National Geographic : 2009 Jul
• you may well find questions of aesthetics intruding on your appreciation of the spectac- ular scene before you. To the south looms the craggy mass of Rua- pehu, at 9,176 feet the tallest peak on the North Island. Built by 250,000 years of volcanism, it s still active today---waking every few years to send up enormous columns of steam and ash. To the north is Tongariro, even older, a sprawling complex of ancient craters where vents continu- ously and ominously exhale sulfurous clouds. In the middle stands Ngauruhoe. Less mas- sive than its companions, Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in Peter Jackson s Lord of the Rings lm trilogy) forms a wondrously symmetrical cone, capturing your attention with the simple perfec- tion of its form. e mountain lacks only a few streaks of vivid red crayon above it to be every child s drawing of the archetypal volcano. What (you ask yourself) is this anomalously sensual shape doing in such a rough neighbor- hood? And further: What does it mean that you re so irresistibly attracted to it? "Age, I do abhor thee; youth, I do adore thee," the Bard wrote, and there you have it---an explanation and a justi cation, if you need one. is peak was born just a couple thousand years ago. e Ice Age glaciation that tore and scarred Ruapehu and Tongariro happened long before Ngauruhoe was born. Rain and fiery explo- sions have not yet marred its face. In the geo- logical world, too, the beauty of youth works its seductive power. e Maori, New Zealand s indigenous people, look on all three volcanoes with awe and con- sider them tapu, a word whose diverse mean- ings include both "sacred" and "sanctity." When Europeans began settling the central North Island in the mid to late 19th century, divid- ing the land into towns and farms, the Maori feared for the integrity of the peaks. The paramount chief, Horonuku, or Te Heuheu Tukino IV, came up with a farsighted solution: He transferred the volcanoes tapu from himself to Queen Victoria, and in 1887 he entrusted the mountains and the land within a mile of their summits to the government and people of New Zealand. e tract became the country s rst national park and has grown to the current 194,270-acre protected area. As you contemplate the heart of Tongariro National Park--- three peaks that rise in one of the most beautiful places in the famously beautiful country of New Zealand--- BY MEL WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS BY STUART FRANKLIN Mel White s last story was "Path of the Jaguar," in March 2009. Stuart Franklin is currently working on projects in the United Kingdom.