Showing posts in category: Four Million Steps (NZ)

132,546 Steps (101 km)

Cape Reinga to Ahipara 

Today I had bacon and eggs. Four eggs and an entire packet of bacon. Something to do with an extraordinary craving for protein. Nutella, cheese and peanut butter get you so far, but protein helps with muscle recovery and I sorely require just that. I am also halfway through a six pack of beer (Sleights Gold Medal).

The past three and a half days have been great. So far, it seems, the plan of not having much of a plan has worked out pretty well.

On Saturday, November 1, I shared a ride to Cape Reinga with a French woman by the name of Marylene, who is also doing this trek. She and I headed off under a picture perfect blue sky for the first day (12 km) mostly independent of one another but found times to chat at rest points on the way as well as at the campsite at Twilight Beach. There we were joined by Jorg from Germany who is also in for the long haul and started a couple of hours behind us. After watching the sun set over the Tasman sea, I was quick to sleep in my tent only waking at 3 am to step outside and see the Austral sky in full, cloudless glory. A carpet of stars laid out before me. An awe inspiring moment reminiscent of a past camping trip in South America, but more spectacular when appreciated a second time. A perfect end to a picture perfect day.

The following two days were all about beach on the right and sand dunes in the left.
Setting out early on the morning of November 2, I followed behind Marylene and Jorg at my own pace, coming upon 90 Mile Beach after a 2 hr early climb and descending wooden steps. The beach is deceptively challenging owing to the constant wind, sand blown into shoes, creek crossings that threaten to get feet wet, and surges in the surf that risk the same. My preoccupation has been keeping my toes dry to fend off blisters.

Speaking of ailments, my peroneal tendinitis (the product of an ankle sprain in the months leading up to this trip) has abated. Only to be replaced by a rotating list of aches and pains in knees, hips, shoulders, back and feet. The good part is that none of these pains are chronic, they function as a relay such that the pain from the morning leaves and is replaced by a new ailment in the afternoon etc. My hypothesis is that this is conditioning and that over the coming days my body will adapt to new strains.

So, back to November 2: This day ended at The Bluff (27 km hiking) where Marylene, Jorg and myself set camp again and had an early bedtime. I woke up early on November 3, at 3:45 am and considering that rain was in the forecast I made a choice to break camp and start walking early, heading out by 5 am in pitch blackness, seeing glimpses of the sea in my headlamp for the first 90 minutes. This was a very immersive and surreal experience. Being mindful of what I could see but also what I could not. Special feeling.

This feeling was shortly interrupted by the heaviest, thickest, windiest, torrent of rain I have experienced in my life. Like having a bucket dumped upon you for 2 hours straight. Not warm tropical rain. Rather, cold antarctic air squeezing the water from tropical breezes and drenching everything in its wake. My shoes were immediately soaked (so much for dry feet) not to mention my shorts and legs. My head and torso were covered in Gortex and remained cosy but this did little to alleviate the numbing pain emerging in my feet.

I continued on, and on, and on, replenished by a blend of nutella, cocoa, instant coffee and Edam cheese to charge through 11 hours and 47 km before arriving in Waipapakauri where I rested up in an actual bed in a private room at a holiday camp and recovered and slept off an epic day.

I awoke on November 4 at a reasonable hour and thanks to the push the day earlier had a leisurely and uneventful three hour (13 km) stroll down the last of 90 Mile Beach to the town of Ahipara where come 10 am I enjoyed a latte, internet, replenished some food stores and picked up BB+E (Beer, Bacon and Eggs). I have spent the rest of today settling into a new backpackers hostel), enjoying BB+E, and resting my body for the 123 km of forest trail that starts tomorrow, crossing from the Tasman to the Pacific side of the North Island in what is reportedly a treacherous and challenging leg. The crazy part? I feel totally up for it.

Jorg and Marylene have just shown up and are staying in the same hostel sharing stories of their last 2 days. Nice to reconnect with others who are sharing a common journey. They are staying here tomorrow to rest up and replenish but I am sure we will continue to run into one another.

Check out the gallery for photos. 

 

290,026 Steps (221 km)

Some people are so poor all they have is money. These are the words carefully lettered onto the back of what I am calling the Whangarei Hilton. Let me explain.

On November 5th I departed Apihara in the early morning to begin my four day trek through “the forests” across the island to the town of Kerikeri. There were many reports that this leg of the journey was treacherous and muddy so I was prepared for something extra challenging. Walking up the road for a few kilometres was beautiful – a sunny morning down country roads gently up hill towards the mountains and forest beyond. Entering the Herikeno forest I was immediately deluged with rain for a short spell, and then a world of hate that lasted for two full days. The beach storm of the previous days proved to be a cakewalk in comparison.

This two day trek was the worst thing I have done in my life. Also, it was the best thing. Thick jungle (they insist on calling it “forest” here) and mud-soaked, steep, slippery and dark trails through nothingness. The thick brush and forest blocked out the horizon, the sky, and any semblance of a vista. It was a dark, wet, slippery purgatory that devastated my body with cuts, scrapes and cold.

About a third of the way through on this same day, while taking a lunch stop and inspecting a broken walking stick (BTW, thanks Black Diamond!), I was met by Rory. Rory is a tremendously happy and congenial 20-something New Zealander who made great conversation and a welcome sounding board to commiserate with about the state of this section of trail. He also helped me gain understanding of a few birds and proved himself a great navigator to keep track of the trail markers. We struggled physically for the day and managed to descend through a steep mud-soaked descent out of the Herekino forest before camping for the night. Another 11 hour hike (27 km) behind us.

The next morning, November 6th, after a night of rainfall, Rory and I continued on towards the Raetea forest. On a sunny morning we walked through some forest lands, some small farms in an idyllic valley before coming across Rob and Joss, two hikers from England on the same trek. We continued to cross paths with them throughout the day. This was the day of, and in, hell. The worst, most dangerous, exhausting day of my life. It made the Herekino hike the day before look like a Sunday stroll. It had more of everything: more mud, more pointy sticks, more steep endless ascents, more roots, more puddles, more barbed wire, more cuts, more of everything unholy in this world. And it went on forever. It was almost 14 hours before Rory and I got to our end destination, State Highway 1. That is where and when, alas, we came upon the Whangarei Hilton.

Rory’s uncle is Jimi. Jimi is a busker, a free spirit, an honest talker and a generous, warm soul. Jimmy lives in Whangarei in a “housetruck”, which amounts to a large customized home on wheels. Jimmy and the housetruck were waiting for us at State Highway 1 –  at a roadside pullout next to the river. After two long days of distress in the forest, we dragged ourselves under moonlight to this Hilton on wheels. Within an hour I had a hot shower, a warm bed a hot meal and a cold beer and the charming company of the host, Jimi. He shared his home, his food, his spirit and his outlook on life and happiness and what matters – and I loved every minute of it. Thank you Jimi. You are amazing.

The morning of November 7th was about drying out and resting achy muscles, with the aid of a hot breakfast in the company of another traveller (Moritz, from Germany) complete with bacon, eggs, toast, spaghetti and hot coffee, before I set upon my next adventure: hitch-hiking! I have never done this before in my life and had more than a little anxiety around the matter. It all worked out, though. I caught four rides to get between the Hilton and Kaitai, where I picked up some food for dinner, some missing provisions, and some wine. Some interesting conversations throughout and two invitations to stay at people’s homes if I ever needed. The welcoming and trusting attitude of so many of the New Zealanders I have come across is remarkable. I am hoping that more than a little of that rubs off and sticks to me when I return home to Canada. Later that night we were joined once again by Jorg, who made his way successfully through the Raetea Forest a day behind us.

