Let the planning begin

After graduating last year, I spent a ten months overseas backpacking in Australia and New Zealand. During that time, I spent two months hiking the length of the South Island of New Zealand on the Te Araroa trail. And I can honestly say, it was the best experience of my entire life.

Since my return to the states, I have worked on building a career in the outdoor retail industry as an apparel buyer. I love my job and the industry I work in, but the yearning to pick up my pack and hit the road is always there in the back of my head. I was bit by the travel bug, and the itch is back.

My time and experiences in New Zealand rooted a hunger inside of me that I think can only be satisfied by another long trail. After careful consideration of my future and what’s next, I’ve decided I will hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018. I will spend this year planning and preparing myself for the long journey ahead. While I have thru-hiking experience, the Te Araroa was only a fraction of the PCT. While the distance I covered in New Zealand was roughly 900 miles, the PCT is 2,660 miles; three times the length I walked! Two months in the South Island, New Zealand vs. six months across the length of Washington, Oregon, and California. My concerns about sandflies will be replaced with concerns of rattlesnakes and bears.

Despite the doubts and fears I’m sure others will have for me, (mom I’m talking to you) I know that this is the right decision for me. I have not felt this good or excited about my future since I bought a one-way ticket to Australia last year.

I will be using this blog to report on all things PCT: gear, research, training, everything.

I have a goal, let the planning begin.

Queenstown to Wanaka

December 18- December 21

Day 1 Queenstown to Arrowtown to Macetown via Big Hill Track

I somehow took the wrong track to Arrowtown, but discovered the most beautiful area along a river bank, so it was a good kind of lost. I named this gorgeous river Lea as I walked along, thanks to Adele’s song “River Lea” from her new album, 25, being stuck in my head. I made it to Arrowtown by lunchtime, so I stopped in a café for a rest.
The next section to Macetown had the option to follow along the river for easy tramping or go by way of Big Hill Track. It was a gorgeous day, and I was looking forward to some good views, so I went for the big hill. I’m not sure which hill the title is referring to because there were lots of them and they were all big. Up, up, up I went, huffing and puffing all the way. I passed a woman on a casual walk carrying nothing but a water bottle, who laughed at me and said, “It’s much harder going uphill isn’t it? Haha” I politely laughed at here attempt to make me feel better, while a few harsher responses flooded my head.
I made it to the saddle in 2.5 hours and began my descent. The path was lightly marked, and I managed to always find myself to the left or the right of the trail. In the mud. Naturally. After the decent I would follow the river all the way into Macetown. I had to cross the river about 10 times. It was such a hot day, I put on my trusty Keen river shoes and happily waded into the water. There were heaps of flowers growing alongside the riverbed. Mostly pink and purple: nature’s own advent wreath. There were some yellow and white ones scattered randomly among the masses, reminding me that Easter is right around the corner.
I came strolling into Macetown at my leisurely pace just after 5pm. I had previously read many blogs warning about the sandflies at this campsite. They weren’t wrong! Even having slathered myself in bug spray just before arriving, they were still all over me. I strung up my hammock as quickly as possible. I got inside and was relieved to see the sandflies trying to get at me, but failing miserably thanks to my mosquito net encasing me.
Macetown human population: 0
Sandfly population: 100 billion

Day 2: Macetown to Rose’s Hut (10km)
I woke up early, surrounded by sandflies. I stayed in my hammock, eating trail mix for breakfast; trying to put off the inevitable for just a little longer. I lounged for a few hours before I finally made myself get out and tear down my campsite as fast as humanly possible. I ran out of Macetown like a bat out of hell.
The beginning of my day was amazing! The first section of the track had an option to follow the river upstream if it was low enough. It was, so I put on my Keens and enjoyed a glorious wet walk. I sang every river song that came to my head; Just Around the Riverbend (Pocahontas); River Lea (Adele).
After saying my goodbyes to the river (so sad), the trail turned inland and up. Up, up, up, 1270 meters up to Roses Saddle. This is where the mental challenge started. And I failed miserably. The climb was long, hot, and hard. I kept stopping and taking off my pack, which made things worse. My mind kept wanting to stop. I kept thinking I was tired, but I felt in my legs that they weren’t. My legs were strong. They could do this! If only my mind would shut the hell up and let them! Finally made it to the saddle. Snapped a picture of my backpack next to the sign (as if I needed another excuse to take it off.) With all of my motivation dried up, much like the dusty road below my feet, I walked the long decent to Rose’s Hut.
So happy to be in the hut! The woman at the DOC in Queenstown told me I wouldn’t see anybody out here for my entire trek, so I happily stripped down to my underwear and lounged about. Good thing I decided to slip into my clothes before going out to the bathroom because when I came back there was a boy! In the hut! I was so surprised, I was almost angry! I wanted to say, “Hey! You’re not supposed to be here! I wanted to be alone!” But instead, I welcomed him with a smile. We chatted for a bit. He’s from Canada. Hiking a few parts of the Te Araroa, trying to decide if he wants to do the whole thing. I was so exhausted I fell asleep before the sun went down.

Day 3: Rose’s Hut to Highland Creek Hut (11km)
Two major climbs and descents. The trail notes described the climb as “memorable.’’ I’ll say. The trail notes said 5-6 hour tramp. It took me 7!!! Hardest day for sure. Holy Moses, my legs were screaming by the time I made it to the next hut. Exhaustion from the long, hard, hot day in the full on Otago sun had set in. I found, “Call of the Wild” by Jack London in the hut. I sat out on the porch and read it with a fantastic view of the mountains from where I was sitting.
Day 4 Highland Creek Hut to Fern Burn Hut to Wanaka!
Awoke with sore feet and a tired body. I dragged myself out of bed to prep the usual oats, sultanas, and chia seeds. Ate my breakfast and slowly packed my bag. My plan for today was to make it to Fern Burn Hut. Just make it to the hut and see how I feel. Well hallelujah, I made it to the hut, and guess what? I felt AMAZING! After the day I had yesterday, I couldn’t believe how strong and motivated I felt! I stopped at Fern Burn Hut to take a quick break and continued out to the Fern Burn carpark. I wasn’t sure of my next step after that, but I felt good about continuing the walk. Along the way I met a guy who was out running the trail! Mad props to him. I was so hot nearing the end of my walk that I stripped and took a magnificent dip in the river when I got to the woods. It was exactly what I needed to revamp my energy to finish strong. About a half hour from the carpark the runner I met earlier caught up with me. He said, ‘’how’s it going?” and I screamed so loud I scared the sheep that were grazing across the way. Oops. We chatted for a bit and he offered me a lift to Wanaka! God is so good! I happily accepted. Being full of such joy at my luck, and my backpack feeling so light, I ran the last bit of the trail. He dropped me in downtown Wanaka: a small, cute touristy town with a gorgeous back drop of the lake and mountains (a mini version of Queenstown). My plan was to freedom camp in Wanaka, but with the heat of the day bearing down on me and my body screaming of exhaustion I decided a shower and a bed is what I needed. I ended up booking at the YHA and I am so happy I did! Such a nice place with such friendly people! They even have a discount special at some of the YHAs in New Zealand that give you an extra percentage off your stay on top of the membership discount if you are tramping the entire country! TA TRAMPERS FOR THE WIN!
It’s been such a nice rest day! Bought way too much food for the next few tramps; skyped with my sister who’s face I haven’t seen in too long! Relaxed and enjoyed a beautiful sunny day in this gorgeous town. I almost don’t want to leave! I have the best roommates! Most of us are leaving tomorrow so we will have a few goodbye drinks tonight to celebrate. I will be one and done, as I have a long 40km day tomorrow.
Overall review: some of the hardest walks of my life, but I am enjoying it more and more with every step. I am more exhausted than I have ever felt in my life, but I have never felt more alive.

Te Anau to Queenstown

I have to say, getting back on the trail alone was liberating. I felt free again. I set off from Te Anau to hitch back to the trail head on Mavora Lakes Road on a gloomy, cloudy morning. As the rain began to fall, I hesitated; thinking I should go back to the warm bed I had left that morning. That hesitation was strongly washed over by my desire to get back on the trail. A nice woman and her daughter picked me up within minutes and I was off!

40km along a gravel road to get to the campsite. I was about 10km into my walk when the rain really began to fall. A car pulled up alongside me. Two sweet little Malaysian women asked me if I would like a lift to the lake. Looking ahead at the storm I was about to walk into, I happily accepted. After a long conversation about what I was doing and how careful I promised I would be on my journey, we arrived at the campsite. We snapped some selfies and they loaded me up with two minute noodles and instant coffee. Once again, I found myself blessed by the kindness of strangers. We said our goodbyes and I began my hike for the day.

16km to get to Boundary Hut. The first part of my walk was spent avoiding massive mud puddles and getting splashed by boys on dirt bikes who thought it was funny to ride past me as fast as they could. The second part of my day was spent praying and giving thanks to God for the opportunity I’ve been given to go on this journey. There is so much time for your mind to wanter when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. My mind decided to reflect on my past and the mistakes I’ve made in my life; then came the tears. Something about crying, just letting all of the sadness and emotion flow out of your body, is so therapeutic. All part of the healing process I suppose.

The weather was once again playing games with me. Sunny for 5 minutes, then hailing, on and off. I made it to Boundary hut as it started to get really bad. Hallelujah! I had a quiet, cold night alone in the hut.

The next day I woke up with the sun. Made my usual oatmeal and chia seed breakfast, packed up, and left with my sights set on Greenstone Hut, 22km away. Swampy, wet, muddy, grassy terrain for most of the walk that day. I felt a change in myself this day. I found myself smiling during my tramp. Dare I say this is getting easier?! Could I actually be ENJOYING THIS?! I was! Such a special, wonderful, elating feeling! I made it to Greenstone Hut by late afternoon. There were heaps of people already there. Greenstone Hut sits on a very popular route that many people come for fishing or a weekend hiking trip. In the hut, I met people from all over: a girl from Wisconsin, on holiday after finishing studying abroad; two outdoor adventure seekers from Australia; four Israeli guys; and a couple from Seattle who quit their jobs to travel the world. I found everyone around me very attractive; I felt so out of place. This hut was luxurious in comparison to the ones I had been staying in. They had toilets that actually FLUSHED. Too bad I didn’t realize that until the next morning. Oops. I had a great night sleep, warm and cosy in a room with 6 other people in it.

The next day I was lucky enough to hitch a ride to Queenstown with the couple from Seattle in their campervan. I got dropped downtown and once again felt out of place. Tourists and someone trying to sell you something everywhere you turned. I had to wait until my couchsurfing host got off work at 11pm, so I wandered the streets, trying to avoid spending any money in this overpriced town. I did happen to find a coffee shop, Vudu Café, which had almond milk. Not only did they make the best almond milk latte I’ve ever had, they served it in a BOWL. If you go to Queenstown, go there for coffee. Hands down, best I’ve ever had.

I spent the next day resting. Enjoyed a gorgeous walk along the lake. I can see the draw people have to this city. It’s so picturesque. The water is crystal clear and the mountains in the backdrop are stunning. I was grinning from ear to ear all day. The DOC said the status of the trail from Queenstown to Wanaka is all good, so tomorrow I depart! They said to be mentally prepared because it will be the hardest part of the trail I’ve encountered thus far. With sunshine in the forecast for tomorrow, I am optimistic.

Woke up at 5 am along with the sun, super pleased with myself that I packed up all my things before the rain started. It began as only a light drizzle. Rather than find cover, I decided to walk down to the beach and watch the sunrise. That was my first mistake. The storm clouds came swiftly and the rain began to fall. By the bucket load. I was completely soaked through within minutes. I walked along the main road in Riverton, praying that somewhere would be open and save me from the torrential downpour. The supermarket was the earliest to open, and that was at 7am, so I sat, in the cold, wet rain and waited. My second mistake. When they opened, I wandered the 2 short aisles they had for a half an hour, trying to avoid going back outside. When I couldn’t bear to awkwardly walk by the cashier again, I checked out, and went to face the storm. Sweet relief: across the street, The Postmaster Cafe had opened! It was a very big place; I set myself up on a cozy couch, tucked away in a corner room. I had the place all to myself, so I laid out my wet gear and warmed up with a long black. They didn’t have any vegan friendly food, but I had scored 8 bananas for $1.28 at the supermarket, so I was happy 🙂

Once the rain cleared, I went to the information center just up the road. I told the woman at the desk, Carol, that I was hiking the Te Araroa and needed some maps. She saw that I was alone and looked concerned. After a few calls, I was on the phone with Kevin Hawkes. Little did I know at that moment how important it was that I was to meet this man! He is not only a trail angel, he is actually the chairman of the Te Araroa in Southland. He came to the information center in Riverton, fully equipped with trail notes and maps for me! After sitting and chatting awhile, he seemed to be a bit concerned about my lack of knowledge, plans, and survival methods for my walk, which in turn, made me worry. He took me into Invercargill so I could set up a cellphone plan and laminate my trail maps. He also hosted me at his home, called “Humpty,” a cute little house on 230 acres of land, a hot shower and warm meal included! I strung up my hammock in the yard and slept next to the lambs. In the morning he dropped me at the Long Hilly Track trail head with a promise from me that I would text him when I had arrived safely at Martin’s Hut.

The Long Hilly Track was about 6km and took me about 2 hours, not too bad I thought! Then I continued into the Longwood Forest on my way to Martin’s hut. There’s a reason it’s called the Longwood Forest. The only better name I can think of would be the Never Ending Forest. It took me forever! There were very sketchy parts where I was walking over huge ditches on a very wobbly board. I couldn’t keep myself from thinking, “wow I could fall to my death right now and no one would know!” Not to mention a lot of huge trees had fallen recently and were blocking the path. Me, being an inexperienced tramper, tried to go straight through the obstacle, rather than the logical method of looking for a way around. At one point, I tripped and fell towards a ditch on my right. My backpack got stuck under a fallen tree trunk and prevented me from falling to my death. After lying there for a minute, filled with anger at my stupidity, I tried to get up, but I failed. With my 23 kilo pack, I didn’t have the strength to lift it and myself up. I unbuckled from my pack and slid out of it. I was half temped to leave it there. Once I got control of my emotions, I put on my pack and set off again, determined to do this! Once again, I was racing to get to my destination before dark. By the time I made it to Cascade Road, I thought I was 1km from Martin’s Hut. How wrong I was. It was 1km down that road, then another 10 minutes off that road, then another 30 minutes of tramping before getting there! And this wasn’t any easy tramping. This was up steep hills, in thick mud, with more huge obstacles blocking the pathway. With the daylight fading fast, I had to fight the voice in my head that was telling me to just stop and string up my hammock already. FINALLY! I made it up the hill to the sign that said Martin’s Hut: 100 meters, 1 minute. I almost burst into tears when I saw smoke coming from the chimney. I let out a loud “WOO!” and a boy, Benjamin, opened the door and welcomed me.

Benjamin is French-Canadian, a fellow vegan, and started the Te Araroa on the same day as I did! Funny we never came across each other until now. I could tell just from talking to him for a few minutes that he is a very experienced hiker. He is like me in the sense that he has never done anything like the Te Araroa before, and that his pack is far too heavy (24 kilos!) But he has taken outdoor survival classes and knows a lot about the outdoors. I can honestly say that if he wasn’t there, I would not have continued on in the Longwood Forest. I would have gone back and tried to hitch around them. But he was keen to hike together the next day, and I have to say, it was great to have someone there. I’m learning so much from him! Even the smallest, most basic things he showed me, made a world of difference in my tramping experience. Like to look for a way around an obstacle (mud) rather than trying to go through it. There was a very steep, muddy, overgrown path on our hike out of Martin’s hut to begin the day. We were in the clouds when we made it up to the ridges. Trying to find the next orange pole marking the trail became a game that was quite fun. In between the ridges there was some beautiful, enchanted forestry. Everything was covered in moss; it looked like some gnomes or fairies were going to come out and play with us at any moment. But then the rain came. Once again I was unprepared when it came to rain gear and I paid dearly for it. By the time we made it out of the muddy, steep descent towards the road to Bald Hill, we were cold, wet, and the rain was showing no sign of stopping. About 1km up the road, I couldn’t take it any more. It was another 7km to get to Merrivale Road, and we were freezing. My hands were so cold they weren’t working properly anymore. With 6% battery life on my phone, I decided to call Kevin and see if he would come rescue us. Bless his soul, he said he and his wife, Ann, were waiting for my call, and they would come get us! He picked us up within 2 hours and we were back at Humpty, enjoying another hot shower and warm meal.

With rain in the forecast the next day, (today) we decided to take a rest day. After tramping with Ben, I had a reality check. I could honestly die if I wasn’t smart about this. I needed to get better gear, and I needed it before I took another step on the Te Araroa. So, I made a list: what I absolutely needed to get, and what I needed to get rid of to try and lighten my pack. Kevin and Ann are some of the best people, not only that I’ve met in New Zealand, but in my entire life! They took me back into Invercargill to all of the camping and hunting shops to find proper gear. I dropped a lot of money, but I feel confident going into the mud and rain that is forecast for tomorrow. I bought a good pair of rain pants and raincoat, plus some gators and more dry sacs. The only thing I am still concerned about is my sleeping bag. It is not warm enough for New Zealand weather. I couldn’t afford to buy another one, so I am praying that the nights won’t get too cold. Benjamin and I decided to continue traveling together, at least for awhile. I definitely think I can learn heaps more from him, and I feel better knowing I have someone to face the bad weather with.

I know I am not experienced in this kind of thing, but the good thing about starting from ground zero, is you can only get better. I made a deal with myself that I would give it my all for 2 weeks before I consider throwing in the towel. I am hoping things start getting better with the days to come.

The Journey Begins

To start off, I have to go back a few days and talk about my arrival in New Zealand.  I flew into Christchurch from Melbourne, Australia.  I arranged to couch surf at a guy’s (Royce), house to get my feet firmly planted on the ground when I arrived in the country.  He was so nice, he picked me up straight from the airport and showed me the town.  It was amazing and a sad to see all the rubble still around from the earthquake that caused so much damage back in 2011.  I was so tired from the not sleeping the night before my flight, I just wanted to stay in and sleep.  Royce was fine with that and let me stay at his place while he went out.  I decided to stay another night because I wanted to see more of the city before I took off.  I went to a farmers market and the museum with a fellow backpacker from the states, Jesse, from Florida.  He gave me the best piece of advice for working on improving my sense of direction: always turn around.  That night we all went out to see Royce’s friend Ryan play music at a bar.  It ended up being a really fun, stay up til the sunrise, kind of night.  When I finally left Christchurch, my goal was to get down to Invercargill, where I had another couch surfing host set up.   I hitched the whole way down, and I made it in about 10 hours (normally it takes around 8 hours to drive straight through, so I made really good time.)  I met a lot of really cool, friendly Kiwis and we had great conversations. 

Today, I had an early start.  My couch surfing host, Dawn, was kind enough to take me around the shops to pick up a few last minute things.  She then dropped me off at the edge of town so I could hitchhike down to Bluff and start the trail! Such a gorgeous day to start!  Clear, sunny skies. Apparently, I was very lucky to be starting today because the weather in Bluff is usually cold, wet, and windy. 

The trail started out pretty easy and had such beautiful views along the base of Bluff Hill. Once I made it through Bluff, it was 16 long kilometres along the highway.  It was so boring, and my feet were really feeling it.  I had many people stop along the way and ask me if I wanted a ride into town, but I declined, determined to make it all the way myself! I made it to the end of the highway trek, and then came the rain. 

I ended up hitching back to Dawn’s house, who was kind enough to let me stay another night.  Nothing feels better than a hot shower and a warm place to sleep because right now my body is screaming at me.  My pack is about 20-22 kilos at the moment.  Definitely need to consider getting rid of a few things in order to make it easier on myself.