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Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Central Plateau, New Zealand

Mount Tongariro is one of several volcanos in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s the northernmost of the three volcanic cones just to the south of Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake.

Mount Tongariro is also the location of one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This is a 19.4 kilometre hike that climbs over the Tongariro massif, past the summit of both Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.

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Map is © Copyright Tongariro Alpine Crossing Please visit that site for more information.

A group of us decided to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing towards the end of the season. We made arrangements and drove down from Auckland on Friday night with the intentions of climbing early Saturday morning. The four-hour drive turned into five and a half as we left during Auckland’s rush hour. We arrived late in the evening and bedded down for the night with alarms set.

A Bad Start
When we awoke on Saturday Morning it was raining and didn’t look pleasant. We went for breakfast and waited to find out if the we could still do the walk. The answer came back a resounding no. The rain and strong winds meant the mountain was closed. All we could do was hang out for the day and hope for better weather on Sunday.

What Tongariro should look like, apparently…
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Ominous News
We were up and had breakfast early on Sunday but the weather still didn’t look great. The mountain was still not visible from our lodgings and when our driver arrived he had bad news. He believed the mountain was again closed and wouldn’t take us, leaving us a little downhearted. We asked the owner of the lodge and he was unconvinced. He rang another driver who confirmed the mountain was in fact open and would take us up.

We were driven to the trailhead in the rain with trepidation, but with the number of other vehicles heading up, it seemed others would also be braving it.

Trailhead – Mangetapopo Carpark – 1100m
We began at the Mangetapopo carpark in a slight drizzle. There were no views of the massif or much else due to the low cloud. The trail was a mix of mud, stones, wooden platforms and people. There were hundreds of others doing the track with us. If this many were doing it on a bleak day, who could guess how busy it would be on a clear one.

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The walk was easy and for the first seven or so kilometres we barely noticed the 250m climb towards Soda Springs. I walked in a quick dry sports singlet, my hiking zip-off shorts and boots. The drizzle was constant but not heavy and I was fairly warm. Others wore long pants and full Gore-tex jackets.

Soda Springs – 1350m
At Soda Springs there is a warning sign: STOP! Are you really prepared? It suggested it was going to get difficult and to turn back if you weren’t prepared. As I waited for my group, I watched several people get to the sign, stare at it for a while and then turn back. With the drizzle picking up I put on a rain poncho over my singlet and began the climb.

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It became more rugged, with a rough dirt trail and steps weaving up the side of the mountain towards South Crater. The drizzle continued and the climb became more a little more difficult, but not by much. After a while of steady climbing we began seeing people returning along with trail with warnings of how bad it was higher up.

With the constant drizzle and the warnings I was tempted to turn back. Why do a climb when you can’t see anything the entire time? You climb for the views and the experience, but the only experience would be a wet cloudy one. I put on a jumper under my rain poncho and we continued on.

South Crater – 1650m
We climbed onto the area described as South Crater and out of the wind. With visibility around 20m we walked on the flat for a while, happy for the rest from climbing.

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Red Crater – 1886m
After the mud flats of South Crater we began up the ridge and discovered the wind that had been putting everyone off. It was blowing an absolute gale and you could see the drizzle sweeping over the ridge into the cloudy nothingness. I was not surprised people had turned back but since we’d come this far it seemed silly to head back. We pushed on, dodging between rocky outcrops so as not to be blown off.

We reached the top but couldn’t see anything so just kept walking, beginning the plunge down the other side, some members of our group going arse-over-tit on the slippery silt.

Emerald Lakes – 1730m
The small Emerald Lakes would have been amazing to view from higher up but they only appeared out of the gloom when we were 10m above them. It was still good to see something other than dirt, rock and rain. By now we were completely soaked, we continued on down.

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Not far below the Emerald Lakes we came to the Blue Lake covered in the same clouds.

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Ketetahi – 1456m
After several switchbacks we finally emerged from the clouds to see the Ketetahi Hut. The drizzle let up but the wind did not. We stopped briefly for a snack before pressing on.

For the next part of the trek we were in open ground along a winding trail. Since a great many people had turned back, we only saw two other groups on the way down. Then having spent much of the day hidden in clouds we finally got some views. Lake Rotoaira appeared and we even got the occasional glimpse of Lake Taupo beyond.

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Ketetahi Car Park 800m
With 4km to the car park the trail dove into rainforest and grew warmer. We crossed a river on a wooden walkway and eventually arrived at the trail’s end after what seemed a lot longer than 45 minutes the sign had suggested.