Rested up and well fed from dinner the night before, on the morning of November 8th Rory and I set off again into the remaining two forests of this leg of the journey to Kerikeri. After meeting up with Mac, a hard-core minimalist NZ hiker who just finished the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA, we made our way down farm roads, blue skies, and “friendly” gravel tracks in the Omahuta forest. In late afternoon I enjoyed a peaceful, independent walk though the Mangapukahukahu stream for several kilometres and then Rory and I marched along the bank of the Mangapa River and an overnight camp site. Here we met up again with Rob and Joss and together we enjoyed some light conversation, shared our frustrations around the Raetea forest and warmed ourselves around a fire. This was a long (10 hrs, 30 km) but stress-less day that did much for my outlook on the rest of this journey.

Waking up to a chorus of birds the next morning,  on November 9th we broke camp early to tackle the Puketi Forest – the last hurdle before Kerikeri. This was a cakewalk! It was sunny, the trail was relatively dry and fast and shortly after noon we were out of the woods (figuratively and literally). After a very brief lunch break, Rory and I headed separate ways as he headed to stay overnight with a family friend and I aimed to log a 40 km day all the way into Kerikeri. This was a beautiful and scenic walk through pastures full of sheep and cows and vistas overlooking the Bay of Islands and the Pacific Ocean below. A sunny and scenic afternoon of postcard moments that reminded me of the softer appeal of this country. Heartening and calming.

Coming into Kerikeri I met up again with Moritz and we walked together for a while along the Puketotara Stream and the Rainbow Falls on the Kerikeri river. While Moritz  took some time to rest at the falls, I marched for another hour into town, 40 km and 11 hrs, to crash and rest at the Kerikeri Holiday Park along with Jorg who has been held up here with an ankle injury for a couple of days after having to exit the forest by hitch. Today (November 10th) I am resting, organizing my bounce box and provisions, and will head out again tomorrow for a lesirely 25km walk to Paihai on the coast and beyond. Marylene, Rob and Joss are also here this evening – good to see everyone making their way forward and out of the forest!

My takeaway from this leg of the journey? Many of the hikers are at a point in life where they are coming to terms with what is next for them. Seeking some insight into who they are – really – and what direction that might take them in life beyond the journey itself. What I think is interesting, and affirming, is that Jimi is the one who recognizes that all of life is that journey – and he has found a path to happiness and contentment that he is following in his house truck while the rest of us march in the mud with our eyes to the ground instead of looking into ourselves.

Should check in again in 4-5 days time.

Check out the gallery for photos related to this post.

 

 

514,436 Steps (393 km)

I am down with whatever. Taking it as it comes and being rewarded every day summarizes the experiences of the past week. It appears that the best way to manage expectations is to simply not have any.

In contrast to prior days of this trek – which were all beach or all forest – the past six days have been a diverse variety pack of discovery. Each day a little present that unwrapped itself without prejudice. I appreciate each for what it is, and only for what it is. These have been full and physically challenging days, but positive and pleasant. Very different from the stress of the beach and forests before.

After a rest day in Kerikeri November 10, I headed out to Paihia on November 11, strolling along the river path, a charming country road, and onward into the Waitanga forest. It was a lovely 23 km walk along a well developed forest road that spat me out onto a golf course, the Pacific Ocean, and a leisurely stroll into Paihia and its many touristy cruise and helicopter adventure offerings. This walk was calm and scenic and set me in a very positive frame of mind for the days ahead. I bunked down in a tiny hostel cottage with a group of 20-something Germans who made some brief conversation before heading out for the night – just as I was heading to sleep.

There is absolutely no need for an alarm clock here. The birds start chirping at 5:10 – an hour before sunrise – and given their volume (audibly and numerically) I awake each day just as early. November 12th I strolled along to Opua and a waiting water taxi that took me through the Waikare inlet and an afternoon wading in the middle of Papakauri Stream. I really enjoy walking in the streams. It requires focus and attention and makes no demands on the pace of the walk. Reminds me of the escape you get on a challenging alpine ski run – when the worries of life have no space to thrive because your attention is demanded by the immediate physical challenge. At the end of the day (24 km, plus 10 km in boat) I stopped on a piece of cleared land to tent for the night. Setting up my tent I was greeted by a peaceful and easygoing Maori gentleman who indicated the forest I was camping in was his family’s land. Apologizing for my trespassing, he cut me off, said I was more than welcome, offered me a night in his house and offered his own apology for his barking dogs. I declined the friendly offer – since my tent was already assembled – before falling asleep to the barks of his excited dogs as he approached his home on the hill above me.

I continue to be be struck by the welcoming nature of New Zealanders. For someone who struggles, and feels immense stress to make conversation with people I do not know, I find myself engaged several times each day in stress-free chats with complete strangers. I think this is born of acceptance and a sense of safety that I feel in this transparent and supportive society. I think this is healthy for me especially. And, I appear to be “wearing” my new outlook; curiously and unconsciously somehow inviting dialogue. One thing that has happened to me in the last several days is that during sections of road walking I continue to get unsolicited offers of a ride. Speaking with others I have hiked with, this is unprecedented. While none of them report any such offers, two or three times each day a car or truck will pull to a stop on the opposite side of the road from me, offer me a lift and engage in a chat about where I am headed, what they are up to, where they live, where I am from etc. I now look forward to these conversation and they feel natural and intuitive in a way I have never felt when encountering strangers. Rory figures I am putting out a welcoming vibe. Maybe after 46 years I have found it in myself to do that. It feels comfortable and healthy and I like it. I will take it as it comes like the rest of this journey.

The morning of November 13, I continued on a 32 km walk that had a little bit of everything: road, farm pasture, forest, coastline and ocean vistas. I eventually made my way to Whananaki and the friendly hosts Tracy and Mathew at the Whananaki Holiday Park. They were delightful and gracious hosts and put me up in a private cabin where I was able to get some quality sleep. I also met Martin. Martin is doing the Te Araroa also, he is retired, lives in Reno, and is an experienced long haul hiker who has completed both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail since retiring. He shared his frustrations with the challenges of the earlier forests, which was affirming to hear from such an experienced hiker.

November 14 was another delightful solo walk through forest paths and pastures, ocean views and eventually a road walk into Ngunguru where I had no idea where I might sleep that night. At the store in town, after chatting with Bob (the store owner) I was directed to a campground in Tutukaka, 5 km up the road. Exhausted, I started the march down the coastal road before coming across Bellmain House B+B. Faced with a choice between more walking and setting up a tent or a warm bed and hot shower I opted for the bed and shower and the delightful company of Marion and Graham.

I had barely I unstrapped my backpack when my phone pinged with a message from Rory, who was with Moritz and Jimi at the other end of town staying at the Whangarei Hilton. I joined them for dinner, caught up, had a tasty dessert, and headed back later to my bed at the Bellmain. Once again, Jimi proved himself a comforting and gracious host.

The next morning, November 15, I started out late but well-fed (Marion prepared a hot breakfast!), trailing behind Rory and Moritz before catching up with them at lunch midway towards Patua. This day was mostly forest and road walks, but long (32 km). In Patua Jimi was waiting for us next to the estuary where we set up our tents next to the Hilton and enjoyed a hot meal and a movie before retiring to sleep in a windy overnight rainstorm.

The morning of November 16th was delightful. The wind and rain was replaced by blue sky, bird songs (at 5:10 am) and the promise of an early start. I headed out on my own, ahead of Rory and Moritz, figuring my pace would be slower as my ankle had become swollen in recent days. Some 30 minutes in to the walk I met up with Martin once again. He and I turned back from the path through the estuary after a local gentlemen explain it would be waist deep water ahead of us to cross – even at low tide – so we opted for a longer (but drier) road bypass to reconnect with the trail later. I sent Rory a heads up, but am still unsure how he and Moritz made out. Anxious to hear as I have yet to hear from them over a day later. The rest of that day was country road, forest road, a welcome beach walk (this time along the clear waters of the South Pacific), a peak to peak, up and down scramble over Bream Head, a leg-numbing descent to Urquharts Bay and finally a brief road walk to Reotahi. The views of the ocean and surrounding valley from the peaks of Bream Head were absolutely spectacular. At Teotahi, Martin and I said goodbye as he headed onward to Parua to camp the night while I opted to take a rest day (after 28 km) and rent an apartment in Reotani to nurse my ankle and wait out a heavy rain forecast for the next day.

