Me and Mount Doom

I was skeptical when we started out that day, given the uniformly crappy weather we’d experienced since the Bay of Islands (which is to say, the whole time in NZ). Low hanging clouds and drizzle moistened our ride in the shuttle van, and we were prepared to slog it out in the full wet, decked out in full raingear as we began our hike. But Mount Doom smiled upon us that day, breaking the clouds apart just long enough for us to complete the Tongariro Crossing. The mists of Mordor parted and the great fiery orb of the sun cheered the lunar landscape all around. I managed to snap a cheeky trailside photo of Rachel struggling to get out of her rainpants and long johns before the next wave of hikers rounded the corner.

The sun is comin' out!

The sun is comin' out!

Already the line of daytrekkers was practically continuous, a steady trickle of bodies in Smartwool and North Face moving up the shallow grade, eventually pooling at the base of the first steep incline. A healthy dose of switchbacking ensued, each step producing an enhanced view of the reddish black and totally inhospitable landscape tumbling down the steep slopes all round. The geologists and John McPhees of the world could read a history of profound violence in the colors and textures of the terrain. The rest of us would simply have to content ourselves with spotting possible Lord of the Rings locations.

After a fair amount of huffing and sweating, we arrived at the basin between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, the twin volcanoes that the Crossing crosses between. To the left, a barren ridgeline masked the peak of Tongariro so that it was difficult to say where it began and ended. Ngauruhoe, on the other hand, was impossible to mistake. Mount Doom, the star of the show, loomed ominously in all its glory, a perfect iconic volcanic cone. I could just barely make out a small group of climbers attempting the summit by direct assault, which is to say, single file straight up. They were about a third of the way up and I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew about the gold.

Yes, there is a gold ring up there somewhere. I have this on good authority from a guy who manned the gift shop in Hobbiton (a permanent film set and sheep farm outside of Matamata). Some well-heeled fan had purchased a high-end gold replica of the One Ring for almost a thousand dollars and proceeded to charter a helicopter and hurl it into the Crack of Doom. To this day, it lies in wait for some unsuspecting Alpinist Gollum to chance upon it. Serious nerd points all around.

Rocking the Volcano

Rocking the Volcano

The basin was flat and dusty and had a reddish, distinctly Martian appearance, as opposed to the darker moonlike landscape below. It took no time to cross over to the next ascent, up to a low ridge that rose to the left. The ridge dropped precipitously away on the other side, and the wind at the top was burly, but the views were such that you couldn’t resist snapping that landscape photo despite the risk of getting blown off into oblivion. The ridge carried up to a smaller plateau and then climbed up to a singular peak over which the queue of hikers seemed to disappear, vanishing like lemmings over the edge.

At first I wrote this off as a deceptive perspective. As the peak grew closer, I became puzzled, even agitated, when the illusion continued to hold. One by one, they dropped off into oblivion, and I was next. By the time we reached the top, I could see that the peak was not dissembling after all, though the drop was less than lethal. The way forward was a gravel slide at a ludicrous grade, and dozens of people were busily picking their way down the loose volcanic crumble, moving rapidly downhill as gravity took control.

The view from here, the top of the Crossing, was literally and figuratively the high point of the hike. A full panoramic view encompassed both volcanoes, their attendant ridges and basins, and a sweeping horizon in all directions. A white blaze of snowdrift clung to Tongariro’s flank. Set in a deep gorge under some kind of natural Gothic archway was a blackened obscene orifice, a dragon’s lair or gate to hell. Below, at the bottom of the “trail” were two stunning blue tarins, little opaque pastel lakes encircled with thin wisps of sulfurous vapor. Beyond that, the trail dropped down into another basin and carried up to and along a larger, darker lake on its way out of view.

Poke Confronts the Hell Hole

Poke Confronts the Hell Hole

Tairns of Mordor

Tairns of Mordor

We skittered down the slope, digging heels in and filling shoes with pyroplastic pebbles. Rachel experimented with a few different footing tactics before settling on a dove-toed shuffle. She methodically scooted and snow-plowed while I hopped and stumbled down the chute. Before we knew it, we were lunching lakeside and looking up, watching the awkward parade of flailing hikers working their way down. The hard work was over for us, and we were still on schedule to rendezvous with the return shuttle.

