Photo Essay: Tongariro, Middle-earth

Are you as excited about the latest The Hobbit trailer as I am? Five weeks from today I will sit in one of those wide and comfy cinema armchairs, glued to the screen, absorbing Peter Jackson’s latest visual tricks like a sponge, while marvelling at the Trilogy’s sceneries.

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Mt. Ngauruhoe aka Mt. Doom, in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Best thing about it: I have been there! Most outdoor scenes have been filmed in New Zealand, just like most scenes for The Lord of the Rings. New Zealand is officially Middle-earth; and Mt. Ngauruhoe in Tongariro National Park is the most popular location among orcs fans, as they can attempt to climb “Mt. Doom” and conquer Mordor.

One does not simply walk into Mordor? Oh well, I must have gotten lucky the last 6 times I visited. Yes — visited. I looked and behaved like a tourist in Mordor, and of course I captured it on film (in the form of a 16 GB memory card).

On a foggy day, the region is indeed all about doom and gloom (like in the movies). But on all other days, Tongariro is one surprisingly colourful place to discover. I have been lucky enough to visit the region during all 4 seasons. Each season is unique and totally worth it. But let’s allow some photos to talk for themselves.

Who else is looking forward to rediscover New Zealand in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies?

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Climbing Mount Taranaki From North Egmont

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Mount Taranaki, North Island, New Zealand

[Note: Please click on the images to see them in big and better quality.]

When we first visited New Plymouth in “The Naki” two years ago I was honestly amazed how many tourists volunteer each day to climb up Mount Taranaki. Back then, a little jealous but also somewhat hopeful I casually mentioned that “One day we’re going to do this too!”.

Turns out this idea got stuck in my head and finally gained upper hand. 10 days ago we conquered the summit (yeah, it’s a bit of a spoiler alert, isn’t it?).

I have to admit that our plan to climb a dormant volcano got me a little excited. After all, we had to overcome 1,600 metres in altitude. That is when a few people I know start to be short of breath. No fingerpointing. Especially not towards me.

To my surprise though we advanced relatively fast; definitely faster than expected. All in all we needed 8 hours for the 13 km round trip with an average gradient of 36 degrees. A nice day trip really! And my intensive running program had just proven its value.

But let’s start from the beginning:

Mr ae.i joined me, and we left the parking lot at North Egmont visitor center (936 m) around 7am with lots of food and 2.5 litres of water apiece in our backpacks. Additionally, we decided to bring sweaters, hats, gloves, waterproof pants and jackets, a GPS watch, camera and flashlight (you never know). The weather forecast was good, though in “The Naki” that doesn’t mean much. The weather can change within moments in that region. That morning, the top of the volcano was shrouded in a cloud, and more clouds seemed to be rolling in.

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The top of Mount Taranaki is often covered in clouds

The first part of the track is a rather winding gravel road which led us through the lush forest of the National Park.

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The start of the Taranaki Summit track

Slowly but surely we noticed how the trees around us started to make space for a few isolated bushes and grasses. That’s when the gravel road merged with an unexpected concrete road (The Puffer), the steepest part just before our first milestone – the Tahurangi Lodge in 1,492 meters above sea level.

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The Puffer, leading towards Tahurangi Lodge (just behind the antenna)

Since we were still feeling fresh we decided to directly continue on the track behind the hut without taking a break. The site got clearly rockier, but well maintained steps let us quickly move forward on the terrain which appeared to be overgrown with moss and little white flowers. That’s how we covered two thirds of the way in only 2 hours.

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Stairs leading up the steep path behind Tahurangi Lodge

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Summer flower species surrounding the Tahurangi Lodge area

However, the last two kilometres to the summit are advanced level really. Nothing grows there anymore.

The stairs end in the steep scoria slopes, a gravel and scree terrain that rarely offers a flat surface to take a break. At this point I wished I would have had a walking stick with me. Not only would it have provided more stability during the ascent, it would have certainly been beneficial while pausing and taking a look around. Even though I usually don’t mind dizzy heights, that wish crossed my mind while I was standing on slippery pebbles staring a few hundred metres down the slope.

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The track up Taranaki leads right across that kind of scree

At our feet, or rather at the foot of the volcano, clouds had been rolling in during our ascent and blocked the view from the sun. Maybe you can imagine what a small first highlight it was for us when the sun made its way through the cloud layer and freed the view over the scoria slopes back towards the Tahurangi Lodge.

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Never look back – except you expect this kind of beauty

Once we left the scoria slope behind us, The Lizard was already awaiting us – a rocky ridge which I mostly explored on all fours, even if it was only for climbing. The steps seemed to be getting higher and higher after 3 hours of walking.

