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Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Day 11: Tongariro Alpine Crossing (April 10th)

“Don’t dance on a volcano.”  ~French proverb
So I was going to be Bilbo, and get to climb my big mountains after all.  Or, shall I say, volcanoes.  There has always been something so alluring to me in the journey of climbing a mountain, and the breathtaking, rewarding view from the top after a wearisome and exhausting struggle.  When I was a little girl, I was always outside playing in the dirt and climbing trees, I’ve always had the need to be in the wild, appreciating God’s creation.  I feel like a different person when surrounded by the quiet solitude of nature. Being outdoors heightens your senses; you can breathe more deeply and you notice all the little smells—every flower, every weed, tree bark, every pine needle that falls from the trees, and every grain of sand you trample beneath your feet.  I remember saying to myself growing up, “I’m going to climb Mt. Everest one day!”  Piece of cake.  And I would summit Kilimanjaro in Africa; with a lion, tiger, leopard, and cheetah all by my side (for moral support).   Going to church camp every summer, the highlight was always hike day when we would climb Mt. Sinai in the mountains of New Mexico.  It was always super tough and I thought I would never make it, but I always pushed myself hard, and to be in front.  I wanted to lead the pack; I did not want to be in second…I hated being passed.  If it killed me, I would be in front, by George!  I didn’t ever end up being first, however, but by the end of the steep climb, it was enough just to make it to the top.  I will never forget those moments that impacted my life forever standing high above the world, gasping at the view of the valley spread out below me and being above the other mountain ranges.  There was a God.  I felt him up there on that mountain and felt him hold my hand as the goose bumps formed on my skin after hearing the resounding echo of all the camper’s voices shouting “PRAISE GOD!” in the youth group song, “Pass It On.”  I have climbed mountains in Colorado, with peaks reaching over 14,000 feet, passing wildflowers of pink, purple, yellow, and blue along the way and seeing remnants of the winter snow slowly melting away.  I think that is one of the prettiest scenes I’ve ever seen.  The rush you get, still puffing and gasping for breath, heart pounding, as you see how far you came and the reward in knowing you did that; you conquered the mountain—that feeling is something I feel is hard to surpass.
Josh and I were ready to conquer our mountain.  To conquer a mountain in New Zealand, Wow!  The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most popular day hike in all of New Zealand, and we had been waiting to climb this months before arriving in the country from the pictures and videos we saw online and the emerald and turquoise pools lying in the middle of the volcanic wasteland.  The Discovery Lodge we were staying at, when we were checking in the night before, the owner was trying to convince us to book our transportation to the crossing with their van.  We thought that would be quite convenient until she said that it would be leaving at 5:45 in the morning.  Say what??  It was a little more expensive than the transport we had actually already booked with Adventure HQ that we had stopped by a few minutes the previous day and chatted with the nice lady who gave us tips on hiking the crossing.  We had considered cancelling, but imagining us having to wake up that early seemed insane and pointless.  She had a pretty good argument saying we would beat all the other people (there would be busloads and vanloads of people arriving at the crossing the same time we would) and have time to enjoy and not be in a rush to get back to the bus.  We would remember her words . . . later. 
We got up still pretty early on Tuesday morning and we had already packed our daypacks and loaded up with food.  I was so ready to embark on this new adventure and feel like true explorers and trampers.  It was a little cloudy that morning, but the forecast was expecting clear skies that afternoon; absolutely perfect hiking weather to provide ample views.  We left our lodge and drove to the crossing transport, then loaded up in the van with three other adventurous trampers.  The waiting part is what can get to us; in whatever situation that may be; waiting for an answer, waiting for the airplane, waiting in an emergency room for news of your loved one, waiting to find out whether or not you passed that test.  It’s the unknowing part . . . encountering a place you’ve never been before . . . a mountain we were told is fairly easy to climb, and wondering if you will be able to conquer this beast after all as it looms above you.  It had looked much smaller the evening before as we stared at it from our lodge.  I started thinking again all the things I do before doing something like this, what if, what if.  Thankfully the drive wasn’t too long.  Once we turned onto the dirt road and were driving straight towards the mountains, then the adrenaline and excitement started kicking in.  We arrived at the car park to see loads of other hikers being dropped off, and we got out, smelling the fresh, pure morning air, and seeing the clouds hugging the mountains and slowly streaming away to give us a view of its grandeur.  At that moment I found it reassuring to be surrounded by so many people; made me feel safe and like this had to be attainable.  Everyone’s enthusiasm was infectious…adventurers in search of lofty heights to stake their claim. 

Let me tell you, first of all, how much distance this day-long hike covered.  19.4 kilometers.  That means 12 miles.  We knew this beforehand, and what did this sound like to us?  Easy as pie.  It was estimated that on average it takes between 6 to 8 hours to complete, including stopping for breaks and to eat lunch.  We arrived at 8:00 a.m.; our transport had three departing times:  7:00, 8:00 and 9:00.  Pickup times were: 3:00, 4:00 and 5:30.   
The first few minutes we started our Great Walk I was gloating; I felt so happy and brave as we were walking on straight, flat paths as the volcano was getting closer in view and seeing the clouds slowly vanish.  We both were using our walking sticks that Antony had given us, and knew that we looked like the epitome of a New Zealand tramper.  Except for the fact that everyone was passing us.  Everyone.  That didn’t bother me, in fact, I wanted them to pass and I said, “Good grief, what is their hurry?!”  And smiled as I kept stopping to take videos.  Josh was patient with me, though he is always in a hurry and, as I’ve mentioned before, we are quite opposite in this.  He’s a speed walker and I hop and skip around and do little twirls as I throw daisies in the air, just wanting to take it all in and savor each moment.  “I want to enjoy this!”  I said, which he actually agreed to, and I said, “There’s no need to rush!  What is wrong with these people?”  Josh and I were both going camera crazy, of course, and just smiled as all the hikers passed us.  We were impressed with ourselves when we came upon the marker that announced we had already reached one kilometer . . . wow, we were doing good!

We had walked about thirty minutes, when we approached our first uphill battle.  It’s all fun and games until you start climbing uphill!  And then, I started doubting myself.  I should have prepared more for this, I was thinking.  I thought I had gotten in better shape since we’d arrived in New Zealand and been here a few months, and was thinking of the times I had hiked up the trails by our flat.  “I am so out of shape!” I said to Josh, already huffing and puffing as we climbed up and carefully around the rocks alongside a stream.  My heart was pounding.  We made it through that little patch, and then saw a long stretch of a boardwalk.  Flat.  Hooray!  My love for the outdoors and my thrill-seeking self left me after only forty-five minutes of starting the hike, which I realized when a group of young high-school looking kids basically ran past us and I almost snarled and hissed at them like Gollum.  Who do you think you are? And what are you trying to prove, you little young whippersnappers?!   I thought to myself.  I was beginning to feel old at 25.
As we edged closer and closer to the base of the volcano, we realized what a barren wasteland this was, and, in the fall of New Zealand, we were in the open sun and felt the temperature rising swiftly, increased all the more by us expending our energy.  We were in the land of Mordor; seriously.  I will never forget the moment, when, already feeling tired, I looked up at the volcano and saw tiny dots way up high.  What is that?  Ohhh Nooooo!!! Those dots were people!  For some reason, we had heard and I guess what all we had read about it and the pictures I’d seen, I was expecting this to be a fairly easy hike.  I thought it would be just a little uphill, kind of more like our experience at Rangitoto Island, a gradual, easy ascent, and that we would be walking more along the base of the volcano.  Looking at those specks, how small they looked in comparison to the towering volcano, and where we were being at the base and how far we had to go, I felt incredibly tempted to turn around.  We were staring at Mount Ngauruhoe, which, for you Lord of the Rings fans, is MOUNT DOOM!!  I felt dread, probably just as much dread as Sam and Frodo had when they stared up at Mount Doom, carrying also with them the burdensome One Ring.  Many hikers were stopped at this point in the track called Soda Springs for a bathroom break, as these port-a-potties were the last toilet facilities for a long time.  That of course was not a pleasant experience, but can’t be too picky when you are in the outdoors.  Josh and I stopped in that area to eat with fellow hikers to give us some protein before the grueling struggle we were about to partake in.  I had part of a banana and ate a chocolate/nut protein bar with raisins; that was actually quite yummy for being so healthy.  We finally strapped our packs on again, put on a brave face and headed towards the first steps of the straight up climb.  There was a big warning sign at the start of the steps, saying if you doubt your fitness then turn back now, and all the dangers we were about to encounter…you know, like walking along two volcanic craters, that last erupted not too long ago; these were definitely not extinct.  I kept imagining how screwed we would be if it erupted, especially me, as a few minutes ago I could have imagined myself sprinting away from the lava, but not now as I dragged my heavy legs up the first steps.  I am a pretty determined individual, after all is said and done, and despite my inner struggle, the thought of giving up and turning back would only make me a coward.