I am sitting now in this beautifully appointed, warm and spacious apartment (November 17), listening to the thunder and rain pummel the roof and windows of my amazing apartment above the garage of today’s hosts, Lil and Ron. I am showered and clean. My ankle is starting to take a normal shape thanks to an ice pack prepared by Lil last evening. Later today, Lil is going to drive me up the road to do my grocery shopping and banking. My clothes are in the laundry and I am feeling really good about a lot of different things. Happy with the diversity in recent days walks, the friendly and comfortable interaction with strangers I continue to meet, the courtesy of my hosts each day, and the many good things that can happen when you start each day as a tabula rasa: a blank slate. Happy to be down with whatever each day presents to me. Especially when it is an icepack for a swollen ankle.

Next post will probably wait until Auckland, where I am planning my next rest day. Expect that will be in 7 or 8 days time.

Lots of photos of amazing scenery accompany this post. Check them out in the gallery. Also check out the Instagram account.

776,235 Steps (593 km)

Ebbs, flows and the spaces in between. A natural rhythm has set itself into the past eight days: ebbs and flows in pace, people, terrain, expectation, contemplation, accommodation and, yes, tides. There are times when life gets ahead of us, and there are times when we get ahead of life. Neither is a terribly happy place if we are so arrogant as to believe we deserve something otherwise. This journey is a reminder to embrace the whole – not to chase down the high points or circle around the low points.

I left Reotani on November 18 and I arrived at the Pullman Hotel in downtown Auckland on November 25 where I am taking a rest day (November 26). This post covers a nine day period and 200 km of walking, resting and kayaking that I am not going to breakdown in detail as I have in past posts. That’s a tedious task when approached over nine days. Instead, this go around I am reflecting on some themes that have presented themselves during this stage of the journey:

The tide needs time to do its thing, and so do we. Waiting for a high tide or waiting for a low tide was a reminder that our schedule is not always our own. You can’t rush the tide. This can work out well, though. It provided a licence to kick back and enjoy an unfortunate combination of sauvignon blanc, several beers and cider at the charming Puhoi Pub. This was also a chance to get to know Lance Smith, who not only hosted me that evening and provided a warm bed in a charming loft, but also supplied, prepared and joined me on the next days high-tide kayak trip down the Puhoi River and shared perspectives on Neil Young – he also paid for my cider! The same was true two days later, when I spent hours resting at a campground in Stillwater waiting for the tide to lower. Time spent napping, booking an Auckland hotel, and the finally meeting up with Serina (Canada), Eef (Belgium) and Per Jonus (Norway) as we anxiously scoped out route options for a waist-depth wade across the Okura River, which can be safely crossed only at low tide.

People come and people go and… oh, here they come again. There are moments when a competitive instinct – or simply a motivation to do it “well” makes  me aware of my relative progress: Am I keeping up? Am I ahead? There is no such thing. In this journey, nobody is truly ahead or behind because it’s every traveler’s own journey. People take their own pauses, for their own reasons, and eventually we meet up again. As happened between Faby (Germany) and I on a couple of consecutive days, we don’t say bye, it’s safest to assume we will bump into one another for no particular reason: unscheduled, unplanned, and always on our own time. This elasticity of pace is really awesome. It is uncoordinated and free and void of technology for the most part. While I have still not run into Rory, I have heard from him, and I did meet MaryLene the morning after my last blog post as I was boarding a boat to cross to Marsden Point. Later that same day I ran into Moritz – he had managed a boat ride the previous day- and introduced him to Faby – a fellow German. Jorg, yet another German, has made regular outreach as well. While I have had a solid dose of walking alone the past 8 days, I have never felt isolated, as the flow of people is steady – even though their individual paces are their own.

The pace and distance traveled each day don’t matter.  I have not walked consistent distances, times or pace the past 8 days. Some days call for a long day, some call for a fast pace, some invite many pauses: to capture a photo, to stare down a cow or fifteen, to dry feet in the sun, to confirm directions, to soak feet in a stream. Others call for a heads-down push through kilometers of road. The daily pace and mileage, as a result, ebbs and flows based on the terrain and my temperament. About the only constant is the start of my day – always on the trail between 6 and 6:30 each morning.

Accommodating about accommodations. Because I don’t look more than a day ahead on the trail map I truly have no idea where I will be sleeping more than a day ahead. At this point I aim for the best accommodations possible: free camping being the last resort. Backpackers (hostels) seem to offer the best balance, followed by a private cabin at a holiday park, a bed and breakfast or hosted accommodation, an apartment and finally a quality hotel like the Pullman in downtown Auckland. What I really liked – I didn’t think I would – was staying a night in camper #33 at the Takapuna Beach Holiday Park in the Auckland suburbs. It was super-cozy and spacious and clean and the cafe next door accommodated me with a late night fish and chips (after closing) and a subsequent early morning coffee (before opening). Both were excellent, hot, and served with a friendly smile. Not camping in a tent has many advantages: it’s easier on the tent, it’s easier on the back, it’s drier, it affords a quick start the next morning and relaxes the pace of the next day. There will be many nights in this journey where a tent will be the only option. In the meantime, enjoying what comes along works out fine for me and also for others who are more tent-minded. I heard from Faby, Jorg and Serina different experiences in recent days where they asked to set up tents on property only to be invited to sleep in the house – and most often offered food and such.

The hill is always longer than you think – and is worth it. My younger daughter, Gwen, advised me once to “use your bum muscles” when cross country skiing. This has proved to be some of the best advice ever. There are periods in this walk where the amount of vertical climbing is overwhelming: the demands on the leg muscles to push forward and up – with the added burden of a laden backpack – then down and up and down again, are made so much easier engaging the “glutes”. I repeat Gwen’s words often when I am making my way up yet another hill, towards yet another stunning vista of farm pasture, rolling hills, coastal beach or gleaming coastal reef. Hills slow you down, but always deliver something – even if it is just the satisfaction of having put the hill behind you.

(De)commuting in slow motion. One of the interesting dynamics of theses last days was the gradual, but steadily increasing presence of massive and glamorous homes as I approached the city. What started as hilltop vacation properties overlooking the sea evolved to clusters of the same and, eventually, walled stretches of beach bordered by house stacked-upon house. This isn’t specific to New Zealand, I get that. What was interesting was the experience of walking into it: having it unfold step by step, bay by bay, kilometer by kilometer, day by day. For me it begged some questions: who lives here? why? for what purpose? I don’t have any good answers yet. Perhaps seeing it in reverse in the next few days as I walk away from the city at the same pace will answer these questions.

Black Diamond has swung into the good column. The walking pole I broke on day four was a huge inconvenience and more than a bit of a disappointment in the Black Diamond brand. I had spent very good money on these walking sticks and to have one break on the first day of hill climbing was not what I bought into. Well, after some brief back and forth and exceptional effort on the part of Black Diamond’s New Zealand distributor (thanks Emma!) I now have a replacement set of terrific (carbon!) walking poles. A big upgrade from what I had, and a near-painless resolution of a problem. Except…

The last two days in the city have been stress-ridden. Physically and emotionally. The emotional part centres around my lost cell phone (and most of the past week’s photos) en route to pick up my replacement walking poles yesterday morning. The energy and time spent worrying about where the phone was, how I might get it back, what it would mean in terms of cost, reloading GPS was debilitating. This is a reminder that, while I have got much perspective from the past few weeks, little things continue to bring me down when they don’t need to. Earlier today I got a replacement phone and all appears fine – except for the photos. I remind myself that I am not doing this to collect photos – I am doing it for the experience and the perspective it provides. I will chalk this episode up as a costly reminder of that.

