I moved to Washington almost exactly eight months ago. With my Jeep packed, nowhere to live, and no connections in the state, I took a road trip from Denver to Seattle, stopping to explore Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks along the way. I arrived in the mountains a few hours ahead of my first lecture for the National Ski Patrol’s Outdoor Emergency Care course, which would prepare me to join the ranks of the NSP in December.
The course culminated in a weekend of final exams in November and I started work on December 6th, opening day. A month now after the my last day of the season, I can say that most days on the hill were strenuous and stressful, I went to bed each night after 14 hours exhausted, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
Since my first job in the service industry at 14, I have never held a position that I could claim to fully love. I have had experiences that range from pleasant to horrendous to downright absurd, but nothing that made me believe it was my future. Coming into patrol, I kept expectations low, hoping to find the days bearable, not daring to imagine any better.
I am happy to report that I seriously underestimated how enjoyable the job would be. The people are an odd group, ranging in age from early twenties all the way up to mid seventies, with a lot of firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics, though some are students or even retired from decades in an entirely different profession. The work is always changing, dependent on how generous Jack Frost was feeling, as well as how many people out-skiied their abilities that day. With no set routine, the only constant on patrol is clearing the slopes in the morning and sweeping them at night.
During peak season I worked two 64-hour weeks back to back. I have begrudgingly endured a similar schedule in the past, but this time I still wanted to be there at the end of the chaos.
You can bet I’ll be back on snow next season, beating myself up trying to shovel 5′ of snow off of a tower pad, or asking a guest why he thinks his foot is broken as he strolls over without even a wince. After all, it’s a tough job getting first tracks every day, but someone’s gotta do it.
As promised entirely too long ago, here’s my take on the two day adventure in Egmont National Park, Pouakai Circuit.
Nothing is as demotivating as a crushing hangover combined with the anxious certainty that you will not complete this hike with any kind of enthusiasm. I was dealing with both of these things as I shrugged on my 25lb backpack in the Egmont National Park Visitor Center. I’d already drank an entire 2L reservoir to lighten the misery, and was determined to at least start up the trailhead, so I took a resigned breath and set off.
The first hour or so is consistently uphill on an easy path that travels up the north side of Taranaki and isn’t really all that steep.
I almost turned around.
I can be stubborn though, so I decided to rest and regather myself, and eventually felt surprisingly decent when it finally leveled out. The next hour consisted of traversing slightly uphill across the vast base of the beautifully conical Taranaki. Though the upper two-thirds of the mountain were shrouded in clouds, deep greens and browns, punctuated by the occasional sheer cliff face, made up the landscape along the track.
One section that stands out was a 30m wide scree slip (I later found out it’s called “Boomerang Slip”) that had signs on either side urging only one person, using extreme caution, to cross at a time. Not sketchy at all. I moved carefully though, and the rocks stood their ground, so I’m still here to tell you about it.
After a bit more of a walk, the track descends briefly and splits at the Ahukawakawa Track junction. I enthusiastically took a left turn because of a side trip to Bell Falls I had read about. That track leads into a nicely maintained grass opening with Holly Hut to the left and the “30 minutes one way” track to the falls.
Here’s the thing about this estimate – the 30 minutes the Department of Conservation is referring to is the hike TO Bell Falls, which is almost entirely downhill, even steeply enough for stairs at several points. It was on one of those stairs where I began to regret my decision.
I knew that the turnoff to Bell Falls was about halfway to the hut, and I also knew that it wasn’t going to be flat the for the second half. In chasing this waterfall, I was adding 45-60 minutes of uphill to an already strenuous hike.
The things we do for love.
So I continued my descent, eventually coming upon the rock-strewn river that Bell Falls crashes into, which is where the trail unexpectedly stopped. I stood on the bank and looked right, up the river, to where I could barely see where I should be (next to the waterfall, ideally). And yet, there I was, decidedly NOT next to it. After briefly checking to make I hadn’t just missed that the trail continues on the other side of the river, I shrugged off my pack and prepared for a bit of boulder-hopping.
Getting across the river was going to be the hardest part. While my side of the river was impassable, I could see that the other side had a thin strip of fairly solid pebbles and sand. With some interesting and creative twists, stretches, and jumps, I made it across completely dry save my left shoe, and practically skipped the rest of the way to Bell Falls.
After being thoroughly misted and replenishing with a granola bar, I reversed my course, picked up my backpack, and trudged uphill until I reconnected with the main trail.