It was straight up, and each movement of my legs up to the next step hurt.  My thighs were burning, and felt like I barely had the strength to lift myself up.  The walking stick didn’t seem to provide much help in the conditions, but it was better than nothing.  I was so out of breath, and could hear my heart loud in my ears.  Josh and I had to stop quite frequently, though I would have stopped a lot more if I were alone; sometimes I want to appear more brave for him, too, I think.  I want him to think I’m a tough cookie.  It helped seeing him and hearing him express how hard this was for him as well, and I know he was definitely putting on a brave face for me.  He was always ahead though, but would wait for me and give me time to catch my breath.  And he’d encourage me, for I kept saying, over and over again, “I can’t do this.”  And then after the next round of steps, “No, I really can’t do this!”  It was never-ending.  After we rounded a corner, and Josh predicted this was the last part we had to climb and then it would be flat, well, then we’d round the bend and groan heavily to see that we had only just begun.  A few of those little high-schoolers, the girls in the pack, who had been so eager and arrogantly pushed past us before, were now slouched on the rocks and panting for breath, looking like they weren’t so fit after all.  We took turns passing them the next several moments, as many other hikers seemed to slow down during this exhausting part of the ascent.  We passed a few people, but then we’d stop for a while and they were ahead again.  It was slightly annoying since I am very competitive, especially when it comes to climbing mountains, but in all reality, at the time I couldn’t care less if the Dalai Lama passed by me on his portable carpet carried by his servants.  We were really starting to feel bad, though, whenever we saw some quite older people, as in they looked like they were in their 60’s, possibly older, were beginning to pass us up.  We couldn’t let that happen!  But they soon became our competition.  I was expecting to see a Granny on a motorized wheelchair lift come zooming past us yelling, “Wheee!  Yippee!!!!”
In retrospect, I haven’t felt too bad as we’ve researched the hike even more, and looking on their website it does say that some parts of the walk are pretty treacherous.  The part we were hiking then is described on the site as follows:    
Soda Springs to South Crater

“Grade: Moderate – Difficult, allow 40 minutes to an hour.

This section of the track, known as the Devil’s Staircase, is steep - climbing from 1400 to 1600 metres above sea level. You will need to take your time on this section, but on a clear day the view down the valley and out across the surrounding countryside is well worth it.”

After reading about it in that factual context, I feel even more proud of us.  So there we were, climbing Devil’s Staircase onto Mount Doom!  If that doesn’t sound intimidating, I don’t know what would.  We at last reached the top of that section, and were now very close to Mt. Doom.  Now this was a volcano, what you really imagine one looking like; a red mountain with its top blown off.  I looked up at the massive formation, and saw that people were climbing it, but fortunately and quickly learned that summiting Mount Ngauruhoe was optional; a side trip you could take if you were up to it.  On any other day, perhaps, or if we had been in better shape and had more time, we would have followed the overachievers, but the sign said 2 ½ hours return, and, the height at it which it still towered above us didn’t make me cry in my soup that we didn’t summit that mountain.  It would be impossible to have summited, though, unless we had been dropped off at 6:00 in the morning, or some people break it up and stay in one of the huts as it would make the total trip 11 to 12 hours.   

We walked a little further and joined others who were stopped to take a break and to take in the incredible views.  It was quite rewarding to look down and see the path so far away and small below that we had amazingly tread and conquered.  We saw a few people, that were now dots from this angle looking down, and I felt quite sorry for them.  Those were the ones who obviously were dropped off an hour later than us, and I knew they’d soon be catching up with us!  It was nice to be around the people again, though, and we all seemed to share something; a bond in that we had all defeated the volcano.  And bonded that everyone else around us looked beat.  We didn’t tarry too long there, as the journey had really just begun when looking at the sign and how much further we had to go.  We did stop and talk to another married couple our age, he was from the States and she was Kiwi, and we took pictures for each other.  Josh and I were so relieved to see the path ahead of us was flat for quite a while; it stretched on for what looked like miles.  We needed this.  It looked like we were in the barren desert in Arizona as we walked the dusty trail of this lifeless land.  Felt like we were on the moon.  The sun was beating down, but it thankfully wasn’t too hot.  Our bodies went through temperature changes quite frequently as we would get worked up and have to shed layers of clothes, then, put them on again when reaching the great heights.  As we were walking through no man’s land, the flat lands gave rest to the muscles in our legs and we felt the confidence return and the adrenaline in our bodies push us forward again.  We were so small walking beneath these towering, violent mountains, and I envisioned the lava flowing down and the mountain spewing smoke miles into the sky.

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
                                                                                                                  ~Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was sure right.  The flat lands did not last too long, and my heart dropped when I saw the tiny silhouettes of people again climbing up far ahead of us.  This almost looked worse than the hike up to the South Crater!  As we got closer, the terrain looked much more dangerous and rocky, and I began to regret wearing my tennis shoes instead of buying hiking boots.  The lady at the transport place told me I would be fine with these, my runners, if I was used to them and had them broken in.  She said it wasn’t as bad as they make it sound in the brochures.  I wasn’t so sure now, though.  The next several minutes I do believe were one of the worst of all the hike (but not the only, haha) and if I had to rate it between the last uphill battle we had done earlier, I honestly would have to say this one was harder.  It wasn’t as long having to climb this straight uphill part, but it was rocky and you had to be very careful.  I felt pretty scared, too, and did not want to fall (of course) and so the fear magnifies the experience and your nerves can overwhelm you.  Of course, you are supposed to remain calm, but I certainly felt nothing of the sort, especially as the wind had picked up here pretty strong, and I was worn out.  The wind was brutally cold and I had to put all my layers on again.  We stopped a couple times here, but I didn’t want to pause too long as the heights and lack of secure foot holdings made us feel the urgency to carry on.  We caught up with many people here and the congestion of hikers made me feel like I didn’t have to rush so much and made me feel better again that I wasn’t the only one struggling; this was really tough! There were no railings, of course, and our feet would slip a couple of times.  I was quite annoyed at this point, and beginning to feel like Bilbo: “Why O why did I ever leave my hobbit-hole?" said poor Mr. Baggins, bumping up and down on Bombur's back.”  I was wishing to be back in the Shire, or back on solid ground, with my feet propped up, snuggled up next to the fire, away from all this danger and exhausting journey.  I heard one girl struggling near us say, “I have more sympathy for Frodo and Sam, now.”  And I laughed to myself, making a mental note to remember that and write about it.  At this point, with the wind blowing fiercely, and the never-ending goal of reaching the top of this cragged precipice, I almost started crawling like Sam and Frodo do up Mount Doom.  Where is Sam when you need him?  I thought to myself.  When Frodo was exhausted beyond all imagining and had fought against the burden physically and mentally with carrying the One Ring, he could not go one step further and collapsed on the mountainside, just feet away from his goal, the chasm where he must throw in the ring and destroy it.  Sam sees his friend’s defeat, and cries out, “Come on Mr. Frodo, I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”  That scene in the movie always gets me, and I can’t help but cry.  Talk about a true blue friend.  I needed him to give me that pep talk right then and call out, “Come on Mrs. Lindsey, don’t give up! I’m here . . . I can carry you!”  But he was nowhere around.