My ankle has had no significant pain in recent days, thanks to regular icing, resting of feet etc. But it is weak. I had a massage today and the massage therapist aggressively worked the muscles on my left side (same as ankle). It was extremely painful as she worked the tightened muscles all the way up my left side. Really, really painful. Apparently my legs are handling the duties my ankle isn’t, and getting messed up in the process. I will need to watch this carefully. She recommended taping it up to prevent some of this overcompensation by the leg muscles, which I plan to do starting tomorrow. Staying at the Pullman has been very relaxing and I am now (post-phone-freakout) taking the opportunity to air out, wipe down and repack my gear and do laundry.

Finally, I have a new best friend who goes by the name of magnesium. This stuff is magic in a bottle. Having run 9 marathons and tons of shorter running races and all the training associated with that, I am embarrassed that I did not discover this stuff before now. It eases and prevents muscle pain and cramps like crazy. AND it provides relief from “worry”!  Yes. Relief from worry. I don’t recall taking it yesterday morning before the cell phone fiasco, perhaps that is the real lesson here…?

I will aim to post within 4-5 days next time. This last 9-day window has proven too much of a gap to capture the feel of each day’s experience.

There is a very limited gallery to accompany this post (because cell phone!), pretty much just some of the instagram photos that were posted in that period. 

933,857 Steps (713 km)

I flew a plane today. Not for long and not at all well. But I did fly a plane. Today (December 1) was, like most days, an unplanned experience. Well, it was planned as something otherwise and then turned into skimming the surf 300 ft above the Tasman Sea, yards from the cliffs north of Raglan.

I strayed off course and could not be better for it. My plan when I awoke was a casual 25 km walk to Rangiriri and a hotel stay. But that hotel went out of business, I slept in, was tired, and Jim had a better idea.

Jim took me flying in his Aeroprakt 22 LS “Foxbat”. Many years ago he developed and opened the Mercer Airport, moving most of the historic Mercer hotel to its current locale at the airport where it houses a backpackers (think hostel) and setting up a flying school and skydiving operation. After 30 years flying jumbo jets across the Pacific for Air New Zealand, today he greets guests, teaches flying, and every now and then offers a guest the chance to go up for a birds eye view of the New Zealand countryside.

I arrived at the Mercer late last night after 4 days and 120 km hiking south from Auckland.

On November 27 I had a leisurely morning, swimming in the pool at the Pullman, giving my ankle some love in the hot tub, preparing and mailing my bounce box, and enjoying a lovely breakfast with Jorg and Marylene who arrived with Rory in Auckland the afternoon before. It was lovely to catch up with them and reminded me that, regrettably, it has been weeks since we have walked together. That afternoon I headed south on a 20 km walk away from Auckland in the direction of the Auckland airport, ending the afternoon in the charming Ambury Park surrounded by paddocks of sheep and goats. Here I set camp next to two American women, WeeBee (Alaska) and Mary (Georgia), who are keeping a solid pace on the Te Araroa having started the day after me.

The next morning (November 28) we all rose early, packed up tents and loaded up our packs minutes before a heavy rainstorm appeared. Mary and WeeBee headed out in the rain while I huddled in the public bathroom and nursed a second cup of coffee and hoped the rain would pass. It didn’t. So, after an hour lingering next to a urinal, I found my dignity and started a long, wet walk through some marsh, sewage ponds and gravel roads for 26 km towards Manakau, another Auckland suburb. These last two days were pretty uninspiring walks except they exposed me to more modest neighbourhoods than I had seen in the suburbs north of Auckland: small houses, lacking views, gardens unmaintained, people getting by with what they have in the shadow of the city.

Before 6:30 am on November 29, I exited the suburbs and entered the countryside, still walking alone, towards forests. It was a lovely day of walking down country roads, up steep pastures and well maintained trails. The sheep were ubiquitous and the cows were inquisitive, watching my every step. I drank a lot of water this day and, still feeling dehydrated, stopped in Clevendon for an extended rest and the chance to rest my feet with a cool drink in my hand before marching onward towards a 35 km, 12 hour day to finally camp under a Kauri tree on a quiet ridge above Cosseys Gorge. Too tired to cook, and short of water, I opted for a chocolate bar for dinner and fell asleep shortly after my tent was pitched.

With rain in the forecast I woke up at 3:30 yesterday (November 30) and figured it would be best to get ahead of the rain (and the 5:10 am bird calls) and head out early for a 39 km hike to Mercer. This was an epic day highlighted by some beautiful views overlooking water reservoirs serving the region. My earliest start, my longest distance and a mixed bag of a trail that had long patches of muddy steep bush, foot-pounding asphalt, capped by an evening walk through windblown grasses atop a  riverside dike. After 14 hours I finally arrived at Mercer, exhausted and dehydrated. Within an hour Jim had me settled in a room with a cold beer and a warm bed. I fell asleep immediately after working out my plan for today’s walk.

That walk didn’t happen. Instead I took the opportunity to fly. After Jim produced a map, together we sat down to figure out our flight path before hopping into the plane where I helped do a pre-flight check, flipping switches, turning levers and nodding a lot.

Flying at a low elevation – in a plane that is one big window – over the same terrain I have walked the past month provided yet another perspective on this journey: a reminder that every situation in life can be viewed another way. There are multiple truths to consider and every plan can be improved by circumstance as much as by design.

Stop yourself. Literally and figuratively. That is how you get to fly.

I loved this day.

There are photos in the gallery and instagram that relate to this post.

 

 

 

1,039,947 Steps (794 km)

At 5:30 the room went dark. The music stopped. Conversations halted. Everyone stood, turned in my direction and put their hands to their sides. And then it began:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

These words, recited slowly in a deep tone – a calm pause between each word – came from a loudspeaker behind me that I could not see.

I stood, turned and did as the others, stared up towards a statue of a soldier. Once this ode was read, the crowd responded, in unison, with the same tone and same calm cadence: “We will remember them.”

“‘The Last Post” then played. Still in the darkness. All of us quiet. All of us standing at attention. I halted my breath and could feel my eyes well in that moment. A wholly unexpected and unguarded moment.

Then the lights flashed back on, the music restarted, and we all got back to enjoying our beers.

This was my first visit to a Razza – The Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association (RSA) hall – in this particular case the Ngaruawahia RSA, across the street from my hotel.

In Canada we call this the Legion. In Ngaruawahia, I called it convenient. And it looked to be the best choice for a cool beer on a hot day. It was December 3 and I had just completed a shorter walk, in sunny weather, from across the Hakarimata Track from Huntly: a familiar mix of country road, riverside walk, forest (jungle) ascents and descents and a couple of great ridgetop vistas. A short day, just 19 km.

The ode above is part of a poem written by Laurence Binyon in 1914 in the earliest stages of WWI. The Ngaruawahia RSA follows a daily Remembrance ceremony at 5:30 pm, though I understand that 9 pm is a more common custom in other parts of the Commonwealth. The words and the ceremony around them resonated strongly in that moment.

In the past 4 days I have not travelled far: just 81 km. I left Mercer on December 2 and walked long and hard (41 km) over 11 hrs on a flat course alongside the Waikato River to Huntly. There, I checked into the Huntly camping grounds, where Dave and Carol made me feel immensely welcome, running me to the supermarket, sharing the stories of recent Te Walkers, and providing a warm private cabin for just $10. So generous and kind. They were just adorable and kind people.

December 3 was the walk to Ngaruahia I described above. December 4th was another easy day, more riverside walking along the Waikato for 21 km into the centre of the city of Hamilton.

There was very little challenge to the walking in these past days, and the look of the river was pretty but the same for most of it. It was boring after a while.

I think this is part of why my time at the Razza stands out. The Razza is a happening place. A centre point for the community with a steady schedule of trivia nights, a diverse mix of young and old, leaders and followers, male and female. I enjoyed a pint of special RSA Forces ale and chatted with a couple of people. Mostly, though, I just observed: the honours to locals who fought a hundred years ago, the cooler doors next to the bar where you were expected to grab your own frosted glass and present it to the bar to be filled, the cheers and smiles when someone won a modest door prize, the profound sense of a happy and supportive community paired with the sombre remembrance of war and lost soldiers.