At this point, the journey was brought out from the foot of Taranaki, instead turning north and overlooking a vast swamp, which is more beautiful than it sounds, I swear.
And so began the descent into the swamp. Because of the delicate nature of the vegetation in the swampland, and also the fact that precisely zero people want to walk through something that wet and squishy, there was a nice, wood-slatted walkway that snaked its way down and across to the other side.
It was a soothing, but brief respite, and though I desperately tried to gauge just how much elevation I had to gain on the other side to get to the hut for the night, I seriously underestimated the suffering the Pouakai Circuit had left to give me.
I began the ascent with a mantra of sorts that I tell myself from time to time when I feel like the best option is to lie down and accept my fate. It’s a trick I learned from my mother when she so patiently attempted to teach me how to run in high school. Something along the lines of
“You can do at least 10 more steps.”
“Okay, get to that tree and there’s a nice dirt patch where you can sit to allow the darkness to consume you.”
“JUST KEEP HIKING, JUST KEEP HIKING.”
“GODDAMMIT HOW IS IT THAT THIS HILL JUST KEEPS GOING. WHOEVER MADE THIS TRAIL IS THE SPHINCTER OF THE EARTH.”
And so on.
Finally, after what seemed one eternity and an endless conveyor belt of stairs later, I rounded the corner to the glorious site of the Pouakai Hut.
Sweaty, smelly, and exhausted, I slogged inside and picked one of the few beds left. After a quick dinner with two Germans and a Dutch couple, we went outside to see the sun set over Taranaki, then I crawled into my sleeping bag and passed out.
The clear skies did not last through the night, and the next morning misery was all that greeted me. I’m sure the second day is just as beautiful and interesting as the first, but I didn’t see any of it. Instead there was a haze of fog all around as I ascended Henry Peak with the couple from the hut, and a relentless view of grayish white at the top. The placard signifying the summit kindly reminded us that on clear days, the view of Taranaki is unbeatable.
The rest of the circuit leads through dense forest along a river of snow melt from Taranaki, and finally ends with about 45 minutes of travel along the road to the visitor center. Sore and probably fairly smelly, I had a long drive down to Wellington ahead of me, where I would catch the ferry to the South Island in just two days time. There was plenty left on the North Island that I wanted to do, but the Pouakai Circuit was a fantastic last adventure for now.
Since working in Wanaka while living in a van down by the river, quite a lot has happened and I have been all over the place. I’ll hit the highlights here and write detailed posts on the most notable experiences in the future.
Mike and I were in Wanaka until February 8th. After an adventure in Aspiring National Park, I put in my two weeks at each of my jobs and we booked it south to the overwhelming intensity of Milford Sound.
After a couple miserable days with a bout of food poisoning there, we felt the trip needed a bit of a kickstart on the adventure front, so we headed to one of the only multi-day backpacking trips in the Fiordland that won’t cost you $200, called the South Coast Track. With a rocky start and three massively rainy days out of six, it was a rough experience to say the least.
The furthest hut out, sandflies EVERYWHERE
Rain, rain, go away…
Continuing east, we traveled through The Catlins at the very bottom of the South Island, where there are a lot of easy-access waterfalls and a distinct lack of gas stations. We discovered this the hard way when the only hope we had was closed and Tia Rose sputtered to a stop about halfway to the next available option. Luckily, some nice farmers noticed our plight later that night and gave us 5 liters of gas and a place to park for the night.
We filled up and started north toward Dunedin, checking out the Moeraki Boulders along the way. After a couple days in Dunedin, we decided that our post-New Zealand destination should be Bali. We booked our flights in the Dunedin library for March 20th, leaving us about a month left to adventure.
The time before we left for Bali saw us complete a figure 8 across the South Island. We took off from Dunedin, crossed through Wanaka just to restock, and stopped in Fox Glacier for a few days. The first two days were rainy, but we lucked out and had enough clear days to hike to Welcome Flat hot springs.
Sunset over the Southern Alps
Fox Glacier! A lot dirtier than you’d expect
From there, we drove north up the west coast, I developed another unfortunate round of food poisoning in Oamaru, where we met up with Mike’s friend and fellow traveler, then booked it to Nelson for a couple relaxing days.
She went off to Christchurch and we headed back south toward Kahurangi National Park, where we attempted Mt. Owen and hiked to the Thousand Acre Plateau. The beauty of being two days from the nearest farm is hard to describe. We didn’t run into a single soul on the way to the Thousand Acre Plateau.