The heavens seemed to open and the angels gathered around to sing “Hallelujah!” when we finally made it up those rocks and saw the flat place where several other people were stopped and eating lunch.  We definitely needed to take a big rest after our battle.  The hikers were happy, proud to have accomplished the two hardest parts of the crossing.  The views were unsurpassable and we could see for miles and miles.  I turned around and looked where we had just come and my jaw dropped open at seeing how high up we were and how truly ginormous the volcano was that we just passed and could have summited.  It really put me in my place . . . God’s creation; so powerful and humbling to see the mountains and volcanoes, this land he created.  Josh and I found us a spot facing the volcano and ate our lunch.  We were exhausted and not talking much; we were beat.  I gazed in wonder at the volcano and its width and height, wishing I could stay there much longer to really take in this magnificent site.  I ate my sandwich, another protein bar, and beef jerky.  We had brought plenty of water, which really added to the weight of our packs, but better to be safe than sorry.  We only stayed there a few minutes as we knew we still had much further to go and everyone else was moving on as well.  It was fun to watch the people as they appeared to this safety zone, and seeing their weary faces turn into smiles of relief.  There was always that sense of urgency to carry on, being on top of a volcano that we were, but also we did not want to be left behind and miss our van, though we still guesstimated we had plenty of time.  With the time change occurring that previous week, night was falling early, and we definitely did not want to be caught on the mountain in the dark without a flashlight or for any reason. 

We carried on, and looking ahead saw that we just had a little more uphill to go.  Goodness gracious!  It looked very easy though and just a small slope.  This was amazing!  Now, we were walking right alongside a crater, the red crater as it is called.  It was massive, and we were seriously walking along the edge with a straight drop off just inches away into the hole of the volcano.  For some reason, I didn’t feel that scared, I was just amazed and in awe.  We took our time here, looking at the panoramic views and taking pictures and videos.  At last, we walked a few more feet and our eyes got wide with excitement when we saw the infamous Emerald Lakes down below.  What we had seen in pictures and thought how cool it would be to go hike and see that when we went to New Zealand!  And here we were!  It made us feel so proud, and it was hard to believe that we were now living out those images by being here in the flesh.  It seemed random, that in this wasteland, in the middle of a barren, plant-less landscape, that there were pools of water…not just brown, lake water but bright turquoise, green, and blue (I find it hard to describe in one color haha), three pools of water that are filled with minerals from the rocks.  We could smell the sulfur, rotten-egg odor, and steam was coming up from the ground in several places.  I wouldn’t be filling my bottle with that water, nor would I be touching it.  All I could think of was the old grandma in Dante’s Peak, when she got in the water and pushed the boat with her family inside to shore, and her legs were all burned.  Yikes.  Going down from the red crater down to the emerald lakes was also somewhat of a challenge but also fun, and scary.  It was a lot of loose sand (actually scoria) and loose pebbles so you had to be really careful.  It was quite a steep descent and I was going very slow as I didn’t want to fall.  I hate that feeling when your feet just come out from underneath you and you have no control.  That happened quite a few times; I would laugh at Josh as he almost fell in front of me, and then it would happen to me seconds later.  Everyone around us was uncool in those moments though, it didn’t matter who you were, how fit you were, or what kind of shoes you had on, we all were slipping around and feeling embarrassed.  I was going down very slowly, but sometimes just slid a few inches down, which was quite fun.  It made me nervous though, and my legs started feeling shaky.  I was extremely happy when we got to the bottom and were finally at the lakes.  We walked around them and were just amazed and trying, once again, to take in the reality of the situation.  The color of the water was beautiful and rare.  Many people were stopped here and eating.  We didn’t stay long, just about five minutes for pictures, as we were really wanting this hike to be OVER! 

I was relieved to see flat lands again and these several minutes gave our legs a vacation.  I wished I had blinders on like a horse, however, and I groaned angrily when I saw we still had more climbing to do.  This is ridiculous!  I had no idea it was going to be like this, and I couldn’t imagine my legs being able to lift up anymore.  They were killing me.  It was getting warm again as there was not a cloud in the sky…climbing those rocks was tough, but not near as bad as what we’d already encountered.  It still took quite a while, and Josh and I were getting in worse moods with each staggering movement.  Once we reached the top of that section, we had reached another lake called Blue Lake, a huge pool of water, this time with dark colors.  It was silent and still; quite eerie.  According to Maori, these waters are sacred and it is a disgrace to eat at the water’s edge.  Looking down into the valley on the other side that we had walked from, to the side we saw a huge forest of black . . . an old lava trail.  Crazy! Once we passed the Blue Lake and rounded another corner and a few more steps upwards, we came upon a place in the hike that I thought was the best view of all.  We could see all the way to Africa!  It felt like we were on top of the world, and we could see Lake Taupo and who knows what all bodies of water we were seeing.  It was breathtaking.  We had lost a lot of the people and were alone to enjoy the views and the quiet.  It was nice to not have a crowd swarmed around us.  Josh said, “It’s all downhill from here!”  And, he was right this time.  I could not have imagined one more step up, I would not have been able to do it.  For a while, our paths were straight and level, and we were now on the other side of the volcano, and this part of the land was now covered with plant life, which was wonderful to see for a change.  The air felt cooler again but the sun was beating down on us making me start to feel nauseous and from the exhaustion my body was feeling.  Walking along the edge of that trail we took in the views, and I just wanted to pitch a tent there and call it a day.  No wonder some people break up this trek; some people do a four or five day hike around the mountains, covering many more miles than we were of course.  I’m sure they wouldn’t have been going 19 kilometers in one day, either.  “What is that?”  I asked, as in the distance, we thought we saw a volcano erupting.  I never found out what it was, I guess a grass fire, but it seriously looked like smoke coming from the top of a mountain.  Standing up there, with the world far below, we felt pretty accomplished, and yet our eyes couldn’t really take all of it in, there was so much to see, such a panoramic view, our eyes were in information overload, “Woah, what’s going on here!”   We were so small and the world was stretched out before us seemingly infinite.  It was similar to standing at the Grand Canyon and your eyes not being able to take in the grand magnitude of it all.  I didn’t feel as proud as I normally have in the past when climbing a mountain, mainly because I knew it wasn’t over and we felt like we were in a race against time to get back before nightfall and our van leaving.  I was in a lot of pain, too.  Josh was complaining quite frequently as well. 

