Tag Archives: Mountains

Rarotonga Island, Cook Islands – Impressions

Three and a half hours by plane north east of New Zealand is Rarotonga, the largest and capital island of the Cook Islands.

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As COVID lockdowns ease across New Zealand, I skipped out on winter for a bit and shot off to this tropical paradise. Here are some of my explorations during my time there.

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The Island
Rarotonga is surrounded by a reef where waves crash sometimes a hundred or more metres out. The shallow lagoon it provides makes plentiful snorkelling available right from the beach, assuming clear waters on windless days. The island sits atop a 3000m volcano with 600m sticking out of the water. Thankfully, Rarotonga has been dormant for millions of years.

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The inner parts of the island are hilly, with many climbable albeit forest covered peaks. On the south east is the largest lagoon with four explorable small islands. As a tropical island, there are huge amounts of sun, sand, palm trees, coconuts and, of course, mosquitoes.

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A road runs around the coast and is a constant buzz of motorcycles, scooters and small vehicles. Two buses run in opposite directions on an almost hourly basis, circling in about 50-75 minutes depending on number of stops. Bussing is affordable enough that you don’t have to go through the rigmarole of sitting your scooter license and its associated costs. Much of the island is on ‘Island Time’, though, so the buses don’t operate on Sundays, and businesses tend to close early.

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Rarotonga is a dog island, with dogs everywhere. While most run loose, they are collared but aren’t wild, having their own territories around the Island. They tend to get excited when you walk along the beach, but ignore them and they lose interest quickly enough.

Round the Island Walk
With no buses running Sundays, what better day to walk the entire ring road of the Island? At about 32km, it’s a fair walk in the winter tropical heat, thankfully at around 27-28ºC with only 70% humidity. Still warm, but not hideous.

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Thankfully in many places there is an offshore wind, and the shore is fairly close to the road. Also, thankfully, there’s a store at least every kilometre selling all manner of refreshments.

The walk took me about 6 hours with most being flat. My problem with flat walks, is that I tend to walk too fast, sustaining around 5.5km an hour with few breaks. This caused my Tibialis Anterior muscles – the front muscles below the knee – to be in pain for the next three days.

The island has plenty to see. The south has the best views out to the ocean, while the south east, around the second largest town, Muri, has the best lagoon views and its four smaller islands. The north is the site of the main township, Avarua and the North west is the airport, where tourists tend to hover waiting to watch planes fly over. The island’s peaks can be seen from all sides, although I felt the best views are the north and the east.

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Raumaru Walk
A couple of days after my Island Circuit walk, I decided to climb one of the hills near my hostel, on the island’s western side. The start of the walk is near where I was staying, so together with one of the girls from the hostel, I headed out in the heat of the morning.

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We cut along a road to the inland circular road and climbed an easy dirt road to the trailhead. From here we followed a dirt track skimming under branches. It wasn’t a hard walk, more of a steady gentle climb. The main issue was the heat with sweat pouring off us for much of it. It had rained overnight, and showered twice during the walk making the path slippery even in my hiking boots.

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About a kilometre and a half into the climb, the trail came to a rock scramble, with a knotted rope and climbing struts hammered into the rock wall. I got a few metres up, and with a good ten more to go, I decided against proceeding. I could have made it, but was concerned about coming down on the slippery rock, and my companion was adamant she didn’t wish to climb. Taking advantage of what views we did have, we headed back down.

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Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruise
There are many cruises in the Lagoon out from Muri, I chose Captain Tama’s as they seemed very popular. And, indeed, on the day we had four boats and about 80 people, not including the ‘captains’.

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The weather, however, was not the greatest, and we were told the snorkelling might not be the best due to the murky waters, but we were heading out to see what was possible.

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We got out near the edge of the lagoon, but found it indeed too murky and rough to snorkel. Annoying, as this was why I came, but it is what it is. We headed back to one of the islands for lunch, a show and a bit of a swim in the shallow but still murky waters. Then it was across the bay and back to the main island and home.

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Cross Island Walk
While the Cross Island walk can be done without a guide, I chose to go with one to hear stories of the island and its local flora and fauna. Pa was the guide I wanted to walk with, a local hero, but it wasn’t to be.

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Pa had been crossing the island on tours barefoot for 35 years, doing more than 5000 times. However, when COVID hit, and at the ripe old age of 70, he retired, handing the reins to his niece’s husband. He was awarded the above monument for his efforts.

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The walk was still good, and I learned a lot following Bruce, with the walk being fairly easy and the partial climb up The Needle on ropes and chains fun and the views across the island great.

