a blog about seeing the world

Posts tagged “hiking

Looking ahead, looking back

It’s been a little over a month since we disembarked from a plane at Burlington International Airport, looking about as bad as we felt after 30 hours of travel time. Despite the idyllic green image of home we held onto for our 16 months away, we were greeted by tired, wet, brown, mid-spring surroundings—a truly disheartening time of year.

But, home would not be home without our friends and family, and good times have been had. The world is now green and beautiful, our garden is partly planted, and our wiffle ball field has already seen plenty of use. It is good to be home.

There are days when it seems we might never have left, like we’ve awoken from a dream. But others bring back memories from lands far away, such as the lupines blooming along our driveway. Along that vein, we thought we’d share the whole collection of title page banners that we used rather like calendar photos along the way. Viewed together they present some beautiful contrasts that capture a bit of what travel is like.

We are not quite done posting to this blog and we’re also cutting together hours of video into a short film for entry into some film festivals later this summer. Until then, enjoy the photos. Click the pictures to see the related post.

The relentless snowfall of Hokkaido, Japan. January, 2011.

Frosted peaks in Daisetsuzan National Park. January 2011.

Birch trees clinging to steep slopes on Yarigatake, Hakuba, Japan. February 2011.

Windows into old Japan, Kyoto. February 2011.

Close up on the Buddhist temples dotting Luang Prabang, Laos. March 2011.

Burning rice fields cloud the Nam Hou river, Laos. March 2011.

The best beach ever.  El Nido, Palawan, Philippines. April 2011.

Lush eucalypt forest along the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. May 2011.

First light on the Tasman Sea. Croajingolong National Park, Victoria. May 2011.

Mandarin harvest, South Australia.  May 2011.

Watching over Uluru. Australia’s red center. June 2011.

Floodplains at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. June 2011.

Filtered sun through fan palms, Daintree, Queensland. July 2011.

A sea of vines, Marlborough, New Zealand. August 2011.

The Kaikoura Peninsula, New Zealand. September 2011.

Tree fern silhouette, Abel Tasman, New Zealand. October 2011.

Glacial meltwater, Fiordland, New Zealand. November 2011.

Lupines. Omarama, New Zealand. December 2011.

Vine leaf, Marlbourough New Zealand. January 2012.

The dry and golden Wither Hills, Blenhiem, New Zealand. February 2012.

Morning light on a distant glacier, Aspiring National Park, New Zealand. March 2012.

Ferns in the kauri forest, Northland, New Zealand. April 2012.


One last walk

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.

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A Tramping Trilogy: Golden Hour

The second to last day of 2011 found us, once again, climbing high into the Southern Alps in search of a view.

A late start, a steep climb, a long rest, and some blind route-finding (lesson: always bring a map) meant we were behind schedule… and not even standing on the true summit of the peak we came to climb. No matter. The sun lingers on late into the evening at this time of year, leaving us plenty of time to savor the glow from the slopes of Mount Armstrong.

Our false summit was a crumbling, rocky pinnacle along the ridgeline, barely wide enough to fit our party of six.

Nate, Steph, Alex, Aeryca and Deborah (pleased to find themselves 3,000 miles away from the Portland rain), and a friendly Spaniard to take the shot. (more…)


A Tramping Trilogy: Above the Clouds

It only took a few days of slothing around Wanaka’s cafes and public library to fully recover from our 64-kilometer Gillespie Pass adventure. Though we were due in Christchurch in just three days, the weather forecast for the weekend was promising and we had our sights set higher.

The two-day climb up Mount Adams, a prominent peak halfway up the island’s west coast, had caught our eye months ago. Deemed in a tramping book as “one of the finest viewpoints on the coast that can be reached without the need for serious mountaineering,” the upper reaches of the climb are on snow and still require crampons and an ice axe. After stocking up on snack mix, we rented some gear out on a Friday afternoon and rallied for the five-hour drive over Haast Pass and up the coast.

Loaded down with mountaineering gear and the typical array of camping supplies, we started out on the banks of Dry Creek on a sunny and promising morning. It’s actually a rather misleading moniker, and the route upriver requires lots of boulder-hopping and countless river fords. Looking back over our shoulder after an hour of progress, we noticed we were starting out disturbingly close to sea level for a climb up a 7,286-foot mountain.