Thus began our slow descent.  And I mean slow . . . slow and painful.  We had begun noticing that the signs along the way saying the next destination and how long it would take to get there were wrong.  Dead wrong.  If the sign said it would take 45 minutes to an hour to get to Red Crater, in reality, it took two hours.  We were going at a normal speed, too, actually we felt we were going pretty fast.  At first, I kept dreaming about the downhill part and how great that would be and was relieved when I saw the path leading downwards, but after a few minutes, I felt like this was worse than going up.  Our legs were not used to this trauma, and we were pushing our bodies to the limits; that is no exaggeration from me, but the honest truth.  You would think going down would be easier, but, not so.  What muscles in our legs we didn’t use going up, we were certainly using now, and the back of my thighs and legs and my calves and my knees were burning and felt like jello.  When we rounded a bend, and saw the Ketetehai Hut far down below, with a zigzag trail of switchbacks leading down to it, I groaned yet felt relieved.  It took a long time to get there, however, and I just could not believe how much my legs were screaming at me, and was scared that I wouldn’t be able to complete this hike.  There seemed no way that I would be able to; we still had hours left to go…an estimated three more at that point.  It was during this section of our hike, that once again seemed to be never-ending, and trying desperately to keep up with the long, fast strides of my husband, that I had a little hissy fit.  I had been complaining quite frequently throughout the duration of the day, but then again, so had Josh, and it really helped me mentally to complain out loud to him for some reason…most of the time he would encourage me and motivate me to keep on going, that I was doing great.  By this time, however, I was worn out, and it was the worst time to be a girl that day, to boot.  Always perfect timing, I tell you.  My hormones were therefore also my excuse, and I started ranting…I felt so angry.  “Why are you in such a rush anyways, you’re just like all these other people, it’s like your in a race against the clock!”  I snarled.  “Because we have to make it back in time for our van, I’m worried; you don’t want to be left behind on this mountain, DO YOU?” He snapped back.  “Well, look at your watch!  We got plenty of time…calm down and SLOW DOWN!”  I yelled.  There were a couple of name-callings on my part, very mature and a good wife of me to be, and then he was no longer patient with me and said how I’d been complaining the entire time.  “Well excuse me, but so have YOU!”  I had the wrath of Khan in me, and I was ready to defeat any enemy on this side of the mountain.  I was so mad and angry at all the people who kept passing us, one after another, and they were all practically running past us, which Josh mentioned that we weren’t even going fast, look at all these other people, and none of these girls were complaining.  That was it.  I was so sick of all these trampers and my ego being lowered and confidence in myself to conquer this mountain after all with each one that I had to stop for or move to the side so they could pass me.  “This isn’t the Olympics!” I felt like shouting.  A couple times I stopped dramatically and abruptly and just let a couple of them pass, and kind of rolled my eyes and acted really put out that they were passing me, haha, I wasn’t being very nice, I admit.  With all the people passing us, it reminded me of the panicky feeling you get when taking an exam, and you aren’t doing so great and it’s taking you a long time, and you look up and everyone is already finishing and leaving the room, leaving you and only a couple others behind.  Oh no, I better hurry!  Anyways, so my ranting at my husband lasted for several minutes and I’m sure a few people heard me, but I couldn’t care less at that moment.  I needed to get off this mountain, and I needed to get off NOW.  Anger and adrenaline can keep you going, though, and to prove a point, I started powerwalking and left Josh behind in the dust.  That wore me out, though, and I was happy to finally, eventually, let him pass me and take the lead again.  By that time we had almost reached the hut and he slowed down his pace significantly, almost too dramatically, in order to spite me, or to make a point, or to be nice, not sure which.   The bathroom break was needed at that time, and was quite a relief, though those port-a-potties were just horrible, ugh. 

Josh and I sat on the porch of the hut along with quite a few other trampers, who all seemed to be feeling the same pain and loss of motivation that we were.  I wanted to stay and sleep in the hut, apparently that was one that trampers use who do the around the mountain tracks.  Wished we had gone inside to look at what it looked like, but we didn’t…Josh was ready to get back on the trail.  He didn’t remember what the pick-up times were, which I had them mentally in my head, as it was, by this time, almost 3:00, and he was thinking the next time that we could make was like 3:30.  I said I don’t know why you are aiming for that, we have plenty of time, it actually picks up at 3:00, 4:00, and 5:30…I guarantee you! But he didn’t really believe me and I told him to get out our info sheet that told us, but he was being hard-headed (as we both seem to be with each other haha) and stuck to what he believed. By this time, we had lost a lot of the fellow hikers again, and were alone and not being tailed by the overachievers.   The sun was getting much lower in the sky, and according to the sign at the hut, it would take us 1 to 1 ½ hours to get down to the car park from there.  We kept descending, and descending, and every step was more agonizingly painful than the last.  We wanted this to end, and were now both hurrying as much as we could, not because we felt up to it, but we needed to reach the goal and be done with this ridiculous torture.  Whose idea was this?  What were we thinking?  Never again.  There were so many steps going down, and then a few more uphill steps, randomly, that I detested.  I couldn’t carry on much further; my legs were about to give out.  Thankfully, I have a good husband; I was slowing down and being serious when I said, “Baby, I really can’t do this anymore”, Josh was sweet and grabbed my heavy pack from my shoulders, strapped it across his chest, along with his heavy backpack, and I felt like a free woman with that burden lifted off.  And, I was in love with him again!  Haha.  That was so sweet and sacrificial of him, shows what a great man he is, and strong, and loving and protective, and patient despite my earlier mean behavior.  I was able to get another rush of energy and adrenaline and started running down the path with this newfound freedom, and it helped my legs for a while. 

We reached our next sign, and my heart dropped, as did our morale when we saw the sign said 45 more minutes.  Are you kidding me?  How could that be?  I told you those signs were wrong…we had been going fast and thought we were nearly there, I couldn’t imagine.  At this point, I was thinking that the sign in the beginning said 17 kilometers, and we were at the 16 mark, so I was like, “oh only 1 more kilometer to go!”, but as we kept going downhill and down more steps that I felt my legs wobble with each excruciatingly painful movement of my leg down onto the next step, then I realized that it was 19.4, not 17.  That makes a world of difference.  By now, we were in a forest, and walking alongside streams.  Normally I would have been pausing and taking in the beauty and enjoying the reprieve from the sun that had been making me feel ill, but by now all I could think was, Survive, Just survive.  I was carrying my pack again, and I will never forget these next few moments.  I had slowed down significantly and was dragging every step forward . . . Josh was so far ahead of me, he seemed to be doing just fine, and I felt so alone and abandoned in these few moments when everything just finally got to me.  He wasn’t that far ahead of me, but with the sun behind the trees and the darkness of the forest around us, and no people but their faint voices catching up from behind, I became completely overwhelmed.  I was defeated.  I felt completely defeated by the mountain; my body could not carry on, I was utterly spent.  I had wanted to remain and had been tough for so long, being so competitive and strong-willed, especially when it comes to hiking, but that was all over now.  With night coming upon us quickly, I knew there was no way I would make it back to the car park in time, or ever.  A few minutes ago Josh and I had been aiming for the 4:00, but by now we had long passed that.  I told myself, they are going to have to have a helicopter come get me.  And then I thought, Josh is going to just have to leave me behind, and I imagined myself laying on the forest floor and lifting my arm weakly in the air and whispering, “It’s okay . . . go on without me.”  And waving goodbye to him.  Two kilometers seemed absolutely impossible.  If I saw another set of steps going down, I knew I was just going to collapse.  I thought of the verse, “and he will make your paths straight”, and I prayed that God would do that, but I only saw more steps.  After what seemed like eternity, Josh noticed me trailing way behind, and slowed down.  I couldn’t help it; by then, the tears just clouded my eyes, blurring my vision, and started streaming down my face.  I felt like a baby, so helpless and sad and scared and defeated and weak.  “Baby, are you okay, what’s wrong?” and then he saw my tears, “I can’t do this anymore, I really can’t…” as I cried on his shoulder as he hugged me and wiped away my tears.  “It’s okay baby, I know, we are almost there, it’s right around the corner, you’ve been doing SO good!”  A few people walked by at that moment and this one lady turned and looked at me funny and I tried to hide my tears. What are you staring at lady? I thought to myself.  Josh then took my pack from me again, which I felt bad for but grateful to him because I knew he was just as exhausted.  Those kilometers were one of the worst moments of my life, seriously.  I was basically limping and I will never forget and cannot describe the fire burning in my legs, it was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.  Around each bend we kept hoping to see the car park, but the path before us was infinite.  I was reminded of Bilbo again, and visions of laying in my bed in my comfortable imaginary hobbit-hole after eating a huge meal brought some comfort:

