Tongariro Northern Circuit: Three Days on A Great Walk, Day One

New Zealand, you have me hooked. Though I’ve been having fun, this past month wasn’t entirely convincing – what with your vast, suffocating rainforests and constant dampness. Not to mention all the winding gravel roads that, while quaint at first, cost me two busted tires and a lot of road fatigue. I was feeling tired, lonely, and deprived of the awe inspiring mountains of Colorado.

You took my uncertainty as a challenge, and you rose above and beyond the call of duty.

My experience on the Tongariro Northern Circuit: Day One

Having traveled south from Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula, then through Waitomo for a job interview, I found myself in the city of Taupo – a bustling oasis in the middle of endless wilderness. Taupo is located on the northern side of a lake of the same name, is known for free random hots springs, and has a multitude of adventures, from kayaking to rock climbing. I stopped for a few nights at a rare free campground by the Waikato River called Reid’s Farm.

Disappointed after losing a promising job opportunity to timing issues, I spent the weekend listless – wasting hours in the Taupo library on free Wifi, or reading to forget my woes in Grandpa Jimmy, my best and only friend. I had accepted my fate as a lonely vagabond, and was well on my way to cutting off civilization entirely, when a fantastic couple (Averie and Sydney) I had met from Seattle informed me they were planning to hike the Tongariro Northern Circuit and asked if I was nearby. What luck! The great walk was just south of Lake Taupo, only about an hour drive away.

Averie and Sydney, the wanderingest couple I know
Averie and Sydney, the wanderingest couple I know

I drove down and met them the next morning (Tuesday October 20th), having restocked my food supply and washed my weekend vagabond clothing.

The weather did not look great. The best time to complete the crossing (the highest point of the circuit) was that day, likerightnow, so we didn’t have much time to plan. We threw together our packs, mentally prepared for the worst, and set off.

Our idea was to start from Mangatepopo and travel clockwise over three days, hoping to hit the worst of the weather on a relatively easy section of trail. We kept my van at the Whakapapa Visitor Center and drove Averie and Sydney’s rented car to the Mangatepopo parking lot.

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Map of Tongariro National Park. The circular track is the Northern Circuit.

The first section of the hike is incredibly flat and easy. The three of us stopped several times to de-layer, having over-prepared due to warnings of gale force wind and rain. The day was gorgeous but chill, with white puffy cumulus clouds passing quickly overhead, the sun playing a frustrating game of hide and seek. As we hiked, we caught up with a middle-aged man from Denmark, who had flown down to surprise his 25 year old daughter for her birthday and was exploring the country while she celebrated with friends. We continued on, but he hiked with us on and off as we arrived at, and slowly ascended, the Devil’s Staircase. It wasn’t the worst staircase I’ve been on (that title goes to The Incline in Manitou Springs, CO), but with the wind constantly stealing what little warmth my exertion was producing, it was a continuous battle between needing to rest and wanting push upward and onward to stay warm.

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At least our destination was fairly obvious

After the Devil’s Staircase, the path levels off and travels through a flat valley with Mt Tongariro to the North and Mt Ngauruhoe to the South. The views here are astonishing. Massive peaks and sharp drop-offs make for a stark and intense landscape, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since leaving home. On a summer day, when the peaks aren’t covered in snow, it would’ve been on my list to summit at least one of the impressive mountains surrounding us.

Looking back across the valley, Mt Nguaruhoe to the left

At the far side of the valley, we said goodbye to our new friend, who had come as far as he felt comfortable, and prepared ourselves for the windiest, most difficult section of the trail: the ascent to the top of Red Crater. Up until now, the path was either packed down and well maintained, or was flat enough that it didn’t matter. Here it was neither. Rising up about 600 feet, the path is steep and consists of loose gravel and a substance akin to sand. For a good portion, there is a chain drilled into the rock on your right, as a means to ensure you don’t slide to your death on the left. I was very thankful for how sturdy the chain was.

After what felt like ages, we finally hit the highest point of the trip!

The landscape made me positively giddy. Hard to believe I was despondent in a campground a mere two days before.

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Right; how Red Crater got its name, Left; the highest point of the trip

The next few hours felt like walking on air compared to the first two. We passed the Emerald Lakes, which truly live up to their name with jewel-like color, and continued down into the sparse, scrubby valley below toward the Oturere Hut.

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The pristine, still icy Emerald Lakes

The wind had died down almost immediately after passing over Red Crater. Since it was coming from the West, the crossing blocked the worst of it once over to the East. Sydney, Averie, and I took the rest of the day to enjoy ourselves and meander our way toward that night’s hut. We had four or five hours until dark and were over halfway through the estimated five hours it takes to complete the section, so we stopped along the way to scrutinize the scrubby plants, play with crazy light pumice stones, and, consequently, longingly discuss the wonders of hummus and if it would be possible to bring on the trail without refrigeration.

Exhibit A
Exhibit A

Having lost track of time, we eventually came over a rise in the land and spotted the hut in the distance. Spontaneous dance broke out at the thought of taking off our packs and, I think more importantly, our shoes. The next ten minutes were a determined march downward until we reached the tiny Oturere Hut and settled in for the night.

