new zealand’s north island: tramping virginity gone

Here’s my route across the north island. You’ll notice I skipped most of it, but I have a feeling I’ll be back in New Zealand at some point.

They wouldn’t let me board the plane to New Zealand without a ticket straight out of the country within 90 days. So I grumpily booked a flight at the airport, which sounds romantic until someone makes you do it. I endured the most turbulent flight I’ve ever been on before landing in Auckland. The 4-year-old strapped in beside me apparently thought it was an exceptional ride, but I wasn’t on the same level. I arrived in a flurry of holy-f*&^-why-is-everything-so-expensive (I hadn’t paid for too much in Australia and my brain was still operating in South East Asia mode), anticipation and frustration. I dropped my new pack on the floor of a 20-bed dorm room and proceeded to tear open two packages from Switzerland, filled with camping gear and warm clothes and was immediately filled with happy thoughts. My home, it’s back. I have it all again. We’ll skip over the part where I spent 2 hours trying to make everything fit into my backpack and failed miserably, and another hour figuring out the least embarrassing, most effective way to pick the pack up without falling over, throwing my back out, or dropping it. The guy across from me on his bunk smirked, have fun carrying that over mountains.

 Yeah, well, watch me. 

I spent three nights couchsurfing near Auckland (comfiest couch in the world) and my host took me on a few walks around Piha. On one, the “trail” was a small river. We walked in knee-deep water and jumped off a number of waterfalls. If I was in Australia, it looked like prime croc territory, but it seems Oz stole everything even a little bit harmful from New Zealand, leaving it only with tiny singing birds, prancing lambs and possums. 

He dropped me off for my bus to Taupo and I was picked up by yet another Couchsurfing host. He took me up for a “casual walk” up the mountain and promptly kicked my ass, the entire time talking about Ironmans and marathons while I was wheezing behind him. He dropped me off at Huka Falls and told me that if I walked an hour down the path I’d get to hot springs, and just text me when you want to be picked up! Amazing people. 

Couchsurfing put me in touch with an Aussie girl doing a rapid NZ tour with a car and she picked me and another couchsurfer up in Taupo. Together we drove to a campsite near National Park. We arrived in the dark and the campsite was so packed there were no more payment slips left (oh, what a shame!), nowhere to park and almost no tent space left. Good thing my tent is weeny and fits anywhere, but our Aussie rapid-tour woman was packing a 4-person palace, which was absolutely hilarious to see go up in the sea of tiny expedition tents. The bugs were murderous and swarmed headlights so thick and furious I started inhaling them. But we laughed the entire time at how ridiculous it all was and were all up at 7:00AM to go our separate ways. When I arrived in National Park, I proceeded to get my pack in hiking (“tramping”) configuration. Everything fit. It looked big and it was heavy, but I could lift it and I thought, I can do this, maybe. The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 60km loop that can be done in two big, long days or more commonly, four days. Or, if you’re me and want more photo op, you choose to do it in six days, which is a mistake. It includes the section referred to as the Tongariro Crossing, which is New Zealand’s most popular day hike. 

On the shuttle to the trailhead the next morning, I was the only one with a large backpack, perfect evidence that I was the only one on the whole bus that had opted to do the Circuit instead of only the Crossing. I awkwardly maneuvered between seats, my hip straps smacking a few shoulders and was the only one to get off in Whakapapa Village. The driver simply told me, “Follow that road and take the trail at the end. See you in six days.” And I was left on the side of the road in the quiet, clear morning. Not a single cloud in the sky, cicadas awake and chirping incessantly. I did what he said and reached the end of “Day 1” in 2.5 hours, Mangetepopo Campsite. My back hurt, my shoulders hurt, my feet were sore, but when I saw the hut roof reflecting the sun and joined the heaps of people headed for the Crossing, I briefly went into overdrive: get to campsite, set up, go up. I put everything but water and camera in my tent and then headed for the volcano. 

Once at the top of the Devil’s Staircase, Ngauruhoe still towered above me. The top was red, like it was bleeding. There were tiny trail marks up the side of it. Near the bottom, the criss-cross pattern was evident of people climbing, but near the top, the paths straightened to head directly for the summit. The people climbing were mere specks, and they weren’t going very fast. It looked steep, but I figured if any of these people were doing it, I could probably give it a shot. The top ascent looked difficult. I shrugged and thought, whatever, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

That was almost a mistake. It started innocently enough with the trail zig-zagging up through the volcanic rock, sand and dust. And then the trail ended. It just petered out into debris and it turned into a free-for-all. Get up how you can. It was a four-limb scramble. I found a ridge of solid rock and climbed, fingers grasping for handholds, eyes looking nowhere but for the next one. I definitely wasn’t looking down. 

