Volcanos and Calderas: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

DSC04576_DxO_2New Zealanders, with their seemingly infinite capacity to charm, charmingly call trekking or hiking “tramping”, which constitutes something of a national pastime. Tourist brochures and government-sponsored websites alike advertise the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as the best one-day tramp in the country. Not for the faint of heart, though. It’s 19.4 kilometers (nary a water source along the way), with official estimates advising that hikers to plan on between six and eight hours, with the ominous addendum, “depending upon your condition”.  You are also repeatedly reminded to pack for different kinds of weather events: you can shiver in pelting sleet and sweat in blazing rays of sun in a single day. Or you can find yourself at the peak of a dry, sandy, 10-foot-wide ridge huddling against 65 mile-per-hour winds, as happened the day after we set out on this monumental — just no other word for it — journey. Some years ago, authorities, knocking their heads together about how to adequately alarm hikers (any number have died here over the years) into packing sensibly, settled upon the seductive, but probably ineffectual name change, and the generations-marinated Tongariro Crossing became the Tongariro ALPINE Crossing.

The path goes up a valley to the saddle between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe, both active volcanos. We and our fellow hikers — a simpatico, hail-fellow-well-met, mostly international crew — are repeatedly exhorted to stick to the designated route. If you do, you pass a sign below Tongariro, the largest, offering instructions in the event that it erupts in your presence. Item one: “Move away as quickly as you are able”. I laughed, and we proceeded without bothering to read the rest.

How to convey the experience of that day? Readers may thank me for discarding my first idea, which was to snap a photo every five minutes through the entire trek and to post every one here, sequentially, with the logic being that nothing else would suffice to impart the dual sense the day gifted to us: arrested time, infinite space. Instead, I offer, in sequential order, highlights of some of the awesome moments which came to us, step by step by step, at the infinitesimal pace of human locomotion.


When we started, clouds draped Mount Tongariro in shades of white. Slowly, the ground cover changes: less grass, and less green, now scattered in wheat-colored clumps aside low scrub brush and lichen-covered rocks.DSC04590_DxO


Eventually, the proportion of grass to dirt tips decisively in favor of earth, as the pure conical shape of the Tongariro crater comes into view.

Surprise number one: Red! The Red Crater rises 6200 feet above sea level.  DSC04623_DxODSC04627_DxO

Eventually, you enter a desolate, soil and rock-strewn bowl which leads around the active, still steaming vent.


As you approach the Red Crater to circumambulate its perimeter, all flora disappear and you are left with acres liberally strewn with black, volcanic rock. The last eruption was in the late 1970s.


At the crest of the next peak, this culminates in a succession of extraordinary compositions. The pictures illustrating this post were culled from the 140+ photos I shot that day.

DSC04642_DxOCircumventing the Red Crater (you couldn’t actually ascend it) brought you into view of the vaginal-looking orifice from which all that lava spewed during its last eruption. From there, you began your multi-houred descent. Around one bend, you see this: the Emerald Lakes (at right). At left-center, in middle distance, you can just glimpse the Blue Lake, and behind it in the horizon, Lake Tapuo, which is a caldera of a different volcano, about 90 miles away. DSC04651_DxO


The Emerald Lakes sit at the edge of a large, grass-covered pan which resembles, a bit, the Amphitheater at the Drakensburg in South Africa. This was shot from the other end of the pan, looking back at the Red Crater.



On the way down to the exit (which entailed some climbing up, too), the landscape serves up an exuberant riot of muted color.

Near the top of the descent:


And slowly, again, the proportion of volcanic rock to ground cover and grasses shifts. DSC04703_DxO

By late afternoon, you’ve spent over an hour trekking through an absurdly dense, all-embracing rain forest. Nothing to shoot except deep shadows, ferns, moss, and spreading palm leaves.

And then — you’re done.


One last shot, taken en route to our next destination, showed where we’d been, from a distance. All three of us completed the trek in seven hours, without rushing. Reveling in my inexperience and my enthusiasm, I declared the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the best hike in the world.

