Te Araroa :: A Look Back
Since my quarter-life crisis nearly a decade ago, I've been tempted by wanderlust. Since watching the epic LoTR trilogy, I've longed to experience Middle Earth. Since learning of the famed Te Araroa during my first thru hike, I've dreamed of walking its length. And now, another trip of a lifetime in the books. How lucky I am to chase peak experience with peak experience.
New Zealand. Since I don't know where to begin, I'll start with her given name. Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. New Zealand is known for its beautiful backcountry and unpredictable weather. This is especially true of its remote, lush, mountainous South Island. And that's where I spent 79 of my 89 days. I knew I'd encounter inclement weather and that the weather might well have a significant impact on my experience, but I've been spoiled in my outdoor career by the stable summer weather of the States, so I found the touchy NZ weather challenging at times. There were cyclones, heavy rain, and early season snow. When the precipitation wasn't actively falling, its inevitable eventuality was almost always looming overhead. My frustration was rooted not in the weather itself but rather in my own anxiety, a fear that my gear might be ruined in the rain. And of course, my camera was, then my ipod shuffle. But I remind myself that that's the cost of the way I choose to adventure, a cost that I'm willing to pay for these priceless experiences. (Perhaps travel insurance would be a worthy investment moving forward. Live and learn.)
The other thing that I realized on this trip abroad is that one of the things I appreciate most about traveling in the continental US is the level of flexibility I have. If the conditions aren't favorable, I simply go elsewhere. I live out of my car anyways, so I drive my little compact mobile home almost everywhere I go, which is convenient. When I travel abroad, I find that I'm at the mercy of the conditions, especially so because my timeline is often tight relative to my itinerary. With all that I've seen right here in the US, it's hard to logically justify the expense, effort, and inconvenience of international travel. And yet, I've got the bug. Sure I can see jagged, snow-capped peaks right here at home, but I can't see Mt. Cook. I can see the cliffs of the California coast, but I can't see the Great Ocean Road. Similar, but different. And if I'm being honest, I gotta name that part of the allure of vagabonding is that it's challenging, that it's something which relatively few people do. Travel and adventure are fundamental cornerstones of my identity, for better or worse.
So, too, has solitude been for the better part of the last decade. Yet more and more I feel drawn to community and shared experience. That was especially true on Te Araroa. At the start, I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness, something I rarely feel in my solo adventures. I realized on this trip that I don’t feel alone when I’m alone; I feel alone when I’m surrounded by a community of which I’m not apart. You see, I’m a bit of a princess, so the thought of camping wasn’t nearly as tempting as the many backcountry huts along Te Araroa. And that seemed true for many of the other thru-hikers as well.
The trouble for me was that I’d jumped into a thru-hike at the midpoint, and the trampers I met had already formed a community. I often arrived at crowded huts where I was the only new face, just a section hiker who hadn’t experienced the trials and tribulations of the North Island. While everyone I encountered was kind and welcoming, I can understand how being a section hiker on a long trail is a difficult experience. I never felt like the trail community itself was exclusive or that I wasn’t welcome in it, just that my lack of shared experience with everyone around me created an underlying barrier between us. I think more often than not, that’s what bonds thru-hikers. Not elitism, but an intense shared experience. And for those not sharing in that experience, the disconnect can bring up a sense that they don’t belong or aren’t welcome. Add to that baseline the fact that it takes time to fall into a bubble of trekkers who are moving at a similar pace and whom you’ll see frequently, and you’ve got a potentially difficult interpersonal experience. And if you step out onto the trail with expectations of the famed “trail community” without finding it right away, I can understand that it’s disenchanting.
Despite my challenging start, I’m not out there solely for the trail community. Failing to find that familiar sense of belonging didn’t undermine my experience, because I’m also out there for myself, for the personal challenge and exceptional views. Not being a part of something wasn’t a deal breaker, and because I wasn’t attached to finding it, it found me.
Not being attached is different than surrendering. I still put in the effort to get to know those around me, and the longer I plugged away, the more I saw familiar faces. And the more I opened myself to relationships - the more I actively put myself in the path of connection, however uncomfortable - the more that already-established community wrapped itself around me, drawing me in. I found my people, and more so than on any other trip, I worked to keep them close. The funny thing is that it didn’t feel like self-sacrifice, it just felt like I was doing what I wanted. Nearly all of my favorite moments in New Zealand involved catching my people (the café at Arthur’s pass, and the Roses Hut), or my people catching me (Kiwi Burn Hut, and Riverton). That’s how I knew that McKenzie, Elizabeth, Rob, and later on, Kirsten were my people. I wanted to finish in 45 days, but not more than I wanted to finish with them, so I dialed it back at the end. Zero-ed at Martin’s Hut following a 90 kilometer day, then waited a day at Riverton, and then walked the last 65 k’s in two days rather than one. Pushing myself was less important to me than community. Skipping arm-in-arm the last dozen yards to the Bluff terminus is by far my most treasured memory from the whole trip.
