Thursday, February 15, 2018

Almost halfway

As usual, the Olympic Games fly by and suddenly we're on day six of 16.

I'm writing this in the main press centre, killing time between a morning at alpine skiing and an evening at luge. I was aiming to get back to the apartment but the bus hadn't turned up and I was craving a bibimbap (bowl of rice with vegetables and an egg) from one of the restaurants near the MPC, so I gave up waiting in the cold and went for food instead.

Despite writing in the last blog that the winter Olympics were quite like the summer Olympics, I'm slightly revising that belief. Yes, the Olympic bubble is identical and it's great to see and work with old friends and colleagues again - I rocked up at the men's Alpine combined event earlier in the week to discover the Olympic Broadcasting Service team covering it were the same reporter-cameraman duo as covered rowing and canoe sprints in Rio. "Oh, it's you!" exclaimed Graham, once I'd taken my sunglasses off.

With colleagues on men's slopestyle finals day
But the sports themselves are quite different. Many of us, watching most summer sports, have a realistic expectation that we'd be able to have a go at them and be competent if far from Olympic standard. Most people know how to swim, or run, or played football or hockey or volleyball at school. We might look at the athletes at the pinnacle of their game and marvel at their speed, strength and agility, but we know that mild competency would not be too far away.

Winter sports are a whole different thing. My first day of competition was the day before the opening ceremony, at the qualification for the men's 'normal hill' ski jumping. A 'normal' ski jumping hill is terrifying (the big hill next to it is even worse!) I have no idea how anyone can edge out on to the starting gate, which is basically just a plank laid across the track, sit on it and then let go to whizz down the hill at 80+kph.

And then there's the stuff like snowboard and freestyle skiing, where they're not only zooming down a steep slope (and really, the slopestyle and moguls slopes were steep) but have to launch themselves off a hill and turn four times in the air. Alpine skiing slopes are also much steeper in reality than they seem on TV.

Yongpyong Alpine centre - giant slalom venue
I've spent the last couple of nights at luge, which is another sport I never want to try. One of the US lugers crashed horribly on Tuesday - she got up and walked away - and I don't understand how more people aren't thrown off their sleds. (Yeah, yeah, G force ...)

I could, potentially, see myself having a bash at cross-country skiing, but the sheer effort the Olympic athletes put in is astounding. The biathletes finish close to the mixed zone and many of them fell on to the snow in exhaustion; the cross-country athletes, finishing further away, appeared to be the same.

The secret to many winter Olympians' success is starting early. Huge numbers of them began skiing as tiny children. The exceptions are often from countries without a winter Olympic legacy, such as the Tongan cross-country athlete Pita Taufatofua, who took up the sport after competing (admittedly not very successfully) at Rio in taekwondo. Still, he's here, and he's dedicated and wants to do his best, and that is an element of the Olympic Games which is common to both the summer and winter editions.

But the main difference between summer and winter is the cold, at least here in PyeongChang. We're acclimatised enough now that freezing or just below seems almost warm (although gloves are still necessary). My feet have been numb with cold several evenings, especially at ski jump, despite experimentation with two different pairs of boots, varying combinations of socks and a couple of attempts at sticking heat packs inside my shoes. I have vowed never to complain about the heat in the summer again.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The layers of the Olympic Games

I'm discovering that the Olympic Games - summer and winter - are all about layers.

In the summer, you put on layers of clothes when you go inside to what is invariably a freezing cold air-conditioned room. In the winter, you put on layers of clothes when you go outside, and extra layers when you head out to a venue.

It's also a world of tribes, divided by brightly-coloured jackets. The Dutch in vibrant orange, the Aussies in yellow and green, the Brits in blue. Then there's the organising committee staff and volunteers, this time in grey with lots of orange and pink highlights. Those of us who are working for the International Olympic Committee are in red and navy. The Olympic Broadcast Service are, as ever, looking classy in dark green and grey. Some of the big press agencies have matching jackets too; it's a veritable rainbow of colours out there.

As I found in Rio, and to a lesser extent in London, the Olympic bubble is fairly all-encompassing. Even though here in PyeongChang we are mostly eating in the restaurants which normally form part of the ski resorts where the Games are being held, instead of in workforce canteens, I spend my days surrounded by people wearing Olympic uniforms and Olympic accreditation, and going from venue to press centre to accommodation on the official media transport buses.

