Hiking across Mordor in Tongariro National Park

There aren’t many places where you feel the urge to wear your wedding ring around your neck and begin dodging fictional forces of evil.

New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park, however, is exactly one of those places.

As anyone who has been to a movie theater in the last ten years probably knows, New Zealand was the setting for the epically popular Lord of the Rings trilogy which introduced us to the adventures of Middle Earth.

Arguably one of the best known movie series of an entire generation, the movie saga has simultaneously done wonders for the New Zealand tourism economy by displaying the country’s enchanting and other worldly scenery to a global audience of millions. While Middle Earth tourism has sculpted out its own niche for diehard fans (my 2012 New Zealand road atlas, for example, points out where each scene was filmed), as a casual viewer there are only a few place names I actually recognize.

One of these, of course, is Mt. Doom, and as I set out from the campervan into the volcanic cinder of the Tongariro Crossing-one of New Zealand’s most heavily trafficked walks-I found myself standing directly beneath it.

So what exactly is Mt. Doom?

Well, to begin, its real name is Mt. Ngauruhoe, it is 7,516 ft. high, and from the best I could tell there aren’t any quivering, flaming black eyes located anywhere near it. While Mt. Ngauruhoe doubled as Mt. Doom, the surrounding bits of Tongariro National Park provided the scenery for Mordor, the fiery and terrifying volcanic wasteland that serves as the home of evil.

As it happens, Tongariro is actually pretty cold, even during the summer months. Lacing up my hiking boots at 6am with about 100 other trekkers, the morning dew had frozen and blanketed the campervan beneath a thin layer of frost.

“Weird”, I thought. “There’s not supposed to be snow in Mordor.”Actually, back here in reality, Tongariro is home to Whakapapa ski field, one of only two areas on the whole North Island of New Zealand which receives enough snowfall to warrant ski lifts and groomed runs. Though Mordor is colder in reality than in the movies, the threat of volcanic eruption is still very real.

Nearby Mt. Ruapehu is an active enough volcano that warning signs scattered around the park advise skiers what actions to take should the mountain decide to go all volcanic and bubbly during their mid-winter ski session. A legitimate concern, the mountain last experienced a major eruption in 1996, and volcanic lahars–essentially boiling rivers of mud–have been known to push their way down to within a few feet of chairlifts which regularly carry resort guests.

And, since Tongariro is still comprised of active volcanoes, it would make sense that there are hot springs, sulfuric lakes, and places where steam rises straight from the Earth.

As I enjoyed a lunch of sweet chili tuna (why don’t we have flavored tuna in the US?) above the turquoise (and toxic) Emerald Lakes, it wasn’t hard at all to see why the Lord of the Rings scouts chose this place. A sea of multicolored cinder, the entire landscape is bathed in that oxymoronic volcanic quality where new earth appears to be old; just because it isn’t covered in grass doesn’t make it old, but, in fact, too young for organisms such as grass to have taken root.

Though Tongariro gets pigeonholed nowadays into Mordor tourism there’s still much more to the park than volcanoes and moonscapes. Many places in the park are actually fairly green and lush, and on the trail out to Tama Lakes it’s possible to be surrounded by volcanic, sub-alpine shrub land and still sunbathe at the base of a cascading waterfall.

Or, if trekking across barren cinder flats isn’t quite classy enough, you can always retire to the historic and ultra-elegant Chateau Tongariro and listen to the tunes of the grand piano played next to a roaring fire. Constructed in 1929, the Chateau was originally a luxury outpost for outdoorsmen and adventure seekers aiming to explore the beauty of the island’s volcanic highlands. Today it’s still possible to book a room at the Chateau or simply call in for a glass of wine, an entrée of lamb, or, of course, a panoramic view of Mordor.

Though the silver screen has made this place famous as of late, Hollywood was far from the first organization to recognize the beauty of Tongariro. Wanting the land beneath these mountains to be preserved and maintained for eternity, it was the Maori chief Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino who in 1887 first gifted this land to the New Zealand government to preserve and protect the sacred alpine ground for generations to come.

From Maori chiefs to mythical hobbits to active volcanoes to a wayward vagabond touring the country in a campervan, Tongariro National Park is a magical place to find yourself when given the freedom to roam.

