The Road to the Door to the Paths of the Dead

putangirua pinnacles

Who shall call them from the grey twilight,

the forgotten people?

He shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.

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These words are part of the prophecy recited by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, before he, Legolas and Gimli brave the Dimholt Road that leads to the Paths of the Dead. In the extended version of the Peter Jackson film, it is Legolas, a.k.a. the Exposition Elf, who says them, as the heroes approach the Door. That scene was filmed at the Putangirua Pinnacles, on the south coast of New Zealand’s North Island, somewhere I had wanted to visit for years. This is the story of when I finally made it.

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Darkness descended long before our rental campervan reached the car park of the Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve. It was a darkness so deep our headlights struggled to penetrate it, which was a little scary on the winding, coastal Cape Palliser Road, a section of which had crumbled into the waves! Our uneasiness did not abate upon arrival at the Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite: it was completely deserted.

“I don’t like camping somewhere so isolated,” my fiancé said, as though trying to call the narrative of an urban legend horror story down upon us. Then, sure enough, another campervan arrived, no doubt containing an axe murderer.

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By some miracle, we survived the night. The grey light of morning revealed not only a friendly fellow campervanner, but our first sight of the geographical feature known as Badlands erosion. The cliffs visible from the car park were nowhere near as dramatic as the film had promised, but they were only a sniff of what awaited us, jagged and grey as bone dust. Forbidding columns emerged from them, slanted, straight and sharp, like the bars of an orcish prison. I’d never seen such a landscape.

The path to the ‘Dimholt Road’ was, to my surprise, a rocky riverbed. I should have researched it beforehand, because all I had was a pair of light trainers, when I could really have done with proper hiking boots. Ah well – I only fell over twice! I would have had an easier time of it if I’d just waded through the water, but I was determined not to get my feet wet. Thus began the most challenging game of stepping stones I’d ever played.

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I lost count of the times we had to cross the stream. My freakishly tall fiancé could stride over the water with the confidence of an elf, but I was lumbered with the legs of a hobbit. At one point, I had to take a long, running leap… which resulted in me impaling my thigh on a broken blade of pampas grass that was sticking out of the opposite bank! The wound was a few millimetres deep, but it wasn’t painful enough to thwart the quest, so I resolved to carry on and remember to clean it thoroughly when we got back to the campervan.

Eventually, the riverbed began to rise. Being a hobbit, I struggled to climb it at one point. Then, after an exhaustingly steep section, the canyon walls closed in and I recognised the Dimholt Road. It was eerie. Seriously. I felt less like Aragorn and more like a red shirt beamed down to scout the planet of the week. The sci-fi feeling was not helped by the fact that some unseen person was flying their drone between the bone-dust-grey columns. The noise it made echoed around us like the buzzing of an angry, mechanical insect.

My fiancé walked ahead of me. He looked so small amidst the gloomy towers. My mouth hung open in awe. I was glad I hadn’t turned back when I’d realised how difficult the road to the door to the Paths of the Dead would be, or when I’d injured my leg. This was unlike anything I’d experienced before.

putangirua pinnaclesOf course, the alcove that contained the entrance to the Paths of the Dead in the film had been a set, but it was easy to imagine. There were many nooks and crannies between the crumbling columns. Some of the columns resembled crude spears, while others were more, well, phallic.

“Who shall call them from the grey twilight?” I whispered to myself. Pretentious twit.

The world was grey. The ground, the sky, the canyon walls… I’d never seen anywhere more suited to an army of ghosts. I kept expecting to see scraps of grey, sun-bleached fabric fluttering against grey skeletons.

We found the guy flying the drone. I gave him my email address so he could send me the footage. This is it:

Then, just as he put his drone away, the heavens opened. Luckily, we’d brought rain coats, but that didn’t make the descent down a riverbed now slippery with mud any easier. My feet skidded from under me a few times, but I managed to stay upright, my squeals ringing around the grey canyon.

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It took an age to get back. I immediately sought out our first aid kit, which in retrospect, we should probably have taken with us on the hike. My thigh hurt far more now than it had when I’d pulled the stick out of it, and an interesting bruise had already formed. I rubbed disinfectant into it and hoped for the best. (It was fine, as it turned out. I would have gotten an emergency medical appointment at the first sign of blood poisoning.)

Now it was time to drive to Wellington. Little did we know we’d find Rivendell before we got there, but that’s a story for another time…

To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell
In glades beneath the misty fell,
Through moor and waste we ride in haste,
And whither then we cannot tell.

The Pinnacles, a.k.a. the Worst Experience of My Life

Wow – when I wrote this I didn’t think it would become one of the top hits for ‘the Pinnacles’! But as it’s getting lots of views now, I think I’d better state here, very plainly, that climbing the Pinnacles isn’t actually as bad as the title of this blog article implies.

When my family climbed the Pinnacles, over a decade ago, I was a teenager. At the time, I was extremely annoyed with my parents for forcing me to go and I told my mum, in a very teenage way, that it was the worst experience of my life. This article is written from the point of view of my whiny, teenaged self, with each of the complaints exaggerated for humorous effect.

I hope readers can see through the ‘unreliable narration’ and note that the Pinnacles DOC hut is, in reality, a great place to stay.

(You’d think I wouldn’t have to say all this, but, apparently, I do. Also, needless to say, I have since grown up and no longer consider this experience to be worst of my life. In fact I, along with the rest of my family, look back on it with laughter.)

