Damian Hall
Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist who’s trekked many of the world’s famous and not-to-famous long-distance trails. He’s climbed volcanoes in South America, fallen down mountains in New Zealand and had his walking boot stolen by a hungry possum in Australia.

Tongariro Northern Circuit

Walking through Mordor
and climbing the real Mt Doom


Tramping New Zealand's Tongariro Northern Circuit

New Zealand/Aotearoa’s Tongariro is the world’s fourth oldest national park and is World Heritage-listed for cultural and geological reasons – for both its Maori heritage and its remarkable volcanic features, which include three live volcanoes. The Tongariro Northern Circuit includes the Tongariro Crossing, rightly known as New Zealand’s best day-walk. It’s a 32-mile/3-4 day tramp on well waymarked trails, with excellent accommodation huts en route. The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of The Land Of The Long White Cloud’s nine official Great Walks.

  • Trail length: 32mi
  • Climb: 5741ft
  • Fastest known time: 5h 34m
  • link

The Real Mount Doom

Saying a landscape “looks like something from The Lord of the Rings” has become one of the biggest clichés around. But the unnerving, red and black lavic moonscapes of Tongariro National Park really were one of the Lord of the Rings filming locations, the scene of the treacherous Mordor. Of course if you comment on this while tramping (the Kiwis call walking/hiking/trekking “tramping”), those around you may look at you a bit oddly and you’ll realize you didn’t really need to say that out loud to no one in particular.

I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings films as much as the next short person with hairy feet. But I’m not the sort to fly all the way to The Land of the Long White Cloud and go on some sort of mega-geek One Ring pilgrimage, hunting for the exact filming locations used in the Oscar-hogging Lord of the Rings trilogy. Actually, I am exactly that sort of person. And reaching Tongariro National Park, in the center of the North Island, is about exciting to me as it would be for Gollum to locate a precious little gold ring in a cool spring on a hot day.

Not only was live volcano Mt Ngauruhoe used as Mt Doom in Peter Jackson’s orc-slaying films, but various Mordor scenes were also shot along the Tongariro Northern Circuit, as were several for The Hobbit trilogy. The Kiwi director’s choice of location isn’t at all surprising. The volcanic rocks are twisted and gnarly and the frozen-in-time shapes are unnerving, otherworldly and totally compelling. It’s sort of ugly and magnificent at the same time and doesn’t look or feel like any place I’ve been before. If I didn’t know about the Mordor connection I’d be thinking I’d landed on Mars.

"The volcanic rocks, twisted and gnarly, frozen-in-time shapes are unnerving, otherworldly and totally compelling."

A trek through middle earth

The park is home to the Tongariro Crossing, ubiquitously referred to as the country’s best day walk. Therefore it can get a bit busy, so to experience the landscape at my own pace and dodge the crowds, I tramped the 32-mile three-four day Tongariro Northern Circuit, which includes most of the Crossing and is also one of the country’s nine (how fitting) official Great Walks.

The scenery by the Whakapapa Visitor Centre is fertile and green, but it doesn’t stay that way long. After a pretty waterfall, the ground gets rockier. Not normal rock, volcanic rock – all twisted, gnarly and miserable looking, sometimes black, sometimes rusty red. I could see two peaks up ahead, Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom), which is perfectly conical and more than a little bit ominous, and the flatter Mount Tongariro. Both are live volcanoes, with Tongariro erupting as recently as 2012.

Day two was straight from Hollywood. I teamed up with a couple of other trampers in the hut the night before, and the day, which covers most of the Tongariro Crossing, started with a thick fog and strong winds. At the top of a long steep slope it got even windier. Mordor clearly didn’t want us pesky Halflings around. Some trampers were turning back and there was a suggestion that we should do likewise.

Though I slightly regretted wearing shorts, the hostile wind, dense, rolling mist and strange rock shapes suddenly appearing and disappearing created a compelling atmosphere. And, anyway, what would our world be like now if Gandalf and gang had turned back when it got a bit windy? I voted for pushing on and since I couldn’t hear the other two’s voices above the wind, I decided the rest of the fellowship probably agreed with me.

"After a pretty waterfall, the ground gets rockier. Not normal rock, volcanic rock. All twisted, gnarly and miserable looking, sometimes black, sometimes rusty red."

Strange sights, smells and sounds

We continued on, from marker to marker in the mist, until we finally descended through loose lavic scree and out of the wind. Suddenly, in front of us, we spotted a small, brilliantly emerald, ethereal lake. We stopped for photos and a quick snack, noticing more similar sized lakes in the near distance. I’d never seen water this color. You’d have to pay me a lot of money to drink it.

