New Zealand 2016 – Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongario Alpine Crossing is the most amazing, changeable hike. For more than 14 miles – with side trips, crests, and sulfuric springs to explore – one passes past bare, volcanic terrain and alpine slopes, steaming, emerald pools and jade-leaved jungle.

I think I fell romantically in love with Mount Ngauruhoe, the active stratovolcano that rises in perfectly conical, grumpy splendor to 7,516′ feet. Lord of the Rings-loving bros may recognize its formidable face as “Mount Doom”, where Frodo has to destroy the One Ring. I have no doubt that getting up to the steep and tricky crater rim the day I was there (illegal – too much wind!) would have been much like the harrowing, furnace-blasted hobbit heroes’ journey.

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(6 March 2016)

6:18p – Back at Mangahuia Camp – At sunrise, I had already been up for three hours and was watching the light pour like melted butter down the bowl of slopes all around me on the trail. Currently, I’m parked in the campervan, eating terrible canned ravioli and swigging ginger beer, and all the windows are open to bees.
I’m spent. And exhilarated. And no doubt will sleep hard tonight.
Today, I hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, all 19.4 km of it. (That’s 12.054 miles for those of us playing at home). It was so. incredibly. incredible. I love volcanoes, and three of them make up Tongariro National Park, plus all their vents and craters, fumeroles and pumice, jagged rocks and ash. They are: Tongariro, Ruepahu, and Mount Ngauruhoe.
All the signs and brochures warn of volcanic hazards, and activity and lahars took out parts of the trail just a few years ago. They mention to watch out for pyroclastic flows, as if the warning to “escape quickly” would do any good, as if the event of a sudden avalanche of 2000° molten gas and rock speeding toward you at 400 mph is something to plan around.
It was wild and literally awe-inspiring.  

Much of the first half was full of agonizingly lovely and raw vistas, as red and glorious as Mars, with punishing ups and tumbling downs. There were chains to hold to climb up, and pumice dunes at a 60° incline to trudge down. I fell twice. If there had been Mars’ gravity, we would have been leaping up and loping down. Mom would not have liked the sheerness and heights. We topped off at 1886 m and bottomed out at around 700m. My knees hurt!

They do not lie when they warn you of the weather in NZ. I wore a dizzying mix of layers throughout the day and needed every one. Scuffling up volcanic scree on the ridge of Red Crater, I was so hot that I took off everything, only to throw on my wool hat against the howling wind. Sweating profusely in a tank top under the glowing martian sun – braid flayed and hair flying everywhere from underneath a black beanie in 50 mph wind – is strange fashion, I think.

The luscious smell of wax flowers through the alpine meadows mixed with hot sulfur from nearby vents, switched odorous gusts with every blast of wind. 

From the rocky slopes, we descended into a riotous jungle of ferns and vines on trees, with the scent of damp leaf litter everywhere. The shade was so welcome after so many long hours under the broiler. There were bird and bug sounds in a disorienting cacophony, and – at one point – I’m sure I heard a dilophosaurus. 

After seven hours, I came through the lahar zone (WARNING, WARNING – DO NOT STOP) and down the final, flattening home stretch, limping jerkily like a dumpster Barbie, legs robotic and clicking.

At the final adieu, a woman with a neon orange, tiger-striped backpack snot-rocketed a solid torpedo from both nostrils, and I passed her with a smile at a hobbling clip, her iPod blaring “Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac – the Queen of the Tongariro Crossing.

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Be well, my preciouses.

New Zealand 2016 – Road from Auckland to Tongariro

With a day’s driving practice under my belt, I left Jono and Auckland for the open roads, views, and hours of the North Island. My first planned stop was into its central, volcanic mass, to Tongariro National Park.

Before I could reach it, however, lay 345 km of new, tiny towns and unexpected pit stops to conquer.

I’m always compelled to take photos from the road, despite their seeming dullness, monotony, or car-window-pigeon-holed frames. The drives are always so interesting to me, a crucial party of the traveler’s story, the jerky, shifting background of the play that lets you know it’s time for a scene change.

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(5 March 2016)

10:43a – Mount Eden, Auckland – Setting out. Later than I meant to be. As usual.

GROCERY LIST – coffee/tea, milk, yogurt, bread, cheese, spinach, granola bars, trail mix, toothpaste, floss, WATER, ziploc bags, avocados, mayo/must, prepared soup, pasta, tupperware

1:20p – Open road.

1:54p – 94 km/h; Built to Spill; salt + vinegar rice crips.

2:15p – Ngaruawahia: love it.

3:35p – A rest stop. I’m flagging. I’ll stretch my legs and lens, eat a thing, and hop back in the car. 

9p – Mangahuia Campsite, Tongariro National Park – My first night in the campervan doesn’t feel as homey as I wish it did. My throat is scratchy, and I’m tired from a long-haul day in the car. Tomorrow I am hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It’s 19.4 km, and I would be lying through my recently chipped teeth if I said I wasn’t nervous. I am super nervous. What with recently getting over pneumonia, and this annoying cough I’ve been sputtering, I’m kind of scared. But I’m going to do it anyway and hope I don’t die, embarrass myself, or puke all over. 6:50a we meet. 7a we leave. Oh dear.

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Next up: Tongariro, one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen.

Be well, my loves.

New Zealand 2016 – Waitakere Ranges

After exploring Auckland and getting enough sleep to stave off jetlag, I picked up my campervan and tentatively hit the road for a day-trip outside the capital. Jono sent me in the direction of the gorgeous beaches of the Waitakere Ranges, where I dove in head first, guns blazing, to life on the other side of the road.

