New Zealand is the hike lover’s dream except instead of hiking, they call it “tramping” here which I find oddly charming. Every nook and cranny in this country are filled with isolated beauty and what I would consider to be well-maintained trails, but New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has designated nine walks as officially “Great.” I'm going to overlook the abysmal lack of creativity in dubbing these walks "great." The walks are generally multi-day hikes and provide lovely, bare bone huts and campsites for trampers during their overnight stays.
I’ve never done a multi-day hike before and decided why the hell not, right? I have plenty of time and am always intrigued by being completely cut off from society for a bit. I called up the DOC and booked my huts and headed for the hills in the eastern part of the North Island called Hawke’s Bay. The hike is not a full circle hike. I guess after getting halfway around the lake the DOC decided that was good enough and ended the trail. This requires trampers to hire a water taxi service to pick them up at the end and take them back to the start. I booked through Big Bush and the drop off at the start, the water taxi, and the ride back to my car cost me $50. They said I could camp there for free the night before, which I did despite the cold rain.
On Friday morning, I woke up and made myself a cup of coffee, which is as close as I ever get to a religious practice, and stuffed my soaking wet tent in my car. The owner of Big Bush was surprised I opted to pitch my tent instead of cozying up in my car for the night, but I assured him I was plenty warm until I had to leave my sleeping bag in the morning. I jumped in the van and was greater with three Kiwi women from the Wellington area who were also starting the trek. I was immediately intimidated by their head-to-toe rain gear including their pack rain covers. This was their second Great Walk together and since their motto was “helping each other out”, they grabbed for my bag to help load it on the van. While it was a nice gesture, I wish they wouldn’t have because I was already self-conscious about how heavy my bag was, which they noticed. They said it was way too heavy, but they did the same thing their first trip.
We were dropped off at the start, took a quick photo in the rain, and headed up. Within five minutes I was cursing my heavy bag, wishing I would have bought dehydrated meals instead of the idiotic food I packed. Since I’ve been living in my car and food goes bad quickly there, I was thinking about food items that would keep for a few days but gave no thought to weight. I packed cooked potatoes, falafel, pasta, a large bag of peanuts, a tube of salami (I have never once craved salami so this purchase is really a mystery to me in hindsight).
My heavy and slow steps made me feel like a circus elephant who frankly has no interest in walking. I kept pace with the three women who were kind and let me join in on their philosophical conversations about their transgender children and chaotic home lives. I shared my own stories and learned that sharing stories of personal struggle with complete strangers you’ll never see again is oddly therapeutic. We stopped occasionally to catch our breath but after an hour of hiking, the rain turned to snow and our breaks became more infrequent. I was irritated with the snow at first, but it was better than rain and even though it completely blocked the highly regarded views of the lake, it provided fairytale-like mossy forests covered in a thin blanket of snow. For the first time since arriving in New Zealand, it started to feel a bit like Christmastime.
We reached the first hut in about four hours and a Dutch couple who had passed us hours before had already arrived and had started a fire in the stove. After a quick bite to eat, the three women gave me their contact info, said goodbye, and started down the hill continuing on to the next hut. I found the warmest spot in the hut and made friends with the Dutchies, Hillary and Roger. The Dutch couple has lived in Taupo for a number of years after a few years spent in Australia. Roger is a scientist and Hillary is a swim instructor. They live on a lifestyle block in New Zealand with three overly friendly cows they raised from calves and a few erratic goats tethered to tires to discourage them from running away. They said their four-day trip doesn’t require them to hire someone to look after their animals as they can pretty much take care of themselves. They did have to ask a neighbor to check in on the goats once in a while to make sure their tethers didn’t get too tangled up.
Hilary and Roger were tough. They hiked in shorts, slept in thin sleeping bags, and when we ran out of wood, they took an ax to a 4x4 board they found lying around. They took great pride in keeping the fire roaring and I was more than happy to take a back seat and enjoy the warmth. They were the kind of couple that made relationships look so easy. They were supportive and down to earth and funny and loving and set the bar high for some excellent relationship goals.
A group of six eclectic 20-somethings showed up after a few hours. They were dripping wet and stopped at the hut to dry off a bit before continuing on. They were loud and fun and the kind of group you wish you could weasel your way into. Between the six of them, they carried 10 liters of wine which I simultaneously thought was the dumbest and most genius idea I had ever heard of. After an hour of sipping hot drinks by the fire, they were on to the next hut.
It became clear that we would probably be the only three in the hut that night so we pulled out the mattresses from the bedrooms and stacked them up around the fire which kept us nice and toasty all night. We woke up at 6 am the next morning and were finally rewarded with a nice view of the lake below which was filled with low-hanging clouds.
After a leisure breakfast, Roger and Hillary bounded off and I followed an hour or so later. The hike that day was unexpectedly short, but the weather was sunny and clear, the only truly nice day of the hike. It took me just over two hours to make it down the hill and to the hut where I again rejoined Roger and Hillary. We ditched our heavy packs and hiked an extra three hours to see the Korokoro waterfalls. There was really no swimming spots there so we hiked back to the hut and tried to convince each other to take a swim in the freezing cold lake. We got as far to our knees before we chickened out.
When we returned to the hut, we were greeted with this graphic visual.
While we were gone, a family of four had arrived and made themselves at home. They were from Gisborne and took a boat to the hut, which seemed way more logical to me at the time. They were there celebrating the mom’s birthday and it was her birthday wish to hike up to Panekiri hut the next day, but the dad seemed perfectly content staying at the hut and sneaking away to go hunt things when he could. He had heard from some hikers that a deer was in the area which caused him to jump out of his seat and tear off into the woods. He returned a few hours later with a headless lil guy. The Kiwis are an industrious and determined bunch, I tell ya.