Shuffling down the mountain

Shuffling down the mountain

Within a half hour we followed the trail through a cleft in the ridgeline and began the final descent in earnest. The rugged footpath quickly transformed into a manicured trail with artificial tread, convenient staircases, and the occasional bridge span to cross comparatively harmless gorges. The path crisscrossed the slope in broad shallow switchbacks, tripling the length of the downhill stretch but sparing our knees from a severe incline. Regular signage warned hikers to stay on the trail or else. At one point we passed a sign declaring that we’d crossed temporarily onto private land and, just in case we’d missed all the other posted warnings, it was especially important to stay on the path here. Somewhere out there was a hot spring that was off limits, the personal domain of some business interest or holdout country geezer. All who would attempt the Tongariro Crossing are hit over the head with dire warnings about trespassing. We, too, had been briefed while in the van on the ride out to the trailhead. It was hard not to dwell a little on this forbidden fruit, even occasionally looking over my shoulder as we dropped into the scrub brush that heralded the end of the hike. Even though I’d seen the face of Mount Doom, I’m still a little cheesed I couldn’t visit his steamy pimple.

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The Path of Polynesia

Image of Maori Carving in Rotorua

I thought I knew New Zealand.

Having taken an early interest in the country’s pop music — specifically Crowded House — and knowing how to pronounce words like “Te Awamutu” and “Kare Kare,” I felt like a Kiwi myself. But our first hangi changed all that.

We had picked up our magical Spaceship campervan from the Spaceport (where else?) in Auckland that afternoon. By evening our Spaceship was hugging the slippery and curvacious roads of the North Island while I tightly closed my eyes and sunk my fingernails into the dashboard. The road to Russell, in the Bay of Islands was an endless maze of one-lane winding roads, which we found out later you could bypass with a quick ferry ride (thanks for nothing, GPS!)

Just outside of Russell we found a cute holiday park from the 1950s — a decade that is still alive and well in New Zealand. The proprietor confided to us in a hushed tone that she is originally Australian, but has lived in Russell for 20 years. She gave us a detailed map and advised us to be sure to attend the hangi tonight in town.

For a minute I thought it was the 1850s — but a hangi turns out not to involve a noose, sheriff and sheep rustler, but a bunch of food buried in the ground for a few days. A short walk to town and we saw the large white tent. The tent housed the ticket seller, a band, and five or six wine booths. Outside, hungry people surrounded the hangi pit and the local Maori chief blessed the food in two languages. All elbows, I made my way in for a paper plate heaping with smoked mussels, chicken, stuffing, yams and other treats. Fantastic!

That evening, I Skype my mom and describe the hangi. “Oh, that’s a luau.” My mom lived in Hawaii for several years as a child. The next day at the Russell museum, the connection was confirmed. Photos showed the Maori people wearing grass skirts. They are Polynesian! We had just come from Fiji and I suddenly saw the commonalities. I had always thought that, like Australia, the Maori had been in New Zealand 30,000 years. Turns out it’s just 700 years. Europeans have been in the New World almost as long.

The Maori call their homeland of legend, Hawaiki. Hawaii, anyone?Recent evidence, however, suggests Hawaiki was actually Taiwan.

In Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin gives a savage indictment of the Maori (they would start a war because they had extra shot; missionaries would give them soap and beg them to use it) and of New Zealand. Saying of the land that there is nothing of interest for a naturalist. Probably because most of the unique bird species on the island are extinct and the country has only two land mammals — both bat species. (A friend we made on our Laos tour, Renee from New Zealand, told me she’d never seen a squirrel.)

The Polynesian connection also interested me because we had recently visited the Galapagos. Another of Darwin’s stop offs, its most conspicuous feature is the absence of Polynesians. Somehow, colonizing every island around the Galapagos, and missing no other Pacific Island chain, they missed or ignored the Galapagos. Very strange.

As it would be nice to see a bear or deer posing amidst the Kaori trees, this thought would give a shudder to any current resident. At the airport I was thouroughly examined for invasive species. Thankfully, none were found.