One other in our small group struggled due to fitness levels, which slowed the walk, but as it was only a half day walk anyway, there was plenty of time.

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We ended at the Papua Waterfall with lunch provided before being dropped back at the hostel.

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Markets
There are two main markets on the island, The Punanga Nut day markets, every morning but Sunday in Avarua, and the Muri Night Markets, 3 nights a week. Both offer different experiences and were worth the visit. The Punanga Day Markets are the classic markets, selling clothes, food, drinks, and on Saturday mornings some of the island’s best selections of fruit, vegetables and local cooking. While it’s quiet most of the week, Saturday morning can get busy with tourists.

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The Muri Night Markets is more of an outdoor food court surrounded by food shacks. While there was some local food types, there were many typical foods, such as waffles or pizza on offer. The atmosphere, however, was still great.

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Snorkelling
As the island is surrounded by a shallow lagoon, if the weather is right, there are many good places to snorkel. I had several occasions to to get in the water, even hiring fins to make getting around a little easier.

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I was able to spy many different varieties of fish during my sessions, some the length of my arm. I was even able to see several Moray Eels while swimming, usually just poking their heads from holes, but on one occasion, one at full swim.

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I had brought my old waterproof camera, and used this until one day it just stopped working. After that, I had to do what I could without it.

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Impressions
Overall, my time in Rarotonga was most enjoyable. A couple of weeks away from New Zealand’s winter on a tropical island. While it was more expensive than I was expecting but not surprising given COVID shut down the country for most of 2 years. I got to see many sights, both physically and culturally, and while the Cook Islands’ culture has its similarities in NZ’s, it was good to see the differences. A fun overall trip to what I am calling Little New Zealand.

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Until Next Time

The World Wanderer

The Pinnacles Loop Track, Coromandel – New Zealand

After a day walk in the Karanagahake Gorge, I headed to Thames, a 115km from Auckland, to prepare for an overnight hike to the Pinnacles in the Coromandel Forest Park. While a large portion of it is in the forest, there is a good portion in the tussocks above it too, so I will let it go. The mid-March weather also continues to hold up.

The Pinnacles Loop is a 17.2km trail amalgamating three trails, The Kauaeranga Kauri Trail to the Pinnacles hut, the side trail to the top of the Pinnacles themselves and the return walk on day two along the Billygoat Walk. While 17.2km is around my average walking distance on a typical day on my multi-day hikes, I’m stretching it out over two days as I want to stay at the Pinnacles Hut.

Day 1 – Kauaeranga Valley Road End to Pinnacles Hut – 6km – 3 hours + side trail to Pinnacles Summit (2km – 1.5 hours)

I headed out from the carpark at the end of Kauaeranga Valley Road, through the boot clearing station and onto the rocky trail. There is an epidemic of Kauri Dieback disease in New Zealand, and one of the defences is to clean boots before and after walking in Kauri forests, and thus there are boot cleaning stations everywhere. A few minutes in, I followed a short side trail to view the Billygoat Falls. They are distant and small, but caused loggers in the early 1900s much trouble.

I continued along Webb Creek as the trail began to climb steady on a rock and dirt trail with steps cut into it in many locations. These steps were often build with branches or chiselled out of the stone. This was to help the the pack animals climbing the trail and hauling logs back down again.

Much of the 400m total ascent occurs during the first 3km with the trail, crossing the creek several times either by rock hopping or on small bridges. On several occasions there were flood trails for those days when the creek is unsafe to cross due to high water levels, but today it was very low. After two hours in the forest, I came out at the Hydro Camp, a flattened areas which is the junction on the trails. I paused for a break and took my boots off in the sun.

From here the tall tussock begins giving more access to the sun and the views. This entire region was created by volcanic activity over the past 20 million years, with the bluffs and pinnacles acting as rocky plugs of the long extinct volcanoes.

The path grew drier and wider and after another hour, I came over a knoll to see the hut. I proceeded to it and dropped my pack. It was only 2pm and the sign left by the warden said he’d be back at 3.30.

I took a break, had a look around, filled my water bottle, then with only my lighter daypack, headed towards the Pinnacles themselves on a manicured path. The sign says it’s a 50 minute climb to the top.

To make the climbing easier, there are a large number of stairways climbing up to the first of the pinnacles.

But the views from this lower one was still good.

After this pinnacle, permanently installed ladders replaced the stairs. And in several locations, bars of metal have been pounded into the rock to be used as steps in areas where the rock scrambling grew more difficult.