Reflecting on my walk and all of the feels that come with it, I’m left wondering whether I’ve been lucky to find lasting friendships on my two longest thru-hikes, or whether the shared experience is tantamount to my being open to such connections. With few exceptions, my closest friendships have all been born of intense and challenging shared experiences. Are intensity and adversity precursors to my vulnerability? If so, is that necessary? Healthy? More importantly, is that how I want to live this life? My initial thought is that I love the life I’ve lived, so why would I do anything differently. I’ll have to look deeper to consider whether I’m missing something for which I’ve been unconsciously longing.
Being in the South Pacific anyways, it seemed silly to me to have the time and funds but choose not to visit Australia. So I visited Australia. True to form, I found a long distance trail around which to craft my visit. But by the time I arrived in Melbourne, I'd been walking for the better part of 90 days, so rather than hike the entire 110 kilometer Great Ocean Walk, I hitched the road and hit the highlights. I was psyched to use my extra time exploring Melbourne and Sydney before flying back to the states. But I've gotten ahead of myself. (Typical.)
Landed in Sydney on Monday a week and a half ago with a half dozen hours to spare before flying on to Melbourne. Yeah, it would've been easier to fly direct to Melbourne except that I decided to go down there after I'd already bought my flight to Sydney. Noob moves, y'all. Noob moves. I arrived late and ended up stealth camping on the outskirts of Geelong. Took the bus to Apollo Bay the following day where I again stealth camped. From there, I began hitching the Great Ocean Road. Took almost an hour to catch a lift, but they were heading all the way to the 12 Apostles, which is the end of the Great Ocean Walk and my first stop. Perfect.
The road stays inland most of the way while the trail traces the coast almost the whole way. Not much of a Great Ocean Road for the first few hours. My ride took the road into Otway and explored the lighthouse for about an hour. I opted to walk along the coast, since I didn't want to pay the price of admission for the lighthouse grounds. Within a hundred meters, I'd already encountered my first Aussie snake. He was maybe two and a half feet long and sunning himself across the trail. Welcome to Australia, I thought. You know the horror stories about Australian wildlife. I have no idea what kinda snake it was, but let's just assume it could've killed me if it wanted to. Fortunately it darted off into the grass and that was that. After that, I decided to wait at the car.
After another hour of driving, they dropped me at the 12 Apostles, which were every bit as incredible as a quick google search would suggest. I snapped a few photos despite the harsh light, then threw my thumb out again to make my way down to the London Bridge before sunset. I was chasing the good light and figured the London Bridge was prime for sunset while the 12 Apostles would be prime for sunrise, so I acted accordingly. Barely made it out to the bridge in time. (I found hitching to be generally more difficult in Australia than it was in New Zealand.)
I could see the sky turning to twilight as my ride approached the pullout. I felt anxiety rise in my chest as I stepped out of the car and quickly made my way down to the overlook, hoping I hadn't forgotten anything in my rush. I stepped onto the boardwalk and was greeted by a spectrum of soft, colorful hues bursting across the sky. Eyes wide, I set up my camera and began snapping away. Short exposure, long exposure, and everything in-between. I must've taken over a hundred photos in just twenty minutes. By the time I'd finished, the light was all but gone. I packed up and walked most of the 14 kilometers back the way I'd come. It was pitch black but for the light of the crescent moon. And as I neared the 12 Apostles, I was lucky to see what I believe was a young kangaroo, just a little too big to be a wallaby, stand and hop off into the night. Australia is cool.
I stealth camped that night at the end of the 12 Apostles boardwalk. It was cold, and absolutely stunning. The sky was full of stars, and the waves crashed relentlessly far below my perch. The pink and orange hues the following morning were a sight to see. And again, I snapped away. Hundreds of photos in just a few short hours as I continued to explore the coast.
By the time I was ready to hitch back to Melbourne that afternoon, I'd captured some wonderful photos all along the Port Campbell coastline: features like the Gibson Steps, Loch Ard Gorge, Thunder Cave, and The Arch. The best part of skipping the long walk is that I had more time to be picky about where to be and when. The quality of photos I was able to capture offered a glimpse of what it would be like to be a photographer first and a hiker second. I've always been a backpacker first, which means that I just walk and deal with the conditions that I encounter in the places that I love. Here, I chose to be a photographer first. And man, those shots. It paid off. I still prefer the former, and it's nice to know that I'm a better photographer than the photos I usually snap. Just imagine what I might capture if I really sat down and studied the art. One day. Right now it's all I can do to explore and share. Seems there just aren't enough hours in the day.