I've been here four days now, arriving on Sunday from Seoul on the very efficient fast KTX train, being shuttled to my accommodation on a bus on which I was the only passenger. I then visited the IOC uniform centre to be kitted out in several layers of uniform, packed in a suitcase, all designed to keep us toasty warm throughout the Games. So far the toastiness level has been sufficient, although the gear hasn't yet been tested properly and I'm worried my toes will get cold! I'm told that the ski jump venue is the coldest place here and we're there this evening (Thursday) as the qualification rounds get underway so I guess I'll find out how many layers I really need to wear.

It's interesting comparing the winter games to the summer ones. Of course from the British perspective there's less awareness of the winter Olympics, mainly because we're just better at the summer sports - although Team GB has a good chance in several sports.

The snowboard and freestyle skiing venue

From my own personal point of view I know far less about winter sports. I attribute this a) to growing up as a swimmer, and then becoming a rower; b) to the aforementioned lack of coverage of winter sport in the UK apart from that great BBC programme Ski Sunday; c) to never going skiing as a kid (thanks Mum and Dad). So everything is a learning curve as I find out how various sports are judged, the jargon used and so on. Despite this, I'm not too worried about my ability to do the job as the basics of being a journalist and asking decent questions are the same as ever.

From a practical angle, so far PyeongChang isn't that different from Rio or London. Same signs and Olympic and sponsor logos everywhere, same buzz as people greet old friends, same rules on security, same helpful volunteers everywhere. The major difference here is that much of the infrastructure is existing, with extensive use of hotels and conference centres which normally welcome the Korean skiing public at this time of year. Obviously that's a really good thing from a legacy and cost perspective.

Anyway, it's time to head off to the ski jump venue again (after a recce this morning to watch the men training). My Games are about to properly begin!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Peering across the border

My second day in South Korea started early. I had to be at Camp Kim, the headquarters of the USO (United Services Organisations) by 7am to head off on a tour of the De-Militarised Zone between North and South Korea. I picked the same tour Julie and Andrew did back in 2014 as they'd recommended it - visiting the Joint Security Area (JSA) where the Republic of Korea and the UN keep tabs on North Korea from a few blue huts and a series of observation posts.

The Korean War isn't something we know much about in the UK, which considering over 1,000 British troops died in it is shocking. The split between North and South Korea is obviously better-known, especially given recent tensions, and I felt I ought to visit to learn more about the divisions between the two countries. 

The DMZ was established in 1953 after the armistice agreement signed, ending three years of bitter and bloody war that killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. It extends 2km north and south of the Military Demarcation Line, essentially a border running along the 38th Parallel. At the JSA the UN, neutral observers from Switzerland and Sweden, and the two Koreas have an uneasy truce broken at intervals when a defector from the north crosses the line.

Tours are supervised by a US military policeman - ours was a young private called Zimmerman - who gives a short Powerpoint presentation about the history of the area  at the entry point in Camp Bonifas and then escorts groups up to the JSA itself. There, you're taken through the South Korean 'Freedom House' and into the conference building straddling the border where talks sometimes take place. For a moment, you can stand in what is technically North Korean territory and look at the locked door leading to the north. On our trip the room was guarded by two Republic of Korea soldiers and we saw no North Korean soldiers at all; Zimmerman said they hadn't seen any for a week. It was a very tense, odd sort of place. The Korean soldiers were intently watching the building on the north side through which visitors come when there are any, even though there was no sign of anyone there.

ROK soldier guarding the door to the north

The second stop was Dorasan Station, which has on occasions functioned for a while as a station to the north. It was the link up to Kaesong (or Gaesong) Industrial Complex, a joint venture between south and north until 2016. Then tensions grew, the complex was closed down and the station is now the last station in the south - or, as the Republic of Korea would prefer it, the "first station to the north". They have grand dreams of there one day being trains running through the whole Korean peninsula and on to join the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railways taking people all the way to Europe.

For the moment, tourists can catch the train from Seoul to Dorasan to tour the DMZ, or use it as a stop on a DMZ tour like us. You wander into a vast empty hall in a modern railway station. For 1,000 won (about 67p) you can go onto the empty platform. At one end there's a US railway truck and a chunk of the Berlin Wall which was a gift from Germany; at the other end, some railway sleepers associated with a visit by George W. Bush. If you stand at the northern end you can hear the sound of northern propaganda being blasted out through speakers. It was cold, and quiet, apart from the propaganda.

