Tongariro National Park

View towards Mangatepopo

the first national park established in New Zealand, Tongariro is also one of the oldest national parks in the world. the first parcel of land was set aside in 1887 under the protection of the paramount Maori chief in the area (Te Heuheu Tukino IV, also known as Horonuku) in order to protect sacred Maori land from being sold to European settlers. his family descended from the earliest settlers of Aotearoa (New Zealand), and identified with Ngatoroirangi, the man who navigated the vessel that brought the first people to the island and (according to myth) brought fire to Tongariro. once the land was under his protection, Horonuku gifted the land back to the state for preservation as a national park. while the initial parcel was considered too small to establish a   proper national park (with the example of Yellowstone as comparison), subsequent government actions set aside larger and larger parcels of land for that purpose. in 1894, Parliament passed the Tongariro National Park Act, which comprised some 252 square kilometers (not all of which they had yet acquired). several updates to the Act over the 20th century brought the park to its current size encompassing nearly 800 square kilometers.

Descending from Red Crater

the three main peaks located in the park – Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu – are tapu to the local Maori and development would have destroyed the mana of the sites. the Maori still have territorial rights over the mountains and when the Te Maari crater on Tongariro erupted in 2012, they declared a protective restriction (rahui) over the area to protect both the mana of the site and to ensure the safety of trampers moving through the area. because of its importance to Maori culture and its natural characteristics, the national park was designated a dual (cultural-natural) World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, after previously receiving status for natural heritage in 1990.

although technically established in 1894, it took some decades before transportation caught up enough to bring significant numbers of people to visit the park. the first permanent park ranger began working in 1931, two years after the completion of Chateau Tongariro at the ski resort of Whakapapa. a road to Whakapapa was completed in the 1920s, making the journey much easier than the previous overland trek by horseback or foot. according to our lodge hosts, the park is far more popular for skiing during the winter than for tramping or biking in the summer.

Emerald Lakes

until 2007 the track from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi was known as the “Tongariro Crossing.” however, the difficulty of the terrain and changeability of the weather found many trampers unprepared and the name was changed to include “Alpine” to better convey the reality of the track. we felt well-prepared setting out on the hike – both physically and in relation to gear – and I was still surprised by how much the climate changed on our hike – the limited visibility, bitter the wind and biting the precipitation through the South Crater, up the saddle beside the Red Crater, and past Blue Lake. not all trampers were as well prepared for the trek as we and the view from the trailhead might not prepare you for what was in store. moreover, in addition to the weather-related dangers were legitimate (though distant) volcanic risks. all three peaks in the park have been active in the last century with Te Maari in 2012 the most recent. when we stopped for lunch at the Ketetahi Hut, you could see active vents on the side of the mountain and the damage done by debris during the 2012 eruption. fortunately, that eruption occurred near midnight in August so the hut was not in use, but it remains closed to through-hikers due to its location in the active volcanic zone. in spite of the danger (volcanic and otherwise) some 80,000 people undertake the hike each year, with numbers growing.

Humphreys Peak

another interesting ancillary fact about the site of the Tusayan ruins is its location on a slope coming down from the rim of the Grand Canyon, which allows a clear view of the highest peak in Arizona, Humphreys Peak (reaching an elevation of 12,637 feet above sea level). Humphreys Peak was (re)named in 1911 for a Union General who served a a civil engineer prior to and throughout the Civil War. following the war, he served as chief of the Army Corps of Engineers until his retirement in 1879. he was also one of the men who incorporated the National Academy of Sciences.

known in Hopi as Aaloosaktukwi, it is part of an extinct volcano chain that last erupted some two million years ago. the peaks, now known as the San Francisco Peaks and within the Kachina Peaks Wilderness, are sacred to over a dozen tribes, including the Havasupai, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni. the peaks are said to contain abalone inside and be secured to the ground by a sunbeam. Humphrey’s Peak is associated with the Aalooska deity of the Two-Horn Society, which was based in the Hopi village in which the Spanish established a mission.

