Georgia Loop (BMT/Duncan Ridge/AT)

Georgia Loop

I’ve failed miserably to write this post for several weeks now, but I did want to get it into a blog since I think it’s helpful to compare this loop to the Bartram/Appalachian Trail loop, which is almost the same distance (55-60miles). 

Although I thought both loops were fun, I do prefer the Bartram/AT loop because I feel like it has more points of interest (Cheoah Bald, Wayah Bald, Wesser Bald, and the Nanthalala River), as well as the possibility to have a burger in the middle (which I can’t actually vouch for since I’ve never made it there while they’ve actually been open). 

The Georgia Loop, however, connects the Appalachian Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail and the Duncan Ridge Trail, and is also roughly 55-60 miles long, but rather than have several large climbs, it has many more smaller climbs, and fewer points of interest (I would say that Long Creek Falls, Toccoa Bridge, and some of the small views near Woody Gap are probably the only highlights). This loop may be slightly easier to follow from a navigational point of view, but that’s debatable.

In any case, we started this hike on October 30th, and here is our experience:

Day 1:  12 miles

John was scrambling to finish some last minute work before the hike, so we got a somewhat late start.  The drive from Asheville was about 2.5 hours, and we parked on Highway 60 to start where the BMT crosses the road.  There was room for maybe 5 cars on the side of the road.  We could also have started further down the road at Woody Gap on the Appalachian Trail section of the loop.

The air was crisp, in the 50’s and very windy.  But the sun was out, and because of the recent hurricane, most of the leaves were off the trees.  Each time the wind stopped for a moment, I felt the sun penetrating through my clothing and I started to sweat.  But a few moments later, I would find myself on the shady side of the mountain, with 30+mph winds, and all the warmth left my body.  It was difficult to figure out what I should be wearing, so I settled on keeping my hat and gloves in a side pocket where I could grab them every few minutes.

Many trees had been knocked over by the recent storm, and we scrambled over and around them as we followed the Benton MacKaye Trail to where it intersected with the Dunkan Ridge Trail just 5 miles in.

We knew that the Duncan Ridge Trail would be challenging. We had a map which showed the profile of the trail, and the ups and downs looked practically vertical. I also knew that there is an infamous trail race here, which is considered one of the toughest 50K races in the Southeast. A friend of ours had done it several years in a row, and had managed to injure herself each time. So, I braced myself for some tough climbs, and treacherous descents.

Strangely, though, the trail meandered gently through the forest.  I tried not to make any comments to jinx this lovely trail, but I looked up at the mountain that we were walking around and wondered why on earth this trail was called a “ridge trail” when clearly we were not on the ridge.  Soon, we couldn’t ignore the fact that the trail was simply not as advertised, and we started staring at the map perplexed.  We were going the right way.  There wasn’t another trail anywhere near here that we could have mixed it up with.  What gives?

We continued on, and enjoyed several more miles of pleasant, flat, and mostly well groomed trail. We got to a gap, which we quickly identified on the map, and were relieved to find that we were going to right way. Then, we noticed signage on either side of the gap fixed to a tree, which seemed to be in front of another, less well-worn trail. “Trail Closed” it said. We figured it out. The Duncan Ridge Trail had obviously been rerouted recently. No wonder.

Not far from the gap there was a perfect campsite, and we weighed the pros and cons of staying there, but couldn’t think of any, so we decided to keep hiking.

Suddenly, the trail acted more like the trail we had anticipated, and shot straight up a mountain. It started to get dark, and as we struggled along, I noticed that the miles were going by much more slowly now. In distance, the moon was rising. There was only really one place up ahead that apparently offered a spot to camp according to our data (we took the Duncan Ridge Trail page out of the Benton MacKaye Trail guide book). It was going to be at another gap, where there was a small road.

I heard rumbling in the distance, and saw the headlights of a car driving by down the ridge ahead of us.  “Oh, God” I thought to myself, “we’re going to be camped next to a road that people actually drive on?”.  I thought back to that perfect campsite we had left behind during daylight hours, several miles back.

We got to the road and found almost no good camping options.  We managed to create a crappy campsite that was somewhat tucked away from the road so we couldn’t be seen, and sat in the tent eating mashed potatoes and cookies.  A few more cars passed, and each time we turned off our headlamps so that they wouldn’t see our tent.  We didn’t want to be bothered.

As we unpacked our backpacks, and got into our sleeping bags, John found quite a large pinetree branch that somehow had made its way into our tent with us.  “Look!  A Christmas Tree!”  he proclaimed!


The temperature dropped, and we snuggled inside our sleeping bags listening to the rumble of a far-away highway.

Day 2: 18 miles

In the middle of the night, I rolled over in my sleep to find a better position and John suddenly jerked awake and screamed at the top of his lungs, which then caused me to scream back in response.

“AHHHHHHHH!” We both screamed.

“What the hell!?!” I yelled

“Oh…. I thought there was an animal.”  He answered.

“Yeah. There was. It was me, rolling over!” I said, my heart racing.  He was already asleep again.

When we woke up in the morning, I remembered the incident.  “Hey, do you remember screaming at me in the middle of the night?”  I asked.  John thought for a moment, and giggled “Yeah, sorry, I guess that one time a bear was sniffing at the tent taught me to scream at everything that moves.” I couldn’t argue since it seemed like a genuinely good reflex, but he had totally scared the crap out of me.