Tracks to nowhere

Near to the station is Dora Observatory, a site on a hill where they've helpfully put a lot of binoculars. The observatory is right at the southern limit of the DMZ so it's very close to the border and the binoculars are good enough to allow you to peer at the industrial complex and at the North Korean 'propaganda village', Kijong-dong. Kijong-dong is apparently mostly fake - facades of buildings with nothing inside, windows and doors painted on - but we did spot a tractor in the fields in front of it and quite a lot of people in those fields. On the horizon, hazy on the day we visited, is North Korea's third-largest city. We gazed for as long as a couple of 500 won coins would let us, and felt like we were voyeurs, or visitors to some sort of very peculiar zoo. It's not right to have to watch people in this way just because they're one side of a border.

The North's 'Propaganda' or 'Peace' Village (left) facing the South's 'Freedom' village (right)
The last stop of the day was the Third Tunnel - named as it is the third of four infiltration tunnels discovered by the Republic of Korea extending into their territory. A North Korean defector claimed that there are hundreds of these tunnels, but so far most remain undiscovered. The Third Tunnel was found in the late 1970s and North Korea claimed it was a coal mining venture - they painted the granite walls with coal dust - but the water run-off is to the north and why would they need to coal mine into enemy territory? As a tour I confess it wasn't the most exciting part of the day. We walked down an incredibly steep ramp into the tunnel and then along 250m or so to one of the three barricades put in when they found it.

The Third Tunnel site also has a small museum and a short video they show you which frankly was South Korean propaganda, claiming the DMZ is a "place of peace" where wild animals live in harmony. They literally showed us images of deer frolicking in sunlit meadows. The South Korean message is very much one of "one day we'll be unified again" and I'd like to think they'll get there, but despite the unified women's ice hockey team and joint marching at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, I'm doubtful.

We left the Third Tunnel as South Korea played Gangnam Style very loudly into their neighbour's territory. That's the propaganda they give the north - lots of cheesy K-pop.

Back in Seoul I decided to continue the war-themed day by a trip to the Korean War Memorial Museum, which is surrounded by several memorials to the war, a huge collection of warplanes, tanks and heavy artillery, and inside has a large exhibition on the war. This was interesting but very one-sided. I got very little sense of why North Korea invaded in 1950 and what the war cost them. The section on the United Nations involvement was particularly well-done though, and I liked an artwork at the end called 'the Drop' using dog-tags to create a teardrop shape.

I left the museum feeling a little depressed about the state of the world. The South Koreans have a memorial in the park around it which includes two clocks - one with the current time, the other 'frozen' on the day the war began in 1950. By the side is another clock, waiting to be started when unification happens. It would be good if sooner rather than later they're able to lift it into place, but for the moment, I'm not that hopeful.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Three days in Seoul

I wasn't really sure what to expect from Seoul. Friends who have visited have generally liked it, but having not travelled much in Asia and never in winter it was an unknown quantity.

First impressions were good as I sailed through immigration, using the special Olympic lane but not really needing it. Then it was a wait for my bag and a fight with the cash machine - totally different from UK ATMs and initially not giving me money. But obtaining a bus ticket and finding the airport bus was easy and my guesthouse had given me clear instructions for finding them. In fact the manager Jenny came to find me as she was worried I'd got lost!

I stayed just a stone's throw from the Changdeokgung Palace, one of several palaces of the Jeosun Dynasty (approximately 1400-1900) so that was my first stop on a brilliantly clear, frozen morning. Recent snow still lies on the ground in Seoul but they do an excellent job of clearing it up so it's not in anyone's way. The palace, a huge complex of buildings begun in about 1400, looked very pretty with snow on the roofs and icicles on shaded eaves.

Changdeokgung main gate
The ticket included a tour of the so-called Secret Garden, a vast landscaped area behind the main palace of trees and (frozen) ponds and lots of pagodas and pavilions. Our very earnest guide was informative as she led us through the garden, which was very peaceful despite being in the middle of a large city. Afterwards I explored more of the palace, coming across a raccoon which appeared to be living in one of the old underfloor heating systems. That was a surprising extra!