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.

Stand up paddling with stingrays in New Zealand’s Murderer’s Bay

Though Captain James Cook was the first European to set foot on the islands of New Zealand in 1769, he was not the first European to “discover it”. That honor would belong to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who sailed past the country while navigating the Southern Ocean for the Dutch east India Company in 1642.

Blown off course by a strong easterly wind, Abel Tasman first sighted the northwest reaches of the South Island of New Zealand and thought he may have stumbled upon the bottom part of Argentina. Confused but intrigued, Tasman decided to make the most of the discovery and arranged an expedition party to be sent ashore to gather fresh water.

Unfortunately, the expedition was met by a band of native Maori people curious of the tall ships which had suddenly appeared off their coast, and after a hostile skirmish which historians have attributed to multiple cultural misunderstandings, Tasman sailed from the area with four fewer men than he had arrived with. As a result of the incident, Tasman saw it fitting to label the area as “Murderer’s Bay”.

360 years later, I ruminated on this violent turn of events while stand-up paddling above a gray stingray languishing in the tidal shallows of Murderer’s Bay.

On a brilliantly sunny and calm morning in which it was possible to stare straight through the turquoise waters, I found myself paddling in nearly the exact same spot where Tasman’s men had met their fate so many centuries ago. No longer referred to as Murderer’s Bay, with the discovery of gold in the region in the 1850’s it was prosperously renamed Golden Bay, and the name has stuck ever since.

Located in the sunniest region of New Zealand, Golden Bay is still somewhat of a secret when compared to neighboring Abel Tasman National Park. Although the Tata Islands–rocks that sit just offshore of Golden Bay and are covered in fur seals–are technically still part of Abel Tasman National Park, Golden Bay offers the same South Pacific setting as it’s crowded counterpart, yet for some reason there is hardly anybody here.

Except, of course, for me and the stingrays.

%Gallery-146107%With my wife and I swapping between a stand up board and one man kayak, the peaceful sound of waves lapping gently across the rocks is a stark contrast to the bloody encounter which once took place here. Completely alone as we paddle beneath rock archways and haul our water craft onto empty white sand beaches, the nearest we have been to violence all morning was a nesting shag bird dive bombing me when I paddled too close to his rock.

A fur seal here, a stingray or shearwater there, I realize there is nothing about this place that makes me think of death at all. Just like Kaikoura, Golden Bay is alive.

With the afternoon breezes introducing an audience of whitecaps to the bay, it was time to head ashore and point the caravan towards the far reaches of Farwell Spit. A 26km stretch of constantly shifting sand which is a favorite of the packaged eco-tourist trips, we instead hopped into a friend’s white ute (pickup truck) and bounced our way over the well-graded dirt track to Wharariki Beach, an expanse of sand dunes and rock formations which technically lies on the island’s wild west coast.

It is difficult to convey just how other worldy and exactly how empty Wharariki Beach really is.

Sure, there are a handful of tourists scattered here and there meandering amongst the dunes and the caves, but from a distance, the red sweater or purple tank top they may be sporting look no different than colorful scraps of paper blowing along the base of towering rock faces.

My local Kiwi friend who has brought me here, Nick, occasionally will surf down at Wharariki when the wind and waves are right.

“You ever get anyone else out in the water here?” I breathlessly ask, still utterly in awe of the place.

“Nah, never mate. Nobody wants to drive out this far. That, and nobody knows about it.”

As I watch a solitary fur seal exit a cave set in one of Wharariki’s massive boulders, and with the sun perfectly illuminating the stone archway pointing out towards the tempestuous Tasman Sea, I question out loud why more travelers to New Zealand don’t come here.

It’s no longer Murderer’s Bay, you won’t get killed by local Maori, but amazingly, 360 years after having been “discovered”, the place still feels like a wayward cove etched on an early explorer’s map, still waiting for someone else to find it.

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.

The best walk in the world? Tackling New Zealand’s Routeburn Track

“I keep wondering whether I really like tramping…the cold and the loneliness and the fear–do they outweigh the magnificence, the terrible impersonal glory of the mountains?”

