Tongariro Crossing

In a recent piece about the most wondrous place on earth, Hobbiton, I let slip the fact that I am a class one Lord of the Rings nerd.  Now, there is no point in trying to deny this and sweep it under the rug so I am going to do the opposite and embrace it.  I will freely admit that there were a number of times while I was in New Zealand that my decision making was heavily influenced by the epic trilogy.  I may have even purchased a location guide while in Hobbiton.  Well, I am now going to tell you about one of those times: the Tongariro Crossing.

Volcanic pools known as the Emerald Lakes
Volcanic pools known as the Emerald Lakes

Firstly, I must say that while there is a Lord of the Rings connection here, the Tongariro Crossing owes none of its reputation to the movies.  It was most certainly used as a location during the filming (and you will see why in a minute) but people were crossing Tongariro long before Sam and Frodo made the journey.

The Tongariro Crossing is the name of a hike.  A hike through the most incredible active volcanic landscape that I have ever seen.  I was doing the hike as it is one of the quintessential stops of the Stray bus and one of its most highly rated experiences.  I only found out while in New Zealand that it is also the site of the infamous Mount Doom, the volcano into which Gollum swan dives with the One Ring.  The hike itself takes you right to the base of Mt Doom, whose real name is Mt. Ngauruhoe, while traversing another volcano called Mt. Tongariro.  It is known as the Tongariro Crossing because you begin at one side of the mountain and, you guessed it, cross to the other side.  However, this was not the case when I undertook the adventure.  Months earlier the volcano erupted!  While people were hiking!  As a result part of the track was closed and hikers were advised to turn back upon reaching a certain point.

Mt. Doom shrouded in cloud
Mt. Doom shrouded in cloud

I, Dale “Kingsley” Walker, decided that such advice was for the weak.  Did Frodo turn back when the slope of Mt. Doom was too steep?  Did Sam give up when he was hit in the face with a rock thrown by Gollum? No! And neither would I.  After climbing what felt like a million stairs, crossing a barren volcanic crater and scrambling up sheer rock faces I saw the sign advising that I give up, lest I be squashed by raining volcanic debris, and pushed on to reach the Blue Lake.  When I came to another sign that told me not to stop, to prevent myself becoming a static target for falling rocks, I took it to heart and pushed through the final kilometre, finally reaching my goal.

I now know how Frodo and Sam must have felt as they lay, exhausted, upon the rock having saved Middle Earth from annihilation.  As I reached the lake I collapsed onto a tussock of grass and gazed upon the beauty that surrounded me.  It was a truly spectacular landscape made all the more impressive by the barren, volcanic surroundings complete with steam venting from the ground and ancient lava flows scarring the hillside.  After spending 20 minutes absorbing the silent serenity I gathered myself to myself and prepared for the journey home.

Volcanic wasteland and crater
Volcanic wasteland and crater

Straying Around Aotearoa

A long, long time ago, when the idea of making my way around the world was barely in the developmental stage, I was faced with the first major decision in my planning.  I knew that I wanted to spend a large amount of my time in New Zealand as it was the country that inspired me to go on my journey in the first place and the land I was most keen to explore.  With this in mind I knew that I would need to have a method of travelling around the country as I had absolutely no intention of remaining in one place for the entire time.  A number of different options were spinning around in my head.  My first thought was to hire a camper van.  The freedom to drive wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted and the peace of mind that I would never have to search for a place to sleep were very appealing.  Unfortunately, that freedom does not come cheap and further investigation revealed that it would simply not fit into my budget.  I was toying with the pros and cons of hiring a car or making use of the public transportation system when a friend, let’s call him Rob, suggested I look at a company called Stray.

Now, this friend has been the source of some crazy ideas in the past (like cycling 80 km to a music festival wearing tights and a cape, but that’s another story entirely) so it was with some trepidation that I decided to investigate his suggestion.  As it turns out, Robert’s idea proved inspirational and Stray became a defining feature of my time in New Zealand.