Looking back down Dry Creek with the Tasman Sea beyond.

At last, a cairn marked the start of the proper trail, and after a snack break we started up. And by up, we mean straight up— 4,000 feet up in 2 miles.

Looking up at 4,000 feet of climbing.

Adams is not a popular climb, and the route is accordingly rough. In fact, we’d been told that Department of Conservation officials hadn’t been up here for maintenance in two years, which explained the downed trees. We climbed—literally grappling tree roots and branches—along the narrow, gnarled, and often faint footpath. It was clear from quantity of spider webs that we’d have the mountain to ourselves.

Mount Adams falls in a slender section of the west coast known as the “beech gap,” and the lovely beech forests we’ve grown to love were replaced by dense, tangled woods. We did not love it, and after three hours we were pleased to break out into open slopes covered in snow grass. The marked trail ended here, allowing us to find our own way up along the ridgeline, which was now engulfed in afternoon clouds. Mercifully, they obscured how much further we had to go.

By now, our heavily laden packs were wearing us down, and I could have fallen asleep with my backpack on. Actually, I tried this on one short break, worrying Nate enough that he kindly took some of the gear off my pack. This was by far the hardest hike we’d ever undertaken, and it was taking a serious toll. Alex relieved me of my crampons, and I slowly made my way up, up, up.

Just as fatigue seemed to be settling in for good, the sun started to poke through, and a few minutes later we had the first of many rewards. Bright, silvery clouds parted to reveal windows of snowy mountains and rugged alpine country. We continued up a series of several humps in awe of our surroundings.

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A Tramping Trilogy: Gillespie Pass

A few weeks back, while the three of us were lazing by the lakeshore near sleepy Omarama, we realized it was time to stop being, well… lazy. It had been more than four months since we arrived in New Zealand, and over two since we met up with Alex and began our full-scale South Island exploration. Though we’d traversed the island several times over, our 90 L packs had remained neglected and the soles of our shoes had seen only a handful of day walks. It was time to load up our gear and head for the hills to participate in the beloved Kiwi pastime of tramping.

New Zealand is laced with an unbelievable number of walking trails, and it’s actually quite overwhelming trying to decide which piece of wilderness to explore. Though we had been eyeing an alpine crossing under the shadow of Mount Cook, an inconclusive weather forecast forced us to look further south. We settled on a 64-kilometer route connecting the Young and Wilkin river valleys in Mount Aspiring National Park, spent a day organizing gear and food, and set off with clear skies and high spirits.

A typically enchanting beech forest cloaks most of the Young valley, the fat and peeling birch-like trunks hanging with moss. The river —boasting that bright blue color we’ve only seen in New Zealand—tempted us with clear pools, though we knew it was painfully cold from our crossing earlier in the day. Every once in a while, we’d come to a wide meadow and get a spectacular view of the peaks all around us.

After seven hours and 20 kilometers, the last part steadily uphill, we came to the impressively posh Young Hut. Though our legs were exhausted and the bunks were inviting, we all agreed we didn’t hike all this way through the woods to sleep in a hostel. After a short rest we hoisted our packs and pressed on for another hour and few hundred vertical meters.

At last, emerging from the last of the sub-alpine brush, we could see the headwaters of the river we’d been following all day. A huge grassy plain spread in a near-perfect circle, culminating in a craggy cirque at the head of the valley. Alpine daisies and large mountain buttercups dotted the pale grass, and cliffs hemmed us in on all sides.

Nate reviewing the day's progress.

After a predictably delicious mac and cheese dinner, the sinking sun lit up the mountains before dropping behind them. We couldn’t have been happier. This was worth walking for!

The next day held the shortest, but by far the steepest, section of the hike: 600 meters up to the crest of Gillespie Pass. The trail turned sharply up the south side of the valley, orange poles marking the route among the tussocks. The scenery kept improving with every step, and stops to catch a breath soon became chances to soak up the view. (more…)


Two familiar faces

Right as the best American holiday, Thanksgiving, was about to pass by unnoticed here in New Zealand, some long-awaited visitors from home arrived. Nate’s parents, Jan and Dan, traveled with us for 12 days, bringing near constant sunshine along with them.

