Hitching Back to Reality
Upon finishing the trail we spent a few days relaxing at the lodge in Bluff, which is run by the charismatic and curious Lex. We began the long process of cleaning ourselves up and drying off... only to jump back into the thick of things by taking a ferry across he Foveaux Straight to the remote and wild Stewart Island. Despite relentless rain and knee high mud, we hiked across the island's interior and were rewarded with several wild kiwi sightings. Soaked but feeling accomplished, we made haste back to Bluff then hitched north to Invercargill. There, we finally were able to settle down and enjoy the trappings of civilization, despite the persistently bad weather and a questionable free camping spot. We saw a movie (The Revenant), explored the museum in town, and spent a lot of time relaxing in the library. We ran in to Audrey, the French girl we had met on the North Island, and chatted with an American couple named Grace and Tom in the museum cafe. It was a fitting start to the next part of our adventure; the bum phase. After a few damp days in Invercargill, we started our hitch north towards Dunedin. A couple of German tourists got us started and took us along the coast through the region known as the Caitlins. Though this took us off the main highway, it gave us a chance to tour yet another beautiful part of the country which we hadn't anticipated seeing. They dropped us off in the town of Owaka, and as luck would have it we ran in to Grace and Tom again. They graciously allowed us to join them as they went north, and we scored a bonus stop at the stunning Nugget Point, with its cliff side lighthouse overlooking a group of sea-sculpted and striated rocks. One more hitch from the town of Balclutha brought us to Dunedin, the 'Edinburgh of the South', where we found rooms in a hostel for a few nights. We made the most of our time, checking out the local architecture, the Speights Brewery, the Settlers Museum, the art gallery, and botanical gardens, before hitting the road once again. We hitched to a seaside free camp ground for the night, surrounded by campervans and screaming children, but otherwise happy with our progress. Next we began the process of getting ourselves to Christchurch, where we were looking forward to reconnecting with Sadie and Fiona. Our first ride came from a father and his two children, fresh off an end of summer surf trip. They dropped us off and almost immediately we were picked up by a French tourist on her way to Chch (seriously, hitching in NZ is great). She drove us directly to our destination, where we quickly dropped our gear, rolled up our sleeves, and jumped in to help with some heavy yard work taking place in Fi and Sadie's yard. It was the least we could do for their continued hospitality, for over the next few days they were the consummate hosts. We had the opportunity to see the sights in Chch, including a view over the countryside and surrounding coastline, hit up their amazing art gallery, enjoy some meals around town, and play with their adorable fox terrier, Ted. The highlight was a raucous game of Cards Against Humanity, something we have desperately missed over here (there's no NZ version, and the Aussie one is hard to come by). In the morning, we unfortunately had to say our goodbyes as Fiona dropped us off at the airport for our flight back to Wellington. We had a small hiccup with our checked luggage, but otherwise the trip back north went off smoothly. The 40 minute flight was over about as soon as it began, and we landed in hot and clear weather. As we had decided not to do the (very gratuitous) 10k walk to the southern point of the city on our first pass through here, we elected to hike from the airport along he coast back to the city center as penance. From there, we caught a commuter train north to Paraparaumu, where we met up with Sean, Anj, and their son Kian, then spent another few days enjoying the good weather and hitting the beach. After an all too brief time, we broke out the hitching thumbs once more and hit the asphalt for a few rides up to Palmerston North. We walked across the city to make up for the ride we had taken out of town when we were here last, and met up with Barney and Rose at their Robert Harris cafe on the city square. We were happy to see some more familiar faces, and after an obligatory stop at the library, we walked to their house just outside town for another few days getting absolutely pampered by their astonishing hospitality. Seriously, this entire family should get an award for being the most gracious and thoughtful hosts one could ever ask for, and apparently they had been putting up thru-hikers all summer. They are the TA's first real trail angels. Alas, we had to move on once again after all too little of Rose's great cooking, and began the hitch towards the last real stretch of trail we needed to finish: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. After a few easy hitches, we once again found ourselves at the northern terminus of one of the worlds most popular and beautiful tracks. The atmosphere