-Charles Brusch, Poet-

14 miles is too far to walk when you’re on vacation. And in the mountains. And carrying a pack. And with your wife, who, to be fair, is a trooper.

14 miles in a day is brutal, but to turn around the next day and repeat the same thing is just stupid.

This, however, was the only way I was going to hike New Zealand‘s ultra-popular Routeburn Track. This past year Lonely Planet listed the Routeburn Track as one of it’s top ten treks in the world, and the heavily trodden track has seen it’s annual numbers climb to over 13,000 walkers per year.

A sub-alpine pass which links the lush Hollyford Valley with Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu, the Routeburn track was historically used as a trading route for native Maori moving precious pounamu–greenstone–from the quarries of Martin’s Bay to villages further inland. By the 1870’s European prospectors realized the strategic importance of the Routeburn Track as a way of crossing the Southern Alps en route to Fiordland, and the steady stream of visitors was on.

Now, as one of New Zealand‘s 9 “Great Walks“, the greenstone traders and early explorers have been replaced by Gore-Tex covered tourists carrying carbon fiber walking poles.

Nonetheless, like many uber-popular trails the world over, the Department of Conservation limits the number of people who can through-hike the 20-mile route by only providing 50 beds in each of the 4 backcountry huts scattered along the trail. During the summer months, the no-frills huts (mattresses and gas stoves are provided) run a pricey $40 US per person/night and reservations are absolutely crucial.

How crucial you may ask? Well, the Milford Track just down the road is already booked for the entire year, and the next available beds on the Routeburn Track weren’t for another month.

“Except”, chimed the ranger at the National Park office, “for a two-bed opening on Sunday which just opened up. I suggest you take it.”


Which is how I ended up meandering through the Southern Alps at distances far too lengthy to be enjoyable.

But wait? The trail is only 20 miles. Why did you walk 28? Because one logistical dilemma involved with the Routeburn is that you finish the hike a full 225 miles away from your starting point and the parking lot where you left your car. Thoughtfully swooping in to solve this dilemma are companies who will gladly shuttle your car to the other side of the trail for a cool $200 US, or you can enjoy a five hour bus ride back to your car to the tune of around $100 US/person.

Or, as a third option, you can just save the money and turn your haggard butt around and walk in the way you came. When you are a budget-conscious travel writer who lives in your van, this is unfortunately the best choice.

So why then, if the trail is so fully-booked, expensive, and logistically unfriendly, would so many people choose to trek it?

Because, to put it simply, it might actually be one of the most beautiful landscapes in the entire world.

The trail begins by gently climbing through beech forest so thick it can still appear dark even at noon. Moss hangs off the tree branches like the beard of an old sea captain, the soggy green confines teeming with devilish sand flies Captain James Cook once described as “the most mischievous animal here.”

Even though the Fiordland region is in the midst of the one of the driest winters in recent memory, gently flowing streams cross the trail at regular intervals, with the highlight being 574 ft. Erland Falls which explodes down the mountain with such ferocity the force of its spray occasionally renders the main trail impassable.

Of the two lakes along the 20-mile route, Lake Mackenzie is rung by sun-heated boulders and begs the weary hiker to relax for a swim. Meanwhile, the elevated Lake Harris looms stoically in the shadow of 4,200 ft. Harris Saddle, which is the highest elevation achieved along the trip.

On the ridge line connecting the two sub-alpine lakes the Hollyford Valley opens up in a gaping cleft below, and the glacially carved peaks of the Southern Alps are bespeckled with so many waterfalls the mountains literally appear to weep.

In the distance it’s faintly possible to glimpse the Tasman Sea, the gaze cutting clear over the mountains which form the backdrop to the epically popular Milford Sound. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a curious kea, the world’s only alpine parrot which numbers only around 5,000 left in the wild.

In other words, if ever you felt like Gandalf riding along a mountain crest, it’s from this very perch right here.

With weary legs, a full memory card, and a body odor sculpted by sweat, muscle cream, anti-itch ointment, and lemon-pepper tuna fish (you have to pack out your own trash), I crawled my way back in to the recesses of the campervan and wondered if hiking 28 miles of the Routeburn Trek was a good idea after all.

Scrolling through the camera and the images burned in my mind, it really wasn’t even a question.

It was.