We decided it would be a mistake to try to recreate the classic holiday meal, especially over a campstove. So, we all gathered around the picnic table for a southern hemisphere Thanksgiving of greenshell mussels, local sweet potatoes and asparagus. Delicious!

From left to right: Steph, Jan, Dan, Alex, Nate.

Along with the perfect weather, they came bearing treats from home. After all these months of camping we could finally construct proper s’mores with some graham crackers!

And our favorite beer, Heady Topper, was the perfect addition to a sunny afternoon on the West Coast.

Along with repeating some favorites, we also used the trip to explore some new places.

Hmmm… caulk the wagon and float across?

After some debate we rolled across and continued up the valley to a place that could be mistaken for paradise. It was just like “The Oregon Trail,” without the dysentery.

The beautiful West Matukituki Valley quickly became one of our newest favorite places in New Zealand.

They also treated us to perhaps the best Christmas present ever: two cruises on the sounds of Fiordland… (more…)


Fit for a Queen

Bounded by Lake Wakipitu on one side and the imposing wall of The Remarkables on the other, Queenstown is a big-budget resort town on the to-do list of nearly every New Zealand traveler. The center itself is a predictable collection of hotels, bars, cafes, and gift shops, but most people come here to play in the mountains and jump off of bridges or out of planes. Think Whistler Village on a Red Bull high. Alex had already gone for a skydive on the North Island and it was well out of our budget range so we opted to do what we do best— walk.

Queenstown's waterfront

The summit of Ben Lomond, a peak just out of sight from town, is a full day hike. The lower reaches of the mountain are shrouded in a dark, dense forest, interlaced with a web of mountain biking trails. Emerging onto the upper slopes, the forest abruptly gave way to low bushes in muted greens and deep reds. Ben Lomond loomed in the distance, looking imposingly big, craggy, and further away than we expected.

The Remarkables are an incredibly aesthetic mountain range, especially in morning light, and the sawtoothed wall of peaks constantly attracted our gaze across the valley. (more…)


A slice of Australia

Last October, sitting next to a roaring woodstove on the other side of the world, we booked a backpacking trip on Australia’s Hinchinbrook Island, the largest island national park in the world. It was the only thing we planned in advance for our trip to this enormous country, purchasing our permits to camp there before our flights.

So it was a bit surreal when we finally boarded the boat on a sunny morning, headed for the uninhabited, mountainous outcropping of land in the Coral Sea.

We had booked five nights and six days to walk and enjoy the 32-kilometer Thorsborne Trail, but opted to walk the trail both ways. Not only did it save us nearly $200 on transport to and from the island, we would have been so bored with all the downtime.

Hinchinbrook is like a mini Australia. We saw just about every type of landscape we had driven or hiked through (aside from the massive expanses of nothing, thankfully).

The trail passed through jungles similar to the ones we just left in Daintree, through the arid desert-like forests of the Flinders Ranges, the swampy grasslands and beautiful swimming holes of Litchfield and Kakadu, and the mountains, rolling hills, and stunning beaches of Victoria and New South Wales. It was amazing, and we were glad we got the chance to see each place twice. (more…)


Swimming holes the hard way

Driving north out of Australia’s empty interior, the arid desert’s red rocks and low bushes slowly phase into the sparse trees and tall grasses of the savannah woodland. Here in the Northern Territory’s Top End, well above the Tropic of Capricorn, winter is the dry season and temperatures still rise well into the 80s. Litchfield National Park is one of the region’s top attractions, providing locals and tourists alike with deep clear swimming holes and a welcome relief from the heat.

Florence Falls.

We were there to spend four days and three nights on the Tabletop Track, a 39-kilometer walking track through the park. For better or worse (worse) we didn’t know much about it, other than that it linked up numerous waterfalls along a rocky plateau. Though the parks service deems it mandatory to purchase and carry a detailed topographical map of the area, they are apparently only available in Darwin, which was well out of the way. We came prepared with this:

As you can see, the trail is ringed by a road that accesses nearly all the highlights, so most people simply pile into their car/campervan/tour bus and drive between them. Choosing to ignore this, we packed our bags and began with a refreshing dip at beautiful Florence Falls, which was well visited but not overwhelmingly so.