Despite initially seeing the deer and thinking there was a real chance I'd be murdered in this hut, the family turned out to be the sweetest. The mom invited me to stay with them in Gisborne for a while where I could explore and surf (ha) while simultaneously being a positive role model for her young girls, which I think is the sweetest thing anyone has said to me since I've been here. Had I not already booked my trip south, I would have gladly stayed with them.
The hut was also filled with another group of 7 older Kiwi guys who were making their way through the Great Walks. They prided themselves on their Michelin star style dinners and took hours to prepare the food. They all took baths in the lake proving they were much tougher than I am.
Another young Dutch guy also joined us in the hut. He didn’t have a place to store his bag and had no car so he did the entire track with a 20 kg bag which had everything he needed except practical things for the trail, like cooking equipment and substantial food. I offered him some pasta which he gladly accepted and the next morning, I even convinced him to take the salami with him even though he said he didn’t particularly like salami. Sucker.
On my third day, I bid a sad farewell to my new Dutch/Taupo friends. We were headed in the same direction, but they were going a hut further than me that day. The weather was overcast and a misty and despite waking up feeling like I had been hit with a truck, I made a good time to the next hut. I arrived at the hut and turned the corner where a red-headed French girl named Camille was hiding out with her camera, apparently hoping to scare the shit out of me, which she accomplished. She had arrived just minutes before I had and was also hiking the track alone, going the opposite direction of me.
Since I’ve arrived in New Zealand, I haven’t felt like I’ve done anything that particularly spectacular or praiseworthy but I have gotten a number of kind and encouraging comments from friends and family insisting what I’m doing is interesting or brave. To be honest, it’s kind of given me a big head and I was actually starting to believe I was doing something cool. Enter Camille, who is one thousand times cooler than me. Not only is Camille traveling New Zealand on her own, she’s doing it from the seat of her bicycle. She left her architecture job in Switzerland to bike New Zealand for 8 months. She camps mostly and cycles all day. She told me she got the idea from some other friends who had biked through South America. She heard their stories and though surely she could do the same. If you speak French, you can read more about her travels here.
Camille and I ended up being the only occupants of the hut so we doubled up our respective mattresses and laid them around the stove to keep warm. I woke up at 4 am to the sound of pounding rain. I was grateful when I heard it because I stupidly assumed if it poured early in the morning, surely it’d be done by the time I actually woke up and started walking. That was my first stupid thought of the day.
The rain wasn’t showing signs of letting up so I decided to start walking and get it over with. It was my final day for hiking and consequently the lightest my bag had been throughout the entire trip. I was elated with the almost weightless bag. I tossed it on my back with glee and after saying farewell to Camille, I bounded out of the hut feeling as light and springy as a baby goat. That elation lasted exactly twelve minutes until I realized the rain was soaking my bag and making it as heavy (if not heavier) as the first day of my hike. Out of options, I continued down the track, counting down the hours until my final hut and pick up location and dreaming of a waterproof pack cover.
This last day was tough. My body was tired, I had bruises everywhere, I had dropped a chair on my big toe the night before (which felt terrific, in case you were wondering), my bag was heavy and my waterproof jacket was bringing shame to its “waterproof” label. The last leg of the hike was advertised as flat, a term I’m discovering means something entirely different in New Zealand than in Chicago. A few hours into the hike, the track led me up to what seemed to be a never ending slippery incline. I put one foot in front of the other and tackled the climb, only to have a steep descent, which made no sense to me. Why couldn’t they just make the track bypass that huge hill? Oh well, I thought. Carry on. I came to another seemingly insurmountable incline. Straight up and straight down. I grew more irritated and started cursing the DOC for their poor planning. A few minutes later, I came to another steep climb. I couldn’t stand it any longer and my tiredness got the best of me. I threw my hands above my head and let out a deep guttural growl of frustration. It was really quite an impressive temper tantrum and I’m disappointed no one was there to witness it. It certainly has to be one of my top 10 most pitiable moments so far.
I hiked on. I met a happy couple who were beginning their trek and who were smart enough to have emergency ponchos to keep their packs dry, which filled me with bitter jealousy. I met another couple who were professional photographers, I guess. They not only had ponchos but also tiny umbrellas to hold over their cameras to keep their gear safe. Bastards.
After four hours of soggy elephantine steps, I finally arrived at the final hut and my pick up location. I had two hours to pick up and wasted no time in getting the fire started in the hut. The wood was a bit wet so it took some coaxing but once it finally got going, I shamelessly stripped down to my underwear, wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, and threw my soaking wet clothes on the stove to dry. I made myself a PBJ sandwich and got dressed right before a nice boy named Zack arrived at the hut and informed me he was my ride back to my car. I was Zack’s only passenger so I got the primo seat in the front that was less damp and provided excellent acoustics for the country music Zack insisted on blaring.=. It took 20 minutes to get back to the car and I must have looked somewhat forlorn because Zack kept glancing at me asking if everything was okay.
Everything was fine. Everything was just as it should be. I had completed my first multi-day hike alone and got a quick lesson on the importance of minimal packing and the fickleness of New Zealand weather. Perhaps I was looking somber because I realized the best views I had on the entire trip were coming from the twenty-minute boat ride and I couldn’t help but think maybe I should have just paid Zack $50 to take me around the lake on the boat. I’d be a whole lot dryer and a little less sore. I tried to remember as with any physical labor of love, I would likely appreciate the journey more in a few days once the pain had disappeared and only the good memories of the trip remained. I was proud of the effort I made and thought a solo hike with fleeing strangers was the perfect way to start my birthday week. Give it a few days time and I’m sure I’ll already be planning my next Great Walk.