Elsewhere in the world, it's called hiking but in New Zealand, you tramp. To be more precise, you go on Great Walks. Not a good walk or a nice walk but a great one. There are slightly different lists of Great Walks but most people agree with a core list of nine.
- Tongariro Northern Circuit, North Island and includes the 19k Tongariro Alpine Crossing which I've done twice already
- Lake Waikaremoana, North Island in the Hawkes Bay Region
- Whanganui Journey, North Island - actually mostly a canoe ride down the Whanagnui River
- Able Tasman Coast Track, top of the South Island amongst the beautiful beaches
- Heaphy Track, North island near Nelson
- Routeburn Track, South Island from Glenorchy to Milford
- Kepler Track, South Island, a loop around Te Anau
- Milford Track, South Island, the wettest track of all in the Fiordland
- Rakirua Track, wayyyy down south on Stewart Island
While each of them have their own character, they all provide time for reflection and with the help of New Zealand's annual rainfall which is measured in meters not inches, they also help wash away the buzz of the city, a busy mind and work stress.
It's important to consider that I didn't grow up hiking or camping. It's not in my blood. Sure we went to my grandparent's camp once in a while. It was built with particle board, had a wood stove and a bucket to pee in at night so you didn't have to risk meeting a bear, skunk or porcupine on your way to the outhouse but those days were a lifetime ago. When I was a teenager, my parents took us "camping" in a soft cover trailer. But it's not "camping" with my mom. "Betty", as she is affectionately known, always has the luxuries of home on hand. You can always find any first aid item, you'll be served up a three course meal, and of course, she always has smores for dessert. Let's just say, when I started dating someone who actually knew what it was like to rough it in the outdoors, I felt out of my depth. But since that very first canoe trip, I've loved it. While the two of us have since gone our separate ways, I still carry that passion for exploring and going with the flow that he showed me.
Until now, I've been adamant about not buying or collecting too much stuff because after a year of living with just 12kgs, the thought of owning stuff feels suffocating. I relish in my ability to simply grab my backpack and go. But now that I have a job and a car, it seems silly not to invest in gear that will allow me to see the best parts of where I now live.
So it was time I took stock of what I had and what I would need. I had a raincoat and a headlamp. Both essential items but not enough for a four day hike. On a recent trip back to Canada, I dug my first pair of hiking shoes out of my storage locker. I got rid of my travel backpack (shockingly, I was able to sell the sweaty, dirty mess online for $75!). In exchange, I bought a new, ergonomic, lightweight hiking pack (don't worry, it can double for a travel backpack if ever I get the urge to set out again). Next on the list was hiking clothes, including some sweet zip off pants, wool socks and a few Marino layers. My rain jacket seems to be holding it's own but I may have to invest in a new one before I brave the Milford Track, which gets 8-12 METERS! of rain a year. With some pots, a gas cooker, pack cover, sleeping bag, mat, and tent, I was ready.
It's really remarkable to plan for a hike and not think of the animals that I might encounter. I certainly won't need any bear bells! With the exception of the odd possum at night, there are no snakes, no racoons, no skunks, and only one worrisome spider known to be in a specific area of New Zealand. One of the strangest sights I have ever seen in New Zealand is a field chalk full of deer - that don't move. They stand there and eat pasture as nonchalantly as cattle. Given we only know dear to be skittish at home, it's really weird. The lack of animals in New Zealand makes for great hiking though.
Now, the hard part - where to go? While I would have liked to do one of the big three - Kepler, Routeburn or Milford - I only had four days and with flights and travel time, that just weren't possible. Adding to the complexity, you have to book a hut or a campsite through DoC. In high season - November to April - there's no showing up and hoping for the spot as these trails are at capacity during summer. As expected, most tracks were booked out. However, there were still a few huts and campsites available for the Lake Waikaremoana track! And I just happened to be spending Christmas in that general vicinity. This would work perfectly!
I was just about to book when my colleague and friend Shelley - a former-politico herself (she used to work for John Key) - piped up and said, "I'll come!" And that was that! Three weeks later, we were "reducing the weight" of a goon bag (bag of wine) while unpacking and repacking our stuff in a cabin near the start of the Lake Waikaremoana track. This would be our first Great Walk, but definitely not our last.
Day 1 - 27 December
Panekire Hut, 12pm
***These are my notes taken on the trip***
Clouds. That's the story of the day so far.