Further evidence of Polynesia was found in Rotorua, the stinkiest town in the world. There we visited the Maori theme park of Te Puia and saw some early dwellings and even a live kiwibird! The park had bubbling mud pools and a sulfurous geyser to rival Old Faithful. Every employee was Mauri. Much better work than casinos it looked like.

Back at the holiday park, our host said New Zealand is an example of race relations for the rest of the world and I would agree. It was obvious the two cultures live together and include each other in most aspects of their lives: sports, work, celebration.

I’m now planning a trip I call “The Path of Polynesia.” It starts in Taiwan and hits every island. All in a handmade canoe. Stay tuned.

Party Island at the Edge of the World

Beachcomber

On the map, the Yasawa and Mamanuca group of islands lie like crumbs scattered around the remote cookie of Fiji. Off the prow of the Yasawa Flyer, however, we could see that some of these crumbs turned out to be substantial landmasses, with multiple villages and miles of coastline and imposing mountainous interiors. There were, however, crumbs of crumbs of earth that don’t appear on the big maps, and on the close up regional maps their printed names cover ten times as much area as the islands themselves. Beachcomber was a miniscule speck on the vast blue sea, just a few acres of improbable land in the middle of nowhere.

Topographically, Beachcomber is flat and featureless, the type of place that will likely not see the other side of rising sea levels. I don’t actually understand how it can exist at all, with the difference between above and below the surface measured in inches. The odds against reclamation by the South Pacific seems unbelievable, its bite-size jungle interior even more outrageous. This place is protected by ancient Polynesian magic from furious cyclones and geologic time.

It’s hard to tell how much of the plant and animal life was brought in by people, the term “invasive species” might not make a lot of sense on this small scale. The locals may have been visiting here for thousands of years (the first inhabitants of Fiji arrived as early as 3500 BCE by some estimates). This particular micro-island has probably been ignored the whole time. I can’t imagine anybody actually stayed here except to hide from their cannibal comrades for a while. It would be hard to scratch out a living here. The only part of these island’s existences that I can really grasp are the resorts, the self-conscious signifiers of paradise that drew me in from the global economy with the promise of feeling far outside of it.

Beachcomber I suppose doesn’t really pretend to deliver on this promise. Everything felt like a Burning Man theme camp, only with real trees and a real ocean to back up the simulation of “Tropical Island”. But it did offer the profound novelty of superlative smallness. I have been in homes with greater square footage. It only took 15 minutes to circumambulate the entire isle, though with a little determination and a good pair of flip flops I bet it could be done in a five minute all-out sprint.

The island fit exactly one resort, the eponymous Beachcomber. I suspect this island had no name at all before the first keg of Fiji Bitter was rolled ashore by Mr. Dan Costello and his beach bum buddies back in the 1950’s. Back then, it must have been true bohemian bliss, an unspoilt obscure beach on which to kick back beyond the reach of modern encroachment. Today, a mini-golf course threads its way through the mini-jungle. Other amenities include a dive shop, a snack bar, a gift shop, a boozer bar (two stories high with outdoor seating and a live band), a full restaurant with huge plasma screen TVs playing satellite sports channels, and a tour desk offering a host of activities and excursions to suit every taste, diving, boating, parasailing, fishing, everything. A couple of dormitories and a handful of bures (beach huts) for everyone on the island. You are guaranteed to be stumbling distance from your room. Just don’t walk the wrong way or you’re sunk.

In the surf were wee sharks, their wee dorsal fins occasionally jutting up out of the waters as they prowled the shallows for skittish fish that would occasionally leap out of the water to save their scales. I imagined an Alvin and the Chipmunks style rendition of the Jaws theme as the party-time lovers and frat douches strolled by unaware. It was easy to feel safe in such a familiar relaxed atmosphere, and hard to appreciate that we were surrounded by sharks and the endless blue sea.

– Eric

Waylaid at Wayaleilei in Fiji

Two things I’ve had a difficult time with on this odyssey: humidity and boats. After the hours I spent heaving in the Galapagos, I was not exactly keen on spending long humid days aboard another small rocking boat. One look at the tiny islands of Fiji made it all worth it.