— Sarah

A Journeyer’s Bargain

Change of pace: New Zealand.



Sky Tower, Auckland


No targets on our back. Not unicultural. Women not effectively absent from public sphere. What relief. It’s enough to lead an atheist to say Thank God (a pluralist one). Of course, each country, city, landscape must be seen in its own terms, just as, of course, it is undesirable to do so and, strictly speaking, it is cognitively impossible.

First impressions of New Zealand derive from a day (of, after 30 hours of traveling over two days, post-travel resuscitation) in Auckland (North Island) and then a few days in Queenstown and its environs (South Island). Auckland offers the face of a multiethnic and multicultural world.




Free food next to honeybee garden in Auckland

To our surprise, walking around the downtown area, we came across sections and cafes where Asian faces predominate. When we asked a fellow on the street for a direction, we discovered, as we walked together, that he was from Thailand attending cooking school in Auckland to learn European cooking, with the hope of remaining in New Zealand (more opportunity, better weather, and welcoming society). The locals (our Thai aspiring-chef included) all – without exception – interact in a friendly, cheery, and open manner (even the customs officials tasked with enforcing New Zealand’s stringent food importation laws hosannahed us, as if we were doing New Zealand a solid, as we ticked off the permitted items in our possession). Women and men mix openly and equally in all discernable places and phases of the public sphere, something the world teaches is not to be taken for granted and therefore merits a mention.




View from plane from Auckland to Queenstown

Then, there’s the landscape, really the landscapes of the southern part of the South Island, which are magnificent in myriad describable and indescribable ways. About such natural wonders in particular, we will be offering up considerably more words and images in coming posts.


All told, New Zealand promises a relaxing and rewarding time, so far confirmed by limited experience. Traveling can be stressful, even when nothing goes wrong. Traveling’s continual progression of logistics – routine barely exists, so nearly everything every day needs to be figured out and decided — often entails executive-function demands which can tax the system, especially when the system is composed of three systems. New Zealand, land of (seemingly) easygoing people, functioning infrastructure, pleasingly accented English, abundant gluten-free food, charming urban areas (sample so far is small),


Funky new neighborhood in Auckland

and breathgiving landscapes, so far has taxed us less and rewarded us as much as anywhere. A journeyer’s bargain.


— Danny


Much more than in any other place we’ve been, I felt our strangeness here.

DSC03752_DxOWe spent nearly two weeks in Morocco, and neither Gideon nor Danny nor I, all of us curious and sociable people, developed the slightest connection to anyone. Not to the taxi drivers or the hotel proprietors, not to the food servers, not to the merchants in the souks, not to the people we encountered in Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fnaa (the medina’s huge public square),


not to the kids playing in the alleyways,  DSC03635_DxODSC03634_DxOwhom we passed on the way home to our homey little riad near the Kasbah mosque.

Is it the language barrier? We speak pidgin French, if that, and French is no longer mandatory in Moroccan schools. For younger people, which is most Moroccan people, Arabic and Berber predominate. We repeatedly attempted to break through the conversational barricades. Eventually I concluded that the impediments were not linguistic, nor were they economic. After all, we’ve encountered plenty of poverty elsewhere, never to the detriment of social intercourse.

DSC03759_DxODSC03579_DxOPerhaps it’s just my imagination, but to me, it felt as though two linked dynamics were getting in the way. There’s the apparently inherent tension between modernity and Islamic orthodoxy. And then, there’s education.

Upon our arrival in Casablanca, we selected a vegetarian, gluten-free restaurant (a bit like identifying a needle in a haystack) about a 35 or 40-minute walk from our Air BnB near the Hassan II mosque. It was early evening, and from the moment we walked onto the street, Danny pronounced, correctly, the street culture more vibrant there — less tourist-oriented — than what we’d encountered in Marrakesh. Women hauling groceries, kids kidding around. Passing one café, we noticed perhaps 40 folding chairs lined up in semicircular rows, all facing a television mounted high on the back wall. On the tube, a soccer match. In every single one of those seats sat a man. When we walked by another café, same thing. Then another. And another. Gideon took out his phone and Googled something like “Morocco Casablanca football”, and informed us that Casablanca’s club team was playing in the semifinals of the African Champion’s League.