There’s tons of this in Canada at Legions, community halls, curling rinks and golf clubs, for sure. Especially in smaller communities. But experiencing something familiar played out in a slightly unfamiliar style can allow its true essence to present itself more clearly. The fact remains, this isn’t woven into the fabric of the life that I have been living. My life can be so much richer with more community connections. This is something else for me to remember.

Today is December 5, and I am resting up and organizing provisions and hut passes in Hamilton ahead of another long walk planned for tomorrow. I am looking forward to a change of scenery as I will be in the backcountry and some bigger mountains for several 3-5 day periods in the coming weeks.

I am still walking alone at this stage. MaryLene and Jorg are 1.5 days behind and Rory is headed off in an alternate route he has devised between Manakau and Wellington, so I won’t see him til South Island. I have calculated that in order to get back to Auckland for my Xmas visit to Canada I have to walk steadily for the next 15 days without a break and get to National Park, which means I can’t stop and wait for MaryLene and Jorg. We will regroup probably in January I suspect.

I will aim to check in again in 4-5 days time.

There are, as always, some photos accompanying this post in the gallery as well as on Instagram.

 

 

 

1,118,331 Steps (905 km)

From Hamilton to Te Kuiti, December 6-9, 2014

I was electrocuted 17 times in the past 4 days. Got charged by a bull. Broke another walking stick. My shoes are toast. Lost my pocketknife.  I lost my maps. Oh yeah, one day I ran out of water.

And I’d say it’s all going pretty well.

Before leaving Hamilton, the night of December 5th I got a text from Jorg, who was in town to get his feet looked at. He and Marylene arrived in Huntly that morning and he took a bus into Hamilton. We caught up over a beer and a bite and he shared the news that he might lose 4-6 days dealing with the foot problem. Frustrating, for sure, but he appears to be taking it in stride.

On December 6 I left Hamilton bright and early as has become my habit. Walking away from the city through suburbs, on streets and parks before a peaceful early morning walk through the Taitua Arboretum, which is an amazing setting, home to myriad trees and a large free-range rooster colony. Beyond that was a lovely walk through the countryside on rural roads followed by a long upward march through high range sheep pasture that had spectacular views. At a high ridge here I stopped and sat alone, had a late lunch and a rest and soaked in the vista, the sheep, a beautiful blue sky and sheep on all sides. No people in sight. It was a real highlight moment that comes back to me vividly days later. It is also when I realized I didn’t have my pocket knife. This is also the day my backpack caught in a fence, causing me to fall onto my back and struggle through multiple shocks to free myself. I don’t recall the specific time or order of that event, perhaps some short term memory loss is an after effect of the electrocution. That might explain why I carelessly touched electric fences on three more occasions that same day. I think now, with the benefit of the 17 electrocutions, I have finally developed the appropriate cognitive awareness to avoid further self-inflicted electrocution. Finger crossed.

While I was on the hill enjoying my break I got a call from Yvonne at the hostel in Hamilton (she had generously offered to mail my bounce box to the next post office so I could leave early that morning). Yvonne had a question: Did you lose a swiss army knife?  She mailed it the next day! The day ended at the Khaniwanwha campsite at the base of Pirongia mountain, where I shared the campsite with Nicolas (France) who is also doing the Te Araroa.

I headed off early the next morning (December 7) and charged up Pirongia. It was steep and wet from rain the previous day, but there were stunning views at the summit and just past that a well-equiped hut where I enjoyed my lunch before pushing onward down the other side of the mountain. That’s also where I left my map behind. The descent was much harder, wetter and muddier than the ascent. This is where I broke my walking pole. Tired but not broken I walked some roads til early evening before camping on a quiet forest road.

December 8 was great weather. A mix of sketchy forest, some ascents to high pasture ground, and a charming river crossing, followed by some mountain bike trails and a little bit of road to get to Waitomo mid-afternoon for a plate of fries and a cold beer and a stay at a backpackers. This was the day I ran out of water, anticipating there would be a later stream to draw from that wasn’t.

From Waitomo, I had a short half days walk on December 9 towards Te Kuiti and an opportunity to resupply that afternoon for an upcoming long forest stretch, print off some new maps, and get oriented to what laid ahead. Without maps I got lost and spent 2 hours wandering farm pastures, getting charged by bulls, tossing my backpack into a pond, and suffering further electrocutions before joining up again with the trail and coming across Chris and Tony (New Zealand) and Jean and Julliette (France).

At the end of the four days I got to where I wanted to, had printed new maps, found walking with one pole preferable, know where my pocketknife is, learned not to stare down a bull, and have developed a positive aversion to electrified fences.

There are photos in the gallery and instagram that relate to this post.

Next post will cover the Pureroa Forest, 4 days in the forest without coming across civilization.

 

1,372,626 Steps (1,048 km)

But I’ma make your b*tch ass holla
Cause I’ma put a hole in your head
The size of a half a dolla
(F*ck around and get your cap peeled cause this is)
Die muthaf*cka, die muthaf*cka (kill)

– Still, Geto Boys

There is supposed to be a get for the give. Most trails on this journey have their challenges: mud, water, rain, stream crossing, slippery footing, wind, road traffic or hard pavement. You accept these challenges because you get something in return: a view, a waterfall, a beach sunset, a pretty pasture, or simply a quiet moment in solitude. You give. You get. This is the contract that keeps you going.

Not so with the last 7 km of the Hauhungaro Route between Hauhungaroa Hut and Mangakahu Road. This track is without a soul. Unlike its cousins in the Pureora Forest which offered beautiful streams, unique micro-climates and the promise of views of Lake Taupo, this stretch gave nothing back. It took everything out of me regardless: in heavy wind and sheets of rain it offered puddles in place of a path, steep descents that went for hours and just when it looked to be easing up, it threw in a stream crossing and another course of mud. Hate is a strong word, and I hated this trail with all my very essence.

This walk into and out of the Pureoa Forest started on December 10th, with a charming march alongside the Mangaokewa River on a mixed bag of pathways including a couple of kilometres of sketchy-footing with cliffs hidden alongside. The river is beautiful and there were many places to stop and have a quiet moment overlooking the stream or a pasture or a native forest on the opposite bank. I ended that day with a walk down some country roads and was lucky enough to come across a pine forest where I had a dry evening despite strong rains that drenched much of the area.

The next morning (December 11th) was roads and rain and pasture – but quiet and efficient. On the way I passed Jean and Juliette who stopped for some lunch and had a brief conversation. Turns out they had arrived in New Zealand straight from Canada, having spent the previous four months hiking throughout British Columbia and visiting. They were the first people I have met who knew where Canmore was. Turns out they have friends there. They are an interesting couple, from Grenoble, who have hiked the Alps, the Great Divide Trail, extensively in the Canadian Rockies, and their own-devised 2,000 km trek through the southern Andes. Julliete says the Canadian Rockies is her favorite place in the world because of the incomparable wilderness. We all ended up at the end of the day at a campground at the base of the Pureroa Forest with an eye to the days ahead in the backcountry.

I headed out early on December 12th into the forest and it was amazing. The Pureroa Forest gains a lot of elevation and has its own microclimates as you travel upward. The weather is cooler and humid as you rise and the vegetation changes in spectacular ways: mosses and ferns that I have not seen anyplace else on this journey. Part way up the trail, this beauty was interrupted by a stretch of walking though forest that was being logged. Stepping out of the moss-covered jungle into a barren vista strewn with mud, machinery and bare logs was surreal. The day ended at The Bog Inn, a 50 year old hut that was dry and warm.