while native peoples have inhabited and worshiped on the land around the peaks for millennia, the first Europeans arrived in the mid-16th century and began building settlements in the 17th century. in 1629, a group of Spanish friars established a mission in at Awatovi (one of the largest Hopi villages and center of the Two-Horn Society); in the following century their successors named that mission in honor of St. Francis. in the 1870s, a follower of Brigham Young claimed land around the only reliable spring in the area, on the western side of the peaks and built a stockade to house workers toiling on the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad.

the area first became protected federal land (as a forest reserve) by direction of President McKinley at the behest of Gifford Pinchot. local reaction was hostile but had no impact on the protection status of the land; further developments on the peaks during the last century have sparked further protest and debate. today, those debates center around the varied development plans of recreational venues throughout the peaks.


pedestrian path along the henge

both my trips to Glastonbury included visit to Avebury, a neolithic henge formed of three concentric circles that enclose a village that dates from the early medieval period. the stone circle, constructed around 2600 BCE, is the largest stone circle in Europe and was part of a human-constructed prehistoric landscape that included other monuments such as the West Kennet Long Barrow (a neolithic barrow situated on on a chalk ridge) and Silbury Hill (a 40m high, human-made chalk hill) less than two miles from Avebury. as with the more famous neighbor Stonehenge, the purpose of the Avebury ring is unknown though largely speculated to be used for ceremonies or rituals with a religious basis; evidence suggests the site was in use for over a millennium.

there’s some evidence to suggest periodic habitation at the site by Mesolithic hunter-gatherer people, who may have even constructed their own ceremonial structure, predating the stones that stand today (Mesolithic = the Age which preceded the Neolithic). anthropological studies have found significant activity from the Neolithic period; the introduction of domesticated plants and animals allowed hunter-gatherers to settle down for farming and, by extension, engage in the construction of massive sacred sites, like those around Avebury, that stemmed in part from a shift in religious beliefs.

the stability of agrarian culture allowed for ongoing projects and Avebury was built in stages. the henge — a large circular bank with internal ditch — is 420 meters across and would have required a remarkable commitment of time and labor; other henges most comparable in size are only a quarter of the size of the one at Avebury. the outer stone circle, originally consisting of 98 sarcen standing stones weighing up to 40 tons and standing over 4 meters, was likely built concurrent to the henge (or within a couple hundred years). within the outer stone circle (diameter of about 331 meters) are two additional, separate stone circles (diameters of 98 and 108 meters). an avenue of parallel stones run from one entrance of the henge and evidence exists of another avenue emanating from another entrance.

two of the standing stones

by the Iron Age, earlier users or inhabitants of the area abandoned the site and it remained largely abandoned. there’s some evidence that people visited or used the site during the period of Roman rule and later native Briton warriors may have fortified the site to use for defensive purposes. there was intermittent habitation thereafter throughout the medieval period, with farmers constructing huts outside the stone circle and, in the 10th century, a church to serve the newly-converted Christians.

the coming of Christianity didn’t bode well for the perceived-pagan roots of the Avebury stone circle; during the 14th century villagers began pulling down the stones and burying them in prepared pits, believing the Devil had erected them for evil purposes. one of the stones, weighing some 13 tons, fell on a man during the toppling process, fracturing his pelvis and breaking his neck; he remained buried in the specially-dug hole under the stone until archaeologists excavated the hole in 1938. he had coins dating from 1320-35 in a leather pouch at his waist. the death of this man prompted the villagers to cease their toppling project, perhaps fearful that a vengeful spirit or the Devil sought revenge for destroying the site. shortly thereafter, the Black Plague struck and decimated the town’s population, further preventing any further destruction (desecration?).