"To think it will soon be June," grumbled Bilbo, as he splashed along behind the others in a very muddy track. It was after tea-time; it was pouring with rain, and had been all day; his hood was dripping into his eyes, his cloak was full of water; the pony was tired and stumbled on stones; the others were too grumpy. "And I'm sure the rain has got into the dry clothes and into the food-bags," thought Bilbo. "Bother burgling and everything to do with it! I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!" It was not the last time that he wished that!”  -The Hobbit

At last, and I mean at last, we rounded a bend and just ahead of us I saw what was the most glorious sight in all the world . . . cars!  We had made it to the car park!  My whole body ached.  A few more steps and we finally arrived!  We heard a lot of cheers as we had caught up with people who were approaching the finish line every few minutes.  Vans and buses were waiting, and I was hoping ours was there, but it wasn’t yet.  It was 5:00.  Good thing we had rushed, for in 30 minutes our last ride would be coming.  Josh and I found a spot on the deck, and laboriously sat down, and then lay down and didn’t move.  I ate a banana and another protein bar, and we didn’t say anything, but just sat in silence.  The look on his face said he was in a lot of pain, and couldn’t believe what we had just gone through either.  It had taken us exactly 8 hours to complete that monster. 

And we had!! We did it!  Josh and I conquered the mountain . . . the volcanoes!  It would take us days after the fact to feel grateful for it, because then, sitting there staring blankly ahead not being able to move a muscle, it did not seem worth it, at all. 

After a few minutes of finally having my heart rate calm down and getting more nutrition and resting my legs, my mood cheered up as more people reached the car park, and dragged themselves and collapsed on the floor.  A lot of them laughed at each other, and I smiled to myself as they were all groaning.  It was like we had just climbed Mount Everest.  It helped a lot, and I felt tons better seeing all the pain people were in around me.  Maybe I wasn’t such a pansy after all. 

Our van was another site for sore eyes at five-thirty.  The sun was almost completely gone, and so, when the van arrived, the air was getting significantly colder.  I dreaded the part of getting up from our spot, which was no picnic for the legs; thankfully we were able to rise up and carry ourselves to the van.  We were joined by two other couples, and waited for another guy, who we hadn’t heard from and waited for five minutes, but he didn’t show up, so the driver of the van just left.  Poor guy, I hope he somehow got a ride back.  When the driver was checking us in and about to slide the van door closed, he asked us how it was, and we all kind of moaned.  He was a tough looking outdoorsy guy, and he said, “Now time for a beer a two…you guys definitely earned it!”  And we all just laughed.  There was silence the whole way back, and I felt so happy to be sitting beside my husband in this van, and couldn’t wait to shower and stuff my face with food.  We got back to the transport, got into our car, and then talked and vented about how tired and hungry we were.  It was about a ten-minute drive back to our lodge, and that was the best hot shower ever.  Felt so good to be clean and the heat helped my aching muscles.  We drove back into the village to another lodge as there were only a couple restaurants open at that hour, and ate at the restaurant.  I don’t even remember what I ate, all I know is that it was good, and I didn’t leave a single thing on my plate.  Familiar faces surrounded us as we saw many of those we had met along the way on the track, and heard them telling their stories.  We even saw those older couples that had passed us right on up, and they were laughing heartily…man those old folk put us to shame! Haha. 

What a great, eventful, rewarding way to end our anniversary trip!  That night, it took me forever to fall asleep, which was so annoying, but I was just in so much agony and re-living the events of that day.  We felt truly accomplished, more so the next day, Wednesday, despite the intense aching in our bodies and the drive back to a cloudy and rainy Wellington was fast.  We were actually quite ready to be back to familiar territory again, and be able to rest and relax in our flat.  We’d had an amazing, North Island expedition, and the best one year anniversary trip I could have ever asked for.  The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is something we will always remember and be proud of ourselves for, and the teamwork in helping each other survive it (well more on Josh’s part for me anyways, haha.)  And we can both honestly say; that was the hardest thing we have ever done.  They call the walk a once in a lifetime experience, boy, ain’t that the truth.  We will never, ever be doing that again!        

Interesting facts:

“The most recent confirmed volcanic activity from Red Crater was reported between 1855 and 1890. The dike on the Southern Wall has been exposed by erosion. Lava would have flowed through this dike and poured into the Oturere Valley. 

Mount Ngauruhoe is the youngest volcano in the area and started to form about 2500 years ago. It is the most active vent in the Tongariro area with its last eruption recorded in 1975. The most recent flows from Mount Ngauruhoe are easily visible on the way to South Crater.”


How fit do I have to be?

The true answer is fit enough. A moderate to good level of fitness is required. It is a 19.4km walk which starts with a staged climb to Red Crater. The thing to consider is that you will be climbing nearly 800m in altitude to 1900m above sea level and as a result you may feel the effects of oxygen deficiency (hard to breath, slight dizziness) This is not common but needs to be considered. The decent from Red Crater requires some coordination and balance due to the volcanic ash and scree that is underfoot. From this point you will be descending just over 1000m in altitude most of which is a good steady gradient. At all times you should consider the possibility that if you do not feel you can do it, turn back! It is better to return to the start (if you have not already passed the Red Crater) than to try and continue and be caught out in the dark requiring rescue. 

Day 8, 9, & 10: New Plymouth & National Park Village (April 7th, 8th, and 9th)

We left Matamata that Saturday afternoon and headed southwest towards New Plymouth.  Every year the New Plymouth Church of Christ hosts the Easter Camp, and speakers come from across the world.  I had learned previously that my old preacher from the church I grew up in Midland, Mike Vestal, was going to be one of the speakers.  It was pretty neat that I would be seeing my preacher from West Texas across the globe in New Zealand!  I remembered again the slideshows he would present to the congregation after taking mission trips throughout the years to NZ, and the reports we would hear back from Rod Kyle, the missionary from New Plymouth that our church supported.
The drive was long to New Plymouth, but we enjoyed every minute it and I never wanted to take for granted the scenery.  I remember one moment when my heart just welled up with joy as we were listening to Josh Groban, “So She Dances” and being surrounded by green hills and valleys, and sheep, and golden sunlight dancing all around us.  And, I was sitting there beside my husband.  I felt so grateful and blessed for these amazing moments.  Thank you, God. 
We rounded a bend of slow, windy roads and both exclaimed, “Woah!” when we saw a mountain that looked like Mount Fuji…towering miles and miles into the sky.  We were far away, but its grandiose height was captured despite our distance…behold, Mount Taranaki.  The coast spread out before us again, a relieving sight as we’d been landlocked the past few days, and white, billowy clouds hovered underneath the top of the volcano. 

