the beauty around them. A group of teens playing loud music sauntered past. A man sat beside a crater lake doing a business deal on his cell phone.

I wanted to stop, to soak in the alien landscape, to feel the immense power of lava beneath my feet, to examine the crusted sulphur on the rocks and the tenacious plant life that colonised the harsh landscape. But like sheep being herded onto a truck, we were pushed along the narrow track by the people behind us. Fifteen seconds, thirty seconds was all we could snatch at a time to appreciate the landscape.

Like our favourite beach, the Tongariro Crossing has been diminished by its popularity. The gods are still there, in the steam and the lava, the raw craters blasted in the earth, but no one is paying attention.

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