ruapehu v3  
New Xenaland

Ruapehu is the highest mountain in North Island, and a remarkably hostile place to be making a television episode. State Highway 1 crosses the high plains east of Ruapehu in the 'Desert Road', though the 'desert' is more like the high deserts of the Andes than the sand of the Sahara. The intermittent streams are fed mostly by snow-melt.

You can jump across the mighty Waikato River in one go -here
Mt Ruapehu from Tukino Track; Waikato Stream in the foreground
Mt Ngauruhoe, seen across the 'desert' from the Tukino Track
The same scene in winter after a heavy snowfall

The Rangipo Desert is on the unfashionable eastern side of the mountain, the only access to the mountain being the rough Tukino Track. The commercial Whakapapa and Turoa skifields are on the west side, where they doubtless get a lot more snow from the prevailing westerly winds. The 'desert' is a high plain of pumice sand and scattered tussock grasses.

'The Mountain' makes its own weather, and can turn from hot sun to a blizzard very rapidly. On several days a year, State Highway 1 is closed due to snow. If driving up any tracks, be very careful and do it early in the day - you don't want to get stuck or bogged miles from the main road with night approaching. We first visited the place on two occasions - once in June (well into winter) when there was no snow on the mountain, clear skies and hot sun all day; and a month later when the whole of New Zealand was experiencing unseasonally bright sunny weather - except the mountain which was producing its own blizzards. It does that sort of thing. Occasions when there is snow on the ground and the mountain is clear, as in Sin Trade, are just not predictable.

Not at Ruapehu...

The battle scene in The Debt
....bits of it are temptingly like Ruapehu -
but not quite close enough

The scene of the horseback battle in The Debt was a major puzzle for a long time. After discovering the river crossing location (see below) just east of the Desert Road, the battle seemed highly likely to be somewhere in the Ruapehu area - except that every likely location all round the mountain didn't quite 'fit'. The nearest was the tussock country between the Waihohonu Stream and the Mangatoetoenui Stream - except that it's much too rough to gallop over. Still, as seen from the road, it's a fair approximation of the sort of countryside that was used.

Mt Ruapehu seen above the Mangatoetoenui River
Tussock country - impossible to gallop over.
So much for theories......

The actual location of the battle scene is twenty miles east of here, on the far side of the bush-clad Kaimanawa Ranges, at the top end of Ngamatea Station. (Rob Tapert mentions the name in the DVD commentary). The mountain in the background is Tawake Tohunga, not Ruapehu. See the Central Plateau page.

Tongariro/Waipakihi River

Rather closer is the river crossing scene from The Debt, and the 'deer river' from Sin Trade, on the upper Tongariro River which forms the sharp boundary between the dry 'desert' in Ruapehu's rainshadow and the dense bush of the Kaimanawa Ranges. From the main road it's three miles down Waipakihi Road to the gorge at the end. Warning: these roads towards the river were built in the seventies for a hydro scheme and haven't been maintained since. Waipakihi Road now ends in a steep hill down to the riverside, which (in 2000) was being cut away by the river. By now it may end in a cliff. The tarseal is breaking up and patches of loose gravel mean that some cars may have difficulty backing up the hill. If you're not confident of being able to turn around in a very steep one-lane road, then stop at the top of the hill and walk down - it's not all that far.


Sourced from Land Information NZ Map 260-T20. Crown Copyright reserved.

The "Deer River" scene from Sin Trade is shaded yellow.
The river crossing in The Debt was two shots with a fade in between.
The first, where the camera pans down (the two left scans below)
was a long shot downriver to the northeast, from a camera position
(red triangle) on the track north of the collapsed bridge;
the second was to the southeast (red line shows where Argo crossed).

The Waipakihi (Tongariro) river runs north-westerly, towards the top left.
The blue grid lines are 1km (5/8 of a mile) apart.

The Debt

The river crossing scene from The Debt
... the camera pans down and zooms in, looking downstream
This is from the camera position marked in the map above;
a similar view can be seen from the hill on the approach road

As you descend the hill, straight ahead of you, about 1/2 mile away, is the river that Xena and Gabby crossed in The Debt, shown in the two scans above left. To your right, rather closer, is where we think the second part of that little scene was filmed, with Argo (there are two shots with a fade in between).

The second shot of the sequence, looking upstream
(it's evident on video that the river is flowing left to right)
The location of this shot isn't known exactly
Looking east (upstream) from the camera position for the first shot
(red triangle on the map)
50 yards behind the car, the road turns sharp right uphill
The camera position for Shot 2 isn't known but possibly
on the road behind the car
(We should have taken more photos!)
Another unknown location but probably up on the plateau
by Waipakihi Road, Kaimanawas in the background,
heading for the river gorge (which they just crossed!)
A similar perspective looking east from State Highway 1
3 miles away, between Mangatoetoeiti and Te Piripiri Streams
(thanks to Google Streetview)

Sin Trade

Returning to reasonable certainty - on the left bank, downstream of you, is where the entire the deer-shooting sequence from Sin Trade was shot. If you want to get there, you'll have to ford the tributary stream where the bridge is down (don't try it if in flood). It's also very cold. Then it's an easy walk along the track to the river flat where the deer-shooting and related scenes were filmed.

Xena makes war on the local wildlife
The same spot in far nicer weather
The river flat seen from the approach road

This is quite a pleasant spot in fine weather, but must have been miserable in the heavy rain while making 'Adventures in the Sin Trade'. Standing here, reflecting on that, gives one a new respect for the dedication of Lucy Lawless and the whole crew.


One gets this feeling even more strongly at the Amazon Land of the Dead. I'm filled with admiration at the determination and organisation it must have taken to shoot those sequences. This is at 5000 feet up on the side of the mountain, five miles up Tukino Track from the Desert Road. The first four miles of the track is, allegedly, suitable for cars (but beware of loose sand in stream crossings). Beyond the "Road unsuitable for 2WD cars" sign is a steep hill littered with big loose rocks, for four-wheel-drives or cars with lots of ground clearance, driven by determined idiots. Don't expect help if your car doesn't make it - the track only serves a couple of ski club huts and if it's not ski season, there may be no traffic at all. For days.

That was a little too interesting!
Stream crossing on the track. Note loose sand at left
and enthusiastic idiot's car on right
Land of the Dead is in the foothills directly above the
car headlight
A month later, in a blizzard. The track climbs to a
communications hut at the top of the the right-hand
hump, then diagonally across the front of the left-hand one.
Land of the Dead is on the left-hand hump.
The mountain is behind - we never saw it that day.

After the steep rough climb to the communications hut, the track descends slightly to a saddle where there is a small flat area alongside the track moderately clear of rocks and suitable for parking. Beyond this the track climbs to a gate in a gully; immediately beyond this on top of the spur is the main Land of the Dead.

This whole area of mountainside - miles of it - is reddish pumice sand littered with volcanic boulders. When it isn't snow-covered, it looks like the surface of Mars in a low-rent sci-fi movie. On the day of our second visit, there was an intermittent blizzard blowing, snow plastered on rocks and icicles hanging off their leeward sides. However, when Sin Trade was filmed the snowline was much lower still.

Finding particular boulders on a hillside littered with boulders is not straightforward; but for anyone who wants to try, I'll try and give directions.

Sourced from Land Information NZ Map 260-T20. Crown Copyright reserved.

The 'official' car parking area is just off to the right of the map
P2 is the de facto parking area on the saddle after the microwave hut
There is a gate, usually locked, across the track on the corner in the gully
A is the boulder where Xena and Alti met Anokin in the Land of the Dead
C is Cyane's rock from Sin Trade 1
B is the boulder from the end of Sin Trade 2
The yellow area W is the deduced location of the 'Walking to the volcano' sequence

The blue grid lines are 1km (5/8 mile) apart

View from the communications hut by point 1425.
The small 'parking area' is on the saddle in the centre of the picture
beyond which the track runs across to the left below the Land of the Dead

From the small 'parking area'; the track runs left across the hillside
(mid-height of photo) to the left-hand skyline.
Anokin's rock in the Land of the Dead is prominent on the skyline
just left of centre.
From the 'parking area' on the saddle
Cyane's No 2 boulder is the light-coloured circular boulder
(arrowed in inset) vertically above the middle of the car door,
on the skyline of the near ridge and a few yards to the right
of the old abandoned track up the hillside.