the first modern mention of Avebury came from Henry VIII’s chaplain in 1451 but it wasn’t until a man called John Aubrey took interest and described it to the king that investigation took off. although Charles II told Aubrey to dig under the stones in search of burial sites, Aubrey focused his attentions on a systematic study of the site, producing a diagram that proved invaluable when villagers, heedless of the lessons of their 14th century forebears and whipped into a puritanical frenzy, smashed up many of the remaining stones for use in building materials. in the middle of the 19th century, in an effort to stem the destruction of Avebury and prevent the erection of more houses within the henge, Sir John Lubbock (later known as Lord Avebury) purchased much of the available land and encouraged others to build outside the henge.

sheep grazing within the henge

throughout the 20th century, efforts were made to excavate, preserve, and restore the site with some previously-buried stones unearthed and re-erected. archaeologist Alexander Keiller proved instrumental in preserving artifacts, establishing a museum at the site in the 1930s, and bringing attention to the site. hundreds of thousands of people visit the site today, which is now under the stewardship of the National Trust, including contemporary pagan groups. the site is so popular for rituals among pagan groups, in fact, that they’ve had to establish a system to share access.

and I didn’t know any of that either of the times I visited. I had a vague notion of the scope of history and similarities to Stonehenge, but none of the specifics. I didn’t even have a very good grasp on the more impressive spiritual associations — just knew that I was impressed and it was worth the trip. we cracked jokes about the black sheep following others around, made up stories about animal-like shapes in the standing stones (one of them was a bear … the other, maybe a ram?). but reading up on it and learning about all the twists the last 4000 years have brought the site makes me even more excited to visit it again sometime in the future, perhaps as part of a tour of all the sites now under the heading of “Stonehenge, Avebury, and Associated Sites.”


Dartmoor was one of the most stunning places I visited while studying in London. after weeks of day-to-day metropolitan bustle, the absolute isolation of the moor was both wonderful and somewhat off-putting. it was one of our last stops before returning to London after several days of traipsing around the relatively quite countryside. southwest England in mid-to-late October isn’t high tourist season.

it took some effort to find our B&B in the dark — through the tiny village of Belstone and up a farm track — but it was worth it. my dad & I watched some Green Wing in the common room before we went up to bed and my mom had a precious encounter with one of the young children of the house who was eating “crisps” (my mom referred to them as “chips,” to which the 3-or-4-year-old replied “they’re not chips! they’re crisps!“). I always imagine Godric’s Hollow to look exactly like Belstone as it did when we stopped in at the pub to ask for directions.

the town is best known for its proximity to the Nine Maidens stone circle, which I’m sure I have a picture of somewhere though, honestly, it didn’t make as much of an impression on me as the other sites we saw walking around the moor or in comparison to the sites at Avebury and Stonehenge. in addition to the Nine Maidens, the area we walked was open grazing land for local sheep and had a variety of stone structures and walls, one of which I have marked as the “Irish Wall,” though now I couldn’t tell you why — whether it was built by Irish invaders to defend their holdings, by indigenous Britons to keep the Irish at bay, or for some other purpose.

Dartmoor has been farmed and inhabited since prehistoric times (and its possible that the characters in Bernard Cornwall’s Arthurian series traverse the moor …). the Domesday Book has record of a castle at Okehampton in 1086 and the first record of tin extraction comes from 70 years later. abandoned tin mines and farmsteads remain scattered across the moorland. today the land is a National Park though over half of it remains under private control (much of it consisting of the Forest of Dartmoor of which is owned by the Duke of Cornwall — aka Prince Charles).

recently, controversy has sprung up around mining and military training. several companies wish to mine the area for china clay but organizations seeking to preserve the environmental integrity of the moor have successfully lobbied the government to prevent projects from going forward. military use of the moor dates back to the Napoleonic War and continues to modern times; the Ministry of Defense uses as much as 11% of the northern expanse of the National Park for live-fire maneuvers. it served as partial setting in a recent episode of (Moffat’s) Sherlock. a military installation at Okehampton also served as an airbase during the Second World War.