While I didn’t find the climb particularly difficult, the views in all directions were well worth it.

And from this height, the towns of Pauanui and Taurui come into view on the Bay of Plenty coast.

I spent some time alone at the top enjoying both the sunshine and the views, before I made my descent. Coming down was quicker, and when I arrived back at the hut, went straight past to the nearby Dancing Creek Dam, which has been rebuilt to show what the original dam once looked like.

The Pinnacles hut can accommodate a total of 80 people, but there were only 13 booked for the night I stayed. The kitchen area is large and has gas burners and electric lighting. Many of the people in the hut came later than me, arriving close to sunset. As it is only an overnight walk, the wine bottles appeared from packs after dinner. This also meant that people were coming to bed later and making more noise.

Day 2 – Pinnacle Hut to Kauaeranga Valley Road End via Billy Goat Walk – 7km – 2.5 hours
All of the late comers from the evening before also decided to get up early to meet the sunrise at the top of the pinnacles, so the noise began again. And once I’m awake, I find it difficult to get back to sleep again, so I got up. I moved all my stuff into the dining area in the dark, as I watched the light begin to brighten the sky. I made breakfast and began packing waiting to see the fresh pink sunlight on the Pinnacles.

Once I was ready, I made a quick march from the hut back across the trail to the the Hydro Camp where the trail split and I barrelled on down the the Billygoat Walk trail. For a handful of kilometres, the trail undulated with several dips and climbs but always seeming to come back to a similar height, until it didn’t anymore, and the main descent began. In the trees, there was little to see as I came down, with similar steps in many places cut from stone, branches or packed dirt. Eventually I came out at the Billygoat Campsite where I had a brief chat with an American girl who was packing up her tent. I continued on and the main steep descent began. I got a good view down the valley as I went, some mist still hanging on the hills in the distance.

I came past an old tramline a couple of times, the higher end once held the engine which moved very little, but using tow cables, it lowered and raised cars laden with logs and equipment.

The slope continued its steepness, and I pushed on down it for nearly a kilometre until it finally came out at the Kauaeranga River, which thankfully was not running strong at this point. I rock hopped across and came out on Kauaeranga Valley Road 300m from the carpark. Not long after, I arrived and dropped my pack.

Overall,
While a good portion of the walk was in the forest, it was short enough to not set off my annoyance and the views above the forest line were excellent. It was a short walk, and I could have easily done it in a single day, I enjoyed getting away from civilisation for the night.

With the weather packing up for the next couple of weeks, I’m back to the gym hoping to get a clear week at the beginning of April for an early autumn walk at the end of my walking season before I begin my winter hibernation.

Until next time,
The Lone Trail Wanderer.

Routeburn Track, Fiordland, New Zealand

During the COVID pandemic, I chose to take a break from Europe and head to New Zealand for a bit. In early February, I’d planned a hike in the central North Island. But due to sustained rain over the two available weekends, I put that trip on hold and instead flew to Fiordland, at the the bottom of the South Island, where it was still sunny.

The Routeburn Track is a popular 3-day hike crossing the Mount Aspiring National Park and the Fiordland National Park. As it’s considered a Great Walk run by DoC (the NZ Department of Conservation), there are 3 huts along the way where most people will stay. However, at NZ$68 a night, I chose instead to camp for only NZ$21 a night. Unfortunately, there are only two campsites on the trail, meaning the first day would be very short, and the second day, very long.

Day 1 – Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Flats Campsite – 7.5km – 1.5hr

Having spent the night in nearby Queenstown, I caught a trail transport to the trailhead at the Routeburn Shelter where several of us were dropped off. I left the shelter feeling icy at just after midday, marching into the forest and following Route Burn. A burn is a watercourse, somewhere between a large stream and a small river.

Over the course of the day, there would be a gradual 250m climb, which was barely noticable. With only a short walk, I out marched the others from the trail transport, crossing several side streams on swing bridges and static wooden bridges. These bridges gave the only real views of the day other than trees. The water of the burn ran very clear and was a tourquoise blue in many of the pictures I took.

As I walked, I came to a purpose built toilet, just off the side of the trail. There’s nothing like the sense of being in the wilderness with random toilet blocks.

The trail itself could be described as the motorway of hiking trails, wide, flat and stony. This was purposeful, I assume, to make the hike accessible to beginning hikers. Before long, I could see the flats opening up on one side of the river and came to the Routeburn Flats Hut. Only 200m to the campsite and I was out of the trees, where I pitched my tent and hung out for the afternoon.