Josh and I reached New Plymouth in the evening, and found ourselves a decent hotel to rest our weary, car-driven bodies.  I was excited to be some place new…always craving different sights. 
The next morning, Easter Sunday, we drove to the campus where they were holding the Easter Camp.  It did not feel like Easter, not one bit.  It almost felt like we were in a different world in that small city.  I was glad to see preacher Mike, again, and for him to get to meet my husband.  We talked for a few minutes and caught up with life’s happenings.  I got to see my friend Adeline, as she and Carl had come up for the weekend for it, so that was good.  We listened to a great sermon from Mike, and I was happy to hear a familiar preaching style that I had listened to for years growing up; he’s a really good preacher and I like that I am easily able to take notes.  Josh and I stayed for class as well, which Mike likes to call on people to read, so my hubby had to stand up and read a few verses on the spot.  Mike said that he knew that this young man had to be a good guy, because he is married to one of the sweetest girls I know.  I thought that was nice.  It was great to get to see preacher Mike again. 
Josh and I left after it was over and were trying to figure out our plans, whether or not to hit the road or stay a couple days here.  We went and ate lunch; I ate my first Turkish kebab, which I inhaled, as we sat on the boardwalk by the beach.  We wanted desperately to climb Mt. Taranaki, to summit that huge mountain, or volcano, whatever it was.  In fact, it was filmed to represent Mt. Fuji, and Tom Cruise was quite famous with the locals in this area when he filmed The Last Samurai a few years ago.  We had talked to another couple from church that said that they had summited it, but that it was hard---it took them like 4 to 6 hours.  We felt like we were in a race against time, and not sure really what we were thinking, but after going to the I-site and learning more and getting some brochures, we headed towards Mt. Taranaki.  It was already mid-day so there was no way we could have made it to the top, I guess we were just wanting to get a good look at it and maybe even walk a little ways on a shorter trail.  I could not believe how tall it was!  We kept driving through the trees and would see it appear, but we’re noticing the gas light on our car and I was like “this is pointless, what are we doing?  We can’t do anything now anyways,” and, “We are about to run out of gas, why didn’t you get gas?”  Haha.  So we turned back around and decided that, since we were competitive and ready for a challenge, that we would stay another night, get up early in the morning, and summit.  I didn’t have any hiking boots, which I was quite worried about, but we said we would buy a pair early in the morning. 

We got a different hotel this night, and readied ourselves with brochures and talk of our hike the next day.  I felt pretty scared about it, actually, and pretty sure I dreamt about us climbing.  That was no small mountain, were we really fit enough to climb?  We read all the warnings and the significant loss of life of people attempting to climb it, but the weather forecast for the next day was sunny. 
We did not wake up early.  And when we did wake up, Josh convinced me pretty easily that we shouldn’t do it. Maybe later on during our time in NZ we would come back up here, when we were more prepared and possibly more fit.  I was a little disappointed, and wondering what we were going to do now, I had been ready for a physical challenge, and was not ready to go back to Wellington.  We had been talking all along about, if we had time and still felt up to it, to go to Tongariro National Park and do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  So, we decided that would be the best thing to do, and easier.  Yipee!  I was so excited!
I felt more than ready; both of us did, to leave New Plymouth mid-day on Monday, April 9th.  We had noticed the disconnect feeling by then in that city, and realized how much we did not care for New Plymouth at all.  On to new places again!
We took the Forgotten World Highway, a “shortcut”, but not really after all, as it made our trip extra long, and I’d never seen such slow speed markers and so many curve road signs…it was fun at first as we really were in a forgotten world with few houses, just farmland and hills and sheep and trees and horses, but after awhile, I didn’t like the feeling of not seeing cars.  It warned of there being no gas for 150 kilometers, so glad we stocked up beforehand, because that was certainly no lie.  I would have liked to have stayed in a farm-stay accommodation out there somewhere, it was quite peaceful.  There was even a long stretch of road beneath the mountains that was unpaved and unmarked, just gravel and you really had to share the road carefully when a car did appear around the sharp bend. 

Both of us sighed when we finally got off the Forgotten World Highway, and joined more cars.  We were stoked when we saw the mountain ranges or Mt. Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, and Mt. Ruapehu, the first two mountains of which were part of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  Tomorrow, we would be climbing those mountains! On our way to Auckland, we had passed down this stretch of road and by this National Park, but it had been cloudy and rainy during that part of the day, so we hadn’t seen these mountains until now. 
As we approached the National Park Village, we groaned when we saw a line of cars and the police stopping everyone.  Josh hadn’t done the warrant of fitness yet on our car, which is like the inspection (you have to pay to get it done every six months), and I had told him to do this, but we didn’t have the money he said, he would do it after our trip.  Well that came back to bite us, and so we got a ridiculously expensive ticket from the lady cop.  It was embarrassing when we were sitting on the side of the road and everybody was passing us and staring.  Another ticket.  More money. 
That was a damper, but then we drove around and looked for us a place to stay after we stopped at the transport shop, called Adventure HQ, that we had called along our trip down to book a seat on the van to the Crossing in the morning.  In my brochures I had been looking at accommodation and had seen this one place on the Internet previously when looking in this area, so we stayed at Discovery Lodge, which had outstanding views of the mountains in front of us.  We had a wonderful meal at a rustic, mountain-lodge restaurant, and it was so beautiful watching the sunset creating an orange and red and purple hue on the mountains.  Mt. Ruapehu, which we wouldn’t be hiking that one, had a few patches of snow covering the top.  National Park Village was pretty quiet at the time, and it was a quaint little ski village as, in winter, the mountains are covered in snows and skis and snowboards.  We went to the only open grocery mart and stocked up on food for our hike, then went to bed early and dreamt of the adventures we’d be having the next day.    

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Day 8: Matamata /Hobbiton . . . aka The Shire! (April 7th)

“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots of lots of pegs for hats and coats -- the hobbit was fond of visitors.”  -The Hobbit

I was about to live out my dream; my dream that I had the very first time I watched as the camera was following behind Gandalf in his cart and as it peered over the hill; I gasped when I saw the Shire with its green hills, flowers, and hobbit-holes come to life onto the big screen.  From that moment, I knew that I wanted to go to New Zealand one day and walk through the Shire. To know that someone had created this place--made what I had only imagined in my head and dreamed of a mythical land like this existing--and actually turned it into a tangible place you could see with your own eyes . . . that was truly amazing.  I was in 10th grade when I had that dream, and the ten or so years that have passed since then have not diminished this desire, but it has stayed within me.  I should have prefaced this blog with, “Nerd Alert!”, but I really find no sense in being ashamed in my zeal, so, I’m gonna lay it on thick and tell you all my imaginative thoughts; hopefully you won’t think less of me.

Josh had promised me we would go to Hobbiton and I had been anticipating this moment for, well, you already know, forever!  As we left Rotorua on Saturday morning, I just didn’t know what to do with myself driving down the road, with each kilometer bringing us closer to my dream.  The countryside brought peace to my anxious/excited self, and I thought that at any moment a hobbit might pop out from behind the fence.  And, there were sheep, sheep, sheep everywhere!  I was starting to feel very nervous.  Josh thought this was funny, because he could tell I had butterflies in my stomach since I was being quiet, and, he likes to make fun of me for my obsession.  At last, we arrived at the quaint and cute town of Matamata.  I can imagine how proud the townsfolk must feel that Bilbo’s house is right down the road.  A few of the shops took advantage and milked it for what it was worth; I saw one shoe store called Strider.  We drove up to the I-site visitor’s center that was painted and designed to resemble a hobbit hole with signs advertising the Hobbiton tours.  We thought we were going to go to the later tour time, which is why we arrived about an hour and a half early, but as we walked in to sign up and pay for the tour, the lady asked if we wanted to go to the one that was leaving in ten minutes.  I hate having to make split second decisions, and I didn’t know what to do as I wanted more time to prepare myself mentally and just make sure we had everything ready, but then again did we really want to wait that long and that might make me more nervous?  We decided to go, but we had to run back to the car and get all our cameras ready…I was kind of freaking out and saying we should have waited.  I had a few moments of being a pill, but I guess I’ll blame it on my nerves and what a huge deal this was to me and that I wanted it to be perfect. 