From Changdeokgung I wandered through the old district of Bukchon, where lots of old houses are preserved. Lunch was the Korean staple of bibimbap, basically a bowl of vegetables and rice with a fried egg on top. It comes with lots of little dishes of kimchi (pickled veg) and I also got a small bowl of miso soup. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to pour the soup over the rice so didn't. After a fortnight of NZ food prices it was great to have such a substantial meal for a little more than £5.

The second palace of the day was Gyeongbokgung, previously the main palace of the dynasty. In style it's much like Changdeokgung but is bigger and sprawlier and worth the visit if only for the extraordinary main throne room and the large pavilion behind. There were lots of groups of young Koreans - mostly girls - dressed up in the colourful silk traditional hanbok dresses taking pictures of each other.

I saw more palaces and the royal shrine on the third day (a tour of the De-Militarised Zone taking up day two) although by the end of a wander around Deoksugung Palace I was a bit palaced-out. They're all fairly similar, although I found something in each one which made it worth the trip - a spectacular throne room, or particularly nice decorations. As I'd bought the combination Royal Palaces ticket it didn't cost me much extra; in fact I thought the combination ticket at a total cost of 10,000 won (about £6.50) was a bargain.

Old and new
 Day three's rough aim was to have lunch at Korea's largest market, but it was so very bitterly cold I ended up in a dumpling restaurant at the edge of the market instead and stuffed my face with a mixed dumpling selection, just the thing to line the stomach when it's sub-zero outside. In the evening I went to Gwangjang Market which was within walking distance of my guesthouse - and covered - for a look at their eatery rows. The choices were primarily dumplings (darn ...), variations on things done with offal (not my favourite) and mung bean pancakes.

I opted for the pancakes, but managed to find a stall where you could only get takeaway. Or maybe I needed to sit and then order to eat 'in' at one of the benches next to the stall. In any case the lady was most miffed after wrapping a pancake up in foil to have to unwrap it, stick a quarter of it in a paper cup, and hand me the cup along with the rest of the pancake in a plastic bag. I ate it standing up and it was good but not quite the relaxing meal I'd planned!

Overall I liked Seoul. It's a peculiar mix of the ancient and traditional and the modern. The former is represented in the palaces and old hanok buildings dotted around, and in the many street food stalls which can be found on even the poshest shopping streets. The latter is represented by free wifi everywhere, a clean and efficient metro system, and a craft beer and coffee culture embraced wholeheartedly by the young. It's a big city and I only really scratched the surface, but I feel it might be better explored in spring on foot than in the depths of winter.

Friday, February 2, 2018

... And back again

Written at Auckland airport, and posted a couple of days later because I forgot ...

I leave New Zealand baking in a heatwave and head off to a Korean winter. I'm sorry to go, but not because of the weather; in all honesty it's been a bit too hot these last few days.

Instead I'm sorry to leave NZ's stunning landscapes, good food and wonderful people. I did wonder on several occasions as I travelled this time what possessed me to leave back in 2009 - my head knows that from a career perspective it was totally the right decision, but my heart wonders what if ... NZ feels like a second home. It's comfortable despite the ridiculous scenery, volcanoes and earthquakes and it has a chilled-outness about it. Back in 2007 when I first got to Wellington I was a stressed-out mess of underpaid London workaholic - two years of better work-life balance made a big difference and these last couple of weeks have reminded me of that. Thanks to all those who took the time to catch up, it was wonderful to see so many friends again.

After the Northern Circuit I drove across the country the scenic route to Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, stopping in Rotorua for a wander in the redwood forest there. They don't match the kauri for majesty but they were very tall and it was a nice stroll. 

In Tauranga my London rowing friend Hannah joined me - she is currently living here but took the time to catch up, nicely coinciding with my birthday. We went to the beach at Mount Maunganui, as I can't do that at home in January, and simply chilled for the morning with a bit of splashing in the waves too. In the afternoon we headed north, pausing at Waihi Beach for a bit although high tide meant a general lack of actual beach! 

Hannah's host family in the Hauraki Plains kindly put me up for the night. As night fell we went out to look at the Kiwi stars, bright even despite a nearly-full moon glowing overhead.

