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

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’ll come back to him.

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:

  • closed to overnight stays, open only as a daytime rest area 
  • unheated without any running water
  • severely damaged by a 2012 volcanic eruption
  • 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.

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. I will try to regularly update these going forward.