So, Josh and I grabbed our cameras and our brochures, and walked up into the Hobbiton tour bus, sitting by our very short tour guide who could have been a hobbit himself.  Wow, they really do make this an authentic experience! I thought to myself.  I couldn’t believe I was on this tour bus!  I don’t know if I can handle this, this is too much for me, I thought and wanted to just jump out the window.  As the bus pulled out and we headed a few miles out into the countryside, I finally started gaining composure again and I looked happily at my brochure with a map of Hobbiton inside.  Josh kept asking me, “Can you believe this is happening? Can you believe you are doing this?!”

Peter Jackson could not have picked a more perfect place.   Apparently, he has scouts who go out across the country to find ideal locations for different scenes in the movie.  I would’ve liked to have had their job!  I don’t know who found this place, whether it was Peter or one of his scouts, but they must be commended.  Just when I thought that the grass couldn’t possibly be greener on the other side, I found that over here, it was.  The green color is hard to describe in words to really convey its vibrancy; it was so lively. The emerald grass just seemed to bounce and wave in the wind, as if it truly was alive.  It seemed to possess life; like it had feelings, and that, out here in this beautiful country, ‘neath the shining sun and far away from any steel buildings or freeways or pollution or crime or wars or any danger, that it was happy and free.  The grass was dancing.

We arrived at The Shire’s Rest, a cafĂ© and gift shop, and a pick-up spot for other tourists.  We were to trade buses and luckily Josh and I didn’t have to get on the overcrowded one, but into a small van named Frodo.  I would say we lucked out, as we were with our tour guide and just a couple other guys and got to listen to their inquisitive questions.  Our tour guide hopped out of the van and opened the locked gate.  We are about to go where no man has gone before!  I thought to myself . . . a forbidden land.  Later, we learned from our guide that the fence blocking this real-life movie set is electrified in order to scare off any overenthusiastic fans (like me); when filming, they had guards set up along the fence as well.  As we rolled down the gravel road, bumping up and down like we were truly off-roading, and I realized that I was where THE Lord of the Rings was filmed . . . oh man, there just aren’t enough words to describe how I felt.  It took several minutes to get there, and I couldn’t wait!  I gasped when I saw The Green Dragon, with the pond and watermill, but was sad to hear our guide say he couldn’t take us to that part yet.  Oh well.  We were getting lower down the hill, and we still hadn’t seen the movie set yet as the trees and hills were blocking the view.  And then, at last . . . I saw the Shire.

I had just entered magical, magical, fairyland, and, it is safe to say, I was off in la-la land for the next hour and a half.  I was beaming from ear to ear!  My favorite moment was looking up and, at the top of the hill, beside a flourishing tree, seeing Bilbo and Frodo’s house, with the green door and golden knob in the middle.  I just could not believe it.  It was real!  The Shire really exists!  We gathered around our tour guide, which, at the moment, I couldn’t care less about him, no offense, for I just wanted to run away and frolic through the flowers and chase the butterflies and make grass angels and sit on the porch of my very own hobbit hole and smoke a pipe.  For the time-being, we had to stick fairly close to him, which was all right after all, because he was an excellent tour guide, providing great information I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and he was funny and good-humoured.  The New Zealand accent, of course, was the cherry on top.  I listened to him off and on, and sometimes wandered away a little bit, as I wanted to be alone so I could pretend!  I had the video camera, and it’s funny listening to me, because I was talking very softly and quietly, almost like I was keeping a secret and didn’t want to disturb the peace of the Shire, and talking like I was really taking in the magical-ness of it all.  Being there, amongst all the beauty and just how I felt, I knew there had to be a God, and that there is so much goodness and beauty in this world.  Being there made me feel thankful for fiction; for imaginations, for our creative minds that God created us to have; and how some people use them to create an amazing story.  A story that has affected throngs of people throughout the years and that will continue to until the end of time.  I am thankful for this story, and I think God would like this tale told by J.R.R. Tolkien; in fact, God is probably quite impressed!  The story has made me relate to God and Christianity, too, which is awesome, I think, that fictional characters and stories can do that, such as The Chronicles of Narnia. 
Those moments in the Shire could not have been more perfect; I know I keep using that word, but there’s no other way to describe it! The weather was absolutely gorgeous with the temperature being almost too good to be true, with barely a breeze, and the warm sun just felt so good and invigorating.  It was so quiet except for the songs of a few birds and the soft hum of crickets.  The sun was shining brightly with just a few clouds passing by every now and then, so that we couldn’t have asked for anything more as this was the best setting we could possibly have when taking pictures. As we approached the first hobbit hole, something moved in the grass, and what would you know, but one of my favorite things in the world?  A CAT!!! A common housecat was living in the Shire.  And it was a calico!  Okay, what’s going on here?  I was thinking to myself.  I then started expecting the clouds to open at any moment and to hold out my hands to manna coming down from the heavens.  Or lembas bread.  In fact, that is the only suggestion I could give for this tour, is that they hand out elvish lembas bread, wrapped in a big leaf.
When I was face to face with our very first hobbit hole, I could barely contain my enthusiasm; I felt like I could jump up in the air and fly I was so happy.  It was exactly how I imagined a hobbit hole would look like.  A bright blue, round door built against the side of a hill and tiny wooden framed, rustic, earthen windows.  I had never seen so many flowers; hobbits may be lazy, but not enough to tend to their gardens, creating a haven for butterflies.  Wooden picket fences that were worn and looked like they had been there for centuries added to the effect.  It was all in the nitty-gritty details, and our guide told us that Peter Jackson made sure of it.    We noticed on the fence posts there was lichen moss, which Josh said that he bet they sprayed that on there, and sure enough, we learned about the lucky man whose only job was to spray the moss onto the picket fences.  The windows even had curtains and a couple vases and jars in the windowsill so they looked lived in.  Atop this home’s grassy hill was a brick chimney, and a wooden bench that would have been a good spot to read.  We walked on some more and there was a young lady about our age with headphones in her ear watering the grass and gardens of the homes.  Can you imagine being in her shoes, getting to come to the Shire every day and just watering the grass?  How peaceful and amazing.  Then we saw the stone road that Gandalf rides into town in his cart in The Fellowship of the Ring, and I walked down to the end and took the same path into town.  I walked slowly and just wanted all the people to go away so I could take in these moments.  Here I was, standing in the very place and beholding the scene that once caused my heart to leap up into my chest with glee many years ago, when I watched the film for the first time.  The Shire was spread out before me and I was living in a painting, chimneys rising from the hills, and with Bag End being the center of the artwork.  I was in the land of the hobbits; it was all real; I was walking through what my mind had imagined when I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It was all quite surreal, and those moments will be sketched in my memory forever. 

Our guide took us down to the lake where we saw more hobbit homes and one of the main backgrounds from the film.   Behind the lake and in the distance, where we were not allowed to go, for some reason, was the Green Dragon.  The stone building and thatched roof made me feel like we were in a village in Ireland.  We walked by one hobbit hole with a bright yellow door and a hand-painted red mailbox with designs on it, and behind the fence, was our friend the Calico cat.  The sun was shining on him as he stood statuesque on the front porch, as if it were his home.  I even saw him smiling!  You could see he was happy in the Shire, and enjoyed the attention.  Our guide said the cat was so popular, it had its own website.  I was lucky that earlier I had been able to pet the cat, which always brightens my world to pet a kitty cat.

