In the middle stands Ngauruhoe. Less massive than its companions, Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy) forms a wondrously symmetrical cone, capturing your attention with the simple perfection of its form. The 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 neighborhood? 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 justification, if you need one. This peak was born just a couple thousand years ago. The Ice Age glaciation that tore and scarred Ruapehu and Tongariro happened long before Ngauruhoe was born. Rain and fiery explosions have not yet marred its face. In the geological world, too, the beauty of youth works its seductive power.
The Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, look on all three volcanoes with awe and consider them tapu, a word whose diverse meanings include both "sacred" and "sanctity." When Europeans began settling the central North Island in the mid to late 19th century, dividing 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. The tract became the country's first national park and has grown to the current 194,270-acre protected area.
Maori tapu explains why Tongariro holds the rare distinction of having twice been named a World Heritage site, both for its physical features and, later, for its cultural importance. The park's fire-and-ice combination of active volcanoes and glaciers easily won it the natural-heritage status of sites such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Everglades. But the United Nations committee that decides such matters originally turned down New Zealand's proposal to accept Tongariro as a cultural site, having previously given that rank only to human-built sites (think of Chartres Cathedral and the Egyptian pyramids). After a new presentation from a delegation including Maori elders, though, Tongariro in 1993 became the first site in the world to receive heritage status under a new criterion called associative cultural landscapes, for the terrain's spiritual importance to indigenous people.