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.

From here to there

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We have made it through our first stretch without service, civilization, or opportunity to restock. It wasn’t easy and it for damn sure wasn’t pretty, but we are pleased, regardless. I’m happy to report that our fitness related growing pains have lessened and our strength has increased. Now we can almost get up from the ground with our packs on without toppling over, and though we are basically incoherent at the end of our 6 to 8 hour hiking day, and it takes us twice as long as the few young sprigs that have passed us to get anywhere, we are still covering substantial distances over challenging terrain, with much less cursing. Unfortunately, we have only one good knee left between us, but Advil, combined with the kick ass anti-inflammatory drugs that Gord brought, are helping us get by.

The first 20 km was through the Mangaokewi reserve and river walk. It was a lush, rolling, primeval forest and life was lovely. We chanced upon a small group of wild mountain goats with two very large Billy’s dancing around and rearing up and crashing heads, locking their horns together again and again. It was dramatic to see and we felt like we were in the middle of a wildlife documentary.

The next section through and around the Pureora Forest almost killed us. Vertical hillside with only narrow sloped (almost nonexistent) goat tracks to walk on. it was stunningly beautiful to cross some of (what we read) was the most wild and untamed forest in New Zealand. I would have loved to take more pictures but we were too busy trying not to fall and die (and the ones I did take don’t indicate the actual scale of it). I think we made it on pure adrenaline. When we finally broke out again into farmland, the entire hillside across the river was terraced with sheep and every one of them was watching us stumble past. It was hilarious, if a little unnerving.

Then came the blackberry incident. Wild canes lined the trail and we gobbled pints and pints of them, marvelling at our good fortune. As the bushes became thicker and thicker encroaching on both sides of the trail, we weren’t quite as excited. When the trail itself became buried in them and we had to wade through thickets with the plants grabbing and tearing at us, we emerged out the other side bleeding and cursing blackberries (we have since made our peace with them and have enjoyed many more pints with no mishap).

The last section was the Timber Trail – an 85 kilometre old logging track that was perpetually uphill or downhill, but on a beautiful, level, wide, stable, easy to follow trail that was a joy to walk on. All we needed to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other and gaze at the towering twisted trees, the bizarre hanging vines, the interesting moss-covered roots, and listen to lovely the birdsong of the kereru’s, the kaka, the kakariki, and the pitoitoi (think several cheerful R2D2’s in melodious conversation). And the suspension bridges were amazing!

Most of the time we rough camped in the forest and one night we found a perfect river pool. The water was ice cold but incredibly refreshing and appreciated. Even Gord (who hates cold water) jumped in with a hesitant “son of a bitch”. We washed ourselves, our hair, our clothes and it was amazing.

At the moment we are in Taumarunui for the night resting our knees for the next next leg of the Te Araroa (pronounces tee – are – a – roa) called the 42 Traverse. We generally hitchhike through the road sections as we don’t have time to tramp the entire 3000 kilometres and want to spend our time in the beauty of the actual trail. We have been lucky with the weather so far. We have just stocked up on food for the first time since leaving Canada and so are packs are fully loaded and heavy again. But, oh right, we are stronger and fitter now so it’s all good. My ankles are behaving, it’s just the knees. Fingers crossed they tow the line and stop acting out.

Again, I don’t seem to have enough service to post pictures now so I will post them when I do. Happy Tuesday from New Zealand!

Glowworms and Kiwis

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The only sound in the cave was a gentle lap of water as our guide propelled us along the underground river with a pole. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, the brilliance of thousands of glowworms just above our heads led the way. Glowworms are one to two inches long and live their whole lives attached to the roof of a cave with the tip of their tail glowing. They spin a strand of web that hangs down, which is how they catch their food. The caves are often discovered by telltale clumps of trees on the surface that hides a hole where the odd cow, or sheep drop into.
The cave that we went through is on private land and they had preserved an in-situ skeleton of an extinct moa (a two to three meter high bird that is native to New Zealand) that fell through the hole eons ago. There are over 300 such caves in New Zealand and they had, for the most part, been left alone by the Maori, who believe that when you die, your spirit passes along a waterway and though a cave. Then, in the 1800’s, European settlers discovered the caves and started giving tours. In the 1980s, it was debated who had rights to the caves and it was decided that if you bought the land before 1960, you own the land right down to the center of the earth, but if you bought the land after 1960, you own only two meters deep.
We left the caves and returned to our grander trek, heading south. We charted our way through a steep forest trail where, at times, it was only 6 inches wide. A misstep could mean our last, followed by a very, very long tumble. We were careful! As such, it was much later in the day than usual when we finally broke through the trees and were able to camp on a small flat ledge with a stunning panoramic vista that felt far from anywhere, but probably wasn’t. It was dark when we got settled in to our tents. Kael had pitched hers about 30 metres down the hill and beside the bridge to be out of Gord’s snoring range. It takes him, literally, two seconds to fall asleep, but because I read for a while, I was still awake an hour later when I heard a faint call drifting up from below: “Daaaaddddy…..Arleeeennee…. Can you shine your light down here, there’s something out there”, Kael called. Hearing the alarm in her voice, my mama bear instincts kicked into high gear and I raced out of the tent, boots on, bum bare, and ran down the hill.
“Something is out there and it’s big”, she quavered. “I can’t sleep here. I’m so scared”. She was breathing fast. I could hear twigs breaking in the forest but saw nothing. “It’s OK, it’s probably just a possum”, I soothed, hoping it wasn’t a wild boar. We were both moving fast as we gathered up her stuff. Kael grabbed her backpack, I grabbed the tent and we started scrambling up the hill. Halfway up she stopped dead. “Is that a kiwi?” she said. There on the trail was what looked like a little hedgehog playing dead. A kiwi is a rare and elusive nonflying nocturnal bird. Most New Zealanders we have spoken to have never seen one in the wild.
We excitedly marvelled at it (while throwing scared looks behind us), before resuming our panicked dash up the hill. We parked her tent beside ours and the rest of the night passed uneventfully.   We had a great laugh the next day.
Kael has now skedaddled off to start her job as an au pair further south. Gord and I are beginning a 100 km track over a couple of significant summits with no civilization in between. It will take us much longer than it says in the trail guide. We will be out of service and contact for a while so don’t fret. Our body parts are hanging in there and we are well. (At the moment there is not enough service to post pictures but I’ll post them when we come out the other side).