Okay, so more men like to watch soccer than women. But no women? Really, none.

Where are the women? I ask Danny. No reply. We’re walking, we’re all busy looking, so I dropped it. But later, after a few more cafes, I raise the subject again.

Don’t they want to be with women?

Doesn’t it get a little oppressive hanging out only with men?

Don’t they like women?

Walking the streets of Casablanca, and earlier, of Marrakesh, I found that heavily draped women passed me by without looking up, much less smiling.


I wondered: When these women, heads wrapped in hijabs, or completely covered in black niqabs, pass me, do they excuse or condemn me for my attire?

DSC03583_DxODo some think, infidel, and silently reprehend me for dressing “immodestly”?

Trying to puzzle the question out. Perhaps it’s like passing by a nun. Nuns always smile at me when I pass by them (I’m a big eye-contact pedestrian), and when they do, I always quietly muse that this woman must be very kind.

When I finally voice these thoughts aloud, I realize they’re not the same. Nuns have elected to devote their life to Jesus, but a woman can choose not to do that and still be a earnest believer and a moral person. In the more orthodox forms of Islam, at least, refusing to abide by the laws of dress is an affront to Allah; in that case, a woman passing me regarding my western garb might well disapprove. Certainly that’s not always so, but sometimes I did get the impression that I was being judged, and that those judgements were not positive.

One day, Danny and I went to work out that a nearby sports club. The women’s locker room was located up on the second floor. After having changed there, I was shepherded into a workout room different from the spacious, well-ventilated gym on the ground floor, where I’d expected to go. That one, I realized, was visible from the street, and filled exclusively with men. My workout space, about one-third the size, had a wall of windows, a wall of mirrors, and perhaps fifteen rickety machines. As I cranked my way through half an hour on an ancient recumbent bike, several women came, pumped or treaded, then departed. All wore multiple layers of loose clothing even though the temperature in the poorly-ventilated, low-ceilinged room must have exceeded eighty degrees.

I returned to the women’s locker room, which was absolutely sweltering. Even after having showered in cool water, the moment I turned the nozzle off, I began to sweat again. As I dressed, I watched one woman donning her outfit as she chatted with a friend. Undershirt. Then bra. Full-length leggings. Long-sleeved shirt. Sweat was pouring down her back, I noticed. Over all this, she donned a full-length robe, and wrapped her hair into a scarf.

In any case, it does seem as though men own Morocco’s public realm.

DSC03654_DxODSC03658_DxODon’t misunderstand: we encountered women everywhere we went. Women in burqas, women in niqabs, women in hijabs (that’s most of them), women wearing cutoff shorts and t-shirts (mainly tourists). The women in burqas and full-length gowns tended to be older. Almost always, they were sitting with one another, off by themselves, occasionally with a son or a child.


A benchfull of such women became enraged when I snapped a photo of them, disrespectfully deciding that my picture was more important than their fantasized privacy. (I was pretty far away, so I hadn’t anticipated their ire.)

DSC03664_DxOIn our perambulations we saw husbands walking with wives, not so frequently. Fathers with their families, almost never. In the countryside’s public places we saw practically no women at all.

The official literacy rate for Moroccan women is listed as forty percent. From what we encountered, I’d bet it’s lower than that. Outside the cities, we didn’t really see many children in school — and we saw a lot of children. Even when we did see children in school uniforms, it seemed that the school day finished quite early. Even the (all male) taxi drivers in Marrakesh gave indications of illiteracy: we’d show them the address of where we wanted to go on our phone, and they’d gaze up at us silently from the driver’s seat, perplexed.

Aside from negotiating a price or a ride, I realized, there was little to discuss. The educational gulf was that wide.

— Sarah