Looking toward the summit of Mt Owens
Hiking the ridge of The Haystack above the 1000 Acre Plateau
Finally, we boarded our first flight to Bali, where we spent our first and last few days in Kuta (tourist central), explored Ubud with its monkey forest, saw two traditional dance performances, went scuba diving in Tulamben, snorkeled and drank way too much on Gili Trawangan, and met so many amazing people along the way. One reason we met more people in Bali than New Zealand was the cheap food and beer. We were even able to stay in some pretty nice hotels for just $10 each per night. Though the financial situation was amazing, the heat really was not my jam, and at the end of our 4 weeks there, I was ready to go.
Damned monkey stole my water
My favorite experience in Bali
Mike and I parted ways, he to commercial fishing in Alaska, and I back to New Zealand in the hopes of finding a job. It was a wild four months of traveling together, but it was time to go off in our own directions again.
Once in New Zealand, I went hard on the job search in Christchurch and Wanaka. Although winter was right around the corner (mid-June and it was mid-April), I didn’t have the finances to live two months without a form of income. So I sent out application after application in the hopes of finding anything that could keep me there. Sadly, it was the low season, and the only position I found that had potential didn’t pan out.
Three weeks in, I made the call to put my van up for sale and find adventure back in the U.S. A week later I was on a 31 hour flight from Christchurch to Columbus, completely exhausted, and ready to be in a stable environment for a bit.
My incredibly supportive parents took me in for two months while I worked to save money (in Ohio, with no mountains). After a week in Maine for the 4th of July where we sent my grandma Shirley’s ashes out to sea, I drove out to Colorado with the best road trip buddy (my mom), and that’s where I’ve been since, climbing, hiking and mountain biking through life. Still feels like home.
Saying goodbye to Grandma Shirley
Celebrating Grandma’s life and Dan’s bachelor party with my awesome family
And I’m leaving in a month. Because of course I am.
From the summit of Mt. Bierstadt
Oh also I got a tattoo
Me and the momma at Red Rocks for TOP
I can’t stay still for the life of me, so I’m taking a road trip to the Pacific Northwest the first week of September, where I’m enrolled in the National Ski Patrol’s Outdoor Emergency Care course and hired on to be a ski instructor in Washington this winter. Anyone who knows me will understand how huge this is. I have been skiing since I was two and snowboarding since I was 10. My hope is to gain experience this winter and, if I can swing it, fly down to the southern hemisphere in late spring to patrol for the 2017 winter season there.
It’s hard to believe how much has happened in just the last six months. It’s good to look back on days like today when I’m working ten hours. Anyway, thanks for reading if you got this far, I’ll be sure to keep these footprints wandering.
Traveling solo comes with a lot of upsides. There’s the freedom of doing exactly what you want at any time, the ease of finding a place to crash since one body takes up very little space, and, in the case of van travel, the fact that you have the whole bed to yourself, which is significantly more comfortable than sharing in such a cramped space.
I’ve seen about 7.2 million articles and blog posts praising and encouraging the solo wanderer, and I absolutely agree that it’s something every traveler should at least try, but I’m not here to talk about the positives of going through the world alone. Not today, because I have been stuck on expelling this dark, sticky, ugly part of traveling from my head and into words since about three months into my time in New Zealand – and the way this nastiness affected my life has been a big reason that I haven’t been able to write about anything with grace or flow since my last post.
Depression as a solo traveler is rarely blogged about (and you certainly won’t see it on Instagram or Facebook), but I know it exists, because for the last 12 months living a transient lifestyle, it has been my only constant companion.
There’s nothing pretty or inspiring about depression – for every day I spent in some of the most beautiful places in the world, I had two or three days of struggling to convince myself to do something as basic and fundamental as getting up to brush my teeth.
Those aren’t the days that you want to show. Those aren’t the days that make you feel like you’re really taking life by the balls. But with depression, they are inevitable.
During the worst times, the only thing I consumed in a day was a(n entire) bottle of wine (or box wine aka goon – $20 for the equivalent of 4 bottles, thanks New Zealand!), and as much Netflix as I could afford to watch on the extremely expensive campground wifi. I would view my situation from the outside and wonder how it was that I could be living such a crazy awesome adventure, and still not find the motivation to get out of my nest of a van. That’s the thing about depression, it doesn’t make a lick of sense, even to those in itss terrible, terrible embrace.
Luckily, the worst times were few and far between, but even when depression eases up, or amazingly takes a break long enough to go on a three day hike and enjoy every minute of it, there’s that niggling knowledge that it’s always just there, looming over my shoulder, searching for a weak moment to extort and exacerbate.