could not have been more different from our last visit, both literally and figuratively; instead of overcast skies weeping rain and snow, there were scattered clouds and sun. Instead of an eerily empty car park, there were hundreds of cars and buses backed up out to the road, and tired hikers stretched on every available surface awaiting rides back to their hostels. With our full packs and grungy looks we were still somewhat out of place, but were in good spirits as we set off to tackle the mountain once again. We were walking against the flow as most trampers finished their day where we started, and so had to constantly squeeze past thousands of hikers (not an exaggeration). Given our late start and the lack of campsites, we elected to stay at the now-defunct Ketetahi hut on the northern slopes of the volcanic park. The shelter had been partially destroyed by ballistic boulders from an eruption a few years ago, and was thus deemed unsafe. The upshot was the cabin became progressively less crowded, and eventually deserted as sunset came on. The downside was we could have died in a fiery cataclysm, the victim of any number of gruesome maladies that can occur when a volcano blows its top. We were joined by a lone German hiker who seemed unaware of the hut's history, and spent a peaceful evening enjoying the awesome sunset from our illegal shelter (for obvious reasons, we don't condone staying at Ketetahi shelter, regardless of the reasons; it was a pretty selfish and dangerous thing to do that luckily worked out for us, but could always end horribly). We awoke earlier than normal, eager to see the sunrise (and escape a potential blast zone), and to get some miles in before having to face the hordes of trampers coming from the other side of the mountain. The trail lived up to its reputation in every way, and can't really be summed up in words, or in photos from my crappy cell phone camera. Just Google pictures of it. It's an alien landscape inside a volcano pocked with craters and multi-hued lakes, veiled in steam from geothermal vents, covered in jagged igneous rock formations, and all this from a perch above the clouds overlooking the central part of the North Island. As a bonus, it also passes Mt Ngauruhoe -aka Mt Doom, from the Lord of the Rings movies- which is a quick jaunt to the summit... just kidding! It's a backbreaking 300 meter ascent straight up a scree slope that is 2 steps forward, 1 and 9/10ths steps back for the most part. The view from the top is worth the effort however, as it the fun of bombing down hill on the sandy slope like a one-man avalanche. After completing the crossing, we made our way to Whakapapa Village, the settlement we had escaped to after our last failed attempt at summiting a few months ago. It was the last official stretch of trail we had to finish, and with that our TA hike is actually over. The sense of jubilation was rather subdued, given that we celebrated in Bluff already, but it feels good none the less. From the park we hitched north to the town of Taupo, named after the massive lake on whose shore it resides. It is the biggest freshwater body in NZ, dwarfing even the large alpine lakes on the South Island, and the town itself has a relaxed beach atmosphere. Aside from watching an impromptu duathlon and seeing a matinee screening of 'The Hateful Eight', we didn't do much in town, and were just fine with that. We walked to a nearby free camping area on the shores of the Waikato River, the country's longest watercourse and one we were familiar with from our first pass of the North Island. The area turned out to be incredibly popular, with the attenuated noise and garbage as well, which was unfortunate given the idyllic location on a bend in the river opposite some cliffs. We left the campsite early the next morning, eager to make tracks northward once more, where we were planning on staying with our friends Nikki and Peter for a few days. After a short road walk passed the thundering Huka Falls, a coffee break at a cafe with an attached helicopter that doubled as kids play room, and views of several geothermal vents and power generators (NZ: the only place where you can build a petrol station on top of a volcanic site), we finally stopped to hitch. Thankfully our golden thumbs saved the day once more and we were picked up by Brendon, an ex-professional snowboarder turned drone pilot cameraman, which is about the most awesome resume I can think of. It didn't hurt that he was in a comfy campervan to boot, or that he was going exactly where we were heading as well. Given that it was our last hitch here, it was a pretty stellar way to go out. Several hours and a few popsicles later, we got dropped off at the airport post shop where our erstwhile bounce box was waiting, as was Peter; the timing had worked out perfectly. The next day was spent relaxing with Peter and Nikki, the former graciously giving us a tour of the west coast of Auckland and the Waitakere Range while the latter was off at work. Peter also drove us to see a colony of gannets nested atop some cliffs, one of