Pouakai Circuit: I Swear It’s Worth It, 2 Day Loop

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.

Twice.

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.

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The traverse took up a good portion of the first day, and wow was it beautiful
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I ended my day encompassed by the peaks in the distance
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If only I had some climbing gear…

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.

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Just some loose rocks, guys. Not even a thang.

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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.

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So far away
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A serene little spot I found searching for the continuation of a trail, unsuccessfully

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.

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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.

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That flat part is the swamp

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.

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Coming to the end of the swamp, the hill straight ahead is a liar, it is way taller than that

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.

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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.

(not pictured)

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.

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Taranaki deciding to show itself
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The Germans had Santa hats on because why not
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Some trail friends
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Hello beautiful
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Taranaki is the most volcanoey volcano in all the land

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.

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

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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.

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So much scrub

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.

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Hut Day 2

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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).

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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…

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Mt Ruapehu looming in the distance
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Mt Ngauruhoe from afar

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.

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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

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.