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Walking on the moon

When you’re a “shoestring” traveler, it’s important to have a good pair of  walking shoes. Unfortunately, my Rockports were a little beat up. Even the word for hiking in New Zealand, “tramping,” made me feel self-conscious and destitute. Was I a tramp or a traveler? Didn’t matter which, since in Commonwealth countries “traveler” is a euphemism for “bum.”

So there I was on New Zealand’s North Island, an American “tramper” hitchhiking everywhere, bumming around, and looking for the perfect shot. I’d been in Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) now for 8 months, with my duty-free autofocus Nikon. Another month to go. This is what aimless travel is like: I pointed at the road with my forefinger to get rides (no thumbs are used  downunder), locals invited me into their houses (which often they didn’t bother locking), and when I was stuck between cities I set up my blue tent in the middle of nowhere (and slept beneath the silence of the stars). Weighing as heavily on me as my overstuffed backpack (or “rucksack,” as the New Zealanders say) was the feeling I would soon be forced to leave Kiwiland  because of visa restrictions and monetary considerations.

In my irregular calls to the States, the authoritarian caution of my parents was “John, when are you coming home to get a job?”

“A job?!”

No perpetual traveler on the cheap would pollute their plans with something as old-fashioned and quaint as an occupation! My parents just didn’t get it. You didn’t need much money to travel in New Zealand, the downunder dream, because of the kindness and hospitality of the people. Instead, I touched the greenstone amulet a Maori had given me for good luck, trusted to fate, and waited for the next ride.

My hardly starvation diet of lamb sandwiches and gravy, bottles of milk with cream on the top, and as much kiwi fruit as I could stomach was getting a little boring. I wanted to splash out at a flash restaurant, but no real tramper would be caught dead eating amuses-bouches by candlelight when they could be downing franks and beans out of a billy can in a campfire. It was all about the wild.

And it didn’t get much wilder than Tongariro National Park. But here I had landed on my Rockports at the entrance to the outer-space-like outpost, feeling a little like I’d been deposited by spaceship on the surface of the moon–volcanos, multicolored rocks, steaming fumaroles, hot springs, and gleaming green crater lakes. (Not that there is any water on the moon, mind you.) My autofocus eyes could hardly keep up with my shutter finger, curled like a question mark over the outlandish otherwordly demesne.

I thought it looked a little like a “Star Trek” set. I expected Kirk to jump out at any second and give Finnegan a thrashing, or a Gorn.  At the big lodge in the center of the park, some of the staff asked me if I was Norwegian, handing me an icy cold Steinlager.

“No, American. Why did you think Norway?”

“Because of the faraway look in your eyes, mate. I think you’ve been away from home a long time.”

I took it as a compliment. “Yes,” I had.

Walking to my room, lugging my backpack in my Swandri parka, I could hear the strains of The Police, “Walking to the Moon,” with its Caribbeanny beat and lunar tempo. It seemed a fitting entrée to this other world. The manager knocked on the door from whence the music issued (from a portable Walkman and speakers), and asked if the guest could turn down the music a little bit. The music man turned out to be a Scottish mountain climber, with a thick Glaswegian accent, a brogue almost impossible to decipher as a fellow English-speaker.

But very cool.

“I’m from Glasgy!”

He then asked if I was here to tramp or climb?

“To tramp,” I said. “I don’t know how to climb.”

“I’ll teach you. We’ll climb a volcano tomorrow.”

Stupidly, I said, “Okay. . . .”

“Walking on the Moon” was the Scottish mountain climber’s favorite tune, which he played over and over. We’ll call the Scottish mountain climber “Angus” (not his real name). Angus planned to settle in New Zealand and didn’t cotton to too many personal questions. When his visa expired, he would just stay on. (Thus, I’ll respect his privacy somewhat.)

So I found myself somehow agreeing to do something completely new: Climb a volcano without any mountain-climbing experience. Which sounded exciting. Except for one thing. With all the grand talk, of Sir Edmund Hillary, skiing, The Police, Krakatoa, and other related subjects, I had forgotten I had an acute fear of heights.

We set out on a clear morning across the bleak barren plain leading to the volcano, the smoking Ngauruhoe (2,287 m). The volcanoes of Tongariro were used in the Lord of the Rings flicks, and Ngauruhoe–a perfect conical single-vent volcano–most resembled Mordor’s Mount Doom. Though it was still light outside, over the volcano I could see the faint trace of the partially eclipsed moon, looking for all the world like a clipped fingernail paring dropping from the finger of a Maori god.

The trick to climbing a volcano is to follow the leader. Angus would be above me making ledges of scree to stand on. “Just do what I do,” Angus said. “By the way, have you ever skied before?”



I took the question as apocryphra, general pleasantries. Little did I know. Step up, step up, fingers in scree. Step up, step up, fingers in scree. I felt like “scree-ming” I was so scared, but steadily the two of us were making it to the top like two lost ants climbing a termite mound. Step up, step up, plant feet firmly. Step up, step up, plant feet firmly. My heart was thumping louder than a revivalist preacher.

At last, the summit! I couldn’t tell how many hours it took to reach the top, but there we were sitting on the crater, looking into the caldera, from which sulfurous steam arose. I cut a butt to celebrate. I never feel like I’ve actually been to a place until I’ve smoked a cigarette there. Instead of doing the eco-correct thing I chucked the butt into the volcano–a giant ashtray, I thought. That was my offering for a safe journey back. What comes up must come down.

Looking around, I felt a wash of enlightenment come over me, as I gazed over the national parkland, catching sight of an emerald green lake. It was fun sitting on top of a volcano! Like the fool on the hill, who sees the sun going down. “Wait, what will it be like going down in the dark?” I realized we had a problem on our hands: How do you get down from a volcano? To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, “one giant leap” would probably do it.

“Yeah, we’d better leave,” Angus agreed, and began crooning the Sting-like bass line, “Da da da, dum dum dum, da da da, dum dum dum.” He added, “Now the secret to walking on the moon is, a question of gravity. When you go down from a volcano, the trick is to dig your heels in the scree and ski down, but don’t fall!”
He didn’t go into the details of what a fall entailed. At least? Getting cut to ribbons by the sharp scree. At most? You get the picture.     I got the picture, too. A perfect shot from a spot not many others had been to. Looking down from the volcano, I fooled myself into thinking I no longer had a fear of heights. And then we sort of skied down the side of the volcano–fear whistling in my ears, stomach knotting with dread–as we two little tramps carefully defied gravity in the fading light of what seemed like another dimension.                                                    

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