As Juliette and I were finishing a conversation and saying goodnight, out from the forest came Craig. Craig loves hunting; deer (5 kinds in NZ) and wild boar mostly. Craig had run out daylight and aimed for The Bog Inn when he realized he would not be able to walk back to his truck. He put down his gun, shared a bunch of crazy stories about getting lost in the forest before we headed to sleep.

The next day, December 13th, was a calm one, a great short walk through to another, more modern, hut midway through the forest. Many streams, some very steep (but mostly dry) descents and good quality of trails. The Waihaha Hut was modern and dry and warm. I walked the forest without headphones or music or podcasts as had become my habit recently. This was based upon Juliette quizing me why I needed them. It was a good question. I have cheated myself of the sounds of the forest to this point. No more. Saving the tunes for the roads only from this point onward.

I woke early the morning of December 14th with a very modest goal of walking just 12 km to the next hut on the trail. The notes suggested this would be a 10 hour trip. The signage said seven hours. In heavy rain I did it in just over five and a half. This meant I was at my destination at 11:15 am. The weather was severe at the Hauhungaroa Hut with high winds and heavy rain. But I couldn’t see myself hanging around a hut all day, so after a cup of soup I headed out at noon aiming to camp near the forest exit.

That plan went horribly wrong. The trail notes said this was 2.5 hrs. It took me nearly four. The trail, as I have said, was a mean bastard: cruel and unsympathetic. Just when most trails get a touch easier and relaxed towards the end, this trail did the opposite.

And it got to me.

I was defeated emotionally. Seeing no sign of the cruel intensity letting up. No mercy. No compassion. No gets.

As I exited the trail I was shaking. The rain had stopped now, outside the forest. I entered the beginnings of a farm road and marched a few hundred meters when a car pulled beside me.

Windows down, inside that little car were Rita and Trev.

“Do you want a ride?” asked Rita

“I would love a ride!” I said, continuing “But I promised myself I would walk.”

“Good on ya.” Rita replied as she smiled, looked me in the eyes and gave me a thumbs up with her cigarette in her hand.

That got me. I can’t speak to why. But that smile and genuine consideration was what I needed.

Rita, you don’t know how you charged up my spirit with your smile and kind eyes.

We chatted as we worked our way through the farm gates for another 100 metres. I was most relieved after apologizing to Rita for forgetting the name of the hut and many forest names in NZ as I was still struggling with the pronunciations.

“Ya. They are all Maori names they use, aye?” responded Rita. “I am Maori and I can’t tell what is what half the time. They all sound the same.”

Another smile followed. We waved goodbye.

And that is when I was inspired to walk on. To not let that horrid little trail get the best of me or my day.

I looked at my map. Checked the time. Counted my snacks. It was a doable goal to walk all the way to Taumaranui.

This was my way to win. To get my gets.

I walked an additional 30 km from late afternoon to evening. It was beautiful and calm and I got my gets in cloud formations, sunset, streams, pastures and mountain views. All under a warm evening light. A 50 km day in total. 53 km by the time I settled at the holiday park.

50 km is epic and exhausting in this terrain. It was 16.5 hours of walking.

50 km is my half a dolla in the head of you, Hauhungaroa Route. Seems I peeled yo cap.

I got my gets despite you.

All thanks to Rita.

 

 

There are photos in the gallery and Instagram that accompany this post.

1,516,699 Steps (1,158 km)

Taumarunui to National Park

I met my Doppelgänger four days ago. He goes by the name Alex. I will come back to him shortly.

I spent December 15th resting, after the epic 53 km walk I had done the day before. The day was spent at the Holiday Park in Taumarunui under a hot sun and clear blue sky: showering, tending to sore feet, getting provisions, sipping beer, preparing a blog post and preparing a protein-focused steak dinner. Standing over the BBQ fussing over two (!) steaks, I caught sight of WeeBee (Alaska) who filled me in on her progress in the storms in Pureora Forest (she got lost the previous day – as I had nearly done). The last time I had spoken with WeeBee was in the South Auckland suburbs (lingering in the bathroom) and she was then travelling with her friend Mary (Georgia). It turns out that shortly after, Mary’s ankle sprain proved too much, she stopped her walk and flew home. A reminder that injury prevention needs to be a priority in this journey. WeeBee was now travelling solo but was feeling strong and seemed to be making good progress. Later in the evening, Jean and Julliette (France) appeared safe and sound at the Holiday Park, in good spirits as usual. It was good for my psyche to connect with people coming out of the same forest that had caused me such frustration the day before.

I set out early the morning of December 16 along a lengthy road walk towards the next forest challenge. This was an incredibly scenic walk in excellent weather. The distant view of a snow-covered Mount Ruapehu against lush green pastures was stunning and a welcome change. As I approached Owhango, the fields of dairy cows and sheep were complemented this time by a paddock full of blanket-covered miniature horses. Gentle and friendly and adorable. Earlier on the highway, Karen (who runs The Shack) had pulled to a stop and invited me to stop for tea when I reached the town. Unfortunately Karen was away when I arrived in Owhango, so instead I rested my feet and refuelled with the richest, moistest carrot cake of my life at Cafe 39 South. This was great fuel and gave me some good energy to push through the 42 Traverse Trail in the Tongariro Forest and some gorgeous views looking down at the Whanganui River and Puekepota Forest before finding a dry tent site and settling down for the night and falling asleep around 8:30 pm. A time that just barely provides an 8 hour sleep window before the 5:10 am racket of bird calls wake me up.

I awoke with the birds (5:10 am) and just before an approaching rainstorm on December 17, so I managed to pack my tent and gear without getting drenched. The drenching followed, however. The walk through the Waione/Cokers track was under heavy rain through puddles and a thigh-deep crossing of the Whanganui River. I was soaked through by the time I called into the refuge in the reception lobby of the Hillary Outdoors Tongariro Outdoor Centre. The friendly receptionist let me dry out my feet and warm up for half an hour while I read up on the opportunities that Hillary Outdoors provides youth to explore outdoors. The rain didn’t let up, however, so I was once again soaked as I marched through tussock, past groups of enthusiastic teens exploring the outdoors, for another couple of hours to a dry and warm cabin at the Tongariro Holiday Park.

Relaxing on the front porch of my cabin, with a cold beer in my hand, is where I met Alex. Alex had spent the day literally walking in my footsteps from a campsite a few kilometres earlier in the trail, using my tracks to navigate the sketchy nature of the Waione/Cokers trail.

We had some polite conversation over the next couple of hours before agreeing a plan for walking together across the Tongariro Crossing over the coming days. Our plan was to wait out the heavy rain forecast for the next morning by setting out around noon and to “stealth camp” for the night part way through the crossing near the Ketetahi Hut. We figured we would find a sheltered area adjacent to the hut for tenting, fully knowing that this hut was:

  1. closed to overnight stays, open only as a daytime rest area
  2. unheated without any running water
  3. severely damaged by a 2012 volcanic eruption
  4. within a volcanic eruption risk zone, so camping was not allowed in vicinity of the hut

After sitting around all morning in the rain, we walked through a mix of sun, cloud and rain before ascending toward the Ketetahi Hut the afternoon of December 18. This is a popular walk, so the trail is well-engineered with steps, boardwalks and gravel. The weather was not excellent, however. The winds became very strong and the rain heavier as we gained elevation. Upon reaching the hut, visibility was nil, the rain was unrelenting and the temperature was dropping. There was no clearing for pitching a tent, so we after the briefest conversation we agreed to linger for an hour, and in the absence of a park warden telling us otherwise, we would camp inside the damaged, damp remnants of the hut. We hung our gear to dry but none of it did, owing to cold and humidity. We set up our tents, continued some interesting conversations we had started earlier in the day, ignored all the (literal and figurative) signs telling us not to be there, had dinner and went to sleep under a leaky roof and the watchful eye of at least one curious mouse.

