Another new driver today, this time a completely mental Kiwi called Rob, whose commentary seems to include not only whatever it was he was intending to tell you, but every passing thought in his head as well. e.g. "So folks, we're now driving alongside Lake Rotorua which means Second Lake now what the hell is this guy doing, don't you know what indicators are for mate? and was named by the tribe as they came through on their Waka and Hmm, did I book everyone in tonight yet or not, must remember to ring ahead and check with the hostel when we make our next stop is the size of Singapore". You get the idea.
First hike in ages today, doing the Tongariro Crossing (which is reputed to be one of the best day walks in New Zealand) which threads between a couple of active (if not particularly at this present moment in time) volcanoes, one of which stood in for Mt Doom in the LOTR films. Lots of warnings from Rob, and the accompanying literature, about how this was a serious mountain hike (17K, 900m or so of ascent on rough terrain) and not to be taken lightly. I went in with the usual sort of equipment for this (boots, base layer, thermal layer, windproofs & waterproofs in rucksack etc) but some of the folks seemed to think we were going for a stroll in the park and were hopelessly under-equipped & prepared). However, quickly left them behind in the 'hot chocolate' & 'latte' groups, whilst the faster/fitter walkers forged on in the 'espresso' group (Rob's terminology, not mine).
You could see why bits of it make an ideal stand in for Mordor, as it's a pretty bleak and barren place, with all the volcanic debris giving it a particularly desolate air. Once we started climbing the clouds closed in pretty heavily, dashing any hopes of spectacular views - and, combined with the howling winds, turing it into a pretty serious hike for all those doing it in jeans & trainers. The wind would occaisonally clear the mist, so that you'd suddenly get an unexpected vista stretching out before you - a vast, sandy crater beautiful in its utter desolation, or a couple of emerald green thermal lakes looming out of nowhere. Was also entertaining to be hiking around with Ivo (universally known to all as the Crazy Dutchman) - when someone suggested to him that maybe water and energy food might be more appropriate as lunch at the top of a mountain than what he was using (beer & cigarettes) his reply was that "everyone knows you need carbs when you exercise, and what's got more carbs than beer?".
The hard earned hiking fitness from the Kepler Track came through in the long, gentle but endless downhill stretch that comprised the last third of the walk, particularly when Meike & I, having got ahead of the rest, encountered a guy hobbling along with an injured knee. We agreed to push on to let his bus know that he was on his way -albeit slowly- and not to leave without him, and ended up doing the final 20-30 min as an interminable fast walk/slow jog which in resulted in us finishing by 4, over half an hour ahead of anyone else, and over 2 hours ahead of the final stragglers. The guy did arrive in time for his bus in the end, and was certainly in a better temper than half of our group who hobbled in footsore and royally hacked off with Rob - don't know why, did they think all the warnings had been given for comedy value ? However it soon turned to laughter, and led to mucho group bonding which continued over dinner and a few drinks at the hostel.