Day 2 – Routeburn Flats Campsite to Lake MacKenzie Campsite – 13.5km – 7hr + Side trip: Conical Hill

It had been cold overnight, but my new gear was warm. I was up early the next day, and as I packed up I watched the pink light on the tops of the mountains as the sun came up, well before it reached me and the other handful of tents. Once ready, I headed out of camp, back past the hut and up the hill. It began a fairly steady climb of 250m over the course of the 2.3km, but still in the trees. The trail became thinner and rocky as it skirted around the mountain until the hut came into view. After my first spot of hard work on this hike, I dropped my pack at the hut and took a 10 minute break, admiring the view back whence I’d come. It was around here that I first began to notice my pack didn’t feel weighted right.

After my break, I pushed on up the hill and out of the forest for the first time. Today, the weather was blissfully sunny, as I climbed another 250m over 2km and got a sight of the trail ahead crossing the small plateau. At one point I passed an older couple and their daughter having a late lunch.

Without looking at the map, I guessed a lake sat in the crater above. On climbing around the side of the peaks my guess was confirmed when Lake Harris came into view at the top of the Route Burn Left Branch.

As the path led around above the lake, I crossed the hike’s highest point (not including side trails) at just under 1300m, and rounded the peak to see the Harris Saddle Shelter. I crossed the saddle and set my pack down for lunch.

It’s here that the side trail up Conical Hill begins. I’d heard it was well worth the effort, so I donned my day pack with water bladder inside and begin the climb. I won’t lie, it was hard work, and I stopped many times for short breathers until I finally came over the top. At 1515m, the summit of Conical Hill gave me great views along the Hollyford River Valley leading to Lake McKerrow and further out to the Tasman Sea.

At the other end of the valley I could see a lake, but with so many lakes in Fiordland, I couldn’t tell which it was. I hung about for 10 minutes before heading down. As I got to the shelter, I discovered I was out of water with 3-4 hours of today’s walking still to go. I stopped for a few minutes before heading off south along the upper slopes of the Hollyford River Valley.

I’d heard much of the water in the streams, huts and campsites were good to drink without treating. So at the first stream I filled up. The taste was crisp, clean and refreshing. I continued along as the trail slowly undulated around the small peaks. I again passed the trio from before the saddle, they too had run out of water, but were more nervous about drinking from the streams.

I continued and eventually rounded a peak to see Lake Mackenzie below, the hut (the white block on the right), and the camp (near the largest of the visible beaches. After rounding the peak, it was all downhill to the lake.

The trail hit a couples of switchbacks before diving back into forest. Over the past couple of hours, I had begun to notice more and more that my pack wasn’t quite right. It was hanging to one side all the time, and the straps kept slipping. It felt more like a travel pack meant to sit on the back for an hour at a time, not a 9 hour slog over mountains. I stopped and repacked it, but while the balance felt a little better, but it still wasn’t quite right. I followed a girl down the hill and came out at the hut. Nearby people swam in the lake as I continued the the 10 minute walk to the campsite. Finding a spot, I pitched the tent, had a wetwipe ‘shower’ and zipped myself in for the evening.

Day 3 – Lake MacKenzie Campsite to The Divide 12km – 5 hours + Side Trip: Key Summit

Most of today would be in the forest, so after a late breakfast I headed out. I climbed the first of today’s two short climbs, barely noticing the 100m over the 1.5km distance. It was then fairly flat over the next few kilometres, the only views were in places where there had been slips although signs advised to hurry through and not stop.

At one point, I ran into the older lady and her daughter and stopped for a chat. Then a kilometre on I came out at the Earland Falls and met the husband with a family I’d met on the transport to the hike on the first day. It seemed we would all be on the transport out of the hike later that day. Earland Falls is a 179m tall with a large pool at the base. The water levels were low, but it can apparently flood during the winter.

From here it was a descent of 300m over 2.5km, but as it was through the forest, it was hard to tell. I passed several people going the other way in the early hours of their hikes before eventually coming out at lake Howden where I stopped for a 15 minute break. There was once a hut at this location, but it burned down a couple of years ago. After my break, I headed up the last 100m climb of the trail, still in the forest and stopped after a kilometer, when the trail led up to the Key Summit. I dropped my pack and headed up without it. The side trail climbed above the forest line giving wonderful views back north along the Hollyford River Valley from whence I’d come. At the top, it also gave a view of Lake Marian.

I stopped only briefly before heading down again. I donned my pack and continued for the last 3 kilometers of the trek, all downhill and all within the forest. I emerged at the Divide Shelter, took my pack off and rested. Not long after, others began emerging too, many of whom would be on the 4 hours bus ride back to Queenstown.