the many (many, many) perks of having a local who knows the area to show us around. We hit up a few vineyards along the way, thereby checking another attraction off our New Zealand bucket list and picked up some bottles for the rest of the weekend. After a fabulous dinner at their home we finally got to enjoy the fabled cheese course that we had previously (and idiotically) turned down last time we had been there. After some brief discussion we had decided to drive around the Coromandel for a few days, and happily Nikki could take the Friday off. As an added bonus, her coworker Tim offered us his family's bach to stay at while out there. With a tentative itinerary in mind, we set off for a few days road trip around the peninsula the next morning, stopping at any attraction that caught our eye on the way. We saw some local art, pulled over to watch a shoal of fish get bombarded by sea birds (and stumbled upon a huge blackberry patch in the process), hiked through some bush to a massive square kauri tree, and swung by N&P's old beach house on Opito Bay for a quick impromptu swim. We then headed south along the coastline down to the towns of Pauanui and Tirongi, separated by the Tairua River estuary, where Tim's bach was located. A greasy dinner of take-away fish and chips put us in the mood for a walk to the beach, but with few streetlights, a confusing neighborhood layout, and a very confused Siri guiding us, our short stroll turned into a mini nighttime adventure. For our last day in the country we backtracked slightly up the coast to Hot Water Beach, a thermal area where steaming pools can be dug into the sand, creating temporary spas. Despite missing the tidal window to go for a soak, we enjoyed every moment knowing we had so little time left in such an amazing country. We then traveled out to the beautiful but overcrowded Cathedral Cove, where a surf-carved natural arch sends thundering echoes of the waves into your bones, and delicate rock stacks seem to ply the water like sails. Hungry from our day's exploits we sought some lunch, but were frustrated by the puzzlingly long waits at some nearby establishments until stumbling upon a beautiful restaurant in a resort overlooking the sea, a perfect place for our last NZ night. Our absurd luck was running strong it seemed. After a lovely meal we headed back towards Auckland, but not before one last stop at a metal sculpting studio where N&P picked up some artwork to celebrate their upcoming anniversary (good on 'em!), and I got jealous of the foundry they had set up there. Once back at the house we began the work of packing our bags, with a touch of sadness and finality in the air. We knew we wouldn't be back any time soon, and having just made so many good friends here it was heartbreaking to have to say goodbye. We made the most of the night however over a candlelit dinner of leftovers, some bubbly Bouzy wine with fresh blackberries, and dessert (Ben &Jerry's! More cheese! Almost a cricket!). Finally, with the prospect of 30 some-odd hours of travel ahead of us and a 6 a.m. flight we turned in at 10, reluctant to face the coming day.
After all too few hours of sleep, we awoke at 3 a.m. to get started on our epic journey back home. Being great hosts and all, Nikki and Peter drove us through the predawn darkness to the Auckland airport as the first signs of life started stirring in the city around us. We said our brief farewells, checked our bag, and settled in to wait for our flight along with scores of other travelers, thankful that we didn't have to spend the night on the floor like some of the others there. Our flights were largely uneventful and strangely uncrowded, but both of us barely slept as we flew first to Sydney, then to Los Angelesthe, crossing the international date line in the process. The upshot was we had one looooooong Valentines Day. Upon landing in the states, we transfered our bag and went through customs for our last flight to NYC. Once again there was little to report during our transit, but unfortunately our one checked bag was left behind in LA and had to be mailed ahead to Connecticut (it arrived safe and sound eventually). This was yet another eerie parallel to the begining of our trip, as the bag had been lost going to NZ as well. My saintly mom was there to pick us up, as she always has been at the end of my travels and we changed into warmer clothes, ready to brave the -9 degree weather.
The last few days were spent reconnecting with friends in NYC amidst the cold and rain of a northeastern winter. Our jetlag was offset by the late night lifestyle here; while our bodies felt 18 hours "ahead", we simply stayed up 6 hours later than we had been used to, making for a full 24 hour rotation. Doubtlessly we will feel the effects once we try and get accustomed to a regular schedule, but for now we are just glad to be settling in to some semblence of a routine. We are at my brother's house in CT for the moment, but will eventually be transitioning to her parents place in Massachusets in a few days. Our big adventure is finally coming to the end.