Imagine for a second that you are in a foreign country looking for a way to travel to as many different places as possible.  However, you have got plenty of time and don’t like the idea of planning all of your stops out in advance, booking accommodation and deciding what you are going to do each and every day.  You are travelling to release your sense of adventure and spontaneity.  You want to arrive in a new location, smell the sea breeze, hear the bleating of the local children (or sheep) and decide to stay there for a few days.  Obviously, you aren’t looking to stretch the limits of your adventurous spirit too far, so you’d like to know that you will have a place to stay when you arrive.  On top of all of this, you must be able to leave and head to the next stop along the road whenever the whim takes you.  Sounds good doesn’t it?  Well, that is Stray.

Nice clean orange Stray bus...
Nice clean orange Stray bus…

The concept is simple, Stray’s bright orange buses travel along a set route around the North and South Islands.  You purchase a pass that gives you access to certain parts of the route, the entire north or south island or, as I chose, the entire country.  Passes are valid for 12 months from when you first step on board the bus and you can hop-on and off whenever you feel the urge, simply calling up one of their helpful agents (I gave up attempting to use the online booking system very early) when you want to get back on to the next bus.  The only catch is, the buses travel in a certain direction so you can’t to back to the place from whence you came.  That being said, certain passes include unlimited travel meaning that you can travel the route over and over again until your pass expires.  A very big draw card for Stray is the fact that they go to some incredible locations, “off the beaten track”, as they themselves like to say.  There were times when we were travelling down “roads” I thought impossible for a bus to traverse in order to give you as immersive an experience of New Zealand’s natural beauty as possible.  There are nights where you find yourself truly in the middle of nowhere and it is glorious.

The eerie Blue Lake on the Tongariro Crossing just one of Stray's stops.
The eerie Blue Lake on the Tongariro Crossing, just one of Stray’s stops.

It is the people who make the experience though.  From the drivers (who do the incredible job of multitasking driving, tour guiding, accommodation booking and activity planning all while negotiating some frightening roads when you are in a 40 seater bus) to the fellow explorers that join you on the bus.  Never have I been amongst a more cosmopolitan group of people,  with ages ranging from 18 to 60 and countries far too extensive to list.  The people on the Stray bus all seem to have the same objective: to explore the beautiful country we were travelling in and to meet incredible people in the process.

I cannot imagine what my experience of New Zealand would have been like had I not travelled with Stray.  Those bright orange buses allowed me to explore Aotearoa at my own pace, with like-minded people.  I recommend it to anybody looking to spend time travelling around the country.  The best thing to do is to check out their website and explore everything that they have to offer.  There are often amazing specials on certain passes and if you are already in Auckland it’s worth popping in to their office as they may even have on-the-spot specials.

I now have to start planning my next journey…I believe there is a Stray Asia too!

The World’s Best Travel Blogger

Well, I think at this time it is fair to say that I am not the world’s best (or at least most up to date) travel blogger. My intention was simple: to keep you all up-to-date with my journey around the world. But, I have barely managed to scrape the surface. From all I have written on this blog you would be forgiven for thinking that I am still stuck on the northern tip of New Zealand, apparently wallowing away my time doing nothing at all; when in fact, I have completed an entire circuit of New Zealand and am now one week into my time in Sydney.

The fact is, there is far too much for me to catch up on. I am going to have to wave the white flag. Throw in the towel. Withdraw from the event. This is not an entirely bad thing. Rather than giving you a day-by-day account of all that I have been doing (let’s face it, that doesn’t exactly make for riveting reading), I am going to pick and choose the highlights of the trip and attempt to convey how incredible they were. Rather than hearing about the toast that I had for breakfast in Christchurch, you will hear about the daring traverse that I made over an active volcano! Instead of me telling you about the rather mundane conversation that I had with a Peruvian fellow in Queenstown, I will share with you the story of my epic adventures on the glaciers of the Southern Alps!

In place of the journalistic approach that I was initially attempting to take with this blog, you will find a highlights package of my travels akin to the recap of an especially engaging game of rugby or the, possibly more dramatic, highlights of the previous week’s Masterchef episode!

To keep you motivated once more, here is a picture of me and some trolls.