Home!

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I am home! When I arrived late last night I looked up to a familiar sky. The Big Dipper was there and the constellations were all right where they should be, but everything else was different. The streets were empty. Buildings that should have been alight and alive with people were dark and empty. My brother and sister-in-love, who picked us up from Montreal, had to drive two cars so we could then drive my car home without contact. We could have no welcoming hugs. I am incredibly happy to be home but I also feel discombobulated – like I returned to an alternate universe. It’s unsettling.

While we were waiting for our flight in Fiji, right up until we boarded, I didn’t know if we would actually be leaving the island. And then when we were in LA, again, until we actually boarded, I felt uncertain. Who knows how all of this will end, or where it will go. The only thing I know is that I am happy to face the uncertain times ahead on Canadian soil. And I will be diligent with my self isolation.

As always, thank you for reading and sharing this ride with me. See you on the flip side. Be well and stay safe.

Arlene.

The Adventure continues…

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After waiting in an apocalyptic-like airport in New Zealand, getting our temperatures checked at every turn, we were off to Fiji. The concerned messages we received from family and friends (and the government) basically telling us that we needed to get ourselves home convinced us. Everything is shutting down and while being stranded in Fiji sounds idilic, my blueberries need attention and my mortgage won’t pay itself. With airlines and carriers unavailable by phone (and hesitant to book anything online for fear of losing more money), the day after we arrived, we parked ourselves outside the Fiji airways office, along with the remainder of Fiji’s tourists (also trying to get home), and waited to speak to a live human. When we finally confirmed a fight out, we breathed sighs of relief. But we aren’t there yet.

Yesterday we went to the Sabeto mud pools in the mountains for a day of R&R. As we lathered our bodies with the black gooey mud, the continuous gentle rain metamorphosed into a torrential downpour. The sky opened and buckets of water poured out of it. Undeterred, we lowered ourselves into the hot springs. Shortly after, before our very eyes, the lush, tropical walkways and plants disappeared and gave way to an ever widening river. When the cold water overflowed into the hot pool where we were currently immersed, we clued in that we needed to get out. Within minutes, the whole area was flooded. The springs are positioned at the junction of six mountain streams and it was amazing how quickly it coalesced into a torrent. Apart from four Australians and the workers, we were the only people there. We clustered together watching and waiting for the water to recede, but the deluge continued and the road remained impassable. It was later in the day and we were a long way from the hotel. We decided, along with Stella (an awesome 81-year-old Fijian preacher lady who was there selling trinkets) that we better try to get out on foot. After the TA we are no strangers to river crossings, but Stella was understandably nervous. We waded in together, holding hands. Cars were stranded on sections of the dirt road but a few people on foot (and the odd horse) were walking through the waist deep water. Eventually we emerged and Stella was able to flag down a random police cruiser who picked us up, gunned through the last of the flood and drove us back to the hotel.

We have been in Fiji for three days and we are now at the airport waiting for our flight home via LA as I write. There are only four departures today and two of them are listed as canceled. Apparently we are on the second last flight leaving for the US (we were told that there is a 50-50 chance of our plane actually taking off) before the airport closes on Monday. We left early for the airport today as some roads here are also being closed. This trip has been quite a ride on many different levels and home is the best place to be right now. We aren’t there yet but I will be happy when we are on Canadian soil. I feel like we will slide in sideways. I’ll keep you posted.

A Walk in the Clouds

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I burrow deeper into my sleeping bag and wrap it around my head to create a pocket of warm air. Dawn is still far away but I know I am awake for the duration. We are high in the mountains and the air is cold. When light finally comes, I strip down and replace my merino warms with my hiking clothes, still damp with yesterday’s sweat, and emerge from the tent to a sloped world of frost on grandfather tussocks. I look around the panorama of remote, windswept alpine peaks that epitomize the rugged essence of the South Island, and I am awed that we have hiked across the entire range. The 64 kilometre section between Arrowhead and Wanaka includes the Motatapu Track which is listed (by the mutant bionic people) as “hard tramping”. But this is our last hurrah on the TA and we want to finish hard and strong (with jelly legs). Gord has a healthy respect for heights and the three vertical 1300 meter ascents and descents, combined with narrow trails on ridgelines that drop off on both sides has pushed him to his limit. This is the high country at its most raw and at some points we are moving forward on all fours. He says it is spectacular and terrifying and if it was any harder I might as well go ahead and push him off the edge.