BUT (yay there’s a but)
I never for a minute let the fact that I was dealing with this clingy, incessant shadow convince me that it wasn’t worth continuing to try. Sure, when it’s day 3 of feeling worthless, of not showering or even leaving the van except to pee, and I’ve read two entire books that weren’t even particularly good, it might feel like it would be easier to just sell the van and buy a ticket home. But then what? I’m not saying that isn’t the right move for some people, especially if you are feeling suicidal or are a legitimate danger to yourself, but for me, I wasn’t at that point, I couldn’t let the depression win, and I definitely didn’t believe going home would affect its omnipresence.
So I analyzed my situation time and again, working toward bringing myself back to feeling unburdened, pushing away the heaviness that enveloped my limbs and mind, and coming back to myself again. At this point, after years of just dealing until it resolves itself, I’ve discovered a decent strategy to expedite my recovery process. Not sure if it can help anybody else, but I hope someone else will find it useful.
I allow myself to feel/be depressed
Instead of being frustrated or ashamed that I feel awful and useless, which was my reaction for a very long time, I’ve learned that I have to accept it, let it happen, and do my best to care for myself emotionally. There’s nothing more counterproductive than getting upset that I’m upset.
Like yeah that makes sense, just send yourself into a shame spiral, Kayleigh. That should fix everything.
I set a time limit
This can be difficult, because if I don’t stick to my planned “depression allowance,” I still have to follow rule number 1. But, I found that if I allow for 2-3 days (depending on depth of depression, weather, life circumstances, etc) of not forcing myself to do anything at all, it’s almost like I can recover the emotional strength it takes to begin pushing the shadow away.
I look for inspiration, and plan something I love
Particularly aimed at travelers or people who live in more outdoorsy places, there’s nothing better for my state of mind than getting outdoors in an active way, such as exploring someplace beautiful, going climbing, or running along the ocean. At some point during my self-allowed hiatus from life, I look to adventure sites or Instagrams to find someplace to go for an activity that I know regularly gets me out of my head and into the world again. Anything that has successfully beaten back that dickbag depression in the past is fair game. I mark it mentally and use it as an option when he’s setting up camp again. Just the thought of a trip or activity on the horizon is sometimes enough to get my determination back.
(My favorite go to adventures are climbing, hiking, snowboarding, mountain biking, and running.)
I follow through, even if I have to push plans back
Easily the most difficult part of my strategy, it’s also the most crucial. Getting out and actually following through on the hike, or climbing trip, or whatever else, is about 75% of the battle. Not easy, because the longer I am a blob of hopelessness, the less willpower I have to move my body, but after even just an hour into my chosen activity, everything begins to make sense again, and I can feel life returning in a wildly refreshing way.
I’m currently in an upswing – riding a pretty awesome wave of happiness after three weeks in Colorado, which has made it easier to write about my experience in a more detached, objective way. I’d like to continue writing, even if I’m the only one who reads it, so I’ll post an update on my life and what my next move is (because I’m not done traveling) later this week.
Nothing I’ve said here should be considered a 100% cure for depression, and I’m definitely not saying that anything I’m doing should replace an anti-depressant or therapy (though I am not utilizing either at this time). I just want to share my experience with people so they know that it is possible to have enjoyment and feel like you’re living your life while battling depression.
If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, self harm, eating issues, or anything else, and need someone to talk to, please feel free to message me. I AM NOT A PROFESSIONAL (clearly), and I urge you to talk to one for definitive help, but I understand that even just having someone who cares and will listen is extremely comforting and helpful.
“You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and God damn it, you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way.”
After three months in New Zealand, I landed on the South Island in a town called Wanaka. Possibly the most perfect town I’ve ever seen, it sits in a valley at the base of a long, winding lake, surrounded by days and days of mountains. Unlike in the North Island, I managed to snag three jobs within a week of arriving.
So I’ve been busy.
I’m working as a lowly dishwasher for a lakeside resort, kitchen hand for a chill airport café, and wait staff for an upscale catering company. With only a few days off in six weeks, it’s been exhausting, but worth it for replenishing my dusty bank account.
Still, I’ve taken complete advantage of my afternoons and days of freedom. Which leads to some exciting news – I’ve been joined by another set of footprints! A fellow wanderer, I met Mike in Maine, and for some reason he’s willing to share my tiny little space in New Zealand. Whenever I find free time, we’ve been hiking, climbing, swimming, and otherwise exploring. Life could be worse.