I had to get back to Auckland the next day, but drove backwards first to explore Karangahake Gorge. A century ago this was a major gold mining area, with miners extracting quartz and then processing it for gold and silver. Some remains of buildings and tramways are still there and you can walk through mine tunnels, as well as a 1km long former railway tunnel. There were glow-worms in the mine tunnels and it was all very cool.

Auckland was Auckland, but I finished off with a spectacularly good ice cream from a fancy gelateria called Giapo. Instead of picking your flavours you pick an already-designed dessert, with toppings complementing the ice cream flavour. It was expensive but good.

And now as I write it's almost time to board for the long flight to Seoul, where I'll post this and start exploring an entirely new country. Thank you NZ, I'll be back.

Ka mihi koe ki Aotearoa.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Tongariro Northern Circuit

New Zealand has nine 'Great Walks' - eight multi-day tramps and a kayaking trip (it's a journey). When I lived here I did three of the Great Walks and I was keen to do another this trip. After ruling out the South Island due to time, I had two to pick from; the walk around Lake Waikaremoana or the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Originally I'd decided to do Waikaremoana as it's less popular and its remoteness appealed, but it was proving tricky logistically and I didn't fancy the long unsealed road to get there. 

So I settled on the Northern Circuit. This is a four-day or less hike starting and finishing in the village of Whakapapa, nestled on the lower slopes of Mount Ruapehu in the Tongariro National Park. It takes you around Mount Ngauruhoe, across the saddle between it and Mount Tongariro, and then cuts back to Whakapapa past Ruapehu. Like all the Great Walks the track is (reasonably) well-maintained with huts to sleep in at intervals equipped with mattresses, gas stoves, toilets and running water and at this time of year staffed by a helpful Department of Conservation (DOC) ranger. 

Day one

Day one was advertised as a nice easy 9.4km from Whakapapa village to Mangatepopo Hut. As it was a shortish day I didn't hurry off - which meant most of the car parking in Whakapapa had gone, but consultation with the DOC lady in the visitors' centre solved that problem. I ate a solid cooked breakfast at the café in the village, shouldered my pack, and set off.
Although there isn't too much climbing this first day it turned out to be a tougher one than anticipated, largely thanks to the severe erosion of the track. One of the DOC rangers said it had been washed away in a big storm several years ago and DOC have yet to raise the money to repair it. While parts are beautifully board-walked and easy, much of it is basically a ditch and it was tricky walking. It was also incredibly hot and sunny, which meant stunning views of Ngauruhoe ahead but hard going. It was good to get to the hut, which suddenly appeared ahead nestled in a valley just off the Tongariro Crossing track. I then immediately felt totally inadequate as an older guy, German or Dutch, shouldered his pack again and announced he was off to finish his two-day Northern Circuit. He'd managed to get round with just one break and looked fresh as a daisy.

Over the afternoon more people arrived in varying states of knackered-ness and we started to get to know each other. Several of us were doing the circuit at the same rate - four days, three nights - and I was immensely lucky that everyone was lovely. As well as me, there were three youngish American couples, including Nate and Laura who were going to follow the TNC by getting married from a helicopter near Queenstown; a Canadian couple from Ontario; an Aussie couple from Perth; a group of three older Americans from Minnesota, two ladies and a man; and rocking up later on in the afternoon, four 17-year-olds from Wellington who took a very relaxed attitude to the whole thing and spent most of their time playing cards!

In the evening our ranger, Doug, gave the traditional welcome talk. He began in what sounded to me like pretty solid Te Reo Maori, before explaining his job at the hut, taking us through the safety points and other housekeeping. This routine is repeated every night at every DOC hut where there's a ranger. 

As the sun set Taranaki peeped his head over the distant clouds, which was magical, and we all retired to bed. I had to get up in the night and the stars were astonishingly bright.

Day two

We woke to clear skies in front of us but low cloud masking the horizon behind. Doug had told us the previous night that the bulk of the people doing the one-day Tongariro Crossing would be passing through between 6 and 8am, but when I set out at 8 it was still incredibly busy - and remained that way the rest of the distance that our paths coincided. On balance, getting the benefit of less heat was probably best.

The TNC and the Crossing follow the same route for perhaps 8km, climbing up the saddle between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe before crossing the vast South Crater, and then ascending again to the high point of the Red Crater. After that you descend steeply and quickly to the three Emerald Lakes (they're turquoise, really). That's where the paths divide, although Circuiteers can do a quick side-trip to see the vast Blue Lake too. 