The rain stopped to a drizzle by the time we awoke, so we headed out early in thick cloud, heavy wind and drizzle the next morning (December 19) to complete the Tongariro Crossing. It was an easy track for the most part, a welcome mix of gravel, boardwalk, steps, scree and rock scrambles. Fortunately, we had the moonlike crater and alpine lakes to ourselves, owing to our early morning start halfway up the mountain. Unfortunately, we were surrounded by thick fog and cloud, so we saw none of the postcard views for which the crossing is known. It was a peaceful and unique experience regardless, distinct from what the crowds of tourists would experience as they marched heel to toe in a steady stream in the oncoming direction as we descended the mountain. It wasn’t a postcard hike, it was our own silent challenge to the mountain and it felt exactly right. A shared solitude. With the crossing (and a couple of hundred ascending hikers) behind us, we rested for a soup lunch break at the Mangatepopo Hut, before spending the afternoon walking in tussock, forest and mud to Whakapapa. There, we checked into a backpackers and warmed up with a shower and heating. Later we enjoyed drinks, dinner and some very deep, wine-fuelled discussion at the Chateau Tongariro. Sitting outside after dinner, the sky finally cleared in just the right spots to give us a clear view of an evening sky, Mount Ruapehu’ snowy summit and a striking sunset. A lovely contrast to the night before.

It was an 8 am start the morning of December 20 when we headed out on a track towards National Park Village. The walk in the morning was warm, easy and scenic, passing through forest, rapids and many bridged creek crossings. All were framed by a blue sky and the view of Mount Rupapehu. Such a contrast from the previous morning’s fog and cloud. Later in the walk the trail got much less friendly, devolving to a series of puddles in tussock and jungle. Just before reaching the trail’s end and a final road section to National Park Village, Geoff (Colorado) caught up to us and filled us in on the success that he, Joey (New York) and Faby (Germany) had on the Whaganui River canoe section. We said goodbye to Geoff and marched the last few kilometres on the highway to National Park Village. The rest of the day involved laundry, retrieving my bounce box and the pocket knife that Yvonne had kindly mailed on. Then we drank beer. And another. While walking to a restaurant for dinner (and more beer) we ran into Moritz (Germany) who I had not seen since Ruakaka. Once again, it was wonderful to simply come upon one another, without communication or planning, as we have done many times in this journey. Moritz was in excellent spirit, having spent several days doing side trips hiking different routes in the Tongariro National Park. Like many others, he has gained kilometres and days by hitchhiking road sections of the trail. I have managed to walk every kilometre of the trail so far. For now I will continue to walk every section. I don’t want to “break the seal” as I am 1100+ km vested and pretty sure if if I skip one road walk I won’t stop at one.

Sunday (December 21) was spent reorganizing my pack and bounce box and picking a few things to take with me to Canada. Then a quick lunch with Alex and a walk down to the remarkably quaint National Park train station and and scenic train ride back up the island to Auckland and a flight to Canada. The train route intersected with my walk at many points and there were several moments when I casually glanced out the window and said to myself, “I know that place. That bridge. That cafe. That forest. That pasture or town. That bend in the river. I walked there.” Once again, another perspective on familiar situations provided me a reason to pause and consider.

Let’s talk about Alex now.

Alex is from Germany, which befits a Doppelgänger (a German term for double walker). We share absolutely no physical resemblance, but we share a lot in common:

  • Alex is a Gen X. A few years older, but my age basically.
  • Alex is on a sabbatical from work.
  • Alex is walking the Te Araroa to gain personal and professional perspective.
  • Alex commutes from a small town near the mountains to work in the city .
  • Alex leads a physically active life, pursuing skiing, hiking and other outdoor activities.
  • Alex splits his work time between two offices in two cities.
  • Alex likes to have several beers after a day of hiking.
  • Alex has been in the same career for over 20 years.
  • Alex is a managing partner at an ad agency.

Crazy, right?

We both think so too. I am still processing this.

These common touch points have led to some remarkably deep and wide-ranging conversations for a couple of guys who have known one another less than a week. I really valued our conversations on the trail, in the hut, in the bar and over dinner. This was a remarkable and memorable happening.

For me, the Tongariro Crossing was not a march over a mountain pass. It was a crossing of the paths of two men, each seeking perspective, and each walking away richer and wiser than before they met.

It was unexpected, undeniably positive and profoundly affirming. I feel privileged and better for the experience.

I very much look forward to my next meeting with my “double walker” friend.

There are photos in the Gallery and Instagram that relate to this section of the journey.

I am off the trail between December 21 and January 3, travelling to and from Canada to enjoy Christmas with my family. I return to New Zealand on January 2 and will continue walking where I left off on January 4th. 

ONE MORE THING – I have added two pages to the menu of this blog. One relates to signs that catch my interest. Another is a photo chronicle of foods and drinks that I remember to take photos of. Both can be accessed on the menu above. I will try and regularly update these going forward.

1,791,749 Steps (1,368 km)

National Park to Wanganui

I am going full hobo. I no longer have need for a can opener and I now have use for my harmonica.

This stretch of the journey has been a lesson in resourcefulness, generousity, patience and consideration.

When I returned to National Park the afternoon of January 3rd I had the challenge of finding companions for the upcoming paddling section of the trail: The Whaganui River section. This 4-5 day paddle has a series of rapids, so out of concern for safety the outfitters are unwilling to rent a canoe or kayak to a solo paddler travelling alone. Very late in the day I connected with David (Texas) and Bobby (Virginia), both Te Araroa through-hikers, who had plans to start walking the next day to Whakahoro, where the river section would begin. I was welcome to join them.

I scrambled to make that work. The morning of January 4th I got very busy very quickly. I rescheduled a tentative booking with my outfitter, quickly organized my pack, bought and organized food, mailed my bounce box to the next town and an extra pair of shoes to a point midway on the South Island. By noon, I was alone on the trail walking a very scenic mountain bike trail under a clear blue sky. Summer weather had arrived. David and Bobby were a few hours ahead.

Alex (my Doppelgänger) had earlier messaged me to share the location of a good campsite for this section of the trail, midway between National Park and Whakahoro. I had a good sense of where I was headed for the day at the end of a short 22 km walk. About 2 km before that point I came upon Bobby at an intersection. He had found another campsite earlier, settled in, and returned to the road to keep watch, wait for my arrival, and escort me back to a secluded campsite next to the river. This was just the first of many courtesies that Bobby and David showed me over the following days.

We spent the rest of that day getting to know a little about one another before sharing some chocolate, setting up tents, and calling it a day.

On January 5th we all set out on gravel road towards Whakahoro at our own pace, eventually meeting up at the Blue Duck Cafe in the early afternoon. There we lingered in the sun, charged our devices and rested before setting up camp above the Whaganui River, cooking dinner and then sleep under a clear summer sky.

The following morning, January 6th, was a later start. Our canoes would not arrive before 9:30 am, so we took the opportunity to have hot breakfast (bacon and eggs) at the cafe and anxiously waited, staring down the road for the vans that would be delivering our canoes and gear for the coming days.

The vans arrived. As did another 40 people. After much signing of paperwork, orientation and directions we set out on the river: Bobby and David in one canoe and me paddling solo in another.

Of the twenty-odd canoes on the river that day, nineteen were either green or red. Traditional colours for canoes. My canoe was white. Or used to be. He was scarred and weathered to some other shade. I christened “him” with a hobo name: Old Whitey.

Our route overlapped for the first two days with a popular Great Walk journey. The top section of this river is one of New Zealand’s signature outdoor experiences. There was a tremendous amount of traffic on this first section of the river. The first half of the day was hectic: surrounded by other canoes, people yelling to be heard, people yelling for help, people yelling for the sake of yelling, excited children, toppled canoes, anxious parents. It sounded and felt like visiting a waterpark.