We got moving, and continued on the Duncan Ridge Trail. It was hard, and tiring. The leaf litter made it even harder, because not only were all the rocks and roots invisible under the pile of leaves, the leaves themselves were slippery and the steepness of the trail meant that I was constantly slipping on them. Somehow I pulled my big toe on an invisible rock, and it ached with every step.

It was Halloween, and I was excited when we crossed a road and entered Blood Mountain Wilderness, and soon after passed by Slaughter Mountain.  Ok, so although it seemed fitting that we were passing by these gruesome sounding landmarks on Halloween, I must mention that the reason these places have these names is to mark a bloody battle between the Cherokee and Creek Indians.

We heard the Appalachian Trail before we saw it. We could hear people shouting, laughing, screaming, and generally being obnoxiously loud, and before we knew it we were on the AT “superhighway,” as we call it. The leaf litter had already been crumbled and compacted, and the walking got easy, which was a relief, because at the rate that we were hiking the Duncan Ridge Trail, we probably never would have finished this loop in the time that we had.

The miles on the Appalachian Trail went by at almost double the speed.  I spent most of the afternoon doing mental math, trying to figure out how many miles we had left, and whether we were likely or not to run into our friends, Heather and Adam, who were hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail southbound. We were supposed to pick them up in two days from the terminus.  The mental math was not simple because we were using three different sources of data for mileage because the loop connects three different trails.


“Ok, so we plan to camp 8 miles from the end of our loop tomorrow, so that’s 20-something miles from the end of the Benton MacKaye for them, and they’re walking in the opposite direction, so when we intersect the BMT, that will be the point when they only have 11 miles left, and then we’re walking towards them, but what time will that be at?”

These discussions went on for hours.  What else is there to talk about?

We finally found a place to camp right before Woody Gap in a very windy saddle with plenty of camping.  The area was covered in trash, and we spent a few minutes picking all the trash up and putting it in ziplocked bags.

It was very windy, and this made us nervous because according to the forecast, the next night was supposed to be much colder – dip into the mid 20’s – and be at least three times more windy, with sustained winds around 40mph.  Now that’s windy!  We shivered thinking about it.

Day 3: 20 miles

In the morning, we walked down to Woody Gap, which is along highway 60, and was absolutely overrun.  Huge tents with Halloween lights were set up just uphill from the parking lot, and the parking lot, which was pretty big, was packed with vehicles.  I guess everyone had the idea of trying to go camping on Halloween.  We continued on, happy to be up and hiking before most of these other people woke up.

A few miles later, we ran into a group of Trail Maintainers and chatted with them for a while, and found out that apparently the Duncan Ridge Trail was built as an emergency reroute for the Appalachian Trail because the Blue Ridge Parkway was supposed to extend into GA at one point. But, apparently that idea got abandoned. I was also impressed to see that one of the trail maintainers was hiking with a prosthetic leg. I told her that I was impressed, and she shrugged and said that technology was really good these days. I’m so glad that’s true.

After lunch, we were surprised to run into another set of trail maintainers, who had unfortunately gotten the blade of their chainsaw stuck in a tree.  They asked us to take pictures of any other blow-downs further down the trail and report them to an email address when we got home so that they could take care of them.  It’s amazing how quickly these trail crews clear these trails after a hurricane.  I was impressed.

We soon got to the junction of the BMT and the AT, for the final leg of our loop.  At the intersection, there is a lovely waterfall called Long Creek Falls just a tenth of a mile off the trail.  As we left the Appalachian Trail, I felt a sense of relief that we wouldn’t be bumping into so many other people from now on.    The BMT meandered along a stream through rhododendron thickets before climbing a ridge, where we would eventually have to find a place to park ourselves for the cold and windy night that we had been dreading.

We found a spot, well before dark, and worked to secure our tent in such a way that it wouldn’t blow away.  We put rocks on top of all our stakes, and piled leaves around our tent to insulate it better.  We crawled into our sleeping bags, and watched the sun set by peeking out through one of the tent doors every few minutes while devouring everything and anything that looked appealing in our food bags, knowing that the extra calories would keep us warm, and we only had 7 or 8 miles left to hike in the morning.

Day 4: 7.5 miles

We were both pleasantly surprised in the morning when the sun rose and we hadn’t frozen our butts off overnight.  In fact, I hadn’t even put on my poofy jacket in the middle of the night, like I had anticipated.  Even though it was clearly well below freezing, I think there are a number of reasons why we weren’t colder than we were.  First, we weren’t completely exhausted, and hungry.  I think this makes a huge difference.  Those extra calories kept us warm.  Also, although we were on a ridge (basically at the top of a mountain with trees), this was warmer than at a gap where it would have been more windy, and definitely warmer than by a water source.  There was very little humidity, and so our down sleeping bags performed at their peak.  Also, although it was windy, I think our little leaf barriers also kept us somewhat insulated.

At this point we decided that Heather and Adam must have passed us before we started the BMT section, and therefore they must be on the early side for finishing their hike – we wouldn’t pass them after all, despite all the mental math.

I wore all my clothes for the first few miles, and the ground was frozen in spots.  The trail went down to the famous Toccoa River Swinging Bridge, and finally spit us out at Highway 60 where our car was waiting for us.