Overall
The Routeburn trail is a classic three day hike centred around crossing Harris saddle, with much time spent above the forest line. It was a busy and popular hike that I’d rate as having a moderate difficulty. I’d recommend for beginners and and those fairly new to hiking, although advanced and experienced hikers would enjoy too, although there are other more challenging hikes around.

It was good to get out on the track after 18 months away from hiking due to COVID and moving countries. I was troubled by my new pack, so set a task for myself to buy a new one on returning to Auckland.

Next week, I head to Nelson to start the Abel Tasman Coastal Great Walk.

Until then,

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Travers Sabine Angelus Circuit, Nelson Lakes – New Zealand – Part 1

After walking the 4-day Abel Tasman Coastal Great Walk, I took a break and caught a transport 86km south of Nelson to the Nelson Lakes Region looking for more of an alpine hike.

Initially, I was due to arrive late afternoon and camp the night in St Arnaud. But due to a change in timing for the transport, I would be in the region several hours early, so chose to start the hike immediately with a short first day.

Day 1 – St Arnaud to Lakehead Hut – 3hr – 10 km

I arrived in St Arnaud, bought a coke from the Petrol Station/General Store, and with the lunch I’d brought with me, sat on the beach of Lake Rotoiti to enjoy them.

My big mistake was not to not know there aren’t any rubbish bins in St Arnaud. I’d have to carry an empty coke bottle for the entire hike. You live and you learn. After lunch, and a bit of harassment by a duck, I headed off around the edge of the lake climbing a little as I went on a thin non-manicured trail.

The 10km of today was entirely in the forest, and it would not sink in until later in day two that the vast majority of the hike would be this way.
Lake Rotoiti looks somewhat like an angry sperm, with two large nobs at one end and and a thin tail at the other. Near this table end, I stopped and boots off, dunked my feet in the water. Around me wasps crawled everywhere, attracted to the Beech trees most of the forests in this region contain. None bothered me, and neither did the sandflies, as for this hike I had bought some DEET insect repellant.

It didn’t take me long to reach the hut and I settled into hut life, chatting to the people who were already there including some Te Awaroa walkers and a girl who had arrived via water taxi. I talked to her into the evening and once everyone else had gone bed, we too decided to slip off to our respective sleeping bags.

Day 2 – Lakehead Hut to Upper Travers Hut – 19.6km – 7.5 hours

The first part of today was walking through the long grass at the end of the lake, before I disappeared into the forest once more.

I left last from the hut, but within 30 minutes I ran into the girl I’d been talking to the night before, who was reorganising her bags, of which she had brought too much.

Once she was ready to move on, I walked with her through the forest for the first half of the day, talking about everything and anything. Even as the sole of her boot fell apart before me, we continued walking and talking, and before we knew it, we arrived at the John Tait Hut, where we stopped for a coffee and lunch.

After our coffee break, my new friend and I continued on, beginning the climb towards the Upper Travers hut. About 30 minutes in, she took a break, but told me to push on. I bid her farewell, that I would see her at the hut, and set off up the trail. Not long after, I came to the Travers Falls. I dropped my pack and climbed down the steep bank to get a better look.

I ran into my friend again while I was putting on my pack. She seemed to like the idea of not carrying her pack for a while, so I left her to enjoy the waterfall. The climb continued at a fair pace, although within the trees I really couldn’t tell how far I was climbing except when I came out to cross the occasional stream. I’d been alerted to one of the bridges in this area having been washed out, and I located it, or what was left of it, as I crossed the rocky stream.

Then after three hours of climbing since the John Tait hut, I came over a rise to a tussocky field with great mountain views and the hut nestled in a small copse of trees. I crossed the field and set my pack down, preparing for the evening. For the next couple of hours I kept an eye out for my friend, who did eventually arrive, having left one of her bags behind. That evening I discovered much of the rest of the hike would be through trees, except for 2 hours crossing the saddle the next day.

Day 3 – Upper Travers Hut to West Sabine Hut – 8km – 6 hours

My walking friend from the day before made the choice to stay another night in the hut and return down the same track we’d climbed the previous day. While chatting over breakfast, she suggested a more alpine route, which I decided to ponder on the way to the next hut. I bid farewell and began climbing straight into forest, but only for 10 minutes before it opened out into an alpine landscape including a crown of mountains.

The trail plodded up towards the crown for several hundred metres before beginning a steep climb up the side of Mt Travers before slowly rounding out to the saddle, a 90 minute climb total.