An elaborate garden lay in the center of the Shire, blossoming bountifully as the white butterflies had also found their heaven.  A scarecrow stood tall and proud to protect from any unwanted guests.  We took our time savoring the moments and I gazed in wonder up at the magnificent party tree.  It was massive!  The sun was shining through the leaves and it was so magical.  So this is where Bilbo celebrated his one hundred and eleventh birthday.  I imagined the scene at night, with the twinkling lights hanging from the boughs and Bilbo’s birthday cake covered in 111 candles.  How I would have liked to have been at that party, eaten all the food and ate that birthday cake.  Haha, what did I tell you?  I was not on earth the entire time we were there.  Looking at all the people around me though, laughing and as happy as little hobbit children, I knew I was surrounded by my fellow nerds.  The tree was roped off, but I was tempted to sneak off and climb it and hide.  Our guide mentioned that one old man had come for one of the tours and asked if the guide would kindly let this dear old sir sit beside the tree.  Our guide said, “So I just let him”, and the old man sat with his back against the tree the entire time reading The Lord of the Rings.  The old fellow was quite content and so the guide of course just let him be.  I thought that was a cute story.

As we stood underneath the party tree and the huge lawn, our guide said that this is the spot where some of the fans who come on the tour dress up like hobbits and start dancing around!  As in, they really have done that!  He said if you are keen on doing so, you are more than welcome to!  That got a roaring laughter from the crowd.  And then, I grabbed Josh’s hand and ran out onto the open field, clapped my hands in the air, and then we started dancing.  Haha, not really, but that would have been funny.
We went further down the pathways and came upon Sam Gamgee’s abode.  It, of course, had the most beautiful and elaborate flower garden, and I had never seen so many butterflies in one place.  This was the last scene of the entire trilogy, when Sam comes back from his sad farewell to his dear Mr. Frodo, and comes back to his hobbit hole with the yellow door, kisses his beloved wife Rosie, and says, “Well, I’m back.”  I thought to myself, “Well, I’m here!”

My other favorite part (can’t choose one I guess) was walking up the path to Bag End, and this made the whole thing complete, standing in front of Bilbo’s green door, the door that Gandalf tapped his staff upon.  I was disappointed that Bilbo wasn’t sitting in his chair on the porch blowing smoke rings on his pipe.  The door was cracked open, but a rope blocked off the few steps leading to the door.  Bummer.  I so desperately wanted to go and take a peek; how could we not go inside?   I’m not sure what it would have looked like; I guess it would have been empty.  I could only see in my head, though, the scenes from the film combined with what I have always envisioned the inside of a hobbit hole to look like and from the picture painted by Tolkien:
“The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill -- The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it -- and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, diningrooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the lefthand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river." –The Hobbit

A hobbit hole means comfort, which is also how Tolkien described it, and this is why I love to imagine living in one of these.  I like their lifestyle, too, relaxed, peaceful, and pretty lazy.  I don’t imagine hobbits being stressed . . . Ever.  How cozy a hobbit hole would be!  I have often gone to bed dreaming of dwelling within a hobbit hole; sitting in a nice big chair, reading a book by the fire, listening to the crackling of the wood and smelling the intoxicatingly soothing smell of burning pine, my belly full after my six meals I had that day, and topping it off with dark rye bread with butter, a glass of milk and tea, a crumpet and scone and cakes, and perhaps a couple of grapes.  I would soon go to bed in my hobbit hole bedroom, that overlooked the Shire, with the faint lights of the Green Dragon pub still burning brightly as the diamond stars above.  My bed would be as luxurious and fit for the King of England, and I would sleep with such peace in my soul as the wood burning in my fireplace in my room slowly went to sleep for the night.  Until the next day, when I would eat a breakfast that could have been spread upon the banquet table of a King and Queen’s castle, and then tend to my garden, talk to the neighbors, and sleep in the grass after watching the clouds turn into different shapes for hours.  I would be an artistic hobbit, and would be known for my poetry and stories I had written and was working on; the children would love to gather ‘round me at night and hear my tales.

A hobbit hole that we could actually step inside for photo, yay!

Being there, in front of Bilbo’s home, looking out upon the land and the people, Er . . .  imaginative hobbits in my head I mean, seeing the green hills, gardens, flowers, lake and mountains in the distance, I then knew why Bilbo loved the Shire so dearly.  No bad thing, no evil could ever possibly come to this place; it could not even be imagined looking out from the hill of Bag End.  And, like Bilbo and Frodo, I understood their need and passion to save the Shire. 

But, standing there, I also felt the same longings Bilbo had as he sat smoking his pipe. . . “What lies beyond these peaceful borders?” I’m sure he thought to himself.  “I want to see the world, and have adventures!”  As idyllic and perfect as the Shire seemed, and as comfortable as our homes can be, and safe, we sometimes are like Bilbo and cannot be confined, but must broaden our horizons, hunt for treasure, stumble upon the unexpected, become friends with dwarves, elves, and a wizard, climb towering mountains, and fight a dragon. 

“Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.” –The Hobbit 

I did not want that moment to end, looking out upon the Shire. 

Along the tour, and gazing at each door and garden, I tried to think which hobbit hole would be mine…where would I like to live?  I thought long and hard about it, but Bag End definitely took the cake.  Our tour guide was watching out for all of us, especially when we were at Bilbo’s door, as I’m sure he could sense the plots of the nerds planning their subtle sneak-off.   Josh asked if anyone had ever tried to be left behind, and he took a second, smiled and said, “Yep.”  I thought that was hilarious and Josh really laughed loud.  If only he knew what I was thinking . . .

I did not rebel, however, so you should be quite proud of my self-control.  The tour was better than I could have dreamed, and I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough time, which of course we all wanted more, but realistically, we had plenty of time to listen to our tour guide and had several chances to have moments to ourselves and wander off not too far.  Josh and I did get “gotten onto” once, along with a couple other people, because we got a little too excited and started going ahead and he told us to wait.  Oops! Haha.  I felt like the luckiest girl in the world that day; how many people get to do that?  And did I ever think I really would be in the Shire?  I also felt lucky because, after The Lord of the Rings film, this land was owned by a farmer, and as New Zealand has had the rule to bring everything back to its original state and Jackson had to take down his movie sets on location after filming was done, well, they had to take Hobbiton apart, too.  The only thing that was left was the white walls and doorframes, so you just had to really imagine.  The tour was like that for years, and when I first learned about that back in the day, I was quite disappointed because I wanted it to look like it did in the movie.  Well, the timing was providential, because, after filming The Hobbit, they left it exactly the way it was.  Woo hoo!  Our guide said that this is going to be here forever, so we can bring our children, grandchildren, and just keep coming back.  I thought that was awesome, and I already plan on our kids being LOTR nerds, whether they like it or not, and we will come back here as a family one day!  I could have learned a lot more things from our tour guide, but I did wander off quite frequently. One interesting fact I did overhear, however, was that the tree on top of Bag End was FAKE!!!  As we had stood at the lake, he said that if you look closely, and the wind blows, the branches don’t sway.  Crazy!

There was another busload of people; that place is busy as the tours overlap each other.  Being Easter weekend too, I’m sure this helped with the influx as well.  I did not want to leave, and was very sad to say goodbye to my dear Shire.  I said goodbye several times.    

We rode back to the Shire’s Rest to buy souvenirs.  As if my Hobbiton experience couldn’t have gotten any better, there was a fence filled with hungry sheep, and when I walked out there I saw my husband feeding a sheep with a milk bottle!  I let out a shriek and ran over there and took over the bottle and laughed as the cute as a button young sheep sucked on the bottle dramatically and loudly.   It made my heart melt and made me even happier.  Who could ask for anything more?

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.”

~The Hobbit