We drove to pick up Heather and Adam, and indeed, they had finished hours earlier, and were waiting for us at the Amicalola Visitor’s Center.

Thanks for following along!

Bartram Trail: Cheoah Bald to Franklin, TN

Bartram Trail

Day 1: 19 miles

We woke up to our alarm, and got out of our warm comfy bed for the last time in a while.

At 8:30AM, Jen came to our house to pick us up. Her kids are used to being strapped into the back seat of her car. An hour and a half later, we were at the NOC, and our trail friend Rob (trail name Donner) met us there with another thru-hiker (AT class of 2018),Russell (trail name Savage). The two of them are doing a ~60 mile loop with the Bartram and the Appalachian Trail, and they had just done a 20 mile day the day before to reach us.

We started the long ascent on the Appalachian Trail up to Cheoah Bald, a 3000ft ascent. Having only gotten going at 10:45AM, and knowing that we had almost a 20 mile day to do, I tried to set a decent pace. The climb, however, was relentless.

The Bartram Trail officially starts at the top of Cheoah Bald, so you have the choice of either an out-and-back on the Bartram, or starting on the Appalachian Trail (a slightly more gradual ascent). John felt hot spots on his ankles and stopped to tape them up. We took brand new shoes for this trip – something we never recommend that anyone does.

At the top of Cheoah Bald we had a terrific view, and stopped to eat a late lunch. Given that it was already 2pm and we had done less than 5 miles, I started to question our goal. But, since daylight savings was a week ago, we knew we had quite a bit of sunlight.

The Bartram diverged unceremoniously from the AT a few steps later.

It was like exiting a highway onto a dirt road. The trail was soft and covered in leaves whereas the AT was bare and hard, having seen thousands more hikers in recent months. We descended from the top of Cheoah Bald along a beautiful stream with many impressive waterfalls.

We reached a stream crossing, and Donner painstakingly took off his shoes and socks in order to do the crossing barefoot. John and I simply plowed through with our quick drying Astrals (basically water shoes). Before long there was another stream crossing… and then another. Donner and Savage tried over and over to keep their feet dry while performing impressive rock jumps and log balances.

We reached a road, and after a nice flat section on a paved bike trail, we got to a parking lot and quickly got disoriented trying to follow the blazes. Finally, a fisherman showed us the way, and we headed up our second large climb of the day. My shoulder and right hip started bothering me. Same old problems, different trail. I kept my head down and kept plowing forward.

As we reached the golden hour (the hour before sunset), we started descending amongst rhododendron thickets. Soon darkness started to fall, but as we got to a landmark, we figured out we had only a mile left to complete our 19 mile day. I was impressed.

I soon pulled out my headlamp. I’m always the first to put out a light because my night vision is not good. The four of us completed the last part of the last mile with the help of my headlamp. We got to a nice camping spot along a stream and set up camp and ate dinner. It got cold fast, and my fingers were numb despite my hands being in gloves. I didn’t take long to jump in the tent and crawl into my two (yes, we each brought two) sleeping bags.

John took off his shoes, and to his horror his socks were covered in blood. He had massive blisters on the back of his ankles and they had popped. This is the first time John has ever gotten blisters, and we guess it is because they redesigned the heel cup on the shoes he’s wearing. He put some Neosporin on his ankles and put them in some dry socks for the night. Hopefully we’ll stay warm.

Day 2: roughly 20 miles

I think I must have snored last night because I vaguely remember waking myself up snoring. That’s a first. I must be getting old. John tended to his feet and we packed up and got going.

We walked along the Nantahala River for miles. The trail was easy, but sometimes hard to follow, and the river was high, so when the trial got close to the river, it was sometimes washed out.

We eventually got to a paved road, and after crossing it, we started walking on a gravel road, diligently following the blazes. We walked fast, hoping to get to a promised gas station and restaurant before they closed for the day. Eventually, however, the trail dead ended at a concrete road completely submerged by the Nantahala River. It looked pretty daunting, but upon further inspection, we saw blazes on the other side of the river. We stood there dumbfounded for a while, checking our maps and wondering why on earth there wasn’t any warning about this.

We decided the best option was to attempt to ford the river. We prepared and linked arms. We got maybe 10 or 15 ft into the river before my feet started slipping under me. I was the lightest so I figured it was up to me to make the call to turn back. We got back to the bank and spent some more time staring at the map trying to figure out what to do, It turns out tat the Bartram Trail on the Nat Geo map is incorrect compared to the way it is blazed and also compared to the trail notes we were following. But we could walk 2 miles back to the road crossing and walk on pavement around this section. So, that’s what we did.

When we got to the road, I was worried about the amount of extra time and miles we were adding to Donner and Savage’s hike. They already had planed a 20 mile day followed by a 4 hour drive back home before work the next day. A 24 mile day sounded painful. As we walked the road, I stuck out my thumb.

Time passed, but eventually a pick up truck pulled over and drove us to the gas station. That probably saved us a mile or two, and a bunch of crappy uphill road walking. We were happy. Sadly, however, the gas station was closed. It was a good thing we weren’t counting on it, but it would have been nice to stop in for some more snacks.

We carried on, and followed the trail back into the woods straight uphill towards Wayah Bald. The trail was steep and we were all a bit tired at this point. My neck/shoulder problem was bothering me, as usual, and I tried to focus on one foot in front of the other, but I eventually stopped and took some Advil.