I dropped pack and took a break with the view of Mt Travers behind me.

At the advice of another walker, I climbed to see small tarn a little further up, and also got a great view back down the valley I’d climbed from.

On the other side of the saddle, I got a view of where I would be going. With no sight of other walkers, I took up my pack again, and began the climb down. Half an hour later, and near where the trail dove back into the forest, I stopped for lunch in the sun.

Back in the forest, the trail led steeply down and seemed endless. Very occasionally, I could see the mountains around to judge how far I’d descended. But again, it felt never-ending and my knees didn’t thank me for the effort. Finally, after what seemed like hours, I began to hear a river ahead and followed the noise along a gully until I came out at the bottom where a stream met the raging East Branch Sabine River.

Thankful for the break, I took off my books and dipped my feet in the water. Afterwards, I headed along what I thought was a flat rest of the trail, but I was wrong. It was for the first several hundred metres before it crossed a bridge where deep below, the wide river raged even harder through a thin channel. The trail climbed around the side of Mount Franklin, still deep in the forest, with often muddy areas, until after a handful of kilometres, began yet another steep decent leading down to where the east and west branch of the rivers met. Then it was a 500m flat walk to the hut where I found two ladies from the previous hut, and no-one else. That night, I did some research on my way forward.

I’d originally planned to do a return day walk to the Blue Lake, then on to Sabine hut, the following day, with a long day out to St Arnaud for my last day. But this would see me walking predominantly in the forest, which I was honestly sick of at this point. The other option was to skip Blue Lake, head straight to Sabine Hut and then climb into the alpine region to Lake Angelus Hut instead. This sounded much more my style.

Next, part 2 of my Travers Sabine Angelus Circuit.
The Lone Trail Wanderer

Travers Sabine Angelus Circuit, Nelson Lakes – New Zealand – Part 2

Eighty-six kilometres south of Nelson in the Nelson Lakes regions, I walked the Travers Sabine Angelus Circuit. Click for Travers Sabine Angelus Circuit, Nelson Lakes – New Zealand – Part 1

Day 4 – West Sabine Hut to Sabine Hut – 14.2km – 6 hours

After making the decision to skip the day walk to Blue Lake, I headed out this morning and made for Lake Rotoroa and the Sabine Hut. A hundred metres from the West Sabine hut I cross the wide river on a suspension bridge and followed it into the mossy forest.

Today’s walk is six or so hours through the forest, but thankfully, unlike the previous day, there is no major climbs or descents, just a gentle downhill for most of the day.

And yes, with the exception of the 2 hours I spent crossing the saddle yesterday, this is my fourth full day in the forest. But even the forest itself seemed to feel my frustration and came out to remind me all was fine.

There were plenty of opportunity views back along the river…

And the occasional open grassy areas to cross, to break up the constant forest. This one led onto the only real climb of the day, passing over a knoll to get the heart pumping a little. At the end of the knoll, I met an exhausted looking couple who were carrying far too much. They’d only started an hour earlier after getting a water taxi across the lake.

With only a couple of kilometres left, I crossed the river and made my way through the flat forest waiting for the lake to appear. Then, for the first time this hike, the weather turned and a very light rain began. It continued until I finally arrived at the lake and then shortly after to the hut. On arrival, the sky opened up and bucketed down with lighting and thunder for much of the evening. About midway, a rather wet walker arrived, no doubt thankful to be out of the rain.

Day 5 – Sabine Hut to Angelus Hut 7.2km – 6 hours

After the rain of the previous evening, I was concerned that the steep first route that left from beside the hut would be overly wet and slippery, but I went anyway. The initial climb was very steep and foot placement was pertinent, carefully placed on dirt with a slight covering, no rocks or roots unless I could get a good foot holding.

It was slow work, and I used the trees where I could. After the first hour, the steepness eased with easier paths, but I remained fastidious, ever watching my steps. The climb grew easier, but the forest must have held a fairly low temperature, as I neither felt tired nor even broke a sweat as I climbed. This is odd, as I am an easy sweater while walking under weight. The trail grew steeper in hour three, only to round off and become flatter once again.

The Sabine hut is at 467m and at 1335m I emerged into a sunny Tussock covered rolling hilltop. I stopped just inside the forest to prepare for the open trail.

I climbed a further 200m in the glorious open sky to the summit of Mount Cedric and stopped for lunch. Below me lake Rotoroa stretched away while to the side mountains stood tall. Out of the shade of the trees the wind at this height was icy, so I put on my wind breaker.

