Land of the Greats
New Zealand's "Great Walks" are in a sense the antithesis of most of what Te Araroa represents, but as we have recently completed one (and a half) of them as part of our journey through New Zealand, it's worth giving our experience with them a bit of thought.
The Department of Conservation here has named nine tracks across New Zealand (in actuality eight tracks and one canoe trip) as the country's great walks - prime examples of the best New Zealand wilderness has to offer, and covering everything from volcanic high desert to dense jungle to alpine fjords. They are the sort of walks that tourist companies and the New Zealand government push as the must dos for tramping tourists and as such are well maintained, hard to book, expensive to stay on, and absolutely breathtaking - if you can see past the crowds.
For the most part the TA avoids the great walks, not necessarily on purpose but mostly because they are flung around the edges of the country - not so convenient for a thru-hiker - and probably because the trust realizes that we are all shit at planning anything in advance, or knowing where we will be with any certainty more than a day ahead of time. Still there is one (and a half) that the TA does include - the Whanganui River Journey, a five day canoe trip down the rapids and canyons of the Whanganui, and the Tongariro Crossing, a single day hike which overlaps in part with the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a three day tramp through the volcanic wonders of Tongariro National Park.
In anticipation of these highlights along our much longer journey, we had purposefully begun traveling in a group of six and had prearranged as a group our trip down the Whanganui about a week in advance. The official TA route has hikers joining the river in a spot expensive and difficult to get canoes too (and also misses most of the official great walk) so we had decided to ignore the little red line of our gps that we normally follow so religiously, and to begin our river trip in the town of Taumarunui. We would not only do the four or five days of great walk (or great paddle!), but would continue almost to the sea, ending at the town of Wanganui, and clocking a whopping six to eight days off our feet and on the river.
Before any of this paddling though, we had a week to tackle the journey to National Park (along our prescribed red line) and in the midst of that the fantastic Tongariro Crossing. We had built in a few extra days to explore more in the area, but as we mentioned at the end of our last post, an ankle injury, a birthday, and a killer storm had left us huddled in the village of Whakapapa, in the shadow of the magnificent forms of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Ruapehu hoping for a last minute chance at doing the crossing.
The Tongariro National Park is a shock of a place after two months spent in the bush and beaches of the North Island. It is a volcanic high desert, stretching for miles with nothing but scrub, rock, fantastic lava formations, and - of course - active volcanoes. Mt. Ruapehu stands alone, the highest mountain on the North Island at 2,797 meters and capped in snow even in summer. Across the barren plains from Ruapehu rises the film famous Mt. Ngauruhoe, it's perfect conical shape recognizeable as Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings films, and behind it the peak of Tongariro and a variety of other steaming cracks and craters.
After days of contemplating this beautiful, barren land, we decided to hold out until the dawn of our last day before our forces return to Taumarunui to begin our canoe trip - and had our patience blessed as the last of the storm cleared overnight and Andrew's ankle (knowing it had some good time in a canoe soon to come) felt up for a hike. We arranged a shuttle to the end of the Tongariro Crossing (we chose to complete it in the direction of the TA and not the official way), and woke up before the sun to a cloudless sky and a pinkish alpen glow blushing the tops of the peaks. The 19km of the crossing were fairly easy hiking despite the elevation, and the eventual need to navigate around the opposite flow of (literally) more than 1000 other trampers that day. We passed through a changing landscape unlike anything we have ever walked before - red crater, emerald lakes, lava flows and steaming cracks. A barren, harsh, and beautiful counterpoint to everything we had walked before in New Zealand.
Although loathe to leave the park, even with all the crowds, we finished the hike in good time and hitched our way back to Taumarunui that evening, ready for another surprising change of scenery - or at least change of transport, the next morning.
By eleven the next morning we were at the edge of the river, food and gear loaded into the barrels of a row of old (but cheap!) yellow canoes, and all trying to remember everything we had just been told to help us avoid falling in. It was rainy, and a bit cold - not the best start for a day spent sitting, but the forecast promised better things to come. We pushed off and spent the next six hours doing our best to navigate the hardest rapids of the trip on a river already swollen and fast while the rain continued to pour down on us. Although freezing and not all that happy when we finally arrived at our first campsite, we had survived without going under - unfortunately the same could not be said for two of our friends, who had taken on so much water through the roughest rapid that they simply sank, canoe underwater and them still sitting in it! We had managed to scrape through that one with nearly a foot of water inside our own canoe, and had limped to shore for 20 minutes of hard bailing.
Our efforts (and for once preplanning) were rewarded though as our group of six had packed four days of delicious shared meals, full of fresh food normally to heavy to carry, and of course - lots and lots of beer!
After a rough first day our trip down the river took a turn for the more fortunate, and as we began our next day of paddling in full, warm sun, our thoughts quickly turned to floating, not paddling, and to the great American tradition of drinking ones way down river. We tied our canoes together and for the next three glorious days we ate, drank, sang, napped, danced, and swam while the river gods negotiated us down subtle rapids, past caves and waterfalls, and beneath beautiful, bush covered canyons, without much help from our paddles at all.
We camped and cooked with river views and thoroughly enjoyed the extreme change in pace, our only bother being the ever present sandflies and the hoards of guided tourists that occasionally graced our campgrounds - but all things that good must come to an end, and as we reached the end of the great walk section of the Whanganui, its waters slowed significantly enough to enforce the need for paddling if we were going to make it on time to our rivers end. We decided to reach Wanganui City on our 6th day, as we were dependent on tides for our last day. This meant two long days of hard paddling, going as far as 60 km one day, as the scenery around us slowly changed from silent wild canyons to pastoral hills.
Upon reaching the holiday park in Wanganui we pulled our canoes ashore for the last time, and spent the next morning trying to remember how to pack backpacks instead of barrels and walk on solid ground again. The great walk part of our journey was done, but honestly, after 6 days sitting on our butts, and 3 using arm muscles we never knew we had, we were both ready to do some walking.
For the most part our hike of the TA has been inspiring due to its distance from the feeling of being in a tourist trap. Everyday we walk through breathtaking scenery, little visited towns, rolling farmland, and hard to reach wilderness - no crowds, no hype, and plenty of beauty stretched through all types of terrain. It makes the places we pass through feel personal, as if their magnificence was reserved only for those who were searching for it, and as if the landscapes wait patiently, only to reveal themselves to those willing to pass by slowly. We enjoyed the rare beauty of the two great walks we got to sample, but something does disappear when a group of twenty and a loud talking guide come chattering by. Still, there were moments during each - when the river ran quiet and a hawk soared overhead, or when the sun's light first touched Mt. Ngauruhoe - in those moments we were gifted with a glimpse of the true nature of those places, without distraction and timeless.