Waterfall adventure we went on by Treble Cone to the Twin Waterfalls (Second waterfall was around the corner on private land):
And one of the most popular hikes to Roy’s Peak, which is the easiest strenuous walk I’ve ever done:
Probably our favorite find is the riverside climbing area, which has climbing and a little swimming hole:
In a little over a week, we’ll be heading off again to explore the South Island. Look for way more updates to come =]
After the loss of my home of 5 weeks, I was stuck in limbo. Between finding another van, selling Grandpa Jimmy, searching for a short term job, and finally working said job (apple thinning), I was craving a hike and sorely out of shape. I left the orchard as soon as I had gas money in my bank account and headed for the Kaimai-Mamatu range for some socially acceptable torture. (Also known as hiking up a freaking mountain).
Two hours of crossing and re-crossing the Waitengue stream and 45 minutes of practically crawling uphill later, I stopped mid-labored breathing and was filled with aw at the sheer power of what I soon discovered was a 106 meter high waterfall in the middle of pure wilderness.
With the feelings of elation and beauty brought forth from this liquid column fresh in my heart, I began my search for all the waterfalls in the North Island.
I had time for 4.
My first stop after Ananui was another, taller fall in the same mountain range: The Wairere Falls.
The hike to this massive 156 meter waterfall was much shorter (45 minutes) and therefore, had significantly higher traffic and nicer walkways. I felt spoiled from my solo wilderness adventure as a I lined up with all the schmucks who came to such a developed, touristy waterfall. Naturally I didn’t consider myself a schmuck, as I was so clearly enlightened.
But then, maybe there’s a reason it’s so popular. Not only was the viewpoint spectacular, the falls perfectly draped themselves to look as wild and stunning as possible, with the wind blowing smaller sections into a veil across the cliffs.
I could get used to waterfall hunting.
Ah the ol’ Bridal Veil Falls. I’m pretty sure there are at least 20 of these in the US alone.* I much prefer the Maori name for it, Waireinga, which means “leaping waters,” and is far more accurate a description.
*Possibly an exaggeration
I would hardly consider getting to this water faucet a hike. To reach the base of the falls (55 meters below) takes less than ten minutes, and marching/struggling your way back up the stairs shouldn’t take much longer. The really fascinating thing about this waterfall, and what makes it unique, is the way the cliff and rocks that surround it are formed. According to the DoC (Department of Conservation) brochure:
The spectacular cliff face of Waireinga was created some
2.5 million years ago when molten lava from a volcanic
eruption flowed down a river course, pooling in a valley.
As the lava slowed, the top and bottom started to cool and
shrink. Cracks and joints appeared, running directly down
from the surface of the flow. Because the hotter and semi-
liquid part of the lava was still moving, the joints developed
a distinctive curve.
The final waterfall in my North Island excursion was Bells Falls in Egmont National Park. I consider this a bonus fall, because I had planned to hike the 2-3 day Pouakai Circuit, and there just happened to be a side trip to another cliffriver (I’ve renamed waterfalls to sound as intense as they really are).
The DoC brochure informed me that the track to the falls is 30 minutes one way. What it neglected to say is that the entire 30 minutes is spent going downhill.
Since I had already spent a little over 2 hours in intensely steep and rocky travel before arriving at my little side adventure, I was not excited to discover that the path just. kept. descending.
When I finally reached the bottom, this was the pathetic site that greeted me:
Well now here was a dilemma. I had traveled all this way and made so much extra work for myself, there’s no way I was accepting this as my view of Bells Falls. So I did what any self-respecting cliffriver enthusiast would and set off determinedly up the rocky terrain, sans pack.
Many slippery boulders and several body-contortioning moves later, I was all up in that waterfall.
But not literally, because that water comes down frighteningly hard.
The morning came, and with it, the rain. We bundled up in extensive rain gear and headed off into the drizzle. The group pace that was initially set kept me decently comfortable and warm. As the day continued, however, we broke off into smaller sections, with the boys pulling ahead and Averie and Sydney falling behind due to rain cover issues. The rest of my hike was solitary, with just the rain, my thoughts, and plenty of mud to keep me company.
Luckily, rain is a powerful motivator. I could’ve tried out for the Olympic Walking team that day and had a pretty good shot, which means I stayed warm, and also, I shaved about a 3rd of the estimated time off the day.
