Monday, January 19, 2015

Days 45-54: 322K From Taumarunui to Whanganui

Hello from Whanganui! We left Taumarunui last Saturday and have come 322K, or 207 miles, to kilometer 1370 on the trail. It has been a long time without service, so I apologize for the information and picture overload. We've had a VERY interesting 9 days on the trail. This is definitely our favorite section so far.

150K (96 miles) of road walking 
84K (54 miles) of "trail" (I am defining this as either mixed gravel/dirt 4WD track, forest or anything that makes you think trail)
AND
88K (56 miles) of river paddling!!!!

Here are the themes from this section:

1) Hiker Hunger
As expected, we have definitely acquired our hiker appetites. It actually happened a long time ago on this trek, but it just keeps getting worse. When we are on the trail, we just can't possibly carry enough food to satisfy our hunger. We often wake in the middle of the night and eat a snack! I would like to do a whole post on what we've been eating, because some of it is very different than our typical trail food in the states. We have some new favorites, and some things we miss very much from the states. Another post for another time.

In any case, when we got to Taumarunui last Friday, one of our main goals was to eat as many calories as we could. As soon as we got into town, we hit McDonald's (Fire Marshall Mac would be proud). We each ate a Big Mac, a cheeseburger, 2 portions of fries and 2 drinks. Later that evening at the campground, our Italian friend Matteo cooked a proper Italian pasta meal with homemade sauce. For breakfast the next morning, it was eggs with avocado and tomato and toast. For lunch before we started hiking, leftover pasta with eggs mixed in and butter. Calorie loading!

This was the family meal meant for 4 people!

Buon appetito!

Count the calories! Surely more than 8,000 in a 24-hr period!

2) Trail Angel, Trail Magic and Trail Tragic
We encountered a surprise when we left Taumarunui and road walked to Owhanga (pronounced O-Fan-ga). We walked by The Shack B&B and there was a note in the window welcoming TA hikers and telling us to find Karen for a drink! We couldn't find Karen at first, so we called her on the number listed (trail magic is few and far between, so we didn't want to miss out!). She answered and said she was right across the street and would come to us. Then she insisted we camp on her lawn for the night and join her for a BBQ that night at her blueberry farm! We were planning to only camp 2K down the road, so we couldn't resist the invitation. Karen and her crew were so interesting and we had a grand time integrating with them.

What an inviting sign!
We ate so many blueberries!
This woman (Margie?) used to own the blueberry farm and had a very interesting story ... she is a writer as well!

The pet pigs in NZ seem unusually large.

There have been, of course, a few others who again gave us water or let us camp on their lawn. With all the road walking, it is inevitable. But for the record, I still hate asking and bothering people! J's favorite experience this time was when a guy let us camp on his lawn and take showers, then said, "I would offer you a beer, but I only have 12 left." (He was going to town the next day.)

The trail tragic part is that one day we stopped in Tongariro Holiday Park (campground) to get water and they said no because we weren't staying there! Thank goodness we didn't ask for more than water!?!

3) Tongariro Crossing
The trail intersected with the "Tongariro Alpine Crossing," which is part of one of NZ's Great Walks (there are 9 Great Walks; we are doing part of 3 of them, I think). 

The Tongariro Crossing traverses active volcanic craters, steaming vents and beautiful crater lakes colored by the nearby thermal minerals. There are 3 active volcanoes in the area (pictured below in order): Mt. Ruapehu (the highest, most active and still snow-covered), Mt. Tongariro (marked by its multiple smouldering vents) and Mt. Ngauruhoe (better known as Mt. Doom in "The Lord of the Rings, marked by its symmetrical, single-cone shape). They form the Pacific Ring of Fire. 
The crossing weaves around Tongariro, passing steaming vents, 4 crater lakes and a non-water-filled red crater that seriously makes you feel like you are on Mars. Tongariro last erupted in August 2012 and damaged one of the huts along the trail (still closed). We had the best weather you could ask for during the crossing, which is highly exposed. The trail and views are beautiful (not to mention the trail is well trodden and there are even switchbacks!). I think this hike could rank in my top 5 favorites ... We were hiking on an ACTIVE volcano that just erupted 2.5 years ago, after all!

Keep moving quickly!

Still steaming!

Blue Lake

Emerald Lakes
Are we on Mars?

This is the hut damaged by the 2012 eruption

And, I should point out that the typical route for the crossing is from the south end to the north end. But, the TA takes you from the opposite way and thus against the grain (the crossing is a VERY popular bucket list item for NZ). So, we planned an early start to beat most of the crowds and had the trail to ourselves for the first 12K, then there were heaps of people for the next 5K, then we were alone again. Not bad!

The only part of the crossing I disliked, besides the occasional smell of rotten eggs from the sulfur, was the up and over Red Crater. It was a major skree field and I'd take NZ mud over loose rocks any day!


4) Planning for the Whanganui River Journey
This trail is full of curveballs. More than 100K of the trail is on the Whanganui River. And even though the river journey is also part of NZ's Great Walks, you can't walk this river. Instead, you have to rent a canoe or kayak or hire a jet boat to get down it.


