I have a morning routine, it is miraculous and simple. I get up and wash my face with water. The colder the better, and the chlorine tightens my pores like an expensive BB cream. On this morning, the water hit my face, feeling as though I had rubbed my head on the side of a deep freeze. Man it was cold, I didn’t want to pee, didn’t want to cook, didn’t want to get out of my cuddly little cloud of a sleeping bag. I have to remind everyone, this was the middle of summer! My partner brightened my spirits with an almond coffee (sachet), and packed up everything, leaving the dishes to me before we headed off early that morning, around 7am.
We played with the idea to combine the 3rd and 4th day as the silly 3rd day is only 8.1 km. The first day is 9.4 km which works as you take half a day to arrive at the start, the 2nd is 12 km but mountainous and the 4th is a whopping 15.4km. I felt alive, I felt ambitious, I felt like moving before I got frostbite. There was rain forecasted for the next day so I felt like finishing, and I didn’t really want to hang around a hut for half a day, making small talk (I was clearly back to my normal anti-social self).
We set off from the hut, hitting similar scenery to the day before. As soon as I set out I knew nature was calling. I finally had the opportunity to use my Christmas present, my ’17g ultralight leave no trace trowel’, nice. It is harder digging a cat hole than I thought. I gave up half-way and got my partner to finish it for me. There is a real technique, and almost requires you to use your boot to jab it deep into the ground, eventually creating a nice 20cm circle, and pulling a little cookie-cut mound out before getting on with bin’ness. Squatting this low harks me back to my time traveling in Thailand. The holes in the ground, the unwanted splash of water on my leg as I throw a bucket of water into the hole to manually flush the mini log flume. Truth be told, I love going toilet outdoors! The breeze, the incomparable views, the adrenaline that helps things along…a dark, mosquito littered cubical just doesn’t cut it after that.
After dropping down onto more sand, it started to get rocky. Streams and grasses became more frequent, and we started to climb up onto gravelly hills. The hills were lovely. I felt light and strong. My partner and I were talking and joking in such a connected, yet disconnected way. When we talk while hiking, it is almost like free-association, where you talk to each other, just saying whatever pops into your mind. It is a rare, dis-inhibited, honest type of conversation that I have only noticed on the trail. So special.
We flew by this section. I checked the map and was surprised to see the cluster of beech forest ahead of us was the last section of this day. It wasn’t even 10am! Into the forest we went, dropping down quite steeply to a dark blue river, beautifully framed by bushes and grasses. I hoped to see a Whio, a rare blue duck. They only live beside fast flowing water, whipping around like jet-skis. Fun fact the Whio is the bird on our 10 dollar note. We crossed the stream and headed uphill very steeply, climbing out onto the ridge for a gorgeous view of the trail to come. 20 minutes later, we arrived at Waihohonu hut.
Waihohonu hut is large, flash and set up for school groups. It felt commercial compared to the previous tiny huts. We had paid to stay here for that night, but something about the gleam in my partner’s eye said “I know what we are capable of”, so we decided to continue to Whakapapa village. We took extra water in case we had to freedom camp and my heart sank. It was so heavy! We had eaten 1kg, and then gained an extra 2kg in water! I felt disheartened even though I knew it was sensible. We took a side trip to see ‘NZ’s oldest mountain hut’ and, feeling exhausted from the extra weight, I started to nag and grumble. The weather felt like it was turning, the sky grey and the wind strong like Wellington. We continued on, walking slowly and taking heaps of breaks.
I don’t know if it was my mood, my exhaustion or the weight on my back, but the track was not spectacular for me. Maybe it was the repetitive vista. We continued for about 7km on undulating, tussocky, rocky and sandy terrain. Alpine daisy’s and Ruapehu were the highlights. When the cloud broke we saw we were walking between Ruapehu on the left, and Ngauruhoe on our right. At one stage I started to feel a bit dizzy, almost as if drunk. I said to my partner “I need to lie down now”. I wrapped my puffer jacket around me and lay down on a bed of burgundy grasses and closed my eyes. I have not felt that exhausted in….well, ever. I don’t think I slept, but I lay there with my eyes closed, the only sound was the persistent wind, skipping over me while I lay between the two volcanoes.
Something I never thought I’d see that afternoon was people! At that point of the trail it was very exposed and you could see for kilometers in either direction. I saw a lone man walking towards us. As he neared I saw a Swedish flag embroidered on his pack. How patriotic. I greeted him with an abnormal amount of enthusiasm and made chit chat about the trail thus far. He casually explained how he started at the first hut and “had some food and did the crossing, then some water and got the hut, and now I’m off to Whakapapa village..”. That’s our 3 day trip in 1! My partner and I looked at each other, eyes falling out of their sockets. After he left I felt a resurgence, my energy was back! Okay maybe only a little, but his journey had put mine in perspective, and I was determined to get to the end, or bust.
We took the side trip to Tama Lakes, hiding our packs. What can I say, I was underwhelmed. But they were pretty, and worth seeing. I was just in the head space of a five year old that has stayed up to see the New Year come in. I was determined to get to the end but that was about it.
I told my partner an hour after the Tama Lakes that I needed to stop and have a warm meal. It was a primal need, a need for hot steaming ramen, slurp. We parked up at the top of the Taranaki Falls. A fair few tourists from the village were here doing a 3 hour loop. I didn’t make it down to the bottom due to chronic apathy, but the photos were just divine. We continued on, teeth bared, muscles aching until alas! I spotted the Tongariro Chateau, that creepy, run down palace. I pressed my Nitrous-oxide button and almost skipped to the end. It’s funny how something visual, even if it’s conjured only in the mind, can anesthetise your pain and press you onward, a psychological tether.
As we passed the sign concluding the circuit, I took a moment to smile and practice gratefulness. I felt sad, thinking of the privilege it was to walk what I did, with the one I love, and thinking that I was in a small minority of people who have the foundation from which to do these types of walks. I don’t mean to come off pathetic here, just humbled and grateful to my core for what I have had the chance to experience.
As you could tell from the title of this article, we camped with freedom… Meaning the bushes behind the parking lot opposite the i-site. We saw other guilty campers lining up alongside each other and decided to try our luck. All I was wanting that night was a bowl of hot fries with aoli, we went to the only food joint open to find their deep fryer was broken, only baked potatoes and a side salad, hmm, the universe did not want me to consume trans-fat that night. We had a beer instead, our cheeks blossoming red with the alcohol, reflecting on the trip in a surreal way. Feeling like it was over all too soon.