From there, our first afternoon was an easy 6 kilometers through pleasant landscapes, crossed by the occasional clear stream. Fields of stiff, straw-colored spear grass, taller than us in some places, clacked gently in the breeze and, true to its name, occasionally speared us in the shins.

Every once in a while a cloud of golden dragonflies would rise from the spear grass and surround us, fluttering gracefully. Butterflies, some sky blue and black and others rust-colored, floated in the slight breeze. It was nice. We reached camp around sunset, set up alongside a quiet but friendly Cairns native, and went to bed looking forward to more of the same.

On the second day, though, the Tabletop Track revealed its true, hateful character. Spear grass disappeared as we entered a former burn zone, and we trudged through more than 12 kilometers of flat, scorched terrain, sweltering under an unforgiving sun. Sparse, twisted trees offered nothing in the way of shade, and the ground was strewn with loose rocks, looking half melted from fires or the sun or both. It was a wasteland, much more suited for a landfill, or say, Hell, than a national park.

We'll spare you more pictures, but it was about seven hours of this.

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Inland and upward

Before Australia’s coastal hills flatten out into the interminable Outback, a worthy collection of the craggy, cliff-laced mountains that are typical of this country rise from Flinders Ranges National Park.

The park is best known for Wilpena Pound, a curiously circular valley surrounded by impassable red cliffs and deep, dry gorges. Once used to hold herds of sheep in the 1800s — and for Aboriginal gatherings long before Europeans arrived— it is now home to kangaroos grazing peacefully in the grasses and low bushes. A lot of them. We also spotted the odd group of mountain goats, introduced to the area long ago, which rangers are now apparently trying to stomp out. Australia has huge problems with their animal populations. There are tons of species that are not supposed to be here (foxes, goats, rabbits, toads, camels), and too many of the ones that are (kangaroos), as we would discover later.

These guys are supposed to be here: an emu.

We opted for a 23-kilometer overnight hike, which led us through the floor of the Pound, over the ring of mountains, and back along a forested trail.

After a night in the Pound (and the robbery of half of our dinner by some unwelcome crows) we hiked up to St. Mary Peak, dodging the enormous webs of some large and deeply unsettling spiders that enjoyed hanging just above eye level. The view from the top was well worth it. Rocky, rolling mountain ranges snaked into the distance, melding into the flat, unbroken plains beyond. No doubt there was interesting geology at work here.

This orb weaver spider was as long as my index finger.

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Under gum trees and waterfalls

Just a couple hours outside Sydney, rivers in Blue Mountains National Park have carved enormous canyons into a lofty sandstone plateau, rimmed with red cliffs and carpeted with eucalyptus trees.

Though we’d planned an overnight hike through the valley, landslide damage had closed a good portion of our intended loop. Instead, we opted for two day hikes in different parts of the park.

The first day, we descended to the floor of the Grose Valley, picking our way carefully along ridiculously steep and narrow stone steps. At the bottom, the trail followed the river, winding through a towering blue gum forest, arid desert-like terrain and a lush, mossy woodland before leading to the bottom of Govetts Leap Waterfall.

This section of the forest reminded us of home.

Govetts Leap waterfall plummets 180 meters to the valley floor.

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Walking the Wilderness Coast

Overnight backpacking trips are phase two of our money-saving strategy for Australian travel (phase one: live in a tent) — just another way to sequester ourselves even further from the expensive edible temptations of the developed world. Fortunately, exploring the wilderness on foot is an excellent way to see the country we are here to see, and our first four-day walk through Croajingolong National Park was a wild success.

The Wilderness Coast Walk extends along 100 kilometers of Victoria’s deserted northeastern coastline, and it sounded sufficiently remote and beautiful to warrant a few days of our time. We woke up in the wonderful Mallacoota Foreshore Holiday Park on Tuesday morning, shuffled food and gear around for a few hours, and finally left the Shipwreck Creek trailhead at the unimpressive hour of noon.