Before we got to the top of Wayah bald, we intersected with the Appalachian Trail, and this is the spot at which we had to bid Donner and Savage farewell. They would hike another 2 miles downhill to their car, and we would continue on. It was so nice to have other hikers join us for a stretch of trail, it was sad to see them go. But, as a parting gift, Donner gave us a few of his extra snacks. I downed two to three granola bars on the spot.

After they left, we continued uphill to Wayah Bald. There is an observation tower on top, and the views were phenomenal.

The cold wind drove us off quickly though, and we scurried down to start looking for a campsite. The Bartram soon diverged from the Appalachian Trail, and we carried on. Soon we found some flat ground to call home for the night. We’re above 5000 ft here, and I know it’s supposed to drop below freezing down in Asheville and Franklin so we’re in for another cold night. I’m so glad I have two sleeping bags!! I have no shame.

Day 3: 14-ish miles

We were warm last night, perhaps even warmer than the night before. It’s all about campsite selection. We picked the perfect spot – not in a valley, not near a stream, and somewhat protected by bushes.

We started what I had imagined to be a 10 mile mostly downhill section towards Franklin. I guess mostly downhill isn’t completely inaccurate as we did wind up at a lower elevation than when we started. For those of you veteran AT hikers reading this blog… do you remember the section of the AT they called “the roller coaster” in Virginia where the trail went up and down about 13 times? Well, that’s what this was like. We went up and down so many “PUD’s” (pointless up and downs), that I actually started to get annoyed.

I mean, I’m a hiker, I don’t generally mind going up and down a bunch, but I think what got to me was that trail was often times slightly steeper than was actually comfortable (like you had to climb on your toes, and descend slowly and carefully). Admittedly, my mind was also fixated on the all-you-can-eat Asian buffet that I knew awaited us in Franklin. My mouth watered.

At least I still had some Doritos left in my pack to polish off. I sat down and rummaged through my pack.

“Where are the Doritos?” I asked John

“What Doritos?” He replied

“MY Doritos!!” I barked

“I thought we were sharing” He said sheepishly.

“There were TWO bags!”

“They’re all gone…”

John looked at me with big puppy eyes.

“What do you mean they’re all gone?! You unceremoniously polished off two bags of Doritos without offering me any!?!”

I sighed. The Asian Buffet lingered in my mind for a minute as I swallowed a few spoonfuls of peanut butter can carried on.

As we descended, the first wildflowers started to appear: blood root, a beautiful while flower. And another strange green plant we didn’t know (if you know it, please tell us!)

We reached a road, and started the long road walk through Franklin. Road walks are boring, but I don’t mind them as much as I used to. I guess New Zealand changed me. As long as I don’t have to walk down a busy highway with no shoulder, I’m happy. Not that I want to be walking on a road. I’d happily skip it. But I understand that sometimes in order to connect two bits of trail, a road is sometimes the only way.

Before we knew it we were at Walmart resupplying. We bought five days worth of food and then dragged our heavy backpacks into the Asian Buffet and gorged ourselves.

We’re now spending the night at the Microtel. The lady here made us sign a piece of paper specially for hikers noting that if we got anything dirty, they’d charge us for it. They also handed us some non-perfect towels so that we wouldn’t get their perfectly white towels dirty. I wish all hotels gave towels like that to hikers. I was happy that they knew how to treat hikers, so I went back to the front desk and asked if they also had non-perfect sheets because John has bloody blisters on his heels and we didn’t want to get blood on their sheets. They told us no, but if we got blood on their sheets, they would charge us for it. I went back to my room with a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. I kind of wish they just put on their website that they don’t really want hikers staying at their hotel. I would have gone somewhere else.

Yosemite Valley North Rim East Bound Backpacking Trip

This trip took place when we were working in Yosemite Valley (June 2018).

As a part of our goal to hike every trail immediately surrounding Yosemite Valley during our month residency, we decided that the North Rim of the Valley was best attacked as one backpacking trip rather than having to hike in and out of the valley multiple times.

We told our friend Meredith, the Volunteer Ranger Camp Host about our plan of hitchhiking over to Old Big Oak Flats Trailhead after taking a 45 minute shuttle bus ride – all this after our morning shift at work, and she kindly volunteered to drive us all the way to the trailhead.  We are still eternally grateful for the ride.

Along the way we saw amazing views that we had been missing out on because of our lack of motorized transportation during our stay in the famous valley, including Bridle-veil Falls and the Great Central Valley.

Once we got to the trail we found ourselves in a recent burn area. The trail was lined with beautiful purple lupine flowers (which are nitrogen fixers) as a result.  Despite the lack of living trees, the area had plenty of streams for us to fill our bottles in.

We spent a number of hours trying to hike as far as possible into the evening and got to Ribbon Meadows where we were treated to a display of shooting star and white buttercup flowers and surprisingly few mosquitos.

After passing through the meadow we set up camp a few hundred feet off the trail up on a hill after passing a pretty large pile of bear scat/poop.  We went to sleep wearily.  John didn’t wear his earplugs so that he could hear the bear if it entered the area.

After waking up a to a loud cracking noise, John wandered around to see if a bear was nearby.  Finding no animal in sight, he went to check on the bear canister (for food storage) and found it undisturbed. Trying to find the tent in the dark, he spent the next 20 minutes stumbling around looking for it.