The Crossing is known as the Thing To Do in this part of the world and thousands do do it, many vastly under-equipped for a 19km day hike. Most people I saw were in shorts and t-shirts and some sort of trainers. One girl was carrying an umbrella as a parasol. Not everyone or every group had a rucksack big enough to carry food and extra layers, which frankly is stupid as up at the top the weather can change very quickly (as I found out in 2007 when I did this walk with Mum and Dad, the clouds rolled in and it rained for most of the trek). 

The crowds didn't really stop me making progress and speed as I'd wished, despite my bag. I'm quite good at climbing and ascended steadily to the South Crater, pausing for a break and then crossing across to the ascent up to Red Crater. This bit of track now has chains as handrails at one point, which I didn't remember, and a lot of steps. I got my poles out and kept climbing. 

Looking across Central Crater from Blue Lake
 The view at the top was astounding. Red Crater is a deep crater of dark red iron-enriched earth, and below it you can see, sparkling like jewels, Emerald Lakes. Steam comes out from behind the lakes, which are highly sulphurous. 

The descent was something else - and I don't remember this from 2007 either! You have to get down a steep scree slope with a lot of loose stuff and a steep drop to either side. I don't like descending anyway, I hate scree, I hate steep drops, and I had a heavy pack on my back. I went very slowly and was very glad to be at the bottom. 

I did the side-trip to Blue Lake, which was pretty, and then set off to start the two-hour trip to Oturere Hut. At this point I bumped into one of the lads from Wellington who had lost his mates - it turned out later they'd simply descended Red Crater much more quickly and had gone off without him - so we walked the rest of the way together. While initially I was a bit narked at losing my lovely solitude actually he was good company and it was baking hot. He was struggling more than me so it was good to be the one encouraging someone else along! The landscape at this point was unreal, an alien moonscape of rocks and scrubby plants with Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu ever-present looming above us. 

Around 2km out from the hut we bumped into its ranger, Dani, who cheerfully informed us we had "only" 45 minutes left. It was a long 45 minutes but eventually we rounded a clump of lava rocks and there was shelter. 

Oturere Hut is smaller and older than Mangatepopo and a bit more cramped. I was there early enough to secure a prime bunk. Apart from the Wellington quartet, the only others there were a Kiwi guide and her Swiss-German clients walking the circuit in the other direction. The Swiss couldn't speak very good English so I chatted to their guide as I had a second lunch and discovered there was a waterfall just over the ridge where you could splash a bit and freshen up. She said you could go in flip-flops. I believed her. I was silly. It was a narrow, sometimes-steep short path to the top of the waterfall where I found a pool deep enough to sit in, and for a little while I did just sit there listening to the flow over the cliff a few metres distant and remembering the day's walk.

Day three

Day three of the circuit in this direction is blissfully short, only three hours. My bunkroom all slept in past 7 as the rest of the hut and campers were packing up and heading off, and it was nice to have breakfast and pack up in a leisurely fashion. I left along with one of the American couples, Phil and Kaiba from Austin, and we walked the day's 8.5km together chatting sporadically. This was a lovely walk, across the volcanic desert towards Ruapehu before descending sharply into a pretty beech forest. We had a snack by the icy cold fast-flowing river and then climbed up the other side of the forest, to be greeted by the sight of Waihohonu Hut only a short distance ahead. 

The original Waihohonu Hut was built in 1904 and still stands, a corrugated iron shed painted rust-red. The new one was opened in 2010 (there was another in between apparently) and was promptly nicknamed 'Taj MaHut' by the Aussies when they arrived. It's a 28-bunk palace with loads of space, cubby holes for your stuff, big tables inside, picnic tables outside, the works. Best of all are the big picture windows looking out on the mountains. 

Ruapehu on day three
Nearby is the Onehipango Springs, which bubble up out of the ground about a kilometre away from the hut. Phil, Kaiba and I walked there and filled our water bottles from the river just near the source of the spring - the coldest, purest water you could hope to taste. It was divine. Back at the hut everyone was splashing in the river by the campsite, which is also icy cold but with a pool deep enough to submerge yourself in. Everyone came back to the hut looking like they had just had the best experience of their lives - it was so good to feel cleaner and fresher!