I expected that catching a ride the three hours to Melbourne would be difficult, especially so because I wanted to take the more direct route that avoids the popular Great Ocean Road. I was told by a local that it's illegal to hitch hike in Victoria, but that I wasn't likely to get into trouble so long as I didn't obstruct traffic. (Explains some of my trouble hitching.) That it was a Thursday sure wasn't helping my case. Figured I'd give myself an edge by standing at the intersection with the Great Ocean Road. I think I was technically on a highway, but you wouldn't know it. I saw maybe one car going my way every 2-3 minutes. I'd probably been there a half hour when a couple turned toward Melbourne and pulled off in front of me. They were definitely obstructing traffic, but I wasn't about to get picky. Their english was broken, but we both agreed on "Melbourne", so I eagerly hopped in the back seat and off we went. We carried on a polite conversation as best we could for a little while before turning our attention to the radio.
They dropped me in downtown around 1530, which gave me a full day and a half in Melbourne before continuing on to Sydney. Got my bearings that afternoon, then got up early and spent all of Friday exploring the street art scene. Melbourne is known for its alleyway street art, and for good reason. I walked from pre-dawn until well after sunset capturing images from downtown to Fitzroy and out to Collingwood. Hosier Lane in downtown and the whole neighbor of Fitzroy were my favorite spots for street art. Skyline views were epic from Albert Park, and the towering buildings along the Yarra River provided epic long exposure opportunities after sunset. Overall, I'd say Melbourne is a total winner. Loved that city.
I departed for Sydney on Saturday afternoon and wasted no time. We landed, and I set out toward the floating forest, a little-known wreck in Brush Bay. I'd read about it a few years ago, and I was excited to visit and photograph the site. Knowing that I would see it this trip, I'd intentionally set my expectations low. Many times I've seen talented photographers capture incredible photos of relatively benign scenes. I understood that my own experience and captures might well not measure up to what I'd seen on social media. Instead, I caught some long exposures that I'm totally psyched about! The clouds reflected the city lights back on the still waters of the bay as the tree canopies spilled over the bow. The reflection was crystal clear, and the scene itself seemed almost as if it were on fire. It was after 2300 when I finally wrapped up and headed over to the nearby Sydney Olympic Park to camp like a true dirt bag.
As I was walking through the park on my way to the floating forest, a security guard passed me twice and on both occasions warned me to be careful of the spiders. I'm sure my backpack gave away my intention to camp there, though I can't imagine it was technically aloud. But still, all he offered was a warning about the spiders. I should've asked for specifics, but instead I just said "Yes, sir" and carried on. I've pretty much been operating under the assumption that all snakes, lizards, and spiders in Australia are blood thirsty death-dealers, so I give them a wide berth anyways.
Of course I survived the night without incident. With three days left before flying back to the States, I went ahead and purchased an Opal card, which is good for all forms of public transit (buses, trains, and ferries) throughout Sydney. I headed for Royal National Park on the outskirts of the city. My intention was to walk the 27 kilometer Coast Track, a local classic, but I was so taken with the scenery at the Balcony - a mere two k's along - that I camped there instead and walked out the way I'd come the following morning satisfied with my excursion.
I spent my last two nights in a hostel near Kings Cross and the Sydney Harbor. The hostel was tiny, crammed, and unimpressive, but the location was worth the challenges. I met some TA friends for drinks one afternoon, and was out late both nights walking around taking long exposure cityscapes. Some of my favorite spots were: Bailman East Wharf, Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, and Pylon Lookout. Pretty much any view that includes the Sydney Oprah House is absolutely stunning, also. What a cool bit of architecture standing out like a ship on the water amongst a cirque of towering skyscrapers. I've found that in addition to shooting landscapes and wildlife, I really enjoy shooting cities, specifically skylines, street art, and urban decay. I surprised myself when I decided that I'd rather walk around the city for two days than take a quick train up to the Blue Mountains, which are supposed to be pretty gorgeous. I figured I'd seen quite a lot of mountains over the last three months, and I wanted to see more of the city. (Who even am I?)
I leave for Hawai'i in an hour, and I'm excited to be moving toward home. I'll be visiting some family and dear friends over the next few weeks before I start a sweet summer job as an Interim Assistant Field Director at a wilderness therapy organization out in Utah. Lots to look forward to! And as much as I appreciate not having unfeathered access to my phone and computer, so do I appreciate having that unfeathered access. Stoked to triage, edit, and share the nearly 4,500 photos I've captured since January. What an experience. I've learned and grown and connected at every turn these last four months. Man I've loved this trip; and I'm ready for it to be something that "I've done" rather than something that "I'm doing".
My flight out of Queenstown yesterday was canceled and rescheduled for this afternoon. Some operational issue or something. Anyways they shuttled us back to town last night, covered the cost of a four star hotel, and gave us food vouchers, so I pretty much stayed in NZ for a complimentary night. Lucky I scheduled my departure a few days ahead of my visa waiver expiring, otherwise I would've violated the conditions and might have had trouble trying to come back for another visit. Wouldn't have mattered that the delay wasn't my fault. Better safe than sorry, I always say. Spent the night in my complimentary bath robe watching New Zealand win the Commonwealth Games gold medals for both men's and women's Rugby 7's. There're worse things.