Highs & Lows
We're static at the moment - as we've been for three days now. It's a strange feeling when being mobile is essentially our lifestyle. We're currently holed up in a cozy lodge in the heart of Tongariro National Park as Andrew nurses a foot injury. Just outside, all hell has been breaking loose for an impressive 48hrs. Winds have been gusting at 75mph while the rainfall is unrelenting. We've been in a cloud for two days - visibility is a few hundred feet at best, otherwise we couldn't miss Mt. Nguaruhoe, or Mt. Doom, directly to the east. Mt. Ruapehu, the tallest mountain in the North Island and an active volcano towers over this tiny village called Whakapapa. It's a bit of a bummer we're unable to explore one of the biggest highlights of Te Araroa due to an injury and some bad weather. The bright side is we've been able to clean our gear, have some real food, and reflect on the first month and a half of the trail.
We've been on the trail for 49 days now - longer than any vacation we've ever taken. An interesting perspective change seems to have come over us as we pass from vacation mode, where everything is new and therefore exciting, into whatever mode comes after - lifestyle maybe? You suddenly realize that you have been walking every day, by choice, dirty and smelly, and you are going to keep doing it for another three months - not because you have to, but because you choose too.
A few hikers we've met on the trail have a tradition at the end of every day to sit together and each say their high and low of that day. It's a good way to keep things in perspective on the trail, and often find that the tough parts of each day - the ones that at times seem like they might overwhelm you - can get laughed away. Andrew and I haven't made this tradition a part of our every day but as we have now moved into the realm of hiking as a lifestyle it seemed a good way to highlight the ups and downs of our last couple weeks.
So first for some of the highs!
The Te Araroa, being by definition an ever changing pathway and not a "trail" embraces all sorts of transportation, not just ones feet. In a few days we will embark on the Whanganui river journey, which includes a New Zealand great walk and will mean 8 days off our feet as we canoe down the mighty Whanganui River, but our first chance to try out our paddling came after we reached the small town of Puhoi, where we were able to miss a long highway road walk and instead paddle our way with the leaving tide to the mouth of the Puhoi River. Such a welcome break from walking busy roads!
We were worried as we neared Auckland that we'd be stuck on roads, but the tides were (mostly) in our favor and instead we walked the coast, for once not beach, but beautiful cliffs, tide pools, and fantastic rock formations. We did one of these stretches at high tide - maybe not the smartest plan but luckily stayed dry above the knees. Another full day was spent exploring a low tide wonderland, feeling like we were walking not in the sea but on the surface of Mars.
Knee deep coast walk!
Sometimes a break from the trail is as good as the trail itself, and we had a blast taking two days off for New Years in Auckland. A group of 6 of our TA friends all converged in an air bnb house and we barbecued, drank, and celebrated away the start of 2017, enjoying all the fruits of civilization - not the least of which was finally getting to see Star Wars!
We have both been waiting (somewhat impatiently) for the moment we would enter New Zealand terrain reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings. This finally happened one windy morning, and although it wasn't an actual location from the films, it sure felt epic. We spent the morning happily cresting fantastic hills of rocky outcrops (think Weathertop and the edges of the Shire) as we blasted the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack from our speaker.
We were excited to reach the summit of Mt. Pirongia, both feeling fit and fast that day and happy that the windy and cold night that followed was enjoyed in the warmth and safety of our first hut stay. Huts in New Zealand range in quality and amenities but all are fully enclosed and have bunks and mattresses, a nice change from our tent, especially when the weather takes a turn for the worse!
Cows, cows everywhere!! We've met a few scary bulls along the way, but always enjoy practicing our herding skills on the young and curious ones.
New Zealanders (and expats) continue to amaze us with their generosity, and all six of our hiking companions spent our night in Hamilton camped on the lawn of Rick and Ange, coincidental acquaintances from farther north who invited us to their home, and pampered our whole troop of hikers with hot showers, tea and coffee, delicious breakfast, and rides to and from downtown! We then proceeded to spend our day off piling into a ridiculous minibus we had rented and traipsing off to the set of Hobbiton - our first true tourist attraction and an awesome (though expensive) treat for our nerdy filmmaking selves.
And now for the lows...
With all good things come the not so good though, and we wouldn't be speaking the truth if we didn't relate the less than pleasant sides of the trail along with its fantastic moments. There are certainly all the obvious lows - more rain than we know what to do with, Andrews current ankle injury and all the smaller cuts, blisters, slips, and bruises that are a daily occurrence on the trail. Also, everything in New Zealand is expensive, and watching our bank account dwindle is never fun. For the most part though these things are easy enough to take in stride, they are the sort of lows you expect to encounter on a long distance hike, and they by no means outweigh the good. But there is one thing that has been getting us down, and although we can't say we weren't prepared for it, we certainly didn't understand it's full ramifications until we were deep into our hike - trail quality.
