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 we like to refer to hitchhiking as a sort of “locals roulette” where 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 ride.
Our drivers on this trip ranged from mid-twenties to mid-sixties and our conversations spanned just 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 had a horrifying request: "Explain to me the American healthcare system,” he said. 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 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 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 our home state of Colorado (go ahead, try explaining this in a way that doesn't make our government sound completely insane). 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 he was 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, the town where we'd start our ascent of Taranaki and by the time we arrived, the visitor's center cafe was closed. All hope of a birthday lunch was dashed, and I was feeling very far away from home and from the people I love. If we’re being honest, I was probably more than a little hangry. It wasn't the best birthday morning I’ve ever had.
But things started turning around as my "American birthday" arrived (we're 18 hours ahead, so I casually added most of a day to my celebration). A few hiker friends showed up completely unexpectedly, and we even got some free sausage to add to our celebratory dinner of instant ramen. 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 contained in the small circle of light from my headlamp. It was quiet, that morning; the birds had not yet sensed that day was arriving and we had 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 3 kilometers (~2 miles). It felt good to be climbing, though. We huffed our way up “The Puffer” 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. Perfect timing! From there, we only had a short push to the small 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 (where we’d spent Christmas the week before). 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 tarn to take our own turn waiting for the perfect shot. 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.