We have been thinking about the river portion for awhile and gathering ideas on what other TA hikers were doing. Because I am both the planner and worry wart in this family, I was stressing big time about the trip. The official route would be to canoe from The Bridge to Nowhere to the city of Whanganui. However, virtually no TA hikers are taking that route because the canoe companies can't easily transport the canoe to you and can't justify the price (ironically, there is no road access at the Bridge to Nowhere. Actually, that is not ironic, since it is called The Bridge to Nowhere. But I digress.) Another option was to hire a jet boat, but again, the companies didn't want to go all the way to Wanganui and quoted very high prices to discourage this option.

Given this, there are a lot of different ways TA hikers approach the river journey/trail and a bunch of different rental companies (as well as pricing scenarios) to go through. WAY too many options and it drove me a little crazy! Ultimately, after we read about others' experiences, we went with the option that gave us 3 days on the river (put in at Whakahoro, take out at Pipiriki), was not outrageously expensive (you could buy a canoe for the rental rates here!) and did not have to depend on tides (one section does and given our bad luck with tide times in the past, we smartened up). The downside to this option was a 75+ kilometer road walk into the town of Whanganui.

So while we were in Taumarunui, besides eating a lot (see above), we booked our trip with Blazing Paddles. We went with Blazing Paddles because they are family-owned and had a great rep, quoted us a good price ($185/person) and would pick up our food for the trip from the Taumarunui campground (with some of the other companies, you have to hitch 35K to get your food and deliver it to them). We shopped for our food for our next hiking section and for the river portion in Taumarunui. Shopping took a full hour, then sorting it all out took longer!


Labeling food bags to leave with the canoe company

5) The Actual Whanganui River Journey
Our actual 3-day river journey started on Friday in Whakahoro (pronounced Fock-a-whore-o) and ended in Pipiriki on Sunday. We had great weather--not too much sun and 1 day of light drizzle. Since canoeing the Whanganui is one of the Great Walks, there were definitely a lot of people on the river, but we seemed to stay ahead of the crowds and chose campsites that weren't the most crowded, so we feel lucky.

At some of the riverbank stops, you had to literally climb over the other boats to get in and out!

The Whanganui River winds through countless hills and valleys, past a gazillion waterfalls and up against towering sandstone cliffs. The Whanganui used to be a major river boat trade operation through the 1920s before better roads and railways took over. In fact, the big side trip you can access from the river via a 5K hike is seeing the Bridge to Nowhere. The story behind the bridge is sad, in that after WWI, the government gave land to the soldiers in that area and built the concrete bridge with the intention of building roads to access the village. Then, WWII hit, the river trade industry died and the families abandoned the area. So now the bridge still stands ... To nowhere. Apparently it is one of the most visited places in NZ!



Our 3-day itinerary was perfect for us. It was a nice to trade in our backpacks and trekking poles for canoes and paddles for a bit. The river was mostly flat with some current, but my arms/shoulders certainly got a workout! There were a few rapids along the river to keep things exciting. There were all levels of experience on the river, which was sometimes funny to watch. I am happy to report that J and I did not flip our canoe once. Pretty much everyone else flipped at least once. We had a lot of people comment how "calm, cool and collected" we looked going through the rapids. This is all to J's credit; I just followed his commands. 




Matteo had a kayak and only flipped once, oddly enough, not in the rapids, but when we first got on the river. He was an expert by the end!

This is not us, but another canoe that flipped

We met some more TA hikers on the river. These 3 did a 7-day canoe from Taumarunui to Whanganui. See, just one more itinerary option!

6) Scrambled Eggs on the Roads
As usual, this section included quite a bit of road walking (when doesn't it?). Well we've had a few hot days (almost 90!) and we notice it is hottest between 3-6pm. Heat + roads = scrambled eggs. We were both sticking to the pavement as we walked. The tar from the pavement literally melts to our shoes (not my boots, but my Zuuks, which serve as my camp shoe, water crossing shoe and occasional road walking shoe) and sticks to our poles. Fun times.

Long road walk from Taumarunui into Owhanga

Tar on poles, but look how good J's repaired pole held up for 15 days before he got his replacements from Big Agnes.


 Long road walk into Whakahoro ... What about hikers??!!

As for the road walk after the river, we walked 35K of it, and hitched the other 35K. It was not a busy road, so we knew it would be a difficult hitch. It took 5 hours and 17 cars! Our gracious drivers, Richard and Lucy, stopped to check out an old cablecar that crossed the river. Then, the owner pulled up and offered us a ride across! He also had a "flying fox" (zip line) from the 1950s, but neither J or I were brave enough to try. The cablecar was exhilarating enough!


Mark, the zipline/cablecar owner, demonstrating the flying fox from 1950. No thank you.


We'll stick to the cablecar. 

7) The rest of the bits of trail in this section were quite nice, including the 42 Traverse and Fisher Track. We heard reports of intense mud and flooded trails. And there were a lot of parts where water carved out a muddy luge. But, for once, the mud was not a problem and had mostly dried up. I never thought I'd see the day when the mud was dry in NZ.

This could be very bad if it were wet!

When we finished the river in Pipiriki, we walked through Jerusalem. It's not really a town, but apparently lots of tourists flock here because there is a famous Catholic Church where Mother Aubrey healed the sick and it is also where the poet James Baxter lived and died.





We only have another 320 kilometers left on the North Island and will probably be in Wellington in another 10 days or so! 




Friday, January 9, 2015

Days 39-44: 158K From Waitomo To Taumarunui

Hello from Taumarunui! We have traveled 158K, or 101 miles, from Waitomo to Taumarunui. We have completed one third of the trail!


Here are the themes for these past 5 days!

1) Reunion
We have been reunited with our Italian friend, Matteo! While we were in Waitomo playing tourists, he did some big-mile days to catch back up. We've been hiking/camping together in this whole section. Now we just need our French Canadian friend Marilyne to complete the group.


Hiking with international peeps whose first language is not English is perfect for me because I love to correct people's pronounciation, grammar and finish people's sentences (one of my worst traits). Matteo's English is quite good, but it is amazing how many slang phrases J & I use without knowing it. 

2) Imminent Death on the Trail
Dare I say that this past section has had mostly fantastic user-friendly trails (i.e., the Timber Trail). There were still steep sections and mud, but nothing too horrific. However, this blog wouldn't be as fun if I didn't find something to grumble about, right?

Why can't the whole trail be like this?

As usual, there are always steep descents and ascents 

For this section, we did about 77.5K of road walking, 15K of farmland and 78K of forest. This time around, it was the farmland that almost killed us. 

In particular, when we left Waitomo, we walked through a 15K section that not only got us lost a few times, but also included a nice, long tunnel of thorns. I am still picking prickers out of my skin 6 days later.

Then, we walked through Mangaokewa Reserve and it sounded like it could be a leisurely 15K through a picturesque setting. Instead, we crossed a lot of farmland and were often walking slanted on the hillsides hoping not to plummet to our death below in the Mangaokewa River. Besides the slanted trail, there were also divets in the path covered by the long grass, just in case we were interested in unexpectedly rolling an ankle. Oh, there was also a huge gaping hole in the path that has definitely claimed a few hikers.

This picture really doesn't do the slanted walking justice (we couldn't safely photograph the situation). But, you can see the river below me and use your imagination.

What Lassie? A TA hiker fell into the well? I'll go get help!

3) Legolas
J's new trail name is Legolas (Lord of the Rings reference).

We absolutely needed our new gift of the monocular when we left Waitomo for that first section of farmland. The trail was nonsensical, switching directions every 5 minutes. J is really good at spotting markers! 

4) Scenery
The scenery and views just keep getting better. We again climbed a few mountains, such as Pureora at 1200 meters (4,000 feet?) where we had fantastic views of Lake Taupo and snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu. Also, as we get up higher and higher, the tree and plant life has changed. No more kauri trees. There were eucalyptus, totara, kahikatea and lots of pines. 

Rolling green hills and rivers around every bend

The view from on top of Pureora looking out to Lake Taupo and Mt. Ruapehu

 
Justin and Matteo heading toward a eucalyptus grove




Also, we went through Te Kuiti, the shearing capital of the world!


Did you know there are more than 48 million sheep in NZ (about 10 sheep to every person) and the country is the world's largest producer of strong wool?

5) Great Campsites
We have started encountering some of NZ's 900 DOC huts! I love knowing where we are going to camp, that there is water there and that there's a toilet. This is in contrast to the 2 days this week when we were walking on roads for 25K+ and had no choice but to knock on someone's door and ask if we could camp on their farmland. Both times the homeowner said sure, but one time we were warned to get up early because he was going to be herding sheep. Sure enough, at 6am, we heard the "baaahhhhs" and hurriedly packed up our tents before getting run down by the sheep!


A friendly horse


Here come the sheep!

These farms have the best views!

Bog Inn Hut - our first hut in NZ. There is a reason we are sitting outside ... This one was a little less desirable

Waihaha Hut - our second hut ... Much nicer than Bog Inn Hut!



6) Gear
You already heard about J's broken pole and broken air valve on J's sleeping pad (new pad arrived!). 
Well, on this leg, J and I both left gear at the hostel in Waitomo! J left the monocular, but realized when we were only 1K away from the hostel, so took a morning jog back to retrieve it. I, on the other hand, realized I left my headlight at that same hostel that night when we were setting up up camp. Grrrrr.

Anyway, we are planning to do a proper gear review soon, but we already feel very lucky with our gear. We've had a few issues, but have heard of SO many others switching out their gear for lighter options. Our base weights (without food and water) were 13 lbs (me) and 18 lbs (J), so we felt good about those. Things are also breaking/ripping on people left and right. The more money we save on gear (which is crazy expensive here), the more money we can spend on food!

So that sums up our week. We are getting organized for an upcoming section of trail that requires you to rent a canoe, but first, more hiking!