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Overall, due to the weather, out Tongariro Alpine Crossing was disappointing mainly of the lack of views. In the rain and cold, the hike didn’t feel overly difficult. It took us only 5.5 hours of the suggested 8 hours and of the 2.5 litres of water I took with me, I came out with more than 2.

Perhaps it would have been more difficult in direct sunlight, but I’ll have to come back another time to see. Maybe the next time I’m in New Zealand.

The Trail Wanderer

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3-day Trek, Kalaw to Inle Lake, Myanmar

Most hikes to Inle Lake start at Kalaw, a township about an hour west of Inle Lake. Most buses stop at Kalaw on the way through dropping off tourists to do the hike. The tour company will take your pack and arrange for it to be waiting for you at your hotel at the other end.

But, if you’re like me and don’t like the idea of handing over your Macbook and other electronics to a random stranger hoping it will all appear at the other end, then the bus continues on to Nyaung Shwe, the main tourist town of Inle Lake. Once there you can find your hotel and make arrangements to have your things put in a locker before arranging a bus back to Kalaw.

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There are plenty of trekking guides in Kalaw but for some reason I was drawn past all the others to Sam’s Family Restaurant and Trekking. They gave me the options of different lengths of trek, from 1 to 3 days and the prices depending on number of people in the group, from 1 to 6 people. Of course, the more the people, the lower the price.

You are then asked to come back the night before the trek to meet the others in your group. With group treks it’s important to get the right group. The group I was to go with seemed nice people and were from all across Europe. We were given a vague trek plan and shown our route on a map. Here is a vague approximation of the route although ours was slightly different.

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Day 1

It had rained overnight, which didn’t bode well for the trek. On top of that, as my room at the guesthouse was above the kitchen, I was awakened at 4.30am by someone messing around with pots and pans. Then, as if to ensure I had no hope of getting back to sleep, the water pump beside the kitchen started. At least the rain had stopped.

After breakfast, I headed down to Sam’s Family Restaurant at the allotted 8.30am time to get ready for the trek. But when I got there I found that I’d been put into a different group. My new group did not seem as friendly as the other and contained three Israelis and two French girls.

We began walking through the streets of Kalaw, avoiding motorbikes as we went. We then headed out onto a dirt road through houses with plentiful flower gardens.

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I stopped to take photos as the rest of the group chatted away. This was when the realisation hit me that my five hiking companions were all talkers. So, I hung out at the back to try to enjoy the sounds of nature without having to listen to the constant dribble of human voices. This is, after all, why I started hiking alone all that time ago.

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Finally, after a short time we left the sound of engines and motorbikes behind and started out along a dirt trail. The track led us through an evergreen forest for an hour with several short climbs.

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As we went we passed a couple of rice paddies hidden among the trees.

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After an hour in the forest we arrived at a reservoir where we stopped to rest and watch some locals fishing.

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After our rest and a banana, we headed back into the forest for forty-five minutes with more climbing, although nothing too strenuous. We eventually reached a view-point high on the side of the hill above a green tea plantation.

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Ten minutes further on we stopped at a Nepali Restaurant which allowed more great views while we ate our vegetarian curries. After sitting briefly with my group, I discovered they preferred to chat together in their own languages. As I was the only native english speaker I decided to sit with my original group who were more willing to talk in a common language.

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After lunch we walked further along the ridge until we met a group of local ladies from the Paung tribe of the Hin Kai Kung village who were heading to work in the tea plantation. They were more than happy to pose for some photos with us.

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We walked around the end of the valley following a dirt road and came through their village nestled high on the hilltop opposite our viewpoint lunch spot.

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Once past the village, we descended downhill on the dirt road for nearly an hour. I was enjoying being out in nature again after so long and as I had for most of the day I dropped back far enough that I could barely hear the ongoing loud chatter of my group.

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We again passed several paddy fields on the way to the railway line. We then walked along the sleepers for forty minutes, not worried about oncoming trains as they move so slowly there would have been plenty of time to get out of the way.

We then stopped for a 15-minute break in the disused railway station of the Nyin Dirk village of the Daung people, which is now a cafe type eatery. After the rest we walked on through paddy fields towards our stopping point.

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With about an hour to go the sky opened up and it poured on us. This left us with a muddy climb through hills.

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This made the last part of the day longer and harder. Soaked through we eventually made it to the Sat Sky Kong village of the Daung Tribe where we were able to put our packs down and change into dry clothing. I grabbed a beer from the local store before dinner, which was amazing, several different plates with curries and other vegetable dishes, all with rice. After dinner, we hung out in the kitchen with our guide, the cook and two of the owners, drinking the local Myanmar rum. Then we sunk into a sleep at around 9.30pm.

Day 2

The roosters began at 5.00am but only for ten minutes before falling silent again. We continued to doze until 7am when breakfast was brought into our room consisting of french toast, fruit and coffee. I learned that the french call french toast ‘toast’ although Paen Perdu better describes what we know.

After breakfast we prepared to leave, stopping for some of the group to buy fresh water at the store while the rest of us looked out over the village paddy fields.

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We headed out of the Sat Sky Kong village around 8.30am on a wide dirt road, with some puddles.

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As we walked, we noted the plentiful paddy fields were in many stages of being planted. Some were being tilled and it was from this we learned the value of buffalo to these people. They can be a cheaper, self-sustaining but much slower version of the motorbike.

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But for the most part it is the strength of the buffalo that is treasured. A single buffalo can till a field quickly and easily while would take two oxen to do the same work in slower time. Buffalos are not cheap, each costing about US$2,500, so they are well looked after and usually not eaten. Here the farmer is giving his buffalo a bath and by the sounds coming from the buffalo, it was enjoying it immensely.

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After two and a half hours of walking we stopped for a green tea break in the Kyatsu village of the Baro tribe. Then it was off again along the dirt road through more paddy fields. After talking constantly and loudly throughout the first part of the day causing me to drop back again to be able to hear nature, the Israelis seemed to run out of things to talk about and decided to listen to music instead, singing along for the rest of the day.

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While it did not rain before lunch there was a low haze over the mountains. There is a sense of mystery about a landscape cloaked in clouds.

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We arrived in the Nan Dhin village of the Daung Yo tribe for lunch at a cafe-like eatery. There were two other groups there already, the group I had almost begun with and another I had not met before. I hung out with the french girls in my group and chatted as we ate.

It poured during lunch but thankfully the store sold rain ponchos. While I have a jacket it no longer resists the rain, as I learned during the last hour of day one. The rain poncho was too long, so I cut it down to a better size. This amused the staff although they were even more amused when several other members of the groups bought and cut down their ponchos as well. But as soon as we set out after lunch the rain stopped. We followed a red dirt road across more fields, the Israelis singing away loudly to the amusement of any locals we came across.

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Beyond stopping for an occasional five-minute break here and there, we did not take an afternoon break but plodded along the red dirt road towards the low mountains in the distance, passing small settlements and people working in the fields.

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About an hour before we were due to stop for the day we finally left the road and headed across some muddy tracks through paddy fields. It was around then that it began sporadically raining which caused the mud to be, well, more muddy. This put a damper on the last part of the day and made the mud sticky and heavy on tired legs.

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By the time we reached the Partu Park village of the Daung Th tribe most of us were over the day. We just wanted to get to the room, put our packs down, take our boots off and get a beer. So that was pretty much what we did. The other group had arrived before we had, so I joked around with them a little. Then over dinner, a fish curry and vegetables, the Israelis went off into a discussion in hebrew, the french girls went off in a discussion in french and I was left to myself. So, tired after the day I went to bed.

Day 3

At breakfast the discussion again split into the three language groups. This brought me to a decision to ask to walk with the other group. With several european nationalities among them including Denmark, Holland, Spain and Belgium they predominantly spoke in the common english language.

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Hiking with a friendly and inclusive group makes a lot of difference. This and the fact that much of the day was spent walking along trails through the mountains instead of dirt roads led me to regard day three the best day of the hike.

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We stopped briefly at another Kyatsu village for the Baro tribe before starting our descent towards the plateau where Inle Lake resides.

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We passed the Inle Region checkpoint where we had to pay US$10, but as I had already got a ticket on my initial visit I did not have to pay again. We stopped for a longer green tea break at the Nan Yart village of the Baro tribe where we saw two other groups that we had not seen before.

Then after the break we headed further down the valley to the first views of the lake.

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Along the way we passed this tree, a cousin to the Bodhi tree, the enlightened tree from India the buddha would sit under. This one is over one hundred and fifty years old.

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Then we headed through the pass to the plateau with views of the Inle Lake.

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We stopped for lunch at the Donenay village of the Innthar tribe where my original group was also having lunch. I sat with the group I’d walked with on day three and rested for thirty minutes before a ten minute walk to the boats that would take us across Inle Lake to the township of Nyaung Shwe.

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During the first part of the hour-long trip across the lake we saw fishermen laying nets and steering their boats with their feet.