We take down the tent, eat a breakfast of muesli and start walking. Immediately we go up. The last five days have been tough and our muscles quiver with fatigue, but I happily settle back into the rhythm of walking. My sore bits have mostly sorted themselves out. The sound of my poles clicking on the hard earth is soothing to me. The world sometimes spins too quickly for me and I need a long, isolating walk to recalibrate. When I am untethered from civilization, I feel my place in a world where I often feel misplaced.

We have tramped over 1000 kilometres and feel a heady pride. It’s not always easy, for many different reasons, and this trip is no exception. But it’s always an adventure!

Shortly we will fly to Fiji for our last two weeks before returning home. Now that we have been informed of the news, we realize that we won’t be returning to the same world that we left. It’s hard to take in after the timeless serenity of the mountains. We will self quarantine if that is what is appropriate. Next post from Fiji.

Pictures

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Trail pictures from more backcountry tracks.

We made our way to Christchurch where we hiked for a few days off trail along a gorgeous coastline.

At the moment we are staying with a lovely family who invited us to their beach front home for a couple of nights.

I also got a chance to check out my elbow that continues to be sore and swollen from my fall a few weeks ago. Happily, it’s just an infected bursa (solved by an aggressive round of antibiotics) and not a chipped bone as I feared.

Tomorrow we have tickets for a rugby game here in Christchurch before blasting south to Queenstown where we will get back on the trail heading north.

Crossing the Southern Alps

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We were just walking along, minding our own business. It was our first day on the 120 kilometre Harper Pass Track that would take us across the Southern Alps. When the wasps started to swarm us, we kept calm. We were used to walking through multitudes of them in the forest and they never bothered us. This time, for some reason, they were mad. When they started to dive bomb us, Gord yelled, “run!” Elbows out, head down, poles clacking, we looked like two 90-year-olds making a break for it, tottering away as fast as we could. Gord got stung on his wrist (which later swelled up) and one flew up my nose and nailed me there. That we each only got stung once proved to be an auspicious start to the next section.

We walked through green cathedrals of old forest carpeted with beautiful moss, crossed more landslides, crawled over more humungous fallen trees, and enjoyed our first flat valley walk on a rocky river terrace after the long, gruelling downside of the summit (I far prefer going up). A highlight was crossing a river on a three wire bridge (each hand holding a wire while walking on the bottom wire).

Our feet haven’t been dry in days. Two days of rain were followed by three days with multiple unbridged river crossings. And we have been lucky! Any more rain and we would have had to cool our heels waiting for the water level to go down (which has befallen many). Usually the water didn’t go higher than our knees but once it was bum high with such a strong current, I knew that if I went down, I would be bodysurfing hell bent for leather to who knows where. It took me almost 45 minutes to inch my across the 30 foot river. Gord being taller and with more body mass was able to get across more directly, but still with adrenaline fillled care.

Last evening we were camped in the forest a few kilometres from the end of the track. We were relaxing in the tent when we heard an explosive crack. The kind of crack that means something calamitous is happening. It was followed by the crashing of branches. My first thought was that a landslide was coming down on us. Gord knew a huge tree was falling but also thought it was landing right on us. We jumped up (as much as you can in a 4×6 foot tent) expecting to be crushed at any moment. The crashing faded back to silence leaving nothing but the pounding of our hearts. As soon as we gathering our wits we raced outside to find the fallen tree. It had landed in the forest (in our direction) about 50 feet away from us. When a tree falls in the forest (hush, you know it’s coming), and someone is there to hear it, it makes a very loud sound!

We are grateful that the trail Gods continue to smile down on us.

The Walking Wounded

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The Pelorus River Track was exciting, painful, wonderful, and remote. It took it’s pound of flesh from both of us, but it’s our favourite track so far, regardless. We intended to take a rest day after the Queen Charlotte track but an offered ride brought the 90 kilometre road walk down to 47 kilometres to get from one track to the other. It also took us out of service so we ended up hiking again straight away.

The 34 kilometre trail loosely followed the crystal, clear Pelorus River which alternated between rapids and lush swimming holes where you could see 12 feet down to the flat, smooth stones at the bottom. After navigating steep slopes and descents, fallen trees, long wobbly suspension bridges, and washed out trails, a swim in the cool, clear water was heavenly. The only downside to the track was the legions of sand flies. They are a bloodthirsty cousin to our blackflies but bigger, and with a more venomous bite. They can’t get through my tough old hide so easily, but they love Gord. His legs are welted, itchy and bloody. But then, the birds love him too. One actually landed on his head.

