If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months or more, you’ve probably noticed a trend. We walk. A lot. Yes, it may be free, easy, and often one of the best ways to experience a new place. But by this time you must be wondering — aren’t we sick of hiking?
Well…no, not really. It’s safe to say that New Zealand is home to the most varied landscape on the planet. The topography, climate, and vegetation all change drastically as you travel up, down, or across these small pieces of land. Each trail has proved to be undeniably unique, beautiful, and full of surprises, and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which will end up being the last long walk of our trip, was no different. Traversing 20 kilometers of the central North Island’s volcanic highlands, the Crossing navigates volcanic peaks, wide lava plains, and thermal hotspots.
But first, if you are going to have an enjoyable day completing the Alpine Crossing, you should temper your expectations. Piles of travel brochures proclaim it to be the best day hike in New Zealand — or even, ambitiously, the world. A bold statement, and one that lures tens of thousands of people a year to the trailhead. We’ve walked many beautiful trails in New Zealand and I’m sure the rest of the world has a lot to offer. Let’s just call it a nice walk and leave it at that.
So, we were expecting crowds, but were still quite shocked to see several hundred other people joining us at the trailhead on a cold, windy, cloudy morning. Hiking up in a steady stream of tourists with views partially blocked by the back of some stranger’s head, we got the strange feeling we were part of an Old West covered wagon train rather than experiencing a South Pacific wilderness. We neglected to photograph this portion of the trip for obvious reasons.
Grandiose titles and crowds aside, Tongariro National Park holds a captivating landscape. The trail winds through vast empty sweeps of land filled with chunks of black volcanic rock, pressure-warped pieces of brown and red pumice, and hardy gnarled shrubs. It’s beautiful in a stark and dramatic sort of way, and, once again, completely different from anything we’ve seen so far.
As we approached Mount Ngaurahoe—the brooding volcanic peak that served as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies—the clouds shrouding the summit evaporated. It looked like a long, boring climb, but we had to do it.
Surprise, surprise, it was a long, boring climb. Loose ash and pumice slid down the sides of the steep cone with every step, requiring nearly twice the effort, and a cold wind blasted us, numbing our fingers and noses. The crowds were left behind, though, and views opened up with each step upwards. By the time we reached to top we had forgotten about all the effort to get there.
Thin wisps of volcanic steam rose from the bottom of the ice-crusted caldera, mixing with the passing clouds. Broad sweeps of barren land spread out below us, dotted with emerald lakes and plumes of sulfuric steam from geothermal vents. Lake Taupo glittered in the distance and 130 kilometers to the southwest, the tip of Mount Taranaki poked out from above the clouds. It was utterly freezing at the top, with ice-cold winds threatening to blow us over the edge.
As a way to say goodbye to the South Island that we’ve called home for over 7 months, we recently made the full day’s drive down to Wanaka for one more mountain adventure. The beautiful West Matukituki Valley lies in the heart of Mount Aspiring National Park, which has captivated us time and time again with beech forest, tumbling glaciers, and mountain meadows. The chance to spend two days high above and encircled by the Southern Alps proved the perfect farewell.
Ascending 4,000 feet in just 2 miles, the route from Aspiring Hut to the north ridge of Mount Tyndall is a punishing ascent through snow grass and precipitous crags.
But the view helps take the mind off burning legs and lungs.
A small hollow at the top of the ridge makes for a perfect campsite: just enough protection from a stiff east wind, and incredible views across the valley to Mount Aspiring. (more…)
Between some lazy days enjoying our idyllic back yard and the late summer sunshine, we’ve finally been able to catch up on some editing. This is the first of two videos covering our 82 days and 10,000 miles across Australia.
Strung around the outskirts of a vast, empty interior, Australia boasts a captivating array of landscapes— lush rainforest, snowcapped mountains, miles and miles of rugged coastline, towering gum trees, some of the world’s finest swimming holes, the beautiful city of Sydney. And, of course, in the middle of it all, the most famous rock in the world…
After calling our trusty tent home for about seven of the last 10 months, we like to think we have become experts in the camping life. Some of you have no doubt found this blog while researching for your own travels, and we thought it might do some good to pass along our wealth of knowledge on camping in Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully the rest of you, clean and content under a solid roof, will still find amusement in our degenerate lifestyle.
First, let’s face it, you’re not choosing to live out of a car because you thought it would be fun. Judging by the amount of dirty young people on the road, the only way to travel for an extended period of time in a first-world country is to live out of your car. Which brings you to your first decision:
Tent vs. campervan
Though we’re by far the minority, we swear by our little red tent. For one thing, you already spend all day in the car, do you really want to sleep in it too? Unless you’re traveling solo your vehicle is going to be trashed, no matter how hard you try. Pulling into a campground, setting up a tent, and escaping from the clutter of the car brings everyone a little much-needed space at the end of each day. It’s like a little house, separate from the stress and frustrations of travel… and prone to leaking when it rains.
Tenting also gives us a definite advantage in securing a prime camping spot. On numerous occasions, we have breezed into a grungy parking lot packed with vans and had a lovely adjacent green space all to ourselves. There have only been two occasions when we have wished for a van: an unexpectedly sodden night in Blenheim, and at an Australian rest stop infested with brazen mice that enjoyed crawling up the sides of our tent.
Finally, it allows you a bit of anonymity. Drive around in a campervan, and you are immediately pegged as a backpacker. We like to think people look at our packed car and think we’re locals. Locals with no place to live… and American accents.
Where to sleep
While it’s possible to pull over and sleep on the side of the road for free, unless you have a bathroom on board it’s technically illegal. Your choice; it will surely save money, but we like to pay a nominal fee for running water and a place to take a shit.
DOC Sites (NZ) – Our homes away from home. There are a few hundred Department of Conservation sites scattered about New Zealand’s two islands, and they are excellent. Found in National Parks and elsewhere, they are generally low on amenities, but are very cheap ($6/person) and sometimes come with a view: