After the Whanganui River, Te Araroa is on paved road for nearly 100 kilometers, mainly along major highways. That's not exactly our idea of a great wilderness experience (plus, walking the roads would have meant spending my whole birthday roadwalking, and who wants that?). So, we decided to skip the whole section and take a suitable, homemade "alternate": hitchhiking 3 hours west from the town of Whanganui, climbing the iconic Mt. Taranaki (aka Mt. Egmont), and then hitching another 4 hours back south to Palmerston North, where Te Araroa heads back out onto real trail.
In total, it took us 3 hitches to get to Taranaki and 5 to get back to Palmerston North. I could probably write a whole post about each one. We've learned a massive amount from talking to locals, and hitchhiking is sort of like speed dating or locals roulette; we meet an incredible variety of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. We nearly always climb out of one hitch with questions saved up for our next driver.
Our drivers on this trip ranged from mid-twenties to mid-sixties and our conversations spanned as wide a range. One driver, a man about our age, worked as a journalist for a railway trade publication and we learned about international train infrastructure trends. In another car our driver gave us a horrifying request: "Explain to me the American healthcare system." Jonathan and I just looked at each other and laughed... But we hacked our way through and in return, we learned a great deal about the very different healthcare system here.
We talked with our drivers about gun rights, folk music, retirement, and gay marriage. Some of these things may seem controversial to Americans, but here, they're just not. It's pretty widely accepted here that gay people should be able to get married and that gun ownership should be regulated -- what seems to fascinate the Kiwis most is that these issues are still so divisive in the States.
Our longest ride was two and a half hours with a young woman -- younger than me, anyway -- who wowed us with an extensive and articulately expressed understanding of American politics. She asked about cannabis and how it can simultaneously be federally illegal and yet also legal in Colorado (go ahead, try explaining this in a way that doesn't make it sound insane). And she explained New Zealand's political parties to us, along with a run-down of some of the controversial issues being debated in the capitol (for example, the use of a particularly poisonous pesticide used to kill invasive possums). On the final leg of our journey, an older gentleman picked us up in his shiny new Jaguar. It was New Year's Eve and, on his way to a dialysis appointment, he said wanted to get in one last good deed for 2018.
But back to my birthday, as we were hitching out of Whanganui...
It took us until mid afternoon to reach North Egmont where we'd start our ascent of Taranaki the next morning. By the time we arrived, the visitor's center cafe was closed and hopes of a birthday lunch were dashed. I was feeling lonely and far away from the people I love. Plus, I was probably more than a little hangry, if we're being honest. It wasn't the best birthday morning ever.
But things started turning around as my "American birthday" arrived (since we're 18 hours ahead, I casually added most of a day to my celebration). A few hiker friends showed up completely unexpectedly and we even got some free sausages to add to our oh-so-exciting ramen noodle dinner. We had a stunning sunset to finish out the evening and went to bed early -- the alarm was set for 4am.
I love walking in the predawn hours, my whole world only as big as the small circle of light from my headlamp. It is quiet; the birds have not yet sensed that day is arriving and we have the mountain all to ourselves. We reached treeline just as the first light was spilling over the horizon.
The climb up Taranaki is steep -- over 4000 feet in just about 3 kilometers (~2 miles). It felt good to be climbing, though. We huffed our way up The Puffer and the staircase before reaching the notorious scree fields and felt a rush of relief when we finally made it to solid rock for the final scramble. When we arrived at the crater, the snow was just beginning to soften. From there, we just had a short push to the summit.
In the Maori tradition, Taranaki is said have fought with Mt. Tongariro over a lady mountain, Pihanga, and to have lost. In his grief, they say, Taranaki ran all the way to the west coast, leaving a deep gorge behind him that filled with his tears to form the Whanganui River. The mountain stands completely alone at the edge of the ocean, a perfectly conical volcano in a near-perfectly circular ring of wilderness. Far in the distance, we could see the peaks of Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu rising above the clouds.
It took us about 6 hours round trip to complete the climb itself and as we shoe-skied down the scree fields, we patted ourselves on the back for waking up early. We'd had the summit all to ourselves, but a crowd of other hikers snaked out below us. We breezed down past them and made it back to the visitor's center while breakfast was still being served. Double victory!
However, we couldn't yet call our day complete. We wanted to check out some other views of the mountain, and specifically, we wanted to visit the tarns (seasonal alpine pools) where the mountain famously shows its epic reflection. To do that, we needed to hike another 12 km (~7.5 miles) over another mountain and on to the Pouakai Hut. The signs warned us that it would take 9 hours (presumably on fresh legs).
Once again, we wholeheartedly ignored the signs and set out around 1pm. The trail was muddy and steep and brutal for our already-tired legs. Nevertheless, we arrived at the tarn well before sunset. Crossing the boardwalk down to the water, we realized that the tarn was absurdly small, though it looks like a substantial lake in the many (many) Instagram photos from this spot. There was a group of tourists loitering around the tiny pool, waiting for the summit -- now cloaked in clouds -- to appear long enough for the perfect image.
With thick clouds and time to spare, we headed down to the hut for dinner. There, we met Brett and Michelle, a couple from Wellington who were hiking Taranaki's own Round the Mountain track. We sat and chatted until the sky outside began to look more promising, then hiked back up to the hut to take our own turn sitting by the little tarn. The sky was moody and there was too much wind for a clear reflection, but with patience, we had the chance to watch the mountain wrestle its way through the mist.
As the sun began to set on a long, long day, we walked back to the hut with our friends. Brett snapped a #brinsonbanksing moment for us as we reached a hill above the clouds. We climbed into our bunks that night, exhausted and at our very happiest.