We understood when we started the TA that it is a young trail, and in many ways came into existence as a labor of love, without much financial backing. We knew this meant that the physical trail itself would at times be rough, and at other times would be a road and not a trail at all. We were (and still are) up for the challenge of a rough trail - we can handle steep, and muddy, and hard to navigate - at least up to a point. But sometimes the TA isn't a tough trail, it's a bad trail. It is immensely frustrating to be walking through one of the most spectacularly beautiful country's in the world and to discover that you have spent literally the entire day staring at your feet. Those are the days on the TA that make us want to cry - not only physically, but mentally exhausted. It comes in different forms - farm land so torn by livestock that every tuft of grass may be hiding an ankle spraining hole, almost vertical mud covered forest slopes so steep and slick that they become a hand over hand climb and not a hike, overgrowth to the point of bushwacking and always hiding nettles and thorns, washed out trails hugging the steep sides of river gorges where one wrong move would send you tumbling. These conditions mean you spend the day watching your step and not the scenery, or you take the ample risk of a serious and hike-ending injury. Unfortunately this is not a chance we want to take, and so we keep our heads down as the kilometers slip by.
Much of the TA has no discernible ground trail at all, and especially those sections that were created new for the TA seem to have had little to no maintenance since their creation. In a country where rain, wind, earthquakes, and fast growing plants reign, even reasonably designed trails will be claimed quickly by the elements, and many TA trails seem to have been minimally engineered from the onset. We don't mean any of this as a slight on the TA trust or the wonderful people who have put their time, effort and money into the creation of the trail. We only hope that as the popularity of the trail grows, donations and government funding will allow the trail to improve. Challenges are good, but injuries are not, and many sections of the trail surpass challenge into the realm of truly dangerous to navigate without extreme care. We will soldier on through these sections, watching our steps with caution, but can only hope that as the trail ages and support for it grows that it will soon have the resources to maintain itself better, and keep hikers safe while they enjoy the views ahead and not below them.
No one likes to end on a low though, and so hear is our last high of our recent weeks, and it's a big one!
The Puroera Forest:
We've had some less than ideal encounters with our forest sections up until now - trail maintenance and weather has made some of them a bit of a slog. Luckily, our perspectives on forests started to slowly shift as we made our way through Puroera Forest. Waking up to a bit of light rain is no stranger - and this day was no different. We camped at one of the many Department of Conservation (DOC) camp sites at one end of the crown jewel of mountain bike routes in NZ, the Timber Trail. The 85km trail is wide and well graded stretching from Te Kuiti to Lake Taupo. A nice break from our usual forest, we got an early start and cruised up the gorgeous trail. Taking a much denser detour off the Timber Trail, the rain slowly subsided as we inched our way to the summit of Mount Puroera at around 3800ft. What a payoff! The clouds parted and we were greeted with our first summit with unobstructed 360 degree views. Lake Taupo and the snow capped Mt. Ruapehu were the highlights. It felt like we were finally getting a real taste of the endlessly mountainous NZ landscape.
That evening we sadly left the Timber Trail onto a stretch of TA track, and stayed at a very sketchy looking backcountry Hut aptly titled Bog Inn, and formerly rented by Michael Meyers and Leatherface... they were roomies.
Puroera had the look and feel of an enchanted forest. Gnarled trees covered in iridescent moss clung to pumice rock, while small streams navigated the forest floor. Time seemed to slip away as we fell in love with our surroundings, only to be brought back to reality by the little orange trail markers every hundred feet or so set to remind us that we were still on track. The most welcoming of these orange triangles was the one with a handwritten notification that we had made it to the 1000km mark! We had walked a third of the way to Bluff and couldn't have been happier.
We celebrated that night in a much more modern Hut with our group of six, plus three more TA hikers who were flying through the forest section. There was plenty of bunk space for everyone as well as a wood stove and a spacious covered deck. We were all a bit surprised when two burly guys emerged from the forest as it was getting dark - One had a small 22 rifle slung over his shoulder and they both had big ol' knives on their belts. Two dogs were following them on high alert. The dogs had some very fancy looking electronics attached to their collars. Turns out they were pig hunting on their day off work - naturally. They sat with us and chatted for at least an hour, their dogs soaking up the attention. We swapped stories and they bid us farewell, gifting us two beers from their tiny backpacks. We pointed them in the direction of a pig we had seen earlier that day as they disappeared into the forest.
We had planned to take a leisurely day, about twelve miles to the edge of the forest and a free camping spot outside town, but the ever changing weather thought otherwise. We made it about eight miles in the pouring rain when the smell of a wood fire from the Hauhungaroa Hut pulled us in. There we stayed for the rest of the day. Nine of us hunkered down in this six person Hut and had a blast as the storm leisurely rolled by. The rain cleared by sunset and the clouds peeled off the peaks of the adjacent mountains revealing stunning views.
We left the forest the next morning, and although our trip out was a familiar steep muddy track, the wide golden green woods of the day before and the sun that greeted us when we left the forest for the roads kept our spirits high.