We stayed overnight in the holiday park last night in a cabin. It was quaint but all that we needed and more. The "more" came in the form of rain. I don't know if it was the pounding of the rain on the roof or the resulting rain-induced panic and anxiety about the trip ahead but I slept horribly. Just what you want before a four day hike. We tried to make light of it as much as possible - there was nothing we could do about it and I was convinced the rain would simply make it more of an adventure. So far - so true.
We're at the first hut, Panekiri Hut for lunch. It's supposed to be the most beautiful part of the hike. We're convinced that this is probably true given the hight we climbed to over the last 4 hours but we can't see a thing. It's grey. Everywhere.
It's not all bad though. As we tramped through the dense bush (yes...it's called bush, not forest here...) and the mist surrounds the mossy trees and branches it's a mix between magical and spooky. Overall, this would be my favourite view from the entire hike. Shelley had a very well-timed comment that it looked like the scene out of a horror movie where two girls get murdered. I proceeded to remind her of the acceptable list of topics we can talk about on the hike - scary movies and murders not being one of them.
Despite the rain in spots, we were mostly covered by the Grinch-like tree branches. We were mostly warm too helped by the steep incline of all 10kms with our full, overstuffed, packs. Why didn't we do this walk in reverse?
Writing this while sitting next to the hut fire is the perfect remedy to a chill that set in late in the walk as the trail flattened out. We've reenergised ourselves with flat whites from a packet, crackers and cheese. We have four more kilometers to the campsite we've booked for the night.
Waiopaoa Campsite, 6pm
First day done. We made it to Waiopoa hut and campsite. We somehow managed to get a 15 minute window without rain just as we arrived so that we could set up our tent. The clouds came back over quickly and it's bucketing down again. Luckily we have the comfort of the hut to warm up in and eat dinner.
First thing's first - hang up our wet socks by the fire. Next - pour ourselves a glass of wine. And by glass, I mean a plastic cup for Shelley and a small cooking pot for me. Somehow, I have forgotten to bring a cup. But the pot will do. I remind Shelley to be "fair" with the wine by filling each "cup" to the top. ;)
We sip on our ration of wine, chat with fellow hikers and look back on our day. We make a list of the things we've loved and the things we should have remembered to bring...
What we've loved so far:
- Walking through the trees
- Fog and cloud even if we couldn't see beyond
- Colour of the moss - so green and vibrant
- The fire in the hut
What we should have brought with us:
- more wine
- more dry bags
- a bigger cup and A CUP (whoops!)
- better weather
Total distance travelled today:
- 19.2 kms
- 258 floors
- 31, 173 steps
Day 2 - 28 December
Korokoro Campsite, 1pm
This morning was a chilly one. We both had a pretty cold sleep and didn't want to get out of our sleeping bags this morning. After making oatmeal and coffee we eventually warmed up. After putting a few extra layers on, we left around 10am. Our first stop was Korokoro Falls. It was impressive and pretty easy to get to, especially if you leave your packs at the start of the trail (which we didn't). More exercise, right? We eventually ditched them at the urging of fellow hikers on their return and we were glad we did as the dance across the rocks to the waterfall would have been impossible with our packs.
Finally, the sun has come out and the rain has stopped. Lunch at this site and onward ho to Marauiti Hut for the night. That's not before we spend a few hours navigating the muddy trails often taking to the bush in order to avoid ankle deep mud and puddles.
Marauiti Hut, 5pm
Undulating was the story of today. Even though we did four less kilometres than yesterday, today felt harder than yesterday thanks to the very undulating route. We quickly realised that the elevation outlined on the DOC map is not to scale.
Making it worth it, however, were our first real glimpses of the Lake from the track. You could see the evidence of the Maori story of the daughter trying to escape from the lake by clawing at the shore making several deep inlets.
From the Marauiti campsite, we could see the bay where the Marauiti hut was located. Between us and it, however, was a steep climb up and over a hill and into the next inlet. Reviewing the map, we could see the elevation lines hug one another. The map didn't lie. The climb was steep and seemed to just keep going every time we turned around a bend. After two days tramping, our legs and feet were put to the test with this climb. When we got to the top we sighed with heavy relief - we only needed to go down and then we'd be at our hut for the night. I've come to learn that down is often just as hard, if not harder.
Tonight, we ate chicken stew and apple crumble (both dehydrated). The apple crumble was awesome but won't be bringing the chicken stew again - too salty! Of course, we also had our obligatory glass of wine and not long after we were both checking the time to see if it was acceptable to go to bed yet. We take a minute to think about the day.
