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.

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Adventure Time – August 2016 Update

My last update was 6 months ago.

WOW

wow

ok

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.

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.

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McLean Falls in the Catlins

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.

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.

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.

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.

And I’m leaving in a month. Because of course I am.

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.

Depression and The Solo Traveler

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.

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This is not a very happy post, so here’s a preemptive Kea

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.

It's literally impossible to feel depressed looking at this view. Scientifically proven.
It’s literally impossible to feel depressed looking at this view. Scientifically proven.

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.

PLEASE READ:

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.”

~Elizabeth Taylor

Nowhere To Be: The Wonders of A Spontaneous Mind

Nine days anywhere isn’t nearly enough time to discover everything about a place. You CAN discover a hell of a lot about yourself though.

After three days in Auckland, I had made four new friends, bought a campervan by the name of Grandpa Jimmy, and decided the first direction I needed to travel was north. Beyond that, my days stretched before me, filled only with possibility. I had no set plans, nowhere to be, and only my map and some basic googling to guide me. If I thought about it too much, I may have booked a flight back before I’d even made it out of Auckland.

I tried to keep the thinking to a minimum.

Instead, I took out my map -which I inherited along with Grandpa Jimmy, and which was filled with notes from previous users on interesting places, cheap campsites, and the best Kiwi-spotting trails  – and picked a town with a beach as my first destination. That random town, called Orewa, marked the start of my real journey through New Zealand.

Over the next week, I kept driving north, turning onto roads with signs such as “Glowworm Caves” or the understated “Beach” as I went. I met a native Kiwi in Whangarei who had just returned from two years as a mountain guide in Norway, hiked the Whangarei Heads, learned how to say “love” in Maori (Aroha), and spotted a blur of a Kiwi on an island by Kerikeri. I kayaked across an inlet to hike the Houhora Heads, found the most perfect seashells I’ve ever seen, and saw the sun rise over Cape Reinga.

Alongside all those amazing experiences, came discovering the pitfalls of the unplanned. I took way too many wrong turns, caught myself driving on the terrifying (right is wrong) side of the road, accidentally bushwhacked my way up a mountain, and completely shredded my front left tire. Currently, I’m sitting inside a beautiful public library, having finally found free wifi, and I can seriously say that even the most – normally – stressful experiences have been enjoyable.

I said 9 days is enough to discover a lot about yourself. So after this crazy week, what have I discovered?

I discovered that my patience can last far longer than I expected. I’ve learned how to entertain myself for hours, or struggle through public transportation with a comically large backpack, or even survive without cell service (I think that will always be my least favorite).

I discovered joy in facing fears – by pushing myself to conquer steep scrambling, utterly destroying night hikes (I’ve always been terrified of the dark), and taking on the horrifying task of talking to strangers.

Most importantly though, I discovered how much I can trust myself – to find my way, be alone, and ask for help when I need it.

There’s something about having nowhere to be that brings life into focus.