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The Lizard – looking up

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The Lizard – looking down

While we spent most of our “Lizard quality time” surrounded by clouds the mountain summit actually appeared almost cloud-free.

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The Lizard – still on track

However, the temperatures now left a lot to be desired. At -10 degrees (°C) it was probably also no coincidence that we stumbled upon the first frozen rocks a few metres below the mountain peak. Even a thick layer of snow was left in the crater area.

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Icy crater area on top of Mt Taranaki

Time to unpack a few extra layers of clothes. After all we didn’t climb that far to turn around like  a pair of fraidy cats.

The final slope before the finish was covered by scree again –  the two steps forward one step back style scree if you know what I mean. But the view over the volcanic crater and clouds landscape below us compensated for all of that.

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View towards the Mt Taranaki crater rim

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Panorama view from Mt Taranaki

I was truly fascinated by the most beautiful icicle formations that seemed to surround every single rock in that area, and didn’t even shy away to conquer the poles marking the track. They clearly signaled that the wind up here blows often from the same direction.

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Icicle formations on Taranaki – view towards the Shark’s Tooth

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Small icicle formations surrounded each single rock on Taranaki

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The last hiking pole marking the track to the summit covered in ice

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Beautiful “ice crystal landscape” on top of Mt Taranaki

The minute we finished the first half of the way (6.5 km till the Taranaki Summit; 2,518 m) after 4 hours of climbing we knew that the view was worth every single metre – and also every single calorie burned. It is hard to believe how great a picnic in freezing temperatures can actually be.

However, after a breather and the obligatory photo stops in all directions, the cold finally got to us. As much as we would have liked to stay longer we felt like we needed to keep moving and started the descent to warmer realms.

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Chilly temperatures prevail on Mt Taranaki Summit

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Me on the very top of Mt Taranaki

Now it got really tough.

Usually I rock when walking downhill: I’m not afraid of heights, I don’t fear to speed up, and I don’t suffer from knee problems. At Taranaki I experienced all of this together. Unbelievable what a strenuous effort the descent was. I would have almost prefered to walk upwards twice (that means a lot if you know me a bit).

The wish for the “magic walking stick” shortly crossed my mind again. But well, instead I had to accept that I was landing on my backside every now and then just to keep sliding another 3 more metres or so.

The steps at the end of the scoria slope appeared as a blessing. And the gravel path back to the parking lot almost didn’t count anymore as we were filled with pride and on cloud number 9.

13 km in 8 hours. According to Venture Taranaki a great job. Even the comment that there are crazy mountain runners completing the distance in 2 hours couldn’t ruin my great mood.

A final word about our preparations: We decided about a year ago to give Taranaki a Go. In addition to physical fitness the head played an important role because without motivation you won’t get far.

The idea to defeat The Lonely Mountain from The Hobbit did certainly do its contribution ;)

A very worthwhile blog post on the same climb (there are different paths to the summit) has been published on Windy Hilltops: Tramping in New Zealand (including interesting Taranaki facts). This was one of the field reports that made us believe we can reach our goal.

Back in Auckland, we are proud as Punch and full of great memories of “The Naki”.

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Our GPS profile from the Mount Taranaki Summit climb (check this page for an animated version)

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A Glimpse Of Tolkien’s Shire

It doesn’t require a long drive through the picturesque farmland surrounding Matamata to understand why Sir Peter Jackson thought of it as ideal setting for his adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic work: rolling green hills flanked by old trees and the view over the Kaimai Range in the distance. A perfect location to dig out 44 Hobbit holes representing Hobbiton, a village in the Western part of The Shire.

Hobbiton in Matamata

View over Hobbiton village towards The Green Dragon, the local meeting place for all the residents of Hobbiton. Tourist groups get served a free drink in that pub. I loved the Apple Cider!

I must admit I was a bit afraid that visiting the film set of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would take away some of the movies’ magic. I was worried for nothing.

Hobbiton has been fully integrated into a private sheep farm. Each hill represents one hobbit hole with its own chimney, garden and view over the village. All building materials are permanent since 2011 (no longer polystyrene like for the set of The Lord of the Rings) and have undergone a special treatment to make them look rustic and authentic. The fields surrounding Hobbiton have been kept untouched which greatly supports the natural look of the scenery and left me at no time under the impression I was just visiting another movie set.

[Please click on the photos to see them bigger and in better quality.]

Hobbiton near Matamata

Hobbit holes dug into green rolling hills. What a peaceful place. I can’t imagine that a film crew of 400 people walked right through here. Can you?