We woke up in the morning with no further incidents. When we got to the first water source of the day, we met Kenny and Andy who were from Maryland and on the same trip as us.

We went our separate ways and headed up to our first viewpoint of the Yosemite Valley, KP Peak which is actually on top of the famous rock face El Capitan.

On the top John couldn’t help but notice a sleeping bag barely hiding under a couple rocks.  He decided that because of the short length of the trip, his pack was empty enough to carry this cheap Coleman Brand sleeping bag for the rest of the trip.  After stuffing it in his Mariposa backpack, his pack was still not completely full.

On the way back to the trail from the view point we saw the guys from Maryland again.  They weren’t kidding when they said they were going on the same exact same trip as us.

Moving on we walked a little further to the next viewpoint: Eagle Peak.  Eagle peak had the best view we saw in the whole park! Again we saw Kenny and Andy and we decided that we would walk with them and chat along the way.

Further up the trail we went to the top of Yosemite Falls.  For those of you wishing to peer directly off a 2,500 foot cliff, there is a railing so you can do exactly that!  It certainly is an interesting way to look at the tallest waterfall in North America.

We continued down the trail towards Indian Canyon and soon found ourselves well off the trail. We were able to figure out where we were pretty easily using map and compass  because of the open landscape and traveled cross country to the trail further along.

Next we went to North Dome where we had an amazing view of Half Dome.

Afterwards we went up to the natural arch above the Dome which was also an incredible sight to see.  One of very few natural arches I’ve seen in my life.

Finally after 16 miles, we settled in at a campsite well off the trail near Snow Creek an area with a known “problem bear”. After we setup the tent we noticed a pile of bear scat within 15 feet of our tent.  We were really tired so went to sleep around 7pm and within an hour we heard something that sounded like artificial noises. I got up and looked around and noticed (since it was still light out) that there was a bear about 100 feet away from us.  I tried my best to scare it away by making a lot of noise and it wandered away slowly its legs bow legged.  It certainly wasn’t in a hurry to get away and looked like and old tired bear.  It look us a while to fall back asleep.

We woke up the next morning without incident and headed down Snow Creek Trail a long steep downhill.  By the time we got to the bottom we felt the extreme heat of the valley before heading off to work again.

Northland on the Te Araroa

Northland

Day 1: Puhoi to Route 1: 27km

We had set up our tents the night before in the dark. In the morning we woke up to find ourselves next to some sort of horse farm. We packed up and in the process John managed to step on one of the tent stakes with his bare feet, ripping a hole in the bottom of his foot.

Soon we started walking. The day was not very eventful. We walked quite a bit through overgrown trail or on roads – mostly nice and easy going gravel roads, but occasionally some slightly more busy roads.

On trail, we kept going up a few hundred meters and back down again, and it felt like my legs had forgotten how to walk. Five days of volunteering on a small island and I was already out of shape?

We managed to walk 30km by about 3pm to arrive at a cafe. I took off my shoes to find that my feet had a bit of trench foot, and I decided to put on dry socks, which helped them recover quite quickly. Johns foot hurt from his little accident in the morning.

We tried to find a place to camp, and found that we missed the spot that we were aiming for by about 2km. We didn’t want to go back, and the folks at the cafe agreed to let us camp next to the picnic tables near their parking lot.

Unfortunately we are set up next to Route 1 which is loud with lots of trucks passing by, but we’re hoping that the traffic dies down overnight.

Day 2: Route 1 to Pakiri Beach, 26km

I woke up several times overnight when cars or trucks were particularly loud. At 4:45am a rooster started crowing, and I gave up on sleep and opted to call my mother.

We started walking just before dawn break shortly after 6am.

“Last night was romantic” said Martin sarcastically. I wish I could be as funny as Martin in a foreign language.

We headed up to Dome Summit. From there the track was quite difficult with lots of ups and downs keeping us working hard. We had a short but scary road walk to get to the next track which was very poorly maintained up towards Conical Peak.

We bumped into a French guy who claimed to be a SOBO. We were all intrigued. A SOBO starting in May? He explained that he was planning on hiking through the winter and he brought crampons and other winter gear to get him through. I made sure to get his name to look him up on facebook: Kevin Fuentes. I can’t wait to follow his journey.

We passed by a summit with some day hikers, but they must have come a different way because before we knew it we were climbing up a stupidly muddy track along a barbed wire fence which had a mixture of deep sloshy and slippery mud, cow shit and gorse (prickly bushes). There was no way day hikers were walking on this. The mud could be described as clay that has been extruded through thousands of cow hooves. It was so bad we couldn’t stop laughing. It was slightly less funny when the mud kept just kept going and going.

Just when we were thoroughly covered in mud and cow shit, we got to the top of a hill, went over a stile, and headed down a ridiculously grassy pasture with ankle busting lumps under waist high grass to give your ankles a work-out. At one point I twisted my ankle and fell – luckily the grass was soft, but I was not amused.

We had several kilometers of downhill through this thick grass before we finally hit the road. It wasn’t a long road walk, but my right hip hurt, my knees hurt and my feet hurt, so I was ready to be done. It had been a long day.

We finally got to the Holiday Park at Pakiri Beach, and for only $20 per person we were able to get a cabin. We had showers and did laundry. It felt good to be clean and to sleep inside.