A crown of mountains headed off to the right, and I saw that the Mount Cedric Track followed it, so after eating, I continued walking.

My climb, now in the open air, was glorious, and under the direct sunlight I began to sweat. The climb grew higher as I skirted around the rocky top of the crown and followed the ridge line off to the left, climbing even higher.

After being in the forest for four days, just being atop an open mountain ridge gave me a sense of enjoyment. The direct sun, the slight breeze, the rocky bliss and the sense of smallness among giants…

While there was a defined path, there was some rock hopping and thin somewhat precarious paths, but I always walk with caution on these paths. I got past and rounded the ridge line to look down onto the valley where Lake Angelus was supposed to be, but there was another smaller ridge in the way. Below me I could see the Hinapouri tarns instead.

I descended towards their smaller ridge with much rock hopping, which took some time, before I finally climbed down the slope to stand before Lake Angelus.

I climbed down to a flat tussock path, then around the lake to the Hut where, in the blissful sunshine, dropped my pack and chatted to some ladies on the front deck. Angelus hut turned out to be a very social hut with more people arriving through the afternoon.

Day 6 – Angelus Hut to St Arnaud – 18km – 5 hours

After my usual breakfast and packing regime, I set out across the tussock towards the ridge line behind the smaller two lakes in the basin, to the trail called the Robert Ridge Route. The climb affording good views back down the Lake Angelus basin as I climbed. The lake soon disappeared as I walked along the top of the ridge away from the hut.

As I climbed towards the Mt Julius Summit at near 1800m, I got a view down the valley to where I had crossed on the 2nd day of this adventure.

At Mt Julius Summit, I found a wide area where I could stop – wide in this case being 1.5 – 2m. I also found good 4G reception, so thought I would video call my parents at home in Auckland, to show them the view.

Afterwards, the trail cut across the side of the rocky ridges as it continued, before changing to the rounded hilltops with wide paths. There were some climbs, but nothing major, but all the time glorious views in all directions with the weather warm and minimally cloudy.

The route continued and I began to see walkers coming towards me, I climbed the last of the large round hilltops and stopped on some flat rocks for lunch.

After chatting with a couple of passersby, I headed off again along the ridge, this time slowly descending. The route continued down past a rest shelter likely build for day walkers, to the summit of Mount Robert, the final peak before my big descent out of the National Park.

I took a break at the top to chat to another climber and admire the view down on Lake Rotoiti.

The descent to the carpark was partially through the forest, but mostly in the open, growing steadily warmer as I got closer to the bottom. There are more than 22 switchbacks on the way down, and I find it handy to count then down. In my mind it helps as fast descents are not my knee’s favourites.

At the bottom, I set out along the road towards St Arnaud, a further 90 minutes along a dirt road which turned to a major highway. I had intended to camp 45 minutes from the end of the hike, but it was still early with plenty of daylight left, so I decided to crack out onto the road and thumb a lift back to Nelson, some 86km away. I made it getting two lifts and not having to walk too much.

Overall,
I should have taken more care in selecting a hike, as I found this circuit to be particularly frustrating. If I had walked the entire length as planned, but added the side trip to Blue Lake, it would have been six days in the forest, with only 2 hours in the alpine region crossing the Travers Sabine saddle. As I particularly dislike walking in the forest for anything longer than a day, I was thankful for the girl I walked partially with on day 2 and her suggestion to go to Lake Angelus instead. As these are my first long hikes in the NZ mountains, I will be more careful with my planning in the future.

Next, after a week or so giving my legs a break, I have a couple of walks in the North Island.
Until then,
The Lone Trail Wanderer

Tour du Mont Blanc – Switzerland/France – Days 9 & 10

In the Coronavirus infested summer of 2020, I walked the 10-day Tour du Mont Blanc. Here describes days 9 & 10.
Back to days 7 & 8.

Day 9 – La Peuty to Tré la Champ – Switzerland to France – 12km

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After the storm overnight, the morning was fresh but everything outside was wet. This means I’ll be carrying at least an extra kilogram or more of rainwater as I won’t be able to dry the tent. After breakfast, and with a heavy feeling pack, I set out from the campground and following the sign, began the climb up the hill. My legs feel fine, even after the hard downhill yesterday. The trail soon cut up into the forest with steep switchbacks and the occasional view back to La Peuty.

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After more than 20 switchbacks, I emerged from the forest to see Chalet du Col de Balme above me marking the border with France and the return of my phone coverage. I slogged on up the hill towards the 2200m height that would be the ceiling for today’s climbs. I came over the crest to the chalet and the brilliant views. Switzerland has plenty of views, but it’s not until you see the massif that you remember what you’ve been missing.

