Coming Round the Mountain
In my early hiking days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with my high school boyfriend’s family, I thought you had to climb up something for the hike to be worthwhile. But I’ve come a long way since then, and when Vance came back from walking around Mt Ruapehu and reported it as interesting, rugged and blessedly quiet after the madness of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, I was intrigued. Though I had my chance going solo a few weeks ago on the Lake Waikaremoana Track, I was jonesing for something a little more challenging and thought the 5 night, 66km route might fit the bill. There may have been a touch of “anything you can do I can do better,” but also I was restless. With the weather less settled the kids have been particularly hard to budge on the weekends, and knowing that the time of less comfortable travel is coming we’ve let them indulge in graphic novel reading on the couch. I, however, wasn’t quite ready to move on without one more hike to get New Zealand well and truly out of my system…for now.
Here’s the thing about the New Zealand hiking scene- the 9 Great Walks get all the attention and press and flashy huts, and having done six of them I can tell you, they’re spectacular and worth the fuss. However, there are hundreds of other walks and more than 900 huts administered by the DOC. A beautiful and varied track like the Round the Mountain, within shouting distance of the highway that is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and the Tongariro Alpine Circuit Great Walk, is all but empty, giving you a chance to have vast swathes of wilderness all to yourself and totally serviceable huts at half the price. The trail is well marked but not so well formed as the boulevards of the Great Walks, forcing you to abandon any hopes of deep contemplation and instead focus on the immediate task of picking your path between boulders. In other, sandier spots the trail itself has acted as a sluice and the rain has carved out muddy gullies, a delight to navigate. There were several descents of loose, volcanic, ankle turning rocks that I picked my way down at grandmotherly speed. On day 2, I fell hard on a river crossing, earning a nasty scrape and a painful bruise as a souvenir, and a case of the jitters for the next dozen river crossings. On day 3 I entered a magical beech forest full of native bird song, tuis and fantails and riflemen…….and the voice of a man on his cell phone on the trail in front of me. So anxious was I to get away from him, I failed to pay much attention to Mangawhero Falls, which I later learned were the setting for idyllic Ithilien in LOTR. On day 4 I hiked out of the beech forest, through massive Waihianoa Gorge and into desert, with vast stretches of pumice, rock and little else. That night I stayed in a chilly hut with lots of helpful literature about lahars and in particular, lahars in the Whangaehu Valley, which I had yet to cross, one of the most active lahar paths in the world. As someone with a reasonably active imagination, I needed no urging to abandon my usual cautious pace once I passed the “EXTREME RISK” sign; I skittered down, across and up that valley like a goat.
There was another woman on the same itinerary as me, an avid Kiwi tramper, and we leap frogged each other every day on the trail before meeting up at the huts. Solitude can be nice, but so is knowing someone will notice if you sprain your ankle and fail to show up. Nicola preferred to sleep outside, rather than share a hut with potential snorers and sleeping bag rustlers and I asked if she ever had trouble with possums (terrible pests introduced from Australia) or other critters. She said no, but had a great story about her brother who once ate dinner and went to bed under a tarp in the bush, and woke up in the night to a possum cleaning his face for him. Blech!
Speaking of good stories, the most exciting thing to happen on this trip was my last afternoon when I arrived to find the talk of the hut was the ongoing search for a British hiker who had gone missing off the Tongariro Crossing the day before. Searchers had, in fact, walked the Crossing from end to end the night before, and gone through the huts on the Northern Circuit, four teams and a helicopter had been out all day. Eventually, the helicopter came and landed and the pilots got out for a cup of tea with the hut warden, their instructions to sit tight and wait further instructions. There was a lot of discussion about the search, and where the guy could have gone, and whether or not he had already walked out and was at some pub having a cold beer when pop! out of the bush appeared a scruffy, dazed looking man, the missing hiker! The guy was tired and dehydrated- he had gone up the side trail off the Crossing to try and summit the cone of Ngarahoe (Mt Doom) the day before, and had got lost and turned around in the cloud cover. He came down the wrong side, walked a bit, hunkered down for the night in an old lava flow (the same night I was worried about keeping warm in a hut with my sleeping bag, wool socks, wool shirt and down vest, he was outside in shorts and a cotton hoody.) He could hear people calling for him in the night but they didn’t hear him call back, and he lacked a flashlight or whistle to get attention. The next morning he started walking again and walked wildly off course all day, eventually following a stream but he didn’t know if the water was safe (it was, perfectly) and didn’t drink despite his thirst. We teased the pilots for their skill at finding a guy while drinking tea and eating biscuits, while they started the process of radioing the news and dismantling the search parties. The man seemed like he was going to be fine with some food and rest- wherever he is now, I bet my kids would love to thank him for the wilderness preparation lecture he inspired (proper gear always, people, even for a day hike, even when the weather looks good!)
I caught the bus back to the Mount to find Vance had sold our car, starting the process of dismantling our temporarily settled life. Since then, back to hanging mostly around the house, I’ve powered through Vietnamese train and Laotian bus schedules, researched cooking classes and bike tours, and am actually starting to see the end of the travel logistics tunnel that has consumed me for the past year. Also this week? New Zealand has advanced to the Cricket World Cup Finals against Australia and folks are very, very excited. I don’t quite get cricket I am sorry to say- we have tried to watch but are boggled by the discussions of wickets and overs. I anticipate tomorrow afternoon to be a bit like Superbowl Sunday. We’ll watch while we pack.