While down at the river we heard the first few rolls of thunder in the distance, and much of the rest of the afternoon was spent watching the storn roll over Ngauruhoe and across the valley to Oturere. Eventually it reached us, and the heavens opened with huge raindrops and then hail which bounced off the floor and the tables outside. Luckily we were indoors, oohing and aahing at the lightning and the size of the hailstones. A few trampers were less lucky and arrived from Whakapapa looking like drowned rats. 

Our ranger for the night was called Horse. Apparently it's his real name. His parents were hippies. Anyway he informed us that the next day was the day of the Tussock Traverse, a 26km trail race for almost 1,000 runners from the Desert Road to Whakapapa along our track for the day. We all groaned, having just got over the Crossing crowds, and I decided to make a prompt start to try and miss as many of them as possible.

Day four

I was on the trail by 7.40am, stopping for a brief look at the old Waihohonu Hut before heading out across more volcanic desert landscape on the last leg. The trail undulates up and down but mostly up for a bit, before the trend becomes mostly down, and although the clouds covered the heads of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe it was very atmospheric - and a little cooler! I made excellent time to the turnoff for Tama Lakes, and decided I had enough time and energy to do the trek up to the Upper Lake. This is advertised as 45 minutes. It's another steep climb up a slope but the ground wasn't too loose, and I got up and back in an hour including a stop at the slightly windy top for a view of another beautiful blue lake nestling under the slopes of Ngauruhoe.

Lower Tama Lake
Back on the track I was now being overtaken by trail runners regularly, but still kept on making decent progress towards Whakapapa. Just under an hour out I stopped at the top of Taranaki Falls, joined by Americans Natasha and Kevin, for a final lunch in the open before the last few kilometres back. My feet were sore, but I didn't really want it to end ...

Overall the TNC deserves its Great Walk title. It's a walk of constantly-changing landscape, with Ngauruhoe constantly at the centre. I met some great people and saw fantastic views and sights. It was a superb four days.

Tips for the walk
  • Make sure you book well ahead on the DOC website to get a hut or tent spot for any of the Great Walks. Especially in summer, no booking will probably mean no bed. 
  • And get a car park permit from the Whakapapa visitors' centre before you start walking. With this you can park for free in either of the car parks in Whakapapa for the length of the walk.
  • The water was drinkable without treatment in all the huts - Mangatepopo and Oturere rely on rainwater tanks, Waihohonu has access to the river but at the moment was also purely rainwater. 
  • In summer there are gas stoves in all the huts too so you can get away with just bringing a pot to boil water or cook with. 
  • The huts have no electricity sockets (though to cut down on fires, they do have electric lights). 
  • Walking poles are very useful, especially if you have a dodgy knee. 
  • You can do this walk in fewer days; either starting from the carpark near Mangatepopo Hut, or by combining two legs (or all of them - it's a thing to try and do it in a day). However I liked having the time to be leisurely, and it was nice hanging out in the afternoons with the other trampers and also doing some reading.

Monday, January 22, 2018

New Plymouth, Wellington and the Wairarapa

This post is brought to you by an afternoon of wine tasting.

When I settled in Wellington back in 2007 I started my job just after Easter, so I spent the long Easter weekend out in the Wairarapa, exploring LOTR locations and drinking wine. When I was working we had quarterly days out, one of which was a fabulous trip to Martinborough for golfing and wine-tasting. I therefore have fond memories of Martinborough and decided to put it on my list of Things To Do for this trip. Consequently, after an afternoon tootling around the vineyards on a bike, I am moderately sozzled.

 Going backwards: after Northland I drove south to New Plymouth, which last year was named the second-best region in the world to visit by the Lonely Planet. This is quite a big thing to live up to and I'm not sure it can quite lay claim to that title - but it depends what you want from a place. I was unfortunate with weather this time, as it was wet most of the time I was there, but I did thoroughly enjoy my day in NP. I had a lovely dinner with my friend Delwyn and then the next day explored the excellent museum Puke Ariki before the rain eased enough to venture onto the Coastal Walkway. NP council has now developed 13km of fabulous path along the coast - it was pretty blustery but fun and worth braving the wind for. Then I cut in along a path which runs along a really pretty little stream (Te Henui) until I got to the end, before finding my way back to my hostel through the NP park. It was a good 12km walk so I felt suitably virtuous by the end and that I'd earned the fish and chips I had for dinner.