Dartmoor is great for trekking and adventuring — that’s partly what brought us to the southwest of England (the Nine Maidens stone circle probably played a bigger role). that trek was also my first introduction to letterbox hunting, which later helped develop geocaching. letterboxing sprung up in the 19th century and coincided with the increased popularity of hill walking on the moor. our B&B hosts explained the pursuit to us before we headed out on our morning trek: people hide watertight containers all over the moor that hold unique rubber stamps and a visitor’s log book. each time you find a letterbox (whether on purpose or by accident), you use the letterbox stamp in your own record book and leave the mark of your personal stamp in the visitor’s log book. geocaching is essentially the same but uses GPS coordinates rather than older map-finding clues like compass bearings and grid references. we didn’t find any letterboxes, though we didn’t look very hard. some can prove incredibly challenging to find — which is half the fun for ardent fans of the activity.

Glastonbury Tor

in addition to London Olympics-induced nostalgia, I just started a Bernard Cornwall book about the Arthurian legend, The Winter King, which immediately took me back to visiting Glastonbury and the tor, as well as all of southwest England. the tor was even featured in the Opening Ceremony, as the 204 participating nations placed their flags on the side of a miniature tor. coupled with the Olympics highlighting all sorts of places in England, like the Newcastle United stadium hosting the USA v. NZL women’s soccer match, makes me very much want to re-visit England (*coughbeccacoughtaracough*).

I’ve been to Glastonbury Tor twice and, frankly, would go again if someone handed me a ticket to the UK. the first time I was sixteen and had just spent three weeks in France with some high school peers. whatever thoughts I have on the France experience (perhaps something on that one day; perhaps not), getting to see England and playing passenger to my mother as first-time-UK-driver were no inconsequential element of that trip. (“left!left!left!left!left!” “HEDGE!” and, really, do British hedgerows really need to be that close on all rural roadways? yeah, probably.) while I’m sure I have some images of Glastonbury Abbey somewhere (another future blog post?) I’ll focus on the tor here.

“Tor” is a local Celtic word signifying rock outcropping or hill, as exceptionally illustrated by the one in Glastonbury. archaeological excavations unearthed evidence of inhabitants dating from prehistory; there is evidence of a 5th century fort on the site and the current ruins of St Michael’s Church (the tower) date from the 13th century, which was restored in modern times. an earthquake felt as far away as London and Wales destroyed most of the church in 1275 and a replacement church (from the 1360s) survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (in 1539). the last abbot of the church (along with two of his monks) were hanged, drawn, and quartered on the Tor because he refused to swear allegiance to Henry VIII.

some speculate the Glastonbury Tor is part of a zodiac calendar with formations dug around ancient hedgerows and tracks (though much of the area proposed as said calendar was under water at the time of said calendar’s design). the tor straddles one of the most important ley lines in Britain, the St. Michael line that runs from St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall up to Avebury; the St. Mary’s line also runs through the Tor, creating a “vortex of energy” where they cross. 

others believe it provides access to the Underworld or realm of the faeiries; some that represents the final location of the Holy Grail. allegedly, Joseph of Aramathia brought it here and buried it in a cave beneath the Tor, from which two springs formed (presumably including the Chalice Well that you can still visit at the foot of the Tor.) job done, he planted his staff and a thorn grew up (Bernard Cornwall took a rather speculative eye to this myth in Winter King). 

one of the more perplexing mysteries of the tor are it’s seven, roughly symmetrical, terraces. several theories seek to explain their utility — farming, grazing, defensive ramparts, or (my favorite) a labyrinth. labyrinths were around during the Neolithic period while the tor was occupied and one can transpose the design of one such labyrinth onto the remaining ramparts but, even if that theory proves true, it seems likely its been used in other ways (e.g. farming, cattle grazing, defense) in the intervening centuries.

as Bernard Cornwall’s story reinforced for me, Glastonbury is closely linked with the Arthurian legend. the Tor was alternately known aYnys Wydryn (Isle of Glass because at the time the plain surrounding the tor flooded and made it an island) and also Ynys yr Afalon (Isle of Avalon). in 1184 a fire destroyed much of a nearby church and during the rebuilding of the church, a “double oak” coffin with an inscription identifying Arthur was found and preserved. under the supervision of Edward I the remains were re-interred and preserved (at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries).

whatever it was in past, it remains a truly remarkable awe-inspiring site to rival Stonehenge — and without the restrictions on access you’ll find at the site 45 miles to the east. the views (on a clear day) from the top are incredible — if your eyes are particularly good, I think yo we didn’t go to the Abbey on my second visit, but if my next trip to England involves any sort of Arthurian myth-type exploring, I wager both the tor and the Abbey will go on the list.

