January 16, 2018
About to board my flight to New Zealand, just my second foray into solo international travel, or actually international travel at all. After months of diligent research and meticulous planning, I’m anxious to discover what I’ve missed and see what best-laid plans will fail due to circumstances beyond my control. No amount of spreadsheets, trail descriptions, and apps could possibly account for all of the unknowns, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try- in true engineer-type fashion. And thanks to Instagram, I literally just found another side trip I wanna try to squeeze in. Never a dull moment in my world.
I’m also beyond excited to see some breathtaking landscapes and experience a new culture. This is a land that’s world-renowned for its outdoor recreation and extreme sports, a country that has topped my wishlist for over a decade. Ninety days in NZ are sure to pass far too quickly.
I’ve spent the last 24 hours laying over in Hawai’i. It’s my second trip to the island state, and my first trip to Oahu. I rented a car and zipped out to the Olomana (aka the Three Peaks Trail), an epic, exposed 5-mile-ish out and back trek. I was totally scared as I dropped off the second peak and climbed the third. Ufta, y'all. The ridge is narrow, and the trail is easy to follow...if you have the nerve. It’s another iconic Hawaiian trail on par with longer treks like Waimanu Valley on the Big Island and the Kalalau Trail on Kauai, but packed into a smaller package. Boy was it worth the extra time, money, and effort.
And now I’m seated on the plane. (I’ve been typing this brief update as we’ve been boarding.) A middle seat is certainly not what I wanted, but that’s the price I’m paying for not getting to the airport until two hours ago. Oh well, tackling the Olomana was well-worth the tougher accommodations for the nearly 9-hour flight ahead. #noregrets.
Great Walk :: Lake Waikaremoana
January 21, 2018
START: Trailhead Shelter @ 0445
FINISH: Whanganui Hut @ 1845
DISTANCE: 42 km
CUMULATIVE: 42 km
The last few days have been kind of a blur, a lot of traveling. It's hard to believe that I landed in Auckland on January 17, just four (long) days ago. Despite losing a day due to crossing the International Date Line, I really wasn't jet-lagged. Touched down around 2300 and just spent the first night at the airport. (I'm a total dirtbag like that.) Spent the next day in Auckland securing cell service, procuring a DOC hut pass, and generally exploring. The weather was rainy and grey, so I got a bunk at a downtown hostel. I caught the bus down to Gisborne Friday morning and spent a night there before catching another bus down to Wairoa and ultimately a shuttle up to Big Bush and the start of the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk.
I spent last night at the trailhead shelter and woke to the buzz of my alarm at 0400. Well, that, and a periodic thud coming from somewhere under the shelter. I turned on my headlamp to find a possum hanging from one of the columns. He looked me over, then moseyed on up the trail before I could fetch my GoPro. I love seeing different kinds of wildlife, so I counted that a strong start to my day. I was packed up and hit the trail by 0445. The day just kept looking up, because I came across two more possums, a mom and her baby, just a few hundred meters up the trail. This time I managed a few snaps in the dim light of my headlamp before trekking on with a giddy heart and a goofy smile. "Oh, the things I've seen," I thought to myself.
The track started off level but quickly became steep as it seemed to go straight up the backside of the bluff. About halfway up the relentless climb, I came to a beautiful, exposed overlook and decided to wait the 45 minutes for sunrise, expecting that the steep cliffs rising above the lake would make a wonderful photo op. In the end, the sun rose further south than I'd anticipated, so I didn't get the golden light I'd desired, but I was grateful for the break nonetheless.
After that, the track ducked back into the trees as I climbed ever higher. I reached the Panekire Hut just before 9a and was a greeted by a woman whose jaw dropped clear to the boardwalk when I told her where I'd started. She said "Well you're amazing, you are" in a thick Aussie accent. Ha! I had just been thinking that I'm not in the shape I'd like, and she greets me with that. Funny how different our perspectives can be; it's all relative.
