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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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

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

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.”

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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.