And finally, I was at the top of Mount Doom, wind gusting cold against me. I was higher than it looked from the bottom and the last time I was this high above sea level was in Switzerland. Finally, I thought. A real mountain.

I plodded down. “Tramping” has too much energy in the word. I don’t tramp. What I do is more accurately named, “trudging”. One foot in front of the other. I had to keep reminding myself that evolution literally built me to trek long distances, but I think they screwed up with me. I feel like I’m falling apart after 10km. Going down mountains isn’t much easier than going up, but going down Ngauruhoe was a special kind of descent. I sand surfed. I found a channel of loose sand and skidded down the entire mountain in 15 minutes. Someone said they ran down in under 5, but I’d have to see it to believe it. I teetered back down the Devil’s Staircase and hobbled along the walkways towards my tent. Taking off my boots felt so amazing I started laughing. I’d lost feeling in my right big toe. 

The sunset was clear, backlighting Mount Taranaki in the distance, and shortly afterwards, the entire exhausted campsite was fast asleep, and I was curled up in my sleeping bag. It smelt like over 8,000km of European summer. So did my tent. Don’t get grossed out –it’s not a bad smell. It’s the same as any home or any person: it has a distinct smell. I was engulfed in the French Alps, sketchy wild camping locations in the Dolomites, muesli for breakfast in Belgium and the memory of flying down mountains, trying not to think about what would happen in the event of a disc brake failure. But my bike was missing, and there is no possible way that a pair of hiking boots will ever take its place. 

My body halfway figured out this wasn’t a one-off punishment. It endured. I do that the best: I endure things. So the moment I reached “home” again the next evening after climbing to the summit of Tongariro, was also the same moment I thought maybe I could just lie down on the side of the path and sleep barefoot instead of making it back. I fell asleep thinking about what lay ahead of me the next day… getting up and over with a full pack. I didn’t know if I could do it, and capable or not, it didn’t sound pleasant. People were rambling on about some German guy (so many Germans) who’d done it with a 36kg pack. To me, that’s a suicide mission.

Regardless, I packed everything into that bag the next morning and I picked it up and strapped it on for the long haul. And I tramped. Fit fresh people only doing the Crossing passed me. Normal people only doing the Crossing passed me, until we reached the Devil’s Staircase where I feel like I must have had the advantage. I knew, slow and steady is going to win this race, and that’s what I did. One foot in front of the other, up up up. I plodded past crowds taking excessively long breaks on the sides. I passed a girl near tears, claiming to her boyfriend that she was, “going to vomit”, pressing her daypack onto him. This is exactly the kind of moral support I needed (however cruel), reminded that while someone will always handle it better than me, someone will always handle it worse and still manage to complete the task. Therefore, logically, I can do it. I didn’t stop at the top, because I knew how far I still had to go. 

Across the plain of volcanic outwash.

To the top of the Red Crater.

And finally to the Emerald Lakes.

The lakes smelled like Iceland and stinking steam was hissing out of the side of the rocks. It was cold enough to need a jacket. I ran around the edges of the lucid water. Turquoise, yellow, deep blue and otherworldly purple lit up in the sunshine. I was about to head on my way when I noticed a silvery flash at my feet. I looked twice. A ring. How funny, I thought excitedly, my precious. I found a ring by Mount Doom! But it only took a split second to realize it was the flash of stainless steel, small enough for a little finger, ridges reflecting the light dully. It was my Iron Ring -the ring they give Canadian engineering undergraduates upon graduation. It sat there in the pebbles and glared at me, daring me to leave it behind. “Steph, check out how easily I fell off. You didn’t even notice.”

And I thought, maybe this would be a good place to bury it. 5 years of stress and study engulfed in a volcanic mountain range in New Zealand. Buried in grains I used to be able to classify. Buried in sand I could maybe once have told you a bunch of properties about (probably still can, for all the good that does me). Swallowed by low-density volcanic rock, swallowed by geological processes and time. I could just leave it there and it would be like leaving a piece of me where I could pick up another piece, like a neat little exchange. But then I thought that was all silly. It’s just a ring, and it just fell off because my finger was smaller because of altitude and cold, that’s all. It doesn’t mean anything, does it? And then I thought it was silly for another reason: tramping is not a part of me. It does not make my heart sing, it just makes my feet hurt. So there would be no exchange at all. I picked it up, wondering how it could fall off so naturally, and put it back on, ignoring what I’m going to officially dub my quarter-life crisis.