Day 3: Pakiri Beach to Mangawhai Heads, 30km

We set our alarms for 5am so as to be able to hike at low tide. We read in the trail notes that we had two estuary crossings that were about 7-8km apart, and if we were to hit either one close to high tide, they could be chest deep. No thanks. Especially in the cool autumn temperatures. Low tide was around 6am, and we hit the beach right around then.

The first estuary crossing was straight away, and impossible to see because it was pitch dark out. I blindly followed Martin who was using the Guthook App on his phone to navigate towards the crossing point. Meanwhile I felt like we were just blindly walking towards ocean/water. Finally, the crossing was only about ankle deep, and once we were across, we had an easy beach walk while enjoying the sun rise. The sun didn’t rise until after 7am, confirming my belief that we now have between 10 and 11 hours of daylight per day.

Soon a rainbow appeared on the horizon, followed by a rain shower, and again blue skies. Several minutes later, the same thing happened again.

It was tough for me to keep up with John and Martin on the beach. My pace is simply slower. Martin must be over 6ft tall, and of course John is 6ft 4, so I’m trotting behind them trying to move my legs as quickly as possible.

It never got too warm, and 15km later we hit a rocky outcropping where they trail went up and around on a trail. We decided to try to scramble around the rocks instead since it was still somewhat low tide. It was precarious and the rocks were sharp. We scrambled up and down and around, and finally got to a point where the water came right up to the cliff, and we could not get past. Darn. We had to go back and take the trail instead.

We had a bit more beach walking after that until we got to the road leading to Mangawhai. The road walking was killing me. My hips hurt as did my feet. I spend quite a lot of time just wishing I was better at walking. I know that’s dumb, but seriously, I’m sick of being the weakest link. I’m always the slowest, the one who is in pain, and the one who has to try the hardest to keep up. It’s annoying. There aren’t enough women on long distance hikes. I’m not saying this because women are necessarily slower, but perhaps in general they are better at empathizing.

On top of being in pain, I was also zombie-walking. Waking up at 5am two mornings in a row caught up with me, and I was very tired.

I decided to stick out my thumb on the road, and someone stopped to pick us up. We weren’t far from Mangawhai Heads, so we only saved a couple of km, and moments after we got dropped off at the supermarket, Martin walked up. That’s how much faster he had been walking since the rock scramble fiasco. Sigh.

I was ready to sit down and get food.

Town was nice. We took a long break, ate some fish and chips and bought some groceries before walking on along the beach to the Holiday Park where we could camp.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to be fast asleep by 7pm.

Day 4: Mangawhai Heads to Waipu, 23km

After about 12 hours of sleep we emerged from our tents. We had a small road walk to get past an inlet and back on the beach again. The beach walk was all too short, and after looking at the map we decided we could make it longer by continuing on the beach along a rocky stretch where we figured we could get around while it was still mid-tide.

This turned out to be true- but just barely! We went through a rock archway which was just starting to fill up with water, but we were able to squeeze through before we would had to get our feet wet.

From there there was a beautiful trail leading up away from the beach. This trail was built like a great walk trail – wide, well graded and with tons of stairs. The other thing there were tons of were wasps. These seemed to be mainly of a different variety than the European wasps, which we would call “yellowjackets” in the States. I believe that these wasps were paper wasps. My suspicion is that they build their nests in the tall thick flax leaves.

We then kept traveling up through farm fields with great views of the coastline and the beautiful green hilly farm fields. It’s amazing how green the grass is here. Is looks like high definition bright green.

The trail passed over a road and we continued on past a ghost community. It was a gated community that had been built with roads and some landscaping, but no houses, just lots of land that looked like they were once for sale. It just looked like an abandoned project. Planted trees were dead and the grass hadn’t been mown in months, maybe years. The trail continued a ways through native bush on a really nice trail.

Unfortunately the trail ended at a gravel road which meandered through logged forest with blazing sun for many kilometers before we hit the main road again where we could hitchhike to Waipu.

In Waipu we found that the Waipu Hotel had camping in the back for $8 per person which included a shower. One of the best deals on the trail so far.

Day 5: Waipu to Whangarei Heads, unknown distance.

Today we needed to get around the huge inlet that makes up Whangarei Harbor. The trail kind of just ends at one side and carries on at Whangarei Heads. Apparently you can sometimes find someone to help you across by boat, but we decided to hitchhike around so as to be able to hit the Pak n Save (cheaper grocery store) and the library in Whangarei on the way to Whangarei Heads. It turned out not to be hard to hitchhike, and we were able to resupply without spending a fortune. Lots of the smaller coastal towns only have convenience stores, called Four Squares, which are much more expensive.

Once at Whangarei Heads, the trail follows a road for quite some time, and we decided to spend the night at a place called the “Bus Stop”, which had camping spots with a sort of outdoor kitchen and a toilet. Since it was still early in the day when we got there, we decided to take a scenic side trail, the Mount Manaia Track. This track is not on the Te Araroa, but looked pretty cool, and only took us 30 minutes to reach the top, climbing up a ton of stairs about 400 meters up. I was pretty proud to make it up in half the time written on the trail head sign.

The views from the top were fantastic, giving us a view of the coast that we had just covered the previous days along with the inlet that we had navigated around. Near the inlet was the only oil refinery in New Zealand.

The rock formations around the top of this mountain were equally stunning.

We hiked back down and set up camp at the Bus Stop. It was a really nice little spot.

Day 6: Whangarei Heads to Taiharuru (TA Walker’s Camp), 22km

Today’s walk was great. It started with a walk on the Te Whara Track, which climbed up a never ending staircase to the top of a rocky ridge, in a similar fashion to the side trail that we took yesterday. My legs were tired, probably from all the stairs yesterday, but eventually, when we did make it to the top, the views were well worth it. The track itself was also very nice. A lot of effort must have gone in to install all the stairs, and the trail was free of mud, and mostly not overgrown. This must be a popular day hike.

From the end of that track, we started a long beach walk along Ocean Beach. I was surprised by how many banded dotterels we saw running along the beach. These birds are endangered, and there are apparently only about 1,500 of them left. But, they’ve got to live somewhere, and this is obviously their habitat.

The beach walk was slightly too long. It was sunny out, which I’m seriously not complaining about since we’ve been so lucky with the weather this week, but I think the sun made me quite tired. My feet also grew tired of walking on sand.

I was happy when it was over and we had another hill to climb. This was Kauri Mountain. I wouldn’t really call it a mountain, but it was a nice hill with lots of Kauri trees.

We had planned on staying at a place called Tidesong, where some trail angels help hikers get across another inlet, which is crossable at low tide, but at high tide they can help hikers across by boat. They also offer accommodation. But we gave them a call, and they were not at home, but sounded like very nice people.

Coming down from the “mountain”, we decided to stop at TA walkers camp, a little spot almost a kilometer off the trail/road which someone erected for hikers. There is a small cabin with a hot water shower and two beds. Nobody had been here in months, and we had to figure out how to connect the hot water heater. We wound up having to call the owner for help, and they were surprised that anyone was still hiking this time of year. They sorted out the water and apologized that they hadn’t cleaned the place out in a while. We weren’t too worried.

After they left though, the number of spiders and other bugs in the cabin started to make me feel slightly uncomfortable. There were hundreds of spiders everywhere with webs all over the place. On top of that, as darkness fell, I saw several cockroaches crawling around. John also evicted two wasps, which I was particularly unhappy to discover. I felt bad because I almost wanted to pitch the tent outside. Instead I decided to just take the bug netting part of the tent and sleep in that using the umbrella inside of it to keep it off my face.

This is a nice place otherwise- obviously a lot of thought and work has gone into it, it’s just that we’re here very much off-season as most of the hikers come through southbound many months earlier. I was pleased that the shower had shampoo and conditioner, and they had tea and coffee along with a few other things. I bet this is a nice place during the right season.

Martin had hiked ahead and camped near the edge of the estuary. I soon realized that we wouldn’t see him again.

Day 7: Walker’s Camp to Tidesong, 3km

Strangely, today is our last day on the TA, and since we need to be in Auckland tomorrow, we didn’t want to hike away from the road that would get us out of this area. We decided that we wanted to stay with the really nice sounding Trail Angels just a few km down the trail, half way across the estuary. We were able to cross the estuary at low tide. The water was only up to my mid thigh, and the mud wasn’t much deeper than my shoes.

Before we knew it we were at Tidesong having a cup of coffee with Hugh and Ros, a lovely couple who have done quite a lot of the Te Araroa Trail to raise awareness for kidney transplants. Ros donated one of her kidneys to Hugh, so between them they only have two kidneys. Seems like a huge success story.

We spent the day chatting with our hosts, wandering around the trails on their property and organizing our gear for our next volunteer gig at Tiri Tiri Matanga Island, which we are super excited about.

It’s kind of a weird and anticlimactic finish to a long distance hike, and I kind of wish we had the time to make it to Cape Regina to see the end of the trail, but it’s really not about the destination, and we were lucky to have been able to hike a lot of this trail while still seeing many other parts of New Zealand along the way.

We may not have done a purist thru-hike of the TA, in fact we didn’t even do what I would really call a thru-hike, but I do think we’ve seen most of the best bits of this trail at this point so I have very little regret.

Going into this trip, I had a lot of doubt about my abilities to do this and other hikes. My right hip still aches on almost a daily basis and my frozen shoulder is still frozen and causing pain up my neck and down my back. I’m lucky I was able to hike at all and that my ailments have only slowed me down rather than stopped me entirely.

I really hope that I can inspire people who aren’t in perfect shape to attempt long distance trails. Injuries, disabilities, illnesses, etc. shouldn’t keep you from hiking, even thru-hiking at your own pace. I have to admit it has been a really hard adjustment for me to take it more slowly and accept a certain level of pain, and I often times wonder if this is the new normal, or if in years to come I will once again be able to pound out 20-30 miles a day, day after day. I try not to focus on these thoughts though, but rather on what I CAN do.

Soon I will post a wrap up blog about the TA – with all my thoughts about this trail and hopefully this will be of use to some of you contemplating doing it. I certainly have a few opinions to share!

Kaimai Mamaku

Kaimai Mamaku North/South Route

This trail is not on the Te Araroa Trail, nor is it a “Great Walk”. We are only doing a few small pieces of the Te Araroa in the North Island (the best ones) because the trail spends much to much time on boring and/or dangerous roads for much of the North Island. So we decided instead to find other tracks that could help us make our way north on the Island while hitchhiking a bit as well. Don’t worry – I have a lot of thoughts about the Te Araroa Trail, and I’ll be putting together a long blog post after we’ve left New Zealand.

In the meantime, we found a 6-7 day trek in the Kaimai Mamaku Forest.

We hitchhiked to the southern end of this route without much time to spare before sundown, so on the first day we wound up walking only about 10-20 minutes into the forest before finding a spot to camp. The forest is dense, as usual, and our tent is wedged between massive vines and ferns, but it will do for the night.

After we turned off our headlamps but before we fell asleep, we noticed things glowing around our tent – even through the bottom of the tent floor. I reached outside the door and picked up the glowing thing and turned my headlamp back on to find out it was a rotting stick. The glowing thing was some sort of bioluminescent fungus. So neat!

Day 1:

The trail is typical New Zealand bush trail – probably maintained about a decade ago, overgrown, muddy but well marked.

We came to a trail junction and there was tape blocking the trail in every direction. We look a closer look at the pink ribbon, and found that there was a message on it: “Justin Rankin please stop here. Search and rescue are looking for you.” We couldn’t tell how old these messages were or if the hunt was still on to find Justin.

Not long after, we came across the first hut. We took the short side trail to check it out. I immediately noticed that someone was probably staying there. There were shoes and gaiters outside on the porch, and other random gear, but what really caught my attention were scattered deer parts – a pile of deep legs outside the door, and a deer carcass laying in a heap in a grassy patch next to the hut.

I cautiously opened the door to the hut, but nobody was home. There were three bunks, and two of them were occupied with sleeping bags. There were belongings strewn everywhere along with empty beer cans. These hunters were obviously not expecting anyone else to show up to share the hut.

Not feeling very welcome, we headed back to the track only to find the gut of a deer right in the middle of the trail. I was completely disgusted and tried to run past it as quickly as possible, but I did notice that there was an empty beer can nearby. Normally I would have picked it up and carried it out, but I was too disgusted to stop.

We were feeling pretty nervous, not having met a single person yet, and knowing that there were definitely hunters in the vicinity, so we started to sing loudly.

The trail continued fairly flat through many stream beds through thick bush. We had lunch at a small clearing where there was a dilapidated shelter and a bench along with a sign stating that this area was being considered for a hut, and if you hear helicopters nearby to please head back into the bush.

Sometime after lunch we heard barking and some voices, so we made sure to be very loud before we ran into a couple of hunters who were out for just the day. They warned us that April is the most popular month of the year for hunting, and we’d better be careful. We showed them our bright orange and red clothing, and they told us that in New Zealand the safe color was actually blue since they hunt red deer, and orange could sometimes look like a deer, even neon orange. Well, damn. We told them what we saw in the morning, and that we had been singing loudly hoping not to be mistaken for deer.

It was tiring trying to be loud all the time. We ran out of songs as well as things to talk about. It made me aware of how much time we must usually spend walking in silence. But silence lets you zone off and lets the hiking become more meditative. It’s been a while since I’ve felt like hiking was meditative though; New Zealand trails require quite a bit more concentration.

Close to the end of the day we came across a gigantic tree – we thought maybe it was a Kauri Tree, which are the biggest trees in New Zealand, but mostly live in northland. But, it was impossible to tell since the leaves were too far up to see.

By 5pm we found a clearing to camp in and called it a day. Where we are camped there are a ton of Kererus (New Zealand wood pigeons). They sound like helicopters when they fly and scare the crap out of you whenever you scare one out of a tree. By 6pm it was dark.

Day 2:

I woke up not feeling well. I had a bit of a sore throat and a headache. We headed out, but about an hour into the hike, we reassessed and decided it wasn’t worth pushing on if I was going to get sick. I had a feeling that I was catching whatever John had the week before, which kept us stuck in a hotel room for a week.

We headed back to where we camped the night before, and set the tent up again. I proceeded to sleep for about 3 hours. We spent the rest of the day playing cards and napping.

Day 3:

I woke up still not feeling 100%, but we also reassessed the amount of time we had left as well as the amount of food, and decided that we should probably find a way out of the Kaimai Mamaku ranges early.

We found a wonderful trail down past Wairere Falls, which drops 153m. The trail was beautiful, very well maintained with stairs following amazing rock cliffs covered in dripping moss. This trail was also very popular, as a day walk, and people of all ages were tramping up to see the falls.

We got down to the car park and a gentleman and his two daughters were willing to give us a ride out.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked.

We decided to use zen navigation: “where are you headed?” I asked.

“Hamilton.”

“OK, we’ll go to Hamilton.” We had no plan, and were happy to get to any city.

In Hamilton we found an affordable place to stay at a “Microtel” and spent the night. This Microtel was the most micro of hotels we have ever stayed in. I guess you get what you pay for. The room had a small double bed which took up 90% of the room, and there was a door which could barely open because the bed was in the way. The kicker was that John didn’t even fit in the bed – he was too tall, and he couldn’t hang his feet over the edge, because the bed was completely surrounded by walls. Our tent provides us with more space than this room!

After a good night’s rest, we worked on a plan for what to do next. Martin had sent us a message telling us that he was only a day north of Hamilton on the Te Araroa, so we figured we may as well join him and start hiking the Te Araroa again.