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When I was a teenager, my family took a lot of trips around our adopted country, and I did my fair share of teenaged complaining. When we were travelling around New Zealand in a campervan, for example, I complained that I never got any sleep because of everyone else’s snoring and tossing and turning, and that I was going insane for lack of privacy and a proper bathroom. That was nothing, however, compared to how I complained when my parents dragged me up the Pinnacles.

According to the AA Travel website, climbing the Pinnacles is on the list of ‘101 Must-Do’s for Kiwis’. They’re in the Coromandel, up from Thames. We parked our car and set off into the wilderness. My little sister happily skipped ahead, wearing the new tramping boots she’d got for Christmas (– did I mention this was Boxing Day?) and I made my way in a more dignified manner, taking great care not to dirty my white trainers. Little did I know that by the end of this trip, I would be so far beyond caring about my trainers that I would wilfully wade into a river without first taking them off.

The first part of the trail was rather pleasant. The weather was perfect, if a little hot, and the going was good. The track was originally made in the 1870’s, for kauri loggers and their packhorses, and, after a while, I began to feel sorry for them. Most of the way up is rugged stone steps. Steps. Steps. Hours of steps. Being young and fit, however, and also a rock climber, I bounded up them, out ahead of the rest of my family. And, let me tell you, the views were spectacular.

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In fact, I would go so far as to say that the views were almost worth it.

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We made it to the top of the steps and up to the Department of Conservation hut, where we would be staying the night. Now I’d never stayed in a DOC hut before, but this was a lot more luxurious than I had been expecting. There was a massive covered deck with picnic tables that gave the feeling of being in a tree house, with a view that turned our meal of freeze-dried mash potato into a fine dining experience. The kitchen was really good, and we chatted happily with other trampers and the warden.

Now here’s where my complaints begin. Though the hut did have showers, they were cold showers. Still, I thought I’d brave one, until, that is, I washed my hands before eating and they almost froze solid. This was the middle of summer and washing my hands was a properly painful experience. Skip the shower, then. We were only staying one night. One thing you can’t skip, however, is going to the toilet.

Wilderness 5There were three long-drop toilets a short way away from the hut. And it’s lucky they were. Also, they had no lights in them. As soon as the door closed, not only was I plunged into darkness and set upon by flies, the smell was so bad I became dizzy and had to bolt outside before I actually went to the toilet, for fear of losing consciousness and falling down it. I spent the next few hours crossing my legs and trying to find the courage to go in the bush, but there was nowhere that was sufficiently out of sight and I knew how poor my aim was. Eventually, my mum had to stand holding the door of the end long-drop open while I went, so I could both see and breathe.

We later learned that the long-drops were emptied once a year: the day after we left.

Then there was the sleeping. Or lack of. There are a total of eighty bunks in the DOC Pinnacles Hut, and though there was nowhere near that many people the night we were there, the large bunking area echoed. Shivering in my sleeping bag on a hard mattress with no pillow, I was tortured all night long by other people snoring really loudly. In fact, at some point in the middle of the night, I jumped in my sleeping bag out onto the deck and read with a torch.

The next morning, me feeling not at all refreshed, my family wanted to climb the actual ‘pinnacles’ bit of the Pinnacles, which is a pretty much vertical ascent (with the help of ladders) that lasts for forty-five minutes. Not to mention climbing down again. The problem was, what with all the steps the day before, my thighs now screamed at me every time I lifted them. I knew I wouldn’t make that climb, so I stayed behind at the hut. So did my mum. So I can’t tell you what the view from the top was like.

After a boring wait for my dad and sister to get back, (at least I had my book, Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, if I remember rightly,) we had to repack our rucksacks for the descent. We each had a water bottle, but, of course, we’d drunk all the water from them on the way up. The only way to refill them was to boil water from the hut’s taps. And, I was horrified to discover, the water was still bright green after we’d boiled it. I stubbornly resolved not to drink it.

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And so we started down the track, down the steps. And, as I’m sure you know, walking down steps is far more punishing than walking up them. Now imagine walking down large, uneven, loose-stoned, slippery steps with a sheer drop on one side. For hours. And not in tramping boots, but squeaky-soled trainers. I couldn’t even enjoy the view, as, the entire way, I had to keep my gaze absolutely focussed on my feet in order not to fall. I can’t tell you how frightening it was. With every step I felt like I was going to fall head-first down the rocky mountain. My ankles cried. Blisters formed. My legs shook. And there was no respite. No flat bits.

I told my mum that I was in the most physical (and mental) stress I’d ever been in my life and that if someone had offered me cocaine at that moment, I would have taken it. Anything. Soon, I was drinking the green water like it was the nectar of the gods. Then it ran out.

We got to the bottom, of course. After hours of relentless torture. I was so angry with my parents for putting me through it that I stomped ahead to get away from them. My sister, not quite so angry, walked ahead with me. Drenched in sweat, smeared with dirt, my trainers ruined, we came to a river. I dropped my pack on the bank, ripped my T-shirt off and plunged into the water. It wasn’t that deep and was full of rocks that could serve as stepping stones and sunbathing platforms. I lay on one, my legs trailing in the water, eyes closed and turned up to the sun.

Wilderness 2I was beyond caring about anything, which was lucky because out of the bush came a couple of German guys in their 20’s, who tried awkwardly not to look at the topless teenager as they crossed the river in full tramping gear.

So that was my experience of the Pinnacles: the worst experience of my life. Funny thing is, though, every other person I’ve talked to who’s also done the Pinnacles really enjoyed it.

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