Hut Number 1

The Oturere Hut was a cramped but welcoming space. It includes a main room, which consists of a small four top table, a sink with decent counter space, and about 12 bunks to the right, and two side rooms with enough bunks to fit five people each.

We just happened to arrive at the hut on the night the rangers were restocking and training the baby rangers, so it was packed and quite jovial. As the night waned on, we chatted by candlelight with the rangers, learned how to find south using the Southern Cross, and eventually settled in for a good sleep to prepare to continue the walk in the morning.

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Goodnight, My Love
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I Stopped Washing My Hair. Like The Dirty Hippy I Am.

photo(3)I haven’t washed my hair since the day I boarded AirNZ for my 13 hour flight across the Pacific. I’d heard there was something called the “No-Poo” movement – which, frankly, sounds like some MRA plot to convince women not to poop – but I’d always been too ensconced in society and not looking like a grease ball to give it a shot. Traveling alone, in a van, in a country where literally nobody knew who I was, seemed like the perfect time to get rid of all my fucks. And I don’t think they’re coming back.

When I first started out, I knew I’d be okay for at least a few days. I’ve gone that long without washing my hair before and it’s never been a serious issue. Of course, I continued to shower, and rinsed my hair during said showers, but that was pretty much the extent of it.

By around the end of week one, it was looking a bit sketchy. I Skyped a friend back in Colorado and he looked at me, confused, and said I looked wet. Attractive.

But I’d done my research and everything I saw claimed that if you can get through the first month or so, your body will adapt and the grease will calm down. While I was waiting for that glorious moment, I decided to see what other people suggested to keep me from dressing in cuffed jeans and a white t-shirt and finding the nearest sock hop (cus…Grease? Maybe would work better if I were a man). I found several options that included some combination of baking soda and apple cider vinegar. That seemed like too much work.

I kept up the search and found a remedy that was convenient enough I was willing to give it a shot. Apparently honey is good for cutting grime, and I just so happened to have some on hand, because bees are God’s way of making up for wasps. So I awkwardly took my bottle of honey to the pay-to-play shower and rubbed what seemed like a healthy amount onto my head, washed it out and enjoyed what remained of my rare hot shower.

It definitely seemed a little better, so I waited a few days and washed my hair with honey once again. Still decent but not great. I continued on with my life, mostly hiking and swimming and surfing, so it was easy to forget about the condition of my hair. Didn’t really notice anything again until about a week ago while I was in Auckland. The reason I noticed my hair again was actually because there wasn’t anything noteworthy about it at all. It looked clean and soft and pretty much exactly how my hair had looked when I was still shampoo washing it. This was at approximately two weeks in and you better believe I was stoked. I even wore my hair down on Friday night and looked like a fairly normal person. My hair was actually curlier than it has been recently, which made me super happy.

If everything goes to hell in the forthcoming months, I’ll let you know, but for now I think this is a win for lazy, cheap hair washers everywhere.

Hiking With Stairs: A Rant

Hiking (or walking as kiwis so optimistically call it) is one of my favorite challenging activities. Along with a certain level of self punishment comes stunning views, a satisfying feeling of accomplishment, and really nice legs. Yesterday, however, as I was hiking the Coromandel Pinnacles, I came in close contact with my biggest hiking enemy.

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“Sonuva bitch”
Stairs. In every day life, they are merely an annoyance, or at best a simple choice to improve your fitness. As a hiker, with a 30 pound backpack, on a rainy day, they’re absolute torture.

I have three problems with stairs:

  1. They’re uneven. The ones above are an extreme example, but even the best laid stairs of mice and men often go awry.
  2. They’re slippery. Wood stairs, stone stairs, random rocks made to resemble stairs – IT DOESN’T MATTER. Limiting options for foot placement causes increased rubbing, which wears away at any texture that was once there, leaving nothing but a smooth surface of death.
  3. They tell you when and how high your next step is going to be. Easily the most condemnable offense, stairs offer no options for where to place your foot next. You will either stay on the same plane as your currently forward foot, or you will rise precisely how high and far the stairs mean you to. Stairs are trail dictators, and I won’t stand for it.

I don’t like being told what to do.

There is hope though. Often, alongside the very intentional staircase, is a second, more traditional path, usually created by like-minded hikers who prefer options on their trails. I like to think of these unassuming heroes as “Liberty Paths.”

LibertyPath

Liberty paths don’t pretend to know your hiking preferences. They realize you may want to shuffle your way to the top, or take huge distance-conquering steps, or even crawl on hands and knees if the situation is desperate. They don’t judge. Liberty paths are your friend.

I realize these paths can lead to erosion and trail damage, depending on the composition of the soil – and I absolutely try to stick to the Leave No Trace guidelines – but it seems to me the mere fact that they exist is a call to trail maintenance everywhere: Give me liberty paths or give me death.

Wait, what? That’s not where this rant was suppose to lead…shit.

 

Stairs are the worst.