Follow the track on foot up to the (usually locked) gate in the gully. Here the track swings left to go round the end of a spur; on the flattish top of this spur is the most important site of the Land of the Dead. It should be relatively easy to locate Anokin's Rock, a prominent large boulder seen in the sequence where Alti took Xena to meet Anokin.

NASA fakes its Mars 
landings here
Meeting Anokin in the Land of the Dead
Looking into the sun on a hot day
Mt Ngauruhoe on left skyline

Looking across the track downhill to the east, is the Desert Road, State Highway 1, five miles away in full view but invisible in the distance. Distances are deceptive in this country, the edge of the Kaimanawa bush beyond the desert looks like just a mile or two away. It's straight behind Xena and the young dead Amazon as they climb up to meet Cyane.

 No kid, dead warriors don't get extra pay for frostbite
The camera starts on the skyline and pans down...

Distances are deceptive - the heavy dark bush of the
Kaimanawa Ranges starts six miles away beyond
the edge of the desert.
The power pylons which run just this side of State Highway 1
are just visible; the highway itself is hidden by distance.
... to reveal Xena and the Young Dead Amazon
climbing the hill to meet Cyane.

Note the snowline a thousand feet lower.
The same view on a rather hotter day.
Incidentally the Waipakihi/Tongariro River runs out of
the gorge in the left distance and flows to the left
between the light-brown flats and the dark hills;
the 'Deer River' site is just at the left edge of the picture.

Close by, looking the other way, up the gully and towards the summit of Ruapehu, is Cyane's Rock, the distinctive twin boulders that Cyane stood on (or possibly just behind) when confronting Xena.

'This is my rock!  Go find your own!' 'Nope, this one's 
real, if it was polystyrene it would've blown away'
Cyane standing on her rock
Cyane's rock, minus Cyane, on a hot sunny day; summit of Ruapehu behind

After their meeting, Cyane led the way briskly up the hill, and the next scene truly was in that direction. If you head up and across the gully, to come out on the right-hand ridge by the head of the gully, you're in the right place for the 'walking to the volcano' sequence. Directly to the north from here is the Gateway to Eternity - Mount Ngauruhoe (usually pronounced, rather inaccurately, 'Narra-howey'), a quite unmistakeable silhouette, and the clue that led to locating the Land of the Dead.

'I tell you again, volcanoes are NOT pink!' 'So, what colour did you say it was?'
The Gateway to Eternity, seen from the Land of the Dead
in the evening light
The unmistakeable blunt cone of Mount Ngauruhoe,
from the Tukino Track area (actually, the top of the ridge).

The 'walking to the volcano' sequence was definitely in this spot, since this is the only place where the skylines of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe intersect in exactly that way. It would be very satisfying to identify some actual rocks to confirm this and fix the spot exactly, but I couldn't.

Xena walking towards the volcano
(the Gateway to Eternity)
The skylines of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe intersecting
seen from the top of the ridge.

Just on the north side of this ridge is a steep abandoned track that leads back down to the main track just above the 'parking area'. Heading down this track, just before the last steep descent, a few yards to the left is Cyane's second rock - the boulder she was sitting beside at the end of the episode when the Amazons were released.

Waiting forever on the hillside
On the north side of the ridge just above the 'parking area'

This is where, right at the end of Sin Trade Episode 2, we were treated to a another brief glimpse of the mountain, pure gold in the setting sun. The context of the episode gives that impression; actually it must be early morning, with the dawn in the east, and the cast and crew must have gone up the mountain in dark and the freezing cold to catch the shot before the cloud pouring over the lower slopes of Ngauruhoe obliterated everything. It was well worth the effort.

The top of the Gateway to Eternity (Ngauruhoe)
still visible above the clouds
And Ruapehu in the clear

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Exceptions are:
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