As the trail meandered its way through ravines intermittently broken up by small plains with merciless wind, puddles and streams were forming and growing by the minute. Initially I avoided them, but that ended quickly when I detoured up a muddy bank and immediately slipped sideways, leaving my right side newly mud-covered and somehow more thoroughly soaked than before.
I tramped on with renewed apathy, having become one with the landscape. The gray, drizzly landscape.
Finally. Finally, I stumbled into civilization – but there was a problem. My hands no longer knew how to be hands. I had no hope of getting to my keys. After coming all this way, I was going to die in the parking lot right outside of my salvation.
Or I could have if the visitor center didn’t let me drip on their nice floor for ten minutes until I could at least grasp like a human again.
I ran to the car, struggled pathetically with the lock, then the ignition, and finally the heat. I ,eventually managed to turn it on, and sat, violently shaking, until the car warmed up enough to be effective. 20 minutes later, the car was practically a sauna and Sydney and Averie appeared around the corner looking like drowned rats. Apparently Sydney hadn’t had enough torture, because he went on to officially complete the circuit with the final 3 hour leg.
The Department of Conservation estimates that this section of trail should take about 5 hours and has lovely views of both mountains in the park. I did it in 3 and a half hours and it had lovely views of gray and more gray.
That night, we all stayed at something called a “skotel” (ski hotel…?). I took the longest, hottest shower of my life and enjoyed the rest of the night filled with chips (french fries), cheese and crackers, and entirely too much wine.
Kayleigh’s Overall Rating: 9/10 footprints – one footprint washed away in the rain
Waking up is consistently the hardest part of my day, made infinitely worse when waking up to a warm sleeping bag surrounded by a cold, unforgiving hut. Fortunately, my hiking partners and I only had a three hour walk ahead of us, so I was able to laze my way through the morning ritual.
With knowledge of yesterday’s clothing requirements, I stuck to two light layers and a wind shell for today’s hike. This turned out to be the right choice, and even a little much at times, since the weather was much calmer and the sun decided to stick around more permanently throughout the day.
Like the weather, the track section from the first to the second hut was much milder. We made our way up and over several dunes and valleys, all while under the distant, watchful eyes of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu. The peaks of the sleeping giants were perfectly visible at last, making for stunning contrast against the scrubby volcanic desert below.
The last push is definitely the most difficult for this relatively short jaunt. The trail runs into one of the only two forests we encountered on the circuit and steadily climbs up and out of the forest for a good 30 minutes, emerging at the top of a hill from which the Waihohonu hut can be spotted down below. I descended carefully due to some knee pain that started about an hour before, and was glad to only have a three hour day.
Hut Day 2
The Waihohonu hut is practically a resort. Built in 2010, its common area is massive, with two clothes drying racks operated by pulley system, five 6-person tables, and two separate kitchen areas. With so much time to waste, Sydney, Averie and I spent time alternately napping (Averie), speculating how the pulley systems could be improved (Sydney), and sitting in the sun reading random New Yorkers left in the corner (me).
As afternoon turned to evening, other hikers started trickling in, leaving the entire common room completely filled. Our tiny group connected with two kiwi guys who shared their whiskey and chocolate with us, and we spent the night discussing travel plans and absurd American politics. It was almost enough to make us forget how miserable the forecast was for the following day…
Tragedy struck this traveler last week when, quickly and completely, Grandpa Jimmy emitted his last sputter and rolled to a stop going uphill on my way to the Kaimai Mamaku Forest. If I had been more savvy to the rattling that had started mere minutes before, maybe I could have saved him, but I wasn’t, and I didn’t.
The past week has been a blur of stress and decision-making. My first options were immediately: a) fly home (pfft nope) b) switch out the engine for a used one c) make my way by foot or d) find a new van with what was left of my meager savings.
After the news that a new engine would be several thousand dollars and would likely still cause problems in the future, plus some serious soul searching on how I wanted the rest of my year here to go, I decided to start the search for a new home and livelihood. The universe did not disappoint.
I’d like everyone to meet Tia Rose, the bright savior of my NZ life.
She’s had a number of parts recently replaced and passed her wof (warrant of fitness – required in NZ) with flying colors. She’s a 1993 Toyota Estima Emina, and is supposed to run forever. On top of that, she came with some beat up but usable toys including a kayak, surf board, and bike/bike rack! Not a bad package. Plus golem is holding a kiwi, where else are you gonna see that?
Anyway, I’m currently looking for a job and hoping that the set backs in my trip have all happened up front and it will be smooth sailing from here!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.