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.
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…)
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…)
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…)
Earlier in November, for not the first time in our travels around the South Island, we found ourselves in an unexpected place with a lot of time on our hands. The Marlborough Sounds are a convoluted maze of sunken river valleys, and are quite striking when viewed on a map. To do all the waterways justice you’d need a week in a sailboat or a lifetime in a kayak, but we did our best on shore in some fickle spring weather.
After paying our former hometown of Blenhiem a brief visit, we drove a curvy road— the first of many in the next few days— to a campsite across the road from a rocky bay. The tidepools were festooned with mussels and, as it was approaching dinnertime, we decided to collect some for an appetizer. Being not completely sure of the legality of harvesting and the correct cooking method, we plucked only three from the rocks and fried them up in breadcrumbs and salt and pepper.
Mussels have a somewhat disturbing appearance that makes you wonder who first picked one up and thought, “yeah, I think I’ll eat this.” They also require a cleaning step called “debearding,” which is never a term you want applied to something you are going to consume. Anyways, they were quite good and we made a note to do more research on the collection and cooking of the little buggers.
Once again, however, dark clouds rolled in after sunset, and soon it began to rain. And rain. It completely flooded our tent, soaking our sleeping bags. To make a bad situation pretty much unbearable, hordes of mosquitoes found refuge in the gap between our tent and our fly, and swarmed in every time we unzipped the tent door. Not cool.
The next morning dawned with tentative sunshine that illuminated the hundreds of mosquitoes we had massacred during the night. On the drive back to town, the morning light brightened our spirits and delivered a photo-worthy rainbow. We like to think it was nature’s way of apologizing for the malicious deeds of the night before.
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.
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…)
In New Zealand a change of scenery is never far away. A few hours drive or even a few bends in the road can bring an abrupt, and usually striking, change in surroundings.
Within a day of leaving the frosty and rugged Canterbury high country, we found ourselves enveloped in the lush, near-tropical beauty of Abel Tasman National Park. A 52-kilometer long trail follows the playful curve of coastline, and it’s deservedly and famously popular.
Early spring proved a perfect time to walk the trail—warm enough that it feels summery, but early enough that the crowds were absent. And we also chose to walk sections of the track in a couple day hikes, craftily avoiding burdensome overnight packs and the $35 nightly fee to stay in the plush huts along the way. Sometimes, the lazy way is the best way.
It only took a few minutes to reach our first of many spectacular views. The water is a tropical aquamarine, perfectly complemented by the cool, green forest spilling down to the waters edge. Golden beaches and rocky islets dot the coastline, all perfectly framed at thoughtfully cut viewpoints.
It’s clear that the parks service rakes in a pretty penny in hut fees. The trail is perfectly drained, graded and maintained. Wooden bridges span even the tiniest trickle of water and freshly painted signs mark every minor point of interest. It made for quick miles and an easily enjoyable walk.
Te Pukatea beach provided a gorgeous spot to rest at the farthest point of our hike. Nate clambered up some boulders at the edge of the beach, while I relaxed on the smooth sand, as yellow as cornmeal. (more…)