Piazza San Pietro

five years ago this month, I submitted to an insatiable case of travel bug and headed to Italy to visit my college roommate, Stephanie, over Spring Break. I’d returned from London to the comparative claustrophobia and mid-America suffocation of Knox and Galesburg in January and suffice it to say the transition back was difficult. as anyone who went to Knox (or endured a quarter- or term-style academic year) well knows, Winter Term is a tunnel of academic stress, personal horrors, and underexposure daylight only vaguely insinuated by winter months in the Real World. to help mitigate the heightened misery of my 2005 Winter Term, I booked a flight to Rome, installed iTunes on my computer and put Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Going Down” and Maroon 5’s “Must Get Out” on repeat. I spent the next ten weeks confusing my Latinate-language tenses (somehow thinking that I wouldn’t get confused by taking Spanish 101 and 300-level course on France during the Vichy regime … Tim Foster would tell you otherwise) and giddily imagining all the nauseatingly historic places I could see in Rome and Florence with a Classics major.
first stop on the itinerary my first full day in Italy (as Stephanie had class the day following my arrival): the Basilica di San Pietro. my sister took the night train down from Vienna (where she was spending the semester with Earlham’s choir program) to join me for a couple of days, and the pair of us were up early to tromp down the hill to Vatican City and check out San Pietro and the Musei Vaticani before lines got out of hand. climbed to the top of the dome and were rewarded with spectacular views across the Tiber to the east (pictured above), as well as north, south (from whence we’d traveled), and west.
a week or so after Kate and I stood atop the dome, Stephanie and her friend Rachel sat in the folding chairs set up in the Piazza to hear Pope John Paul II give his final Easter address (27 March — he died 2 April).


having some experience with sacred neolitic sites, I was very much looking forward to visiting the monuments at Bru na Boinne. the monument at Newgrange is over 5,000 years old, making it 500 years older than Stonehenge, and a century older than the Pyramids at Giza! it’s a marvel of engineering and complex calculation; the planning that went into ensuring the openings aligned in the way that they do at the precise moment that they do … it’s a cliche to say it boggles the mind, but instances like this necessitate such language.

briefly: at sunrise on the winter solstice, rays of sunlight enter through the opening above the door — the roofbox (the top gap in the photo), filters down a passage some 18m long and into the central chamber. for seventeen minutes on the Solstice (and the one day preceding and succeeding it), the chamber is flooded with sunlight. while this illumination now occurs several minutes after sunrise, calculations indicate that, when the monument was built, illumination coincided precisely with sunrise.

obviously, the calculations to achieve this effect were something complex. there is a hill across the River Boyne that mirrors that on which Newgrange is constructed, and, to start, the architects had to calculate when and how the sun would rise over that hill to know when and how it would hit the hill at Newgrange. the monument itself is built on a slant over the hill. that is to say, the bulk isn’t distributed evenly over the top of the monument, but rather sits oblongly. if you were sitting next to me right now, I’d give you a little demonstration with my hands, but hopefully you get what I’m trying to explain. the chamber inside has a corbelled ceiling and rises to 6m — and has remained more or less intact and sealed against water since its construction 5,000 years ago. it’s often presumed that “neolithic” implies uneducated or unsophisticated, but as our guide pointed out, working out the details of constructing Newgrange and other nearby sites demanded incredible technological sophistication. and unimaginable dedication.