Our tour guide did a fantastic job as she led us over various paths and orchards towards Bag End, home of Bilbo Baggins and his orphaned nephew Frodo, while explaining how some visual effects have been achieved in the movie (for example the size difference between Bilbo and Gandalf), and how Peter Jackson is driven by an urge to deliver 110% perfection at any time.

Bag End in Hobbiton

Bag End, the home of Bilbo and Frodo. This is the hobbit hole where most movie scenes in Hobbiton have been shot.

My favourite story was the one about the oak tree that overlooks Bag End: It’s been cut down and transported in from near Matamata. Artificial leaves were brought in from Taiwan and individually wired onto the tree. Once the job of wiring thousands of leaves was done after several days Peter Jackson came along and agreed that the tree looked great, but he didn’t like the green of the leaves. So after wiring all these leaves manually, Jackson’s helpers had to repaint each leaf manually in a different shade of green. We’ve been reassured they received a good compensation for this nerve-wracking job though.

Hobbiton, New Zealand

Another view towards the artificial oak tree on top of Bag End.

If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy or The Hobbit Trilogy you will definitely enjoy this place and the tales about the making of the set and the movies, the joys and mishaps of some actors and the story of the Alexanders – the family owning this beautyful piece of land.

The Green Dragon, Hobbiton

We’ve been served a sweet and refreshing Sackville™ Cider by that happy waiter at The Green Dragon. Cheers!

The movie set tour will take around 2 hours. If you are looking for something additional to do to perfect your little Shire adventure I can recommend to have a closer look at the Kaimai Range which you can see in the distance while visiting Hobbiton.

The top of the Wairere Falls can be hiked in 60 to 90 minutes (one way) and you will be rewarded with a stunning view over the Waikato plains around Matamata while being just 5 metres away from where the falls drop over the Okauia Fault in two stages.

Wairere Falls near Matamata

The Wairere Falls drop 153 m over the steep escarpment, which is part of the Okauia fault line. The view is stunning, even on a rainy day.

Wairere Falls, New Zealand

The falls drop 153 m over two stages (here as seen from lookout 1).

If you’re not out of breath yet leave the falls lookout behind and explore the Wairere Track further upriver before returning to the car park. Only 1 more kilometre is already enough to give you a taste of the beautiful, dense and very diverse forest of the Kaimai Range.

I can totally imagine hobbits, elves, and dwarves passing through here!

The diverse forest of the Kaimai Range in Waikato, New Zealand.

The diverse forest of the Kaimai Range in Waikato, New Zealand.

Wairere Track, Kaimai Range

Rain forest impression from the Wairere Track.

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This is not off track – it’s fun!!

The Wairere Track winds up a few stairways and is known to be covered in water puddles; make sure to take appropriate clothing (read: no jandals or shoes you can’t afford to get muddy) as well as sandfly protection! I wish someone would have told me, but 19 bites later I’m a bit wiser and happy to share that detail with you.

Wairere Track near Matamata

Puddles on the track can slow you down quite a bit. Plan in 3 hours for the walk.

I recorded that walk with my GPS watch for runners, but I only got a signal when pausing at the first falls lookout. All in all we did a bit more than 8 km in 3 hours (including all the photo breaks). On a map it looks like this in case you’re curious to see where the track will lead you.

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Wairere Track from above. The second falls lookout is at the left side path between kilometre 1 and 3.

The falls can be seen from quite a distance. This is how they look like from the car park on Goodwin Road off Te Aroha-Okauia road (south of Te Aroha), where the Wairere Falls Track starts. I took the photo after the walk when the gray clouds finally disappeared and the rain stopped pouring down. Don’t let rain prevent you from doing the hike if you’re eager to see the forest. Since most of the track winds through tall trees and bushes you have quite a good protection. Enjoy!

Wairere Falls, New Zealand

A popular spot in the Kaimai Range: The Wairere Falls.

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Weekend Wanderings: Tall Ships & Armageddon

Last weekend was a long weekend here in New Zealand due to Labour Day on Monday the 28th. Unsurprisingly, Auckland’s event planner looked jam-packed while the fabulous weather called for a hike. It’s been a tough choice, but in the end I visited the Tall Ships Festival in the harbour and the Armageddon Expo showcasing the latest video games, sci-fi and manga trends.

Turns out I simply couldn’t resist the charm of the four dwarves from The Hobbit. And I was keen to use the occasion to take a few shots for my events gallery. Please click on the images for a larger view and allow me to refer you to the image titles for more event details.