As I traversed the bluffs, there were a handful of overlooks that showcased the beauty that qualifies this little jaunt as one of New Zealand's famed Great Walks. Looking back, the initial climb up and over the bluffs was my favorite part. It reminded me of tramping on the Appalachian Trail in maybe Tennessee or the Carolinas. After dropping back down, the vegetation became dense with thick moss hanging from the trees, which reminded me of tramping on the Olympic Penninsula in Washington state. Even after the vegetation thinned out, the lush green tunnel was reminiscent of the Columbia River Gorge, yet another gem in the Pacific Northwest region of the States. And finally the heat and smothering humidity coupled with endless short climbs and descents, climbs and descents, climbs and descents as I weaved my way in and out of drainages feeding the lake- all of that felt like the Kalalau on Kauai. I actually found the diversity along these relatively short 42 k's to be quite inspiring and engaging, including the quick side trip up to Korokoro Falls where I enjoyed lunch. It was a gorgeous, lush nook where the falls drop 22 meters over a stone cliff and into a pool below the overlook.
I arrived at the Whanganui Hut about an hour ago and have decided to skip the last 4-ish k's to Hopuruahine Landing. It's an out-and-back from here, and the scenery hasn't changed for hours, so I don't expect it will between here and there. Besides, I'm beat. As soon as I got here, I just collapsed on my bunk with barely a word to the other trampers. Haven't had dinner, and don't plan to cook. Probably just eat a few bars and some oreos. (Dinner of champions!) I'll get a good night's rest and catch the water taxi from here in the morning.
Despite its impressive classification as a Great Walk, the Lake Waikaremoana walk isn't particularly well-traveled. The track is reasonably maintained, though not to the standard described on other Great Walks. There were periods of overgrowth and some muddy sections, but nothing that wasn't easily negotiated. Certainly I saw my fair share of people, but I booked my hut just yesterday without any trouble. (I'd actually expected that I'd have to finish the walk and wild camp somewhere near the road at Hopuruahine Landing, then backtrack for the water taxi tomorrow morning.)
I really enjoyed this tramp, and it was a brutal illustration of just how far out of shape I am (by my standards, anyways). Y'all, it was bad. Tongariro Circuit in just a few short days, and that'll be considerably more challenging (and more beautiful!), though I plan to do that with just a day pack, which will help considerably. New Zealand is amazing so far, and I expect it will only get better as I work my way south. Better get my legs under me.
Great Walk :: Tongariro Northern Circuit
January 24, 2018
START: Whakapapa @ 0445
FINISH: Whakapapa @ 2135
DISTANCE: 43 + 5 km
CUMULATIVE: 90 km
Hitching up from Taupo yesterday wasn’t too difficult. Never waited more than 5 minutes for a pick up, though I did chose to walk a fair bit out of town to get to a prime spot to kick off the series of four rides that ultimately brought me to the backpacker hostel at Whakapapa Holiday Park. I managed to mess myself up a bit by staying in one car about 15 k's beyond my turn. Ended up taking a bypass road with an older Maori couple, literally the only car going that way, to avoid backtracking all the way to Turangi. On the sparsely-traveled bypass, we had to drive through a treacherous wet crossing where a culvert was totally blocked, diverting flood water and sending large debris across the road as if it were a full-on river. I imagine that section is going to be totally washed out by the time the water subsides. Gnarly, unpredictable weather and huge, steep catch basins can make any stream impassable. One of the challenges of tramping - and apparently driving - in this beautiful country.
I arrived and retrieved my key from the after hours box, then went over to the backpacker lodge where I found one other person. Jason is a nice guy who also happens to be a Tech alum from Atlanta. Funny we should meet for the first time way out here on the opposite side of the world from our mutual home. We chatted for a while before calling it a night. I had a crazy early wake up call this morning and still needed to prep my gear last night before crawling into bed.
My alarm buzzed at 0400 and I quickly (and quietly) packed up and snuck out. I hit the trail by 0500 under a clear sky filled with brilliant stars. It was brisk this morning, and I walked swiftly to generate some extra body heat while I waited for the sun to rise. Within 30 minutes, I was immersed in a thick, wet fog and couldn’t see 3 meters ahead of me. I walked along like that for an hour hoping it wasn’t a sign of the day to come. It wasn’t, thankfully. In fact, I could say it was too clear. (Never satisfied.) I’ve heard folks say that mountains make their own weather, which usually seems to be a reference to great weather low and storms up high. Today it was quite the opposite- we were above the thick cloud cover with only clear blue skies overhead for much of the day.