once the architects sorted the physics of where to build the monument, it took 50 years to complete construction. fifty years in a time when the average lifespan was 20 or 25 years. it took three generations to finish this! not only did it take decades to complete, the stones used on the facade were not quarried locally and had to travel rather significant distances in a time before wheels. the white ones (quartzite) came from the Wicklow mountains, some 70km south of Bru na Boinne — on the other side of Dublin. the black granite interspersed with the quartzite came from the Mourne Mountains in the north of Ireland, some 50km away. most impressively, however, the 97 large, carved kerbstones came from 20km up the Boyne valley. it took eighty men four days to transport a stone four kilometers.

there’s no record as to the precise use for the monument, and there are about as many theories as people who study the site. some are pessimistic as so the intent of the designers (it was built by slaves as a temple for despots) but others are more optimistic. our guide believes it a memorial for spiritual ceremonies that were held once a year. cremanes of community members were taken inside to a place of honor during the three days a year when the monument was used, but the rest of the year the site was left alone. and those who used the site had voluntarily constructed it for their spiritual practices.

whatever it was used for, standing inside is an incredible experience any day of the year. (they do hold a lottery every 1st of October for slots to be present for sunrise on the Solstice. there’s never a guarantee that you’ll get sun, but thousands and thousands of people sign up for the opportunity.) they day I visited was probably the soggiest day I had my entire time in Ireland, but I could not have cared less. even wandering around outside for twenty minutes (our group was far too big for all of us to fit into the chamber at once, so our guide split us in half and we were left to our own devices in the elements in the interim), the place was amazing.

Gallarus Oratory

located on the Dingle Peninsula, the Gallarus Oratory was built somewhere between 1,200 and 1,300 years ago. the builders employed a drystone construction method, which means that all these stones were stacked without mortar. they built the place right in the first place as the structure is still watertight. the shape, as one can see, is quite similar to the boat (currach) found often in the Dingle peninsula. there are traces of mortar on the inside, suggesting the interior might have been plastered at one time. there’s a small rounded window in the east side, directly across from the door, which faces west. standing in the doorway, you can see all the way to the end of the peninsula and the Atlantic ocean.

the Burren

the Burren is a ecological enigma. because there’s little in the way of tall shrubbery, it seems barren, but in fact it’s far from it. it’s a limestone plateau of ten square miles that one Cromwellian surveyor (Edmund Ludlow) described the sight in 1650 as “a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.” in fact, however, the Burren is resplendant in flora that’s been adapting in unique ways for the last 10,000 (since the last Ice Age). it supports the greatest diversity of plants in Ireland, and those from both Mediterranean and Arctic regions thrive.

the first human inhabitants moseyed onto the Burren about 6,000 years a go (six thousand!) and there are stone forts and historic sites scattered all over. there are some 500 Iron Age stone forts (one of them seen in the second picture, which isn’t terribly clear) and more than 2,000 sites in all. part of the area has been designated a National Park (one of six), but it wasn’t the area where I visited.


as I mentioned in my post about the Burren, there are thousands of Iron Age forts and millenia-old historic sites scattered across the region. in Kilfenora, home of the Burren Centre and a tiny town smack in the middle of the Burrne, there are several celtic high crosses. most of them are now contained in the ruins of an old church, which, in turn, sits against the back of a more modern construction that still functions as a church. the Kilfenora church actually claims the Pope as it’s bishop. the town was especially hit during the Great Potato Famine and almost ceased to funciton; the Pope at the time (Pius IX) decided to name himself bishop of the diocese so that it might survive. it did, but it’s still the smallest and poorest diocese in Ireland.
some preservation organization thought to put a glass roof over the church ruins, which has helped to preserve the crosses contained therein.

not all of the crosses are under the glass ceiling, though. the church is tucked behind the Burren Centre and the street heading from the front entrance is flanked by grazing land and a working farm. the largest of the crosses that I saw stood smack in the middle of one of the fields. it was almost reminiscent of Avebury in how this ancient, sacred artefact was just part of the landscape. protected by a fence from the cows who wander around the field, munching on their dinner.