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(4 March 2016)

12:25p – Huia, New Zealand – Though nerve-wracking and confusing, driving is made worth it by the crystalline coastal views and the SMELL from the open windows: freshness embodied.
The Huia Store was a welcome respite in the flavor of western general stores, where the cold drinks and cabinet food are only an empty queue’s wait away.

1:54p – Whatipu Beach – What Jono said was that it was “quite cool”. What Jono did not say about the road to Whatipu was that it is a steep, white-knuckled 8 km of twisting, turning, gravel curves. The ups and downs were so fierce I was literally willing the van to stay put where I put it. The only sounds louder than the aching brakes and cackling of bugs in the dense, sub-tropical rainforest were the beats of my throbbing heart. I have to do it again on the way out, but all that seems hushed now behind the wind rushing past my ears as I sit ass-deep in black sand with my face to the Tasman Sea. The gorgeous water an waves – deep Crayola cerulean blue – hide their dangerous depths, which are full of rips and rock.
The black sand is an indescribable color – a warm charcoal like embers, mixed with perfectly violet swaths that shocked me to pieces when I saw them.
I am never coming home.

4:14p – Piha Beach – where Aussies come to surf, says Jono. 

Tomorrow, we head for the open road . . .

Be well till then, my loves.

New Zealand 2016 – Auckland

. . . I swear: these moments within days within months become a motion blur within my memory now because they pass so fast.

Nearly a year ago, I was prepping to spend all of March in New Zealand. For 30 days, I busted around in my crazy purple and green campervan, circumnavigating both islands and skirting birds while recklessly driving on the wrong side of the road.

This is the first in what will be a continuous series of recap posts, where I will finally post photos and words from my travels on that trip. And just in time, too, as I’ll be gearing back up to return again in April.

I know! – I know. Quelle pathétique, and how stupid. Alas, c’est la vie. I’ll never not be a procrastinator, it seems.

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(29 February 2016)

7:45p – Tarmac at LAX, which was a maze and a nightmare – Perhaps befittingly, my New Zealand travelogue begins with the image of Bilbo and Gandalf plastered across the neighboring plane out my window in seat 58K.

(2 March 2016)

8:56a – Auckland, New Zealand @ Jono’s in Mount Eden – Hot and cold faucets are opposite here, so my daily N Zed life began with an amused chuckle, washing the scrambled residue of breakfast eggs from our plates at the bottom of the sink. The air is moist here, on the other side of the world, and it reminds me of Martinique un peu. There is familiarity, though, in Jono’s curly mop and the scented hint of autumn on the air of the cool, cloudy morning. 

5:24p – Downtown Auckland – The wind is magnificent and bandies cooly about in the moist air. Even though the hour is busy as everyone leaves work, the atmosphere is subdued, as if we’re all muffled into calmness by the breeze. I’m meeting Jono for a drink, and then we’ll hang out in Mount Eden. (Editor’s note: we went to see the top of Mount Eden and could see all of Auckland and Rangitoto Island from there).

(3 March 2016)

8:51a – Auckland, Mount Eden – Mornings are one of my favorite parts of travel. We each have our AM routines, resplendent in their variation and monotony, and a ‘good morning’ is one where the coffee is hot, the air is cool, and we awake with just the right amount of time to appreciate each part.
Traveling takes that routine and adds new flair to every aspect that is familiar. The coffee is from a different French press. The birds and bugs – vibrating awake to rise with a surprising staccato as the shadows slide down unfamiliar boughs, roofs, and walls – have different pitches and calls than at home. There’s still bedsheets and showers, and yogurt for breakfast, but its sweet flecks of date, cacao, and chia twist the first hours’ regularity in such a nice, tasty way, eaten from a tiny, unanticipated spoon beneath the lid.
. . . I am someone who loves awaking early to the charms of a slow morning. And a slow morning somewhere new is the most incredible drowsy hour to savor the delightful unexpectedness of a new place. 

2p – Tyler Street, Downtown Auckland, with lemon, sesame, and poppyseed gelato – From: Malborough Street, all the way up and down Great North to Karangahape Road, to: all the way down Quay and back, past the jaunty yachts and park, down Te Wero Bridge where everyone mingled in the sun over oysters. I walked for hours and started to get hangry, but – too hot for anything to seem appetizing – I kept on, grouchier with every step. Finally, I picked a place purely on name and was utterly relieved to rest at a cafe with an open-air window in the shade. And that is how I find myself sitting near the bottom of the world (sipping watermelon soda and scarfing fresh fennel salad with shaved zukes, cukes, radish, chive, and summer tomatoes in a creamy dressing), warm and content, even though its winter in my bones and my heart thinks on Farmer Roy, who taught me to love fennel in the first place, and who is . . . 6,000? miles away.
Solo travel is peaceful and invigorating in a strange way, especially for someone so people-intent, like me.

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. . . My inclination to document and photograph is as all-consuming as it is excessive. Strap in, my loves, there are many, many, many New Zealand posts to come.

– SAW

Cabo San Lucas, Part II

. . . Part I.

Every year, I am more grateful for this hectic life I lead and astounded by the perplexing luck I manage in surrounding myself with so many beautiful souls and so many new sights around this incredibly lovely world.

Be well, my pets. Go out and see things with your eyes! Keep good people at your side.

Love, SAW

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