And it was downhill from there. I turned off the Crossing onto the Circuit and suddenly, I was utterly alone. The only sounds were whining, clicking cicadas, my breathing and my footfalls. I trekked across plains of volcanic wasteland, my feet kicking up little puffs of black dust every time I failed to lift my feet far enough off the ground (every step). I ran out of water. I felt like I was walking through a desert. The scrub looked like the desert, but the rock formations looked like Iceland without moss: sharp, dark and barren. The streambeds were dry. The shriek of a thousand cicadas made me think of the last dusty col near the Mediterranean, cycling in 40C heat with insect buzzing orchestrating every thought, searching for a sight of water –the end of the road. 

When I turned the last corner and Oturere Hut and campsite came into view, my face split into a hysterical giggle and my eyes started watering. I trotted the last 100m. The highest part was done. The hardest part was done. I made it with this stupid huge backpack! I had no idea.

The next two days were uneventful in the ways that views and spectacular landscapes go. The weather turned terrible and I didn’t take my camera out once. It rained, it poured sideways, it got cold and it got windy. Hood up and cinched in, muddy tent, muddy bag, muddy jacket, muddy everything. I hadn’t showered in 6 nights, my heels were blistered and my sunburnt lips were peeling. I couldn’t smell myself but I was pretty sure if I could, I wouldn’t like it. The cold was sinking in and if I stopped for more than a minute, I felt my whole body start shivering convulsively. The rain came in cold sheets and the wind starting howling. It buffeted my bag and twisted me sideways in gusts. It even whistled a few times in my hood and brought me straight back to Iceland, me versus elements, tears streaming and freezing, when all I wanted to do was yell right back at the wind and have my voice ripped out of my throat as soon as the sound formed. Pure futility. I had far less experience in Iceland, and Iceland was much harsher than Tongariro’s summer storm, and I still managed. So did Southeast Asia really make me that soft? This was my wake up call. Visibility dropped to about 20m, the fog and clouds skidded in front of me, and I trod on for what felt like an eternity with no scenery change. Just like Iceland, there was nowhere to hide from the wind and the rain –you had to keep on keeping on. I kept repeating to myself that it was just walking. I can walk very damn well. Four hours after I broke my soggy camp, Whakapapa materialized out of the clouds and wet fog. I made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh of relief and I trotted through the sideways gale. The gravel turned to pavement. The pavement turned into road. In the Visitor Centre, I sat against the wall, damp and numb, and listened to reception as they told tramper after tramper over the phone that sorry, we need to refund your booking. The wind speeds are too high to be safe on the Crossing. Yes, yes, I’m very sorry, but they are currently 70kph and will reach 110kph by tomorrow.

I showered for what must have been 40 minutes. There are a select few showers that I can remember since I left home, and this will make the list. I washed my hair three times. I showered with my tent. The amount of dirt and debris that came off the tent (or was it me?) gave the drain a run for its money. Food was another issue since I hadn’t been to a grocery store in 8 days. All I had left was pasta and it seemed like most people in the hostel kitchen were in exactly the same boat, so we all bonded over our worse-than-student backpacker meals of pasta, olive oil and salt. I’ve never wanted a vegetable more in my life. I never want to look at packaged soup again. 

I bussed down to windy Wellington and walked to another Couchsurfing host’s place –they were hosting myself and three other girls from Vancouver, so it was like a tiny little hostel, only with stand-in parents and a fat kitty. 40 minutes from Wellington, I got a text saying, “We’re cooking! It’s curry night! You’re invited!” Prayers answered. I’m not sure if it was the best Indian food I’ve ever had because I’d been eating pasta for 8 days straight, or if it was the best Indian food I’ve ever had… because it was. I’m leaning toward the latter. Couchsurfing restores my faith in humanity. Here were yet more people who had never even met me before, and I was sitting around a table with them and three other Canucks all trying our best to ignore our food comas. They really were like our stand-in parents. They drove one girl to the airport at 4:50AM, then they drove me to the ferry terminal at 8:00AM. The cat (Sam Sam!) whined for food at 6:00AM, so I was entirely at home. I believe there are two types of people in the world: those that trust people until you give them a reason not to, and those that don’t trust you until you’ve passed a series of character tests. I like the first kind and I want to be the first kind. 

I boarded the ferry to Picton in a haze of strange nostalgia for BC Ferries, because I despise BC Ferries, and we pushed off (late, obviously… this is BC Ferries, right?) for the 3.5 hour journey south. The next 2+ months will be spent wearing my boots down on the South Island, where they tell me everything is bigger, everything is better and it’s just like British Columbia. So I’m ready to love it. I love it already and I haven’t even made it to Picton. 

Cheers from the ferry from Wellington, New Zealand. 

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