As the day drew on, however, the crowds faded as paddlers came upon their campsites and huts at different points in the river. Because our plan was to complete the 172 km of river in four days instead of the typical five, we had a longer day ahead of us than most. Made longer still by the challenge of solo-paddling and the lack of current due to sunny weather the previous week. By 4 pm Old Whitey and I found ourselves alone in remarkably quiet, shaded canyons: high rock cliffs on both sides of the narrow still waters. No voices. No rapids. No wind. No sounds but the paddle dipping into the water and isolated bird calls. Coming around corners a subtle hum indicated an upcoming waterfall. There were dozens of these spilling down cliffs from 20 metres or more.

This solitude and slow pace caused me no concern. It was peaceful and calm. My heart rate dropped. My breathing was easy. My mind was clear of any and all complex thoughts. For hours on end. Magical.

As dusk set in I eventually came upon the Whakahoro campsite, where Bobby had suggested we camp that evening. This campsite was perched high above the river, atop the steep canyon walls. As I finished unloading my waterproof barrels, David and Bobby came down to the river and helped carry my gear up the steep path to the campsite. With two people paddling one canoe, they had arrived an hour earlier. Once again, my two new travelling companions were ready to assist: it was comforting to know that while I had hours to myself on the river, I was never alone.

I set up my tent and we had a very quick dinner in the darkness accompanied by beer (!) that could be carried in a canoe easily (Jorg’s excellent suggestion!) and then quickly called it a night.

The next day, January 7th, was another long one. The pattern we established as a group was:

  • Old Whitey and I headed out first.
  • David and Bobby would pass us about an hour later.
  • They would stop and wait after each sizable rapid.
  • We would regroup at lunch.
  • Confirm our end of day destination.
  • Repeat.

This worked well. It provided assurance of safety where it mattered. It gave us freedom to paddle at our own pace. It gave us the assurance of common goals.

We first regrouped that day at the landing that leads to the Bridge to Nowhere, a popular tourist stop. This is a sizable concrete-formed bridge that was built speculatively after the First World War for veterans to access potential farmlands. The landscape proved unsuitable, so no roads or farms were developed. But the bridge remains. David hiked up to take it in. I considered my slow pace in currentless waters, solo-paddling against increasingly strong headwinds and opted out. Instead I set out ahead, after a quick snack.

A couple of hours later Bobby and David passed me. A couple of hours after that I saw them at the bottom of a set of large rapids. The largest we had come upon so far.

I braced myself in the bottom of my canoe, strained against the wind to align my boat into the current, and went for it.

I didn’t capsize.

Bobby said I took a perfect line. David said he could see most of the bottom of my canoe stood up near-vertically.

I hit the waves straight on but took on a huge amount of water as the nose of the canoe fell forward into subsequent waves. I was terrified for a moment, but I gingerley manoevered the canoe, half full of water, to a rest next to David and Bobby. They were riverside, bailing their canoe, gear removed, after fully submerging and falling out of the boat in their attempt.

Once again, Bobby was quick to help me out. He immediately took charge by jumping into the water and hauling my canoe the last few feet to the safety of the shore, then set about bailing my canoe as I chain smoked two cigarettes waiting for my nerves to stop twitching and regain composure.

We regrouped, dried off, and paddled another four hours to Pipiriki. Once again, David and Bobby were waiting patiently for me as I trailed 30 minutes behind. As I approached the dock, two young Maori boys waved from the adjacent pier. As we marched up the road with our gear shortly later they peppered us with questions and offered advice and directions on where to camp in town. This genuine curiosity among young Maori children is common. Many times I have been struck by the way these children approach adults and engage in conversation – not just pleasantries – with genuine interest and willingness to help in some way. It is not precocious in any way. It is unfiltered and honest. I think it is beautiful.

Setting up camp next to a public toilet slash shelter in Pipiriki is where I learned my hobo trick. In addition to beer, I had packed some canned tuna for this trip. I would not normally want to carry that weight in my pack, but the canoe affords this “luxury”.

The previous night I had struggled – while Bobby and David watched – with the can opener tool of my pocket knife to open a first can. There were shards of metal and sharp edges everywhere. I was bracing myself throughout the exercise, expecting to sever an artery at any point.

That is when the hobo trick came up. What you do is this:

  1. Turn the can upside down.
  2. Place it on concrete ground.
  3. Lean in.
  4. Push it back and forth vigorously.
  5. After a few minutes, the lip of the lid will wear away enough to lift the lid off the can.

Bobby, being ever-helpful, helped me with this. It works!

January 8th was our third day on the river. It was the most physically challenging for me due to almost constant headwind. The wind would catch the front of the canoe and turn the boat sharply. Beyond the push required to move the boat forward in currentless water, it took huge effort to constantly adjust bearing into and out of the headwind. I exhausted my ability to do a “J stroke”. There was no muscle energy left by the end of the day. I lagged David and Bobby all day, but they continued to patiently wait at regular intervals throughout the day.

Our goal that day was the Downes Hut. It was really nice, perched above the river, fenced to keep away feral goats (these were ubiquitous along the entire river btw). We all enjoyed an early night and the comforts that a hut provides: mattresses, tables, chairs and running water.

Conscious of the distance ahead and a need to coordinate with tidal currents as the river approached our end point at Waganui city, I rose very early the morning of January 9th to give myself the best chance to get through the day successfully. I awoke two hours before Bobby and David and discreetly had coffee and packed my gear up to head out by 6:30 am.

That’s when I locked Bobby and David in the hut.

When they awoke an hour later the door was latched shut from the outside. Locking them in. As I was silently paddling through still waters and thick morning fog, marvelling in the scenery and contemplating life, they were frantically banging and rattling the door of the hut, processing what had exactly happened and why. Eventually, David climbed out through a window and they escaped my inadvertent imprisoning.

The rest of the day, thankfully, went really well. We hit the tide waters midday, rested for an hour until the tide turned, and enjoyed a steady tidal current to the edge of the city. Once again, I was about half and hour behind, and once again, David came down to the shore to help me with my gear.

We completed the river journey. In four days as planned. 172 km. 44 hrs of paddling. Old Whitey was a little more scarred than when we started. My hands were covered in blisters and aluminum dust. My knees were raw with cuts from abrasive sand in the bottom of the canoe and my ankles were stiffened from the hours hunched into the wind.

But the day was not done. We repacked our backpacks, changed our shoes, and walked a final 6 km into the city centre, checked into hostels and ended the day with beer and pizza and a sense that we had about enough canoeing as we could handle under the circumstances.

Being a hobo means being resourceful. Being a hobo means you are only alone as you want to be, you can turn to other hobos for help. The 15th point of the 1889 Ethical Code of Hobos says:

Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.

Bobby and David carry that hobo spirit. Beyond the (awesome) can-opening tricks. I am grateful to Bobby and David for their patience, concern and generous willingness to help a fellow traveller. To stop and wait. To jump in the river to bring a canoe to shore. To walk back to the road to lead me to a good campsite. To bail my canoe. Their actions and attitudes provided a sense of comfort and safety on the river that allowed me to enjoy the moments of solitude without worry. I am grateful for what they have given me. I hope I can return the courtesy to them, or others, on the trail ahead.

The morning of January 10th I walked alongside the river from my hostel, under a sunny blue sky, down to the Quay in Waganui city, where a Saturday market was set up. Amongst the crowded market of food and craft vendors sat a young girl, about 12 years of age. She sat in a wee chair with a small tin box at her feet. A budding busker. Hands to her cheeks, her gaze was firmly locked on the sidewalk in front of her. One could easily construe the lack of eye contact for shyness. It wasn’t that. It was determination. Her focus was completely on the task at hand: playing her harmonica and playing it to the best of her ability. Another child, unburdened and genuine with the courage and freedom to be herself.

Playing a hobo song.

On a hobo instrument.

As a hobo listened.

I am that hobo.

A friend gave me a harmonica to take on this journey, figuring I would find myself alone and with a need to entertain myself. Til now, it hasn’t seen the trail. It has been shipped forward in my bounce box from town to town for weeks. I think now is the time for it to join me on my journey. Now is the time for me to go full hobo.

 

There are photos accompanying this post in the gallery and Instagram.