So is it the best walk in the world? If you do the suggested 3 day/2 night route and the weather is nice…maybe. But really, there are too many trails to be trodden to make such a claim, although I’m more than game to chalk this up to research…

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.

Freedom to roam: New Zealand by campervan

Well. It’s official. For the next three months I am officially living in my car.

No, this vagabond hasn’t fallen on hard times (yet), but rather, I am going to be embedded in the back of a 1995 Toyota campervan in the magnificent country of New Zealand, where, for the record, summer is just beginning.

While this isn’t my first campervan endeavor around “The Land of the Long White Cloud”, my first visit was as a single, immature 22 year-old fresh off of university touring the country with two other reckless American counterparts. Three boys, three surfboards, one decrepit 1988 Toyota Hiace, and the open road beneath our tires. It was the epitome of freedom.

Five years later, the circumstances of my New Zealand campervan expedition are decidedly different. Still immature but now a happily married 27 year-old, the reality of this contrast was brought to my attention at a supermarket where I had purchased some groceries five years prior. Gazing down at the black conveyer belt at my current purchases, I realized the 12-pack of beer and surfboard wax had been replaced by a 12-pack of toilet paper and 200 thread count sheets.

So why would a struggling, married travel blogger scraping to pay off student loans decide to up and move his wife to live in a van in a foreign country? Because in a land as scenic and rife for exploration as New Zealand, there is unfinished business to be taken care of.

So why buy a van? Why not just rent a car like most other vacations? Because even though buying a vehicle is an enormous layout of money up front ($4000 cash. Ouch.) you start recouping that money the minute you set out on the road. In the end, with a little cunning and a fair bit of luck, touring New Zealand by owning your own campervan is the undisputed most economical way to experience the somewhat pricey country.Though C- was the unfortunate bedfellow of my math classes during most of my childhood, allow me to lay out a few figures regarding the financial logistics of buying a van versus renting one during your campervan foray throughout New Zealand:

The over/under on renting versus buying is probably around three weeks; For a stay of under three weeks, flipping a van in that amount of time is simply impractical. For a stay of longer than three weeks, renting a van will incur charges through the roof, as evidenced by the $7800 quote given for my upcoming stay of two months.

Secondly, it’s a campervan, key word here being camp, an activity that New Zealand is incredibly well-suited for. Although I’m a proud American and a huge advocate for our National Park system, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) oversees a network of huts, campsites, parks, and preserves which stands somewhat above that of the US system.

Average price of a DOC campsite? $7. With the cheapest hostel beds in the country running around $20/person for dorms or $50/night for a private room, over the course of 60 nights, you’re theoretically recouping a minimum of $40 per night, a sum which quickly adds up whether you’re renting or buying.

Finally, when you own a van, provided you don’t get it stuck in a river, drive it off a cliff, or experience any major mechanical issues (always a calculated gamble), upon leaving the country you have the option of selling the van back to the next traveler looking to drive and camp their way through the country.

So how do you go about buying/selling a car when you arrive/depart New Zealand? While the country has online classified sites such as Trade Me, Gumtree, and Backpacker Board, a decent percentage of vans change hands at the Backpacker’s Car Markets in Auckland and Christchurch. Sellers pay a fee of $85 for the privilege of being able to hawk their car on the property for 3 days, and buyers have a whole market of options to choose from.

Nearly all vans have been converted to include beds elevated on platforms to allow for storage of bags beneath, and most vans also come with a full range of camping and cooking supplies included in the price of the van. An important logistical note is that you’re going to need to place a phone call to your bank to let them know you’ll be conducting transactions from outside the country, and to also temporarily lift the daily limit on your ATM card so you aren’t left pulling out a maximum of $600 for seven straight days.

So, after three days of haggling, multiple test-drives, a curious encounter with an elderly German named Volkor, and lengthy sessions spent under the hood acting as if I actually knew what I was looking for, we finally settled on a 1995 Toyota Lucida with a nice comfortable bed already embedded into the back.

All that’s left to do is fuel her up, cross our fingers we didn’t buy a lemon, and head out on the open road.

Now where did I put those sheets…

Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan for the next two months touring the country of New Zealand in the new series Freedom to roam: New Zealand by campervan.