Cape Egmont lighthouse and Mount Taranaki
From NP it was on to Wellington. I took the Surf Highway, which runs along the coast and through numerous tiny towns with crashing waves on one side and rural NZ on the other. It was a lovely drive; I took a detour to see the Cape Egmont lighthouse with Mount Taranaki peeping through the clouds behind before barrelling on south past all the towns we used to drive through on the way to swimming meets or regattas when I lived in Wellington. Taranaki's farewell signs were particularly good: "You are about to leave Taranaki ..." and then a couple of hundred metres further on, "Why?"

It was very good to get back to Wellington. It really is an awesome little city. I drove in as the sun came out and after checking in to my hostel and dumping my car headed up to Mount Victoria for a view. This was pretty much the first thing I did when I first arrived back in 2007, guided by my brother and now-sister-in-law. It seemed appropriate to do it again and it was a good clear day.

Originally I'd hoped to go rowing at some point but the Wellington wind had other thoughts and on Saturday it was a raging north-westerly with white caps across the harbour. I hired a bike instead and cycled around the bays - a trip I did several times when living in NZ. The road takes you past a number of lovely neighbourhoods, past the airport, and then eventually up a long drag back to town. I missed my road bike massively (even the hybrid I owned in NZ was better than the mountain bike I'd hired) but it was a good day.

Breaker Bay
Since I lived there Wellington has sprouted several markets - I enjoyed wandering the Underground Market on Saturday and the Night Markets on Cuba Street on Friday and Saturday were good too. Lots of street food from around the world, NZ handicrafts and the like. I had a Vietnamese banh mi for lunch on Saturday and a plate of Ethiopian food for dinner - delicious and relatively cheap. Food is quite expensive in NZ so it was good to save a bit, although I confess I also had a couple of craft beers at a cool little pub in the CBD I found via Google ....

On Sunday I went to Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum, which was as superb as always. They had an exhibition of Lego models of Wonders of the World - amazing - but arguably a better show was their Gallipoli exhibit, This was designed in conjunction with Weta Workshop, who made their name making models for the Lord of the Rings films, and focuses on the eight months spent by New Zealand troops trying to take a part of Turkey during WW1. Gallipoli is a bit of WW1 which we in Britain don't know much about (despite the fact several thousand British troops fought there too) but it was a crucial, tragic part of the war for the Aussies and Kiwis. Thousands of their men died there before the troops were evacuated and it was a tragic event for the whole country. The exhibition tells the Gallipoli story through the voices of individual soldiers and includes immense 2.4x models of eight individuals - seven men and one female nurse - who were involved. It was a very powerful way of telling their story and brought home to me a side of WW1 I was aware of but knew little about.

The giant model of Lt Spencer Westmacott which introduces the Gallipoli exhibition
A good accompaniment to this was a visit to the Great War Exhibition, likewise curated by Peter Jackson and his Weta colleagues, at the National War Memorial before I left. This also relies heavily on models to show you what went on during the war, coupled with colourised photographs and artefacts. It was also exceptionally good and complemented the Te Papa exhibit well. Both made you feel what an impact WW1 had on NZ and Australia, whose sons went off to fight for an empire they were so very distant from.

The rest of my time in Wellington was spent with a catch-up lunch with my rowing friend Lucy, appropriately next to the rowing club in the new-since-I -lived-there cafe by the club (it was too windy to row), a visit to the Wellington Museum, and a pilgrimage to the Embassy Cinema to see The Post. The Embassy has, since I lived in Wellington, added two new small screens below its awesome main screen and it was in one of these that the film was shown. It was lovely - a comfortable seat and a glass of wine!

Yesterday after the Great War Exhibition I hit the road for Martinborough, driving out over the Rimutaka Hill to the Wairarapa wine country. I rented a bike from the holiday park I'm staying at and set out to taste wine. I tasted a lot. It was all good. I didn't buy any but most of the wineries charge $5 for a tasting so you kind of feel okay about not buying, and I bought a mini bottle of gin in one of the two which didn't charge which I sincerely hope will survive the next few weeks. It would frankly be a tragedy if it didn't.