The South Island trails are dotted with DOC (Department of Conservation) shelter huts where many through-hikers sleep. We have camped at a few, but mostly, we still rough camp. DOC also posts signs indicating times to complete trail sections, which we generally ignore (or laugh at) given that they don’t seem to be determined by normal human people. So knowing this, when the bionic people estimated a 3 1/2 hour timeframe for the first 5 kilometres of the trail, we knew it was the type of trail where you need to keep your head in the game. I love that stuff. Gord says I’m half goat (but we don’t always have lovely river water to wash in, so maybe he was referring to smell).

Because I was not able to post the Queen Charlotte blog when we finished it, I was fretting a bit that friends and family may be a little worried, as I was out of touch longer than usual. It was with that in mind that a couple of days in, I decided we should take a secondary trail that looked on the map to be a shortcut. It took us three more days on an unmaintained track, added several kilometers, and was much harder. According to the intention book at the remote hut, nobody had been there in quite some time.

While looking up for a trail marker I had a bit of a fall. I unwittingly stepped out onto wet, sloped moss covered rocks and my feet whipped out from under me faster than you can blink. I went down, landing with all my weight on my elbow, splitting it open and wrenching my shoulder. Gord swallowed back his aversion to blood and doctored me up well using Steri-Strips to hold it closed, Polysporin and gauze, with my hanky wrapped tightly around it all. The next day I fell again when I lost my footing as we were maneuvering across an enormous tree that had fallen across the trail. I flipped and landed about 10 feet away suspended it in the thick layer of upper branches with nothing below me. Gord says I went through the air in slow motion and it was like a scene from a movie. It happened fast for me but I still had time to wonder if I was going to crash through and sail all the way down the sheer slope. Fortunately, all was well. I landed on my pack and a twisted ankle was the only casualty. Gord also fell and landed on his head. Again fortune smiled on us and he wasn’t hurt. But by the time we emerged out the other end, we needed a good rest.

We have been relaxing and eating our hearts out for the last couple of nights in Nelson. We are missing the Richmond Range Track which is listed as “very hard tramping” and “dangerous” by the same bionic people who judge that what we have done so far is “moderate”. We will hitch hike to Boyle Village today and pick up the trail from there.

Hey – another cool thing. I found a large titanium ring on the Pelorus Track… looks to me like it was forged in middle earth. It is mine I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.

The Queen Charlotte Track

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In 1770, during the course of circumnavigating the globe in search of a southern hemisphere, James Cook (a farm boy from Yorkshire) first landed in New Zealand at Ship Cove, which is where we begin the 77 kilometre Queen Charlotte Track. Many stories and legends have unfolded in this place long before James Cook arrived, and many have unfolded since.

The multi-kilometre uphills on the track are rewarded by stunning vistas overlooking picturesque coves. The trail then drops down into a bay, then up again to another breathtaking view, and down into another bay, and so on and so forth. By the fourth day when we look out across the sweep of hills and coves, we have no idea where we have been and have become a little immune to the exquisite scenery. The wide, level trail is too well-traveled for my taste, but the views are indeed beautiful!

After five weeks of walking, we pass our first people on the trail, and on an uphill to boot! The young 20-something couple are out of breath and pausing to rest. We just cruise on past like our knees are new, of course while trying to appear like we aren’t panting like a couple of worn out racehorses. We later find out that the girl is nursing six blisters. Oh well, we often feel positively geriatric and it was a nice moment (please don’t judge me that I think this is blog worthy).

Our relationship is now such that, in the dark of night, we share our fantasies. Gord’s fantasy is ice cream and bacon (or all meat for that matter)! Mine is Brie, crusty bread and olives. Bacon here costs between eight and nine bucks a pound so it will stay a fantasy. Good cheese is less expensive than home so we bought a kilogram of old cheddar. It was amazing (but made conquering the world of our digestion problematic)!

FYI – I though I heard wrong while standing in line behind someone at the grocery store buying cigarettes, so I confirmed. Yep – $37.00 a pack. Wild! If you are a smoker and want to quit, come to New Zealand.

Tongariro Alpine Pass

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The Tongariro alpine crossing is New Zealand’s most famous one day tramp and is one of the most famous in the world. And aside from the multitudes of people, it did not disappoint. We hiked the 18 kilometre stretch the opposite direction than was recommended (adding an extra 350 meter climb), not because we wanted more of a challenge, but because that was the way our Te Araroa trail guide directed us (I’ve come to believe that the TA designers have a wee bit of Satan in them). But as such, we crossed paths with literally all of the hundreds and hundreds of people hiking it that day, leaving little charming volcanic quietude.

It was a long slog up the volcano but the occasional whiff of sulphurous gas, and small blasts of steam here and there created a heady mix. From Tongariro’s flat Central Crater at 1700 meters, the landscape below was spread out wide and clean, the ravages of great age apparent, and the jewelled colours of the Blue and Emerald Lakes shimmering and glassy. With the wind gusting at over 100 km an hour, we were literally knocked off our feet a couple of times. The last kilometre was a 45° grind up loose scree to reach 1868 meters. The top was breathtaking and windy, with hordes of day hikers trying valiantly to hang on to their packed lunches. Our daily diet has been porridge for breakfast, a Cliff bar for lunch and a shared pasta sidekick for dinner. I nibbled my uninspired Cliff bar while watching a woman eating a ham and cheese sandwich. I think I actually drooled a little bit and almost offered her 10 bucks for her last few bites.

We finished the trail at the Mangatapopo Hut, laid down our poles, pitched our tent, and collapsed for the night. The next morning we caught a ride with a Belgian couple to Oahune, the town where Kael is working as an au pair. We spent a couple of enjoyable days visiting with her and the family, and touring their enormous farm.

We are missing the next few sections of the trail in favour of heading to the South Island. We have enjoyed the farmland and forests but are anxious for the more remote and unique scenery further on. Also, we want to see the coast.

Hopefully the record breaking rainfall in the South Island will have sorted itself out by the time we get there. At the moment the Milford Sound is getting 35 to 45 cm of rain a day, with 45 cm more coming tomorrow. They are in a State or Emergency and while our trail doesn’t go through the Milford Sound, still…fingers crossed…!

The 42 Traverse

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We woke up to dark skies and a steady rain the morning we set out for the 42 Traverse and the Waione-cokers trail. We quickly packed up our wet tent and sleeping bags, ate a piece of cheese and set out. We hadn’t slept well and were feeling a little apprehensive. To visualize the 42 Traverse, imagine walking 40 kilometres across a giant accordion. It rises only 400 meters, but it does so several times up steep, slippery clay tracks (made slipperier by the rain), each time followed by a sharp descent into a gully. At the beginning of the trail there was a map showing the terrain with the approximate completion time. Seven hours it said – maybe if you were a goat being chased – it took us two hard days.

Fortunately, when we were ready to stop for the day, the rain paused long enough for us to put up our tent and boil some water for ramen noodles. Surprisingly, we had a wonderful sleep and started our second day with lots of energy. We scraped back into our wet clothes, ate another cold breakfast of cheese (it was still raining), and were off again. Surrounding us were several ancient volcanoes shrouded in mist, making the scenery majestic and grand.

The first little river that we crossed, we removed our boots and socks, rolled up our pants and waded across, feeling quite tickled that we managed to keep our footwear dry. It made no difference, shortly afterwards the trail went up the middle of a creek with no alternative without bushwhacking. By the time we reached the second river, our feet were as wet as the rest of us, but it didn’t matter – the rocky rapids ahead required stable footing. When we hit thigh deep water, we waded far enough upstream through the fast flowing water for a safe crossing. Our biggest concern was our phones – if we fell, there would be no more trail guide, no blog, no pictures. Happily we forded the river without incident, feeling quite rugged, in the company of two rare adventure-loving, rapid-loving ducks whose name I forget.

We didn’t want another wet night on the trail, so we pushed through until the end. The rain finally stopped, the sun came out and we found a good place to rough camp. We woke up to blue skies and will take the day to dry everything out, charge our phones (rain makes using the solar charger problematic), and slowly make our way to the Tongariro Alpine crossing trailhead. The Tongariro will be our most challenging trek on the North Island, climbing up a volcano to 1866 meters. We are not expecting a walk in the park but we are far more ready now than we were.