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With the occasional boat similar to ours racing past.

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And mountains on both sides covered in ominous rain clouds.

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During the last half of the boat ride those ominous clouds opened up and it poured with rain, so we donned our cut-down ponchos until we were delivered to the jetty.

That evening I met up with my group from day 3 for pizza, european food after days of local food. I had the Tutti Pizza, which I call the ‘Monk Pizza’… one with everything.

Overall, other than ending up with the wrong group, the trek was not bad. The last day was definitely the highlight although the surroundings for most of the trek were amazing. It was great to be out in nature again as it’s been 18 months since my last hike which was to Ciudad Perdida in the Jungles of Northern Colombia.

Then with a heavily blistered foot and a little toe with an infection, I hung out in Nyaung Shwe for a couple of days before heading north to Mandalay.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia – Impressions

For our final stop of in Indonesia we flew into the city of Padang in West Sumatra, a 90 minute flight from Jakarta.

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Padang has only 1 million people and this small population is noticeable as soon as you arrive. The sense of being crowded that pervades Bali or the cities of Java doesn’t exist here.

Padang is a major transit point for surfers heading out to the island groups of Batu and Mentawai. Those locations are remote and beautiful but with limited power and amenities. Rainy season was just beginning as we arrived so we chose not to spend the money to visit these islands. Maybe on a return visit.

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Padang has the feel of Bali without the tourists or the aggressive locals trying to sell us anything not nailed down. Padang beach is a well-known place for sunsets and has hundreds of food stalls along its length. Padang also contains many examples of Sumatran architecture, a style different to anywhere else in the country.

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Padang Cuisine
On our first night we were introduced to a local cuisine simply called ‘Padang’ which has spread throughout Indonesia. On being seated, the table is layered with small plates of food.

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There were usually several dishes of chicken, each cooked in a different manner. The same for fish, beef and vegetables, giving the meal a smorgasbord-like feel. At the end of the meal you’re only charged for what you eat, even if it’s only half a plate. A particular favourite was the Rendang, a spicy beef dish.

Angkot Kota
Padang has this public transport system common to other Indonesian cities. But unlike those other cities, Padang does it with more with style. The vans are modern, sportier and many even have spoilers, although by definition they don’t go very fast. And because of the loud Doof Doof music, you always know when an Angkot is approaching.

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Celebrities
On our first day in town we walked along the waterfront for several kilometres before circling back along one of the major roads of the city.

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Not long after we began walking we seemed to become local celebrities. People would honk horns, mothers would bring their children out to wave at us and school kids would call ‘Hey Mister!’ while going up for a high-five. Some people tried to start conversations but between their english being little more than ‘where are you from?’ and our Indonesian no more than ‘terima kashi’ (thank you) it never went far. For the most part we just smiled, waved and continued walking.

The Twin Lakes
With scooters available for hire at the hostel, we couldn’t resist taking a pair out for a day. To make the most of our time we took a long ride across the mountains to the twin lakes, Danau Diatas and Danau Dibawah. While it’s humid in Padang, once in the mountains things cool down pretty quickly.

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We crossed the small mountain range and as we came down the other side I discovered my front tire had a puncture. We drove into a small town, waved down a local and was surprised that he could speak English. Five minutes later we were at tyre shop where the mechanic kindly fixed the puncture for 10,000 rupiah – about AU$1.

Not long after, it began to rain. Thankfully one of the local roadside stalls sold rain ponchos. Then, after three hours we made it to the lakes. Danau Diatas…

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…and Danau Dibawah.

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With the weather closing in quickly we spent little time at the lakes before deciding to head back. The rain got quite heavy, but this didn’t put us off as we were dry under our ponchos. While we had to be more careful on the wet roads, the journey was actually quite fun. Wipers would have come in handy on our full face helmets though.

The mountains protect Padang from the rain, so once we crossed back over the range it became drier and warmer. A most enjoyable day.

Padang Hill
In the mid afternoon of our final day in Indonesia we decided to climb Padang hill, at the end of Padang Beach.

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While the hill only took ten minutes to climb, it was enough to soak us in sweat. The views of the coast line and the city were worth the effort, though.

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But beyond the views, we discovered a shopkeeper and a large family of monkeys at the top of the hill. We hung out watching the shopkeeper fend off the cheeky monkeys with a long bamboo stick. This seemed to be a constant battle. As the rain began to set in for the day we headed down the hill.

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After six weeks in Indonesia, it’s time to move on to a new country and more adventures. Tomorrow, Singapore.

The Trail Wanderers