When I merged with the Tongariro Crossing track near Mangatepope Hut, there were already dozens of hikers ahead of me. They’d been dropped by shuttle to do this relatively short, though definitely gem-studded, leg of the full circuit. It’s an absurdly popular day hike, and shuttles seem to run endlessly throughout the day. I passed dozens of folks as we climbed to the South Crater. Once there, we were standing at the base of Tolkien’s Mt. Doom. The side trail wasn’t marked, so I ended up cutting cross country and kicking steps the whole way up the steep, loose Northeast face. (Turns out the trail actually follows the Northwest ridge. Oops.) It was a relentless slog that took a few hours. I’d kick two steps, slide back one, kick two more, slide back another, rest, and repeat. My legs were thrashed, and I was totally knackered when I finally topped out. I spent over an hour up there exploring the crater rim, taking in the 360* views, and having lunch. I was grateful to find the summit trail for the descent, of which I made fairly quick work.
By the time I got back down, The Crossing was totally packed with trampers. It was like an endless line of ants marching by ones and twos, stopping unpredictably in the middle of the trail, and generally acting a fool. Normally I would’ve been annoyed, but I had just climbed Mt. Doom, and I knew that very few hikers were doing the circuit, so I’d be alone again before too long. But not before sharing the Emerald Lakes overlook with hordes of people. I decided to skip Mt. Tongariro because Ngauruhoe had taken longer than I’d anticipated, and to skip Blue Lake because I was over the crowd. I hadn’t carried enough water from Mangatepope, so I treated water from the exit stream at Emerald Lakes, then kept on keeping on. It was quickly getting late in the day. The rest of the hike was beautiful, but the epic section is decidedly The Crossing, and I’d recommend it to anyone despite the crowds.
It was hot today, maybe 32* centigrade, and exposed. I got pretty burned on my calves, quads, wrists, and the back of neck. Pretty rookie move, not reapplying sunscreen, but it’s a true classic for me. Bring on the skin cancer. I took a 30 minute food, water, shade, and shoes off break at Oturere Hut. It was total bliss. All I wanted to do was lie down, but I had over 20 k's to go and fewer than five hours of daylight to work with. Had to get to it. The sun was finally getting a little lower in the sky and the terrain generally eased. I wouldn’t say I was cruisin’, because I kept stopping to snap photos. I couldn’t help myself. I mean, when will I ever be back there?
As the clouds rolled in and the sun was nearly set, I figured I was done with the “beauty breaks,” but then I got some incredible snaps of the sun setting behind a veil of thin, wispy clouds. It was a brilliant, dramatic red. I’ll never forget it. Seems there’s always another photo to take. Managed to make it to Taranaki Falls, the only other side trip besides Mt. Doom that I’d planned and actually taken, just as twilight waned. That’s especially exciting because it means I can sleep in tomorrow rather than running back up to snap some photos of the falls.
It was after 2130 when I finally finished. Ufta, long dang day. (Sandy Suunto says I took over 65,000 steps today!) Due to its proximity to the track, I’d used the holiday park as a natural staging point. (The Trailhead is literally just across the street.) Stoked I decided to splurge on the extra night. I really like the quaint, comfortable, reasonably priced accommodations, and I finished later than I’d planned, so I’m excited to collapse on a bed with no hassle. In this moment, I’m just sitting on the couch in the common room trying to will myself to shower when all I really wanna do is sleep. So. Tired.
Cook Strait Ferry
January 27, 2018
I haven’t done loads of hitch hiking in my life, but I’ve done some, and I’m grateful to have had fair luck in general- both in getting rides, and in meeting pleasant folks. The only exception that readily comes to mind is the time I tried hitching in Arkansas. Boy, that was rough. Walked nearly 20 miles along this narrow, winding, country highway with only about a car every half hour going my way. It took hours and hours for someone to finally stop. And man was it hot that day. But at least I have that very difficult experience to put my other hitch hiking experiences in perspective.