Nearby rocks looked like they were generating their own mist. I went for a closer inspection and found they were oozing sulfur – they were volcanic exhaust pipes. This place is alive. Strange smells, shapes and sights are everywhere. Irrespective of any films, our surroundings felt entirely suited to orcs and goblins. The landscape was both foreboding and alluring.

We saw more lakes, craters, strange shapes, curious colors and smell weird smells. And then, in that classic New Zealand way, the mist suddenly cleared, the sun rolled out and it was like an entirely different day. Below us was a post-apocalyptic panorama; a scorched, barren landscape of red and black. Bleakness and uniqueness.

We continued down a valley, and then zigzagged through a field of giant, twisted lava sculptures, like creatures frozen in mid-motion, many of them much bigger than us.

"This place is alive. Strange smells, shapes and sights are everywhere. Irrespective of any films, our surroundings feel entirely suited to orcs and goblins."

Hiking Mount Doom - Err - Mount Ngauruhoe

Because I’m a Ring geek, I had planned to climb Mount Doom, but the bad weather put an end to the plan. Somewhere between watching the giant orb of the sun set behind the giant cone, from the Oturere Hut and evening card games, I decided that getting up at 5am to tackle Mt Doom afresh was the best idea I’d ever had.

I left the hut in the dark to retrace our footsteps from the day before. As dawn broke I tried to ignore the thin plume of fumes languidly smoking out of the mountain’s mouth. I clambered over volcanic rocks and an exhausting hour later, I was at the base of Mt Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe).

Whisper it, but up close the volcano lacks some menace without Jackson’s special effects. Even so, it is still a daunting prospect. It is alive after all, there’s no path, and it’s a steep cone of loose scree. Every two steps up took me sliding back one step. It was a thoroughly exhausting hour, but I finally stood triumphantly at the top of the notorious Mt Doom.

The sun beat down on smoldering, ice-encrusted red rocks, with big views all around: the expanse of Lake Taupo, the multi-peaked, snow-capped Mt Ruapehu and even Mt Taranaki in the far west. And there’s one unfathomable, silent crater at my feet. I’d conquered Mordor – without any magic jewelry or an annoying fat friend who insisted on calling me “Mister.” I tried hard to ignore a tiny voice telling me I should cut off a finger and throw it in.

"I've conquered Mordor - without any magic jewellery or an annoying fat friend who insists on calling me 'Mister.'"

Onward through Tongariro National Park

Later we all headed toward the Waihohonu Hut. Across flat, barren plains and wooded slopes, it was a walk in the park compared to our battle with the elements the day before. Leaving the day-trippers of the Crossing behind, it’s much more peaceful, too.

I enjoyed another merry night in a hut, chatting, drinking and playing cards with like-minded trampers from around the world. The next day we continued happily along the trail between the Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu volcanoes, through scrub land, past crystal-clear springs and large lakes, to where a shuttle bus collected us at Whakapapa Village and ferried us back to the confusingly named village of National Park.

Unlike Frodo and Sam we hadn’t saved the known world from unimaginable evil/a giant eye. But nonetheless we carried the satisfied glow and wind-chafed cheeks of a difficult voyage completed. Plus I still have the standard amount of fingers. Six per hand is normal, right?

View Tongariro Northern Circuit in a larger map

Plan your travel

When to go
The best time to go is between October and the end of April - but this is also the most popular time to go, so be warned - the trails can get busy.
How to get there
Located in the central North Island of New Zealand, Tongariro National Park is the closest national park to Auckland and is easily accessible from the nearby State Highway 1. The nearest towns are Turangi, National Park Village and Ohakune.
US citizens don't need a tourist visa if visiting New Zealand for less than 90 days.
English is the main language
Length of Trip
Most tour operators offer trips of up to 3-4 days. Although it's possible to do it in less or run it in one day, if you're very fit!
If you're of a decent level of fitness and able to walk for 6 plus hours a day, you'll be fine.
There are three huts en route and each has a campsite adjacent. Campers can use hut facilities. It's worth booking these far in advance, as accommodation is limited.
Food and Drinks
There is no option to buy food or drink on the trail, so you'll need to bring plenty of supplies with you.
  • Robbie Latta

    I did this one solo about a year and a half ago, minus climbing Ngauruhoe. It was just five months or so after the last eruption that had closed the trail for quite sometime. After getting out of the crowds on the newly reopened trail, this was one of the best backpacking trips I’ve ever had. Other planet-like.