Sunset Hill in the Yasawas

We had booked the backpacker option of a ‘Bula Pass’, which allows you to travel freely between many islands in the Mamanucas and Yasawas. It also includes basic accommodations and three meals a day. We were told, however, that we may not book resorts in advance, and must speak to the travel desk on board the (packed and yawwing) ferry while on-route to book.

Eric then spent much of our ferry time at the travel desk, often hours, looking for any rooms available. But it’s high season and slim pickens. We were finally booked into single nights at several resorts, having to ferry each day. Not our favorite way to travel, but we saw a lot more of Fiji than most people!

Our third stop — Wayaleilei Resort left the biggest impression. From far out to sea you could see its dramatic cliffs rising high above the island. One of our oarsmen had red hair and freckles, but spoke Fijian. I wondered how an Irishman ended up being raised out here. We soon realized he was part of the Fijian family who ran the resort, but with a pigmentation condition. Eric noted very sweetly, “When I first saw him, I thought he was butt ugly, almost monstrous to be honest. And then it dawned on me. I think he has vitiligo. He is Fijian after all and I was judging his facial features off of a European norm. Now I think he’s beautiful, like a crazy leopard spotted fish in a coral reef.”

The beach at Wayaleilei was covered with giant piles of seashells. Gorgeous shells of all colors that you might find in a tiny mesh plastic bag at Pier One Imports for five dollars. Here they were stacked like maple leaves in a New England yard. Some of the shells were still moving — powered by a little hermit crab. I picked through the shells for at least an hour and displayed my favorites on a stone wall. Then it was dinner time.

Most resort dinners were just what my mom would serve us kids: spaghetti, green beans, garlic bread. Maybe fruit salad from a can. We made conversation with an Australian couple from Adelaide as the freckled boy serenades with “You Are My Sunshine.” The Aussie man was very excited that his favorite beer, VB, was available at Wayaleilei. The woman had seen too much of the Southern Hemisphere sun and was quite thin and leathery. She knew a lot about jewelry.

After dinner we headed to our room — situated in the back of the resort in a row of domiciles on a common porch. We were sandwiched between the rooms of elderly Fijian family members, who I assume were no longer of use as resort workers and so sat in rocking chairs all day in front of their respective room door. Our room had no power, no fan, and one window with no screen. We kept the window closed to keep out swarms of mosquitoes. Neither of us slept. At first, we both lay awake in terror for hours hearing a man shouting and groaning like he was trying to break in. Turned out to be a sleepwalking (possibly homocidal) geriatric next door. Later, I woke up several times in a sea of sweat and would take a cold shower and go back to bed soaking.

On waking from a sleepless night, of course we wanted to snorkel. We headed to the dive office after breakfast to ask about the advertised daily snorkel trip and shark feeding. The freckled guy said 10 minutes, so we go to pick over some shells. Ten minutes later we return and he says the trip had just left. I guess they couldn’t see us three yards away down the beach… But, he said, some people are going for a village visit later and the can take us snorkeling in that boat.

We get our masks and fins squared away and the Australian couple comes down ready for their village visit. They are in a large and lovely burre and look fresh and well-rested. The four of us get in the boat and the driver motors us out to open ocean; another island is barely visible in the distance. He says, “Reef starts here. Get out.” We both ask a few follow-up questions about which way to snorkel and would the boat ever return and when, maybe? The Australians promised they would make the boat return and had a fix on our position, so we donned our gear and jumped backwards into the sea.

Another world waited for us just below the surface. A towering coral reef of the vibrant colors rose from the sea floor to just under the water’s surface — like a three-story underwater building covered in life. The water was perfectly clear, showcasing all of Fiji’s marine life: clownfish in anenomes, sargaent majors up in your face, angelfish, schools of neon tetras.

We resurfaced, exhausted, and were in the open water. This is when it set in that we may have made our first big error. Soon enough, though, the boat came around and two guys pulled us forcefully out of the water. I flopped on deck like a fresh tuna as the Aussie couple laughed. (Later we saw a trailer for a movie about two divers who were left at sea and eaten by sharks. Once again dodged a bullet, I thought.)

After Wayaleilei, we snorkeled at many other larger and more poular resorts where the other guests were stunned and wowed. But we both thought the reefs looked grey and dead compared to the great reefs at Wayaleilei.

— Rachel