- No rain and some sun!
- the waterfall
- Seeing the hut at the end. "I felt so happy!" - Shelley
No tent for us tonight. We were able to book into a hut. Don't be fooled - it's not luxury. This is the crappiest hut on the track. It consists of two rooms. One for cooking and one for sleeping. The sleeping room has 30 mattresses laid in rows of 10 and stacked on two and a half levels. There is little room to navigate and even by 8pm, most mattresses are occupied leaving only a few available. Shelley and I get mattresses on the "half" of a level. Climbing over others to get to the available mattresses up top with the ceiling a mere two feet above your face, it's cozy. I read for a while and fall asleep with Shelley on one side and a little 7 year old boy on the other side. I'd consider pitching my tent but the rain is coming down in torrents right now. Let's hope it eases by the morning.
Day 3 - 29 December
Waiharuru Hut, 5pm
We've just woken up from an afternoon nap at Waiharuru Hut. Rain is falling. It was when we set out this morning from Marauiti Hut as well. We didn't sleep well last night given the pounding of the rain on the roof so we were tired when we arrived here. We were slow moving this morning. We knew we didn't have far to walk and the rain was bucketing down as we ate our breakfast so we took our time and left Marauiti around 10am. And just as we did, the rain stopped. Our 2hr/6km walk was just enough to stretch the legs after two big days of walking. Our packs are noticeably lighter each day though. Today's walk was along the lake and finally we got some nice photos of it. We had to climb a few more steep parts but it was nothing like it was the last few days. Perhaps we should have done this walk in the reverse, carrying our heavy packs over this flatter section. Next time.
We arrived at Waiharuru hut first and all was quiet. This was nice but it also meant that there was no fire. We tried to get one going but there was no wood in the woodshed and anything out in the open was saturated. We did manage to find a random two-by-four laying around and thought we'd try to chop it up to use. Well, using an axe is apparently not one of mine or Shelley's strong suits. It was embarrassing, and hilarious. We managed to get a few pieces broken down small enough to get into the hut stove but as soon as we heard voices approaching my "rule-follower" nature forced us to abandon ship.
We kept the fire going for a wee while but the hut being so large, we had no hope of actually warming it up. So after eating lunch, we decided to crawl into our sleeping bags to read and to nap. For two hours it was glorious. Then others arrived. Thankfully, they managed to start a fire. We get up and polish off the last of our wine. We think about shuffling the playing cards but even if we can't find enough energy to play, we're determined to enjoy our last night on the Lake Waikaremoana track.
We'll need to wake at 6am tomorrow - our earliest day yet. DoC says it will take us four hours to get to our water-taxi pick up point. The boat is to arrive at 12pm so we need to get going. Another big hill tomorrow - a great day to end a four day hiking trip, I suppose.
Before we finish the tramp, we need to eat up the rest of our food. I've been carrying a pack of bacon from the beginning and have been savouring it for the right moment. I'm bound and determined to enjoy it tonight. What's camping without bacon, right?
We're not even at the end yet and our minds wanter to our next tramp. Shelley also gives me diving tips for islands in the South Pacific. My mind continues to flick back to other New Zealand tramps. What Great Walk do I want to do next? Kepler calls my name. The photos from that track among the Southern Alps are breathtaking. Shelley is planning to do Able Tasman but I'm not keen just yet. While I want to do it, I want to hit the ones higher on my bucket list first.
Before we tuck in for the night, we think about the best things of the day --
- the views, walking around the lake and hearing it lap at the shore
- neat boulders that we had to step through
Next time we need to remember:
- woolly hat - otherwise known as a toque
- bigger coffee mugs
- fold down bowl/pot (someone else had one in the hut and we were so jealous!
Hopuruahine landing, Water Taxi Pick-up Point, 11am
We made it. Despite a bit uncertainty along the trail today when we suddenly started to veer up the mountain towards the road instead of down towards the water, we arrived. Thankfully, we started passing families heading into the bush and they assured us the path would lead us back down to the lake. We arrived at the lake but over an hour early. DoC's timings are notoriously long. I should have heeded the advice of the water-taxi lady who told me it only took six hours to get from the last hut to the boat landing if "you don't have legs" but I wasn't about to miss the boat. Instead, we ate the last of our food, made ourselves a coffee and read our books. We also gave our best effort at a slow-mo high-five.
And just as the rest of the trip, it continued to rain. At least until the boat arrived, and then the sun cut through the clouds and left the Panekire peak. All we could do was laugh.