So far in NZ, it’s been wonderful! Left at the same time as the bus walking out of Taupo a few days ago, and arrived in Wellington directly at my hostel at the same time the bus was arriving in city center. Just two hitches, and I was sailing the whole 370 k's. Helluva sweet deal! Road with Kelley and Tina all the way from Turangi, and they were great company for the 4-hour drive. I'd originally hitched north from Whakapapa to Taupo that morning, because I'd planned to take the bus to Wellington. The bus was completely sold out, so I had to turn around and start hitching back the way I'd come. Got to Turangi pretty quickly thanks to Peter, a self-proclaimed gang member. (Not gonna lie, that confession got me wondering if I was in trouble. He turned out to be absolutely wonderful. I kept the conversation focused on his family, mostly his nine(!) children. And he was kind and outgoing the whole hour we road together.) Waited fewer than five minutes before Kelly and Tina pulled over to scoop me up.
Arrived at the Waterloo Backpacker Hostel and met my friend, Sarah, there. She'd reserved a few bunks for us. Got dinner that night and visited the WETA Studio for a tour yesterday. Stayed another night at the hostel, then caught the Interislander Ferry across to the South Island first thing this morning. The ship is massive, and there weren’t a dozen passengers aboard. We had nearly the whole of the ship to ourselves, and the waters were calm. The ride was beautiful! And we saw a bloom of jellyfish from the deck of the ship; they were humming along in the wake. I'd never seen jellyfish in the wild before. These (spotted jellyfish, I think) looked to be quite small from our vantage point high above them.
Had a bit of stress first thing this morning, because I misread the confirmation email. I thought boarding started at 0600 for our 0645 departure. According to the email, 0600 is the final boarding call. Sarah and I left the hostel at 0540 and the walk takes 30 minutes. We had to run the 2.5 k's to the wharf. Our packs were stuffed full, and the race was on. We were both drenched in sweat when we arrived at 0600 on the nose. The boarding agent smiled at us and said they’d begin boarding in about 15 minutes. My eyes opened wide and my jaw dropped. Sarah just smiled at me and said “All part of the adventure, yeah?” We giggled to each other as we checked our bags and took our seats in the waiting area.
We docked in Picton around 1045 and hit the local bakery for some treats before beginning our long hitch down the east coast. We had fair luck today, actually. In fact, we caught our first ride before we’d even reached the edge of town and put our thumbs out. A woman just pulled up and asked if we were hitching south. “Yep!” Jackie drove us the first leg down to Blenheim. From there, we walked to the edge of town and waited about ten minutes for our next ride. A group of foreign winery workers in a dodgy van got us out to Seddon. We began the routine once more, walking out of town along SH1 and thumbing. The next two rides got us maybe 5-10 k's each, which put us in the small community of Ward. Ward is really just a convenience store and some houses. It was about 1530 by this point, and the highway closed each night around 1900 for overnight road work. We still had 90 k's to go, and if progress continued to be choppy, we might fall short of Kaikōura for the night.
Just as we were considering backup plans, Paul pulled over. He’s a road worker who was heading all the way through to Kaikōura. Eureka! We’d done it. Paul was totally awesome. He gave us all kinds of background on the 2016 earthquake (Magnitude: 7.8) that had devastated the region and the ongoing recovery work. The engineer in me found it fascinating, even as Sarah drifted in and out of sleep in the backseat of the truck.
We arrived in Kaikōura at a reasonable 1630 and were able to pick up groceries and maps for the East-West Route, which we’re planning to begin tomorrow morning. It’s a sweet 115 kilometre cross country route through the Molesworth region. So stoked! We’re camping at a beach south of Kaikōura tonight having caught a late-night hitch out of town. Still have about 20 k’s to hitch up the Inland Road tomorrow morning. Expecting it to be a bit challenging, since it’s not a heavily travelled road. Gonna get up around 0600 and try to be out to the road by 0700. That’ll mean a late morning start for the walk, which could make for a long day since it’s 27 k’s to the Clarence River and the first hut of the trip. But those are all tomorrow’s worries. Now, bed.