The first day of walking took us through gorgeous fields of pale green and wheat-colored grasses, swaying in a slight breeze and dotted with bright pink winter flowers. Over the edge of the cliffs, the ocean spread bright blue in the background, and filled our ears with a distant roar.

The trail changed character every few kilometers, and once again, we walked through miles of strange, foreign vegetation. Huge, spiky cattail-like spires grew from clumps of wiry grass, and little objects that looked remarkably like Furbies hung from the branches of trees. They looked like they might hop off at any moment and start scurrying around.

As evening fell, we crossed the mouth of the Benedore River and set up our camp on a dune high above the isolated cove. Unintentional but fortunate timing meant that our first night coincided with the full moon, and we waited patiently and eagerly for the clouds to break aside a crackling campfire. Before long the landscape was bathed in bright silver, illuminating the dunes and sparkling off the ocean…magic.

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Vietnam from south to north

Ho Chi Minh City, still known to many as Saigon, is packed with life. City parks are full of people power walking, playing badminton, and even doing after-work aerobics classes. Thousands of motorbikes sweep through the city streets, spilling onto sidewalks. People sip beer and slurp pho at outdoor restaurants, and vendors call out to passersby.

Though we’re by no means city people, we rather liked it.

Just an hour or so south of Saigon, the Mekong River splits into nine massive branches, each with a complex network of tiny canals, tributaries, and streams.  We were excited to see what the river we crossed into Laos three weeks ago had become.

Our destination, Ben Tre, turned out the be a nondescript city sprawled out along polluted water — far from the small riverside community we were picturing. Luckily, a man on a motorbike pulled up as we stood dejectedly on the sidewalk and flashed a brochure for his guesthouse, 13 kilometers out of town. Set in a sweet-smelling orchard with small ponds and plenty of hammocks, it was just what we were looking for.

We borrowed two rickety bikes and set off down the street, past tiny towns and orchards and over small bridges spanning canals. On the return journey, school let out, and the narrow street was suddenly filled with schoolchildren in their uniforms, two or three to a bike. It was an ideal way to spend an afternoon.

The following day we took our friendly innkeeper up on a boat tour around the area, which led us down narrow canals fringed with overhanging water coconut branches, and out onto the main river. Wide and muddy as the Mississippi, it’s hard to believe there are eight more branches flowing into the South China Sea.

Back in Saigon, we stuffed our stomachs and bags with French pastries in preparation for a 40-hour train journey to northern Vietnam. Yes, a plane would certainly be quicker, more comfortable, perhaps even cheaper, but there’s something in the ability to trace the curved coastline of Indochina on a map and remember covering every inch of it on the ground.

On a line dubbed the Reunification Express, trains cover 1,079 miles of track between Saigon and Hanoi. We shared a four-berth sleeper cabin with a quiet Vietnamese couple for the first 644 of them, and were quite enchanted with the whole thing.  We passed the time reading, watching movies, and being pulled in and out of sleep by the rumbling of the train.

A peek inside our cabin.

When the sun rose, it revealed miles and miles of vibrant green rice fields rolling by. Farmers in conical hats stooped to tend the rice and steered plows pulled by water buffalo. White cranes burst out of the greenery and flew alongside the train on its journey north. After passing Danang, the train tracks veered to the curving edge of the ocean. Peering down from our bunks, we watched waves crashing on the rough rocky shore, dotted with wide, honey-colored beaches. (more…)


Walking through northern Laos

by Stephanie Choate

The town of Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos is perched along the fringes of Nam Ha National Protected Area—2,224 square kilometers of rolling jungle-clad mountains. Many companies offer guided treks through the jungle, and though we had avoided the more popular trekking scene in Thailand, we wanted to get further into this amazingly beautiful countryside.

Mist fills the valleys of Nam Ha National Protected Area.

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Thailand’s Two Coasts

The speed of air travel can lead to some intense contrasts. Midway through February, orderly, wintry Kyoto was replaced with the chaos, noise and oppressive heat of Bangkok. The waves of taxi drivers and touts pressing their services were a bit bewildering after a month with the reserved, unfailingly polite Japanese. From the perfection of thousand year old gardens to soot-stained streets lined with garbage and stray dogs, this was a textbook case of culture shock.

Bangkok's identity crisis

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