Tongariro Alpine Pass


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


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


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

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).

Over hill over dale


I had to look at the calendar this morning to see what day it was. It is Friday January 17th and we have been on the trail for over a week! It feels like only a few days and it feels like forever. Time is such a funny thing.

We have hiked on rich volcanic soil and rolling green hills beside the Waikato, New Zealand’s longest and mightiest river. We have seen darting possums, jack rabbits and heard the distinctive warble of magpies in Bilbo Baggins-type trees. We have hiked through towns and across golf courses (and even slept on one when Gord’s knee gave out and we had to stop immediately for the day). We have camped mainly in farmers fields where we have met lovely people and been invited to eat our fill of oranges off the trees. We have hiked, inadvertently, through sacred Maori temple grounds, and through the lush landscape of middle earth (or there abouts – I’m pretending because we don’t want to pay $85.00 to walk through the real middle earth at Hobbiton). And most recently, we have hiked across the strenuous Hakaramata range….

Just south of the town of Huntley, at the end of the day, the trail turned a sharp right and the steep wall of Rimu forest that we had been walking beside loomed directly in front of us. It was a daunting site! 350 meters straight up and then undulating ups and downs along the ridge line for 12 more rugged kilometres to the summit. We set out at 8:30am the following morning, each feeling different emotions: I was excited to be on a good challenging trail but nervous for Gord, Kael was pure excitement, and Gord was moving forward with resigned determination. It would be our toughest day so far.

About an hour in, Gord stopped having fun. I heard mutterings and cursing behind me until he didn’t even have the energy to grunt. At one point he completely turtled but I didn’t see it and he somehow managed to right himself. There were a few ‘face in the dirt, this is where we camp’ type of moments, but with no water or flat ground available, it simply wasn’t an option. We knew before we started that it was a do or die type day. And we didn’t see another person until we finally reached the summit at the far end 10 hours later. Then there were two kilometres of stairs to get down to the town below (with half of New Zealand’s population doing training runs on them). We met a fireman who had many tales of trail rescues and I was glad that we didn’t add to his collection of stories. Once at the bottom, we staggered over to a sliver of sloped grass 100 feet from the stairs, pitched our tents, and slept there until morning.

At the moment we are at a rugby friend of Gord’s in Hamilton for two nights. It’s amazing how quickly sleeping in a bed can feel like a luxury. We are increasing our mileage every day as Gord’s fitness level increases. His knee has caused him a bit of grief, but overall, he’s doing great. He hasn’t felt anything remotely close to a ‘hiking high’ but God love him, he’s doing his damdest. Our little unit is meshing together nicely. It’s been a pleasure having Kael with us and a treat to get to know her better.

I will finish with the Maori prayer for Te Araroa walkers. But I like it for everything

Kia tupato kia pai to hikoi.

Me te titiro whanui kie koa

Ki nga taonga kei mua i a koe

Walk the path in safety

Look deeply and learn

From your surroundings.

Boot Camp


We didn’t exactly hit the ground running. I arrived in Auckland wearing the scent of aux de la stomach bile. It was mainly due to getting only five hours of sleep in the preceding 56 hours, but after a nights rest, I was right as rain. We met up with Kael (Gord’s daughter, who is hiking with us for two weeks) at a hostel, repacked our bags, and set out the next morning.

We took the train to the edge of Auckland but the ‘trail’ was still passing through urban sprawl. Four hours of road tramping later we finally reached countryside, and shortly after that, our bodies told us we’d had enough for our first day. Our backpacks are military style heavy as we are carrying enough food to feed an entire platoon for a week. But our little unit consists of only of a spunky 29 year old aspiring half-Ironman triathlete, a 59 year old beat up ex rugby player, and a 58 year old out of shape hiker who still has illusions she can do such things, so we have enough food to last a good long while. (In our defence, our original plan was to travel to the northern tip of the island first, where given our pace, we needed two weeks food supply. We chose instead to hook up with the trail at Auckland and continue south from there). So we will eat, eat, eat and soon our packs will get lighter and we will get stronger. But I won’t be fitting into my hiking pants again anytime soon (sooo many Christmas cookies).

Last night we got permission to pitch our tents on a small hobby farm. It was lovely, with fruit trees and gardens everywhere. It also had ticks everywhere! Everywhere! New Zealand doesn’t have Limes disease so it wasn’t the deal it would have been in Ontario, but I hate ticks and had to just try and close my mind to them. We had a water supply and the use of a bathroom and were super grateful. In the evening, the son-in-law and the daughter came for a visit, bearing a cooler full of local beer and wine. Such nice people!

Today our day was longer and much harder. The trail is still on the road but was predominantly uphill. Tomorrow we will get off-road. In the meantime, we have another awesome place to sleep. It is in the manicured back yard of a beautiful home with amazing gardens, a tennis court, a stunning view, and a bathroom available to us. We were invited in for showers and supper and spent an thoroughly enjoyable evening visiting with Ian and Shona. More super nice people!

The sky isn’t orange anymore on account of the smoke blowing in from Australia but we are told the fires are affecting the weather here. It’s not as warm as I had hoped but it’s comfortable. So far it’s in the low 20’s during the day and a cool 11 or 12 degrees at night. Which is now… time to settle in.

Gord and Kael (night 1)

Room with a view (night 2)

New Zealand hiking adventure just around the corner


We hike along the rolling crystalline trails at Murphy’s Point, boots crunching in the fresh layer of snow and I am aware of how much I love being unplugged, even on a little trail, in a small wood, for a few stolen hours. It’s T minus one week until Gord and I lift off to New Zealand for a three month hiking adventure, and although more preparatory body-conditioning hikes would have been better, we have been busy and we have done what we can.

Gord is fiddling with his device and trying to sort out an app that will record and analyze every aspect of our little hike. I am reminded again, uneasily, of our completely different styles and preferences and hoping we can mesh them together enough to both get what we need in New Zealand. We each have pre-trip jitters but his concerns lean more towards the physical demands of the trail, being away for three months, and the fact that that there is no drive-through on the Te Araroa.

“It’s going to be so important to have good communication,” I say.

“Yes, we’ll have our own secret sign language”, he responds, “if I’m laying on my back with my feet behind my ears, it means I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. And if I’m laying face down in the dirt, it means that’s where we are camping tonight”. I can’t stop laughing.

After a few breezy hours we arrive back at the truck. Gord heaves off his pack and says, newly lightened, “at least I know I’ll have one happy moment a day for the next three months”.

I look stricken.

He pauses. “Just kidding,” he says. But I think he paused too long. Regardless, laughter is the best medicine; and if that fails there’s always Ibuprofen and/or Xanax.

Next post from New Zealand.