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At the chalet, I took the opportunity to drop the pack and ordered a crepe and a soft drink. The only way to dry things after a stormy night is to hang it from my pack. So, I took out my still sopping tent and slung part of it over my pack before setting out again.

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In the sun, I walked down the hill on grassy switchbacks to Col des Posettes then climbed again the 200m of elevation to Aiguillette des Posettes.

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The second peak was made of layered ridges of rock and jagged outcrops, a different kind of rock to that seen anywhere else on this trip. The wind picked up, and I climbed carefully, not wanting the breeze to catch my tent and drag me off. When I reached the top I found a large flat grassy area and 360º views. I dropped my pack and took some photos.

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I then unpacked my tent and lay it out in the sun to fully dry. I also took the opportunity to get out of my boots. When everything was dry, I packed and began my descent.

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I followed the trail to the end of the flat area before the climb down grew steeper with several switchbacks and wooden stairs. I stopped at a large rock for a view down into the valley and a small hamlet under a glacier.

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The rest of the descent was in the forest. An hour later, I emerged then a short walk to Tré le Champ and the campground. The 2 Dutch couples were there, along with the Dutch guy and Dutch girl, although we had separate sittings for dinner, so didn’t hang out. After dinner, the rain continued and I dove into my tent to sleep.

Day 10 – Tré le Champ to Chamonix – France – 12km

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The forecast for today was not good and when I awoke the clouds were down to near ground level.

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Climbing in the mountains is not advised in the rain, or even a deep cloud cover such as this. I decided to have breakfast and wait to see if any changes were coming. But when more rain came, I decided not to risk the mountain and instead walk the 12km low route direct to my hostel in Chamonix. The route I mapped had very minimal climbing, indeed, a 350m descent over the course of the walk. When the rain stopped, I headed out, following a dirt trail beside a stream.

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I followed it for a couple of kilometres until it came to the township of Argentiere where I stopped for a morning snack. I pushed on at a march alongside the river with cyclists and day walkers enjoying the walk before the rain.

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After about 9km I walked alongside a golf course, crossing through it at one point to a Les Praz de Chamonix. But with 2km to go, it began to pour. I found a tree and stood under it waiting for the rain to pass, but it just kept on falling. After 30 minutes, I set out again and thirty minutes later, dry inside my waterproof jacket, I arrived at the hostel. I showered and set out my tent to dry in the dining room before heading down into town for a drink and some lunch. Later I would have dinner and drinks with many of the people I’d met over the last few days, The British couple, the 2 American couples, the 2 Dutch couples, the Dutch guy and the Dutch girl. Even the Polish girl from the 2nd day of the hike made an appearance. It was a fitting end to a great hike which turned out to be more than just a walk in some rather tall mountains.

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Overall Impression on the Tour du Mont Blanc
While I’ve had harder days on other hikes, overall, the TMB was the most difficult hike I’ve completed. It started out as just one of my hikes for the year and became something I’ll always remember. The landscape and the massif itself is up there in the most beautiful regions on earth I’ve experienced. As I walked this hike during Coronavirus infested 2020 there were far fewer people than normal, but it still turned out for the best. Maybe better because of less crowds.

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And, while I began alone as always, I didn’t finish that way. Part of the hike was the people I met and shared this experience with, thanks to those people for being part of this experience. And, as always, this hike wasn’t just an external experience, but an internal one. During the long meditative days, great insights into my life were had. I hope to see them come to fruition in the future.

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Would I suggest others do this walk? Definitely, but it will take courage, good health and a certain level of fitness.

Next, my adventures take me to another part of Europe I’ve yet to visit – Portugal and Spain, for a partial Camino de Santiago.

Until then,
The Lone Trail Wanderer.

Tour du Mont Blanc – Switzerland – Days 7 & 8

In the Coronavirus infested summer of 2020, I walked the 10-day Tour du Mont Blanc. Here describes days 7 & 8.
Back to days 5 & 6.

Day 7 – La Fouly to Champex – Switzerland – 14km

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After a conversation with yet another Dutch couple at the campground, I discovered the last part of today’s leg will be a bit of a slog. The wife walked it alone last year, and so they are planning to skip the last half of the day by catching the bus from Issert. I certainly wasn’t going to take the bus, but I took note. I walked out of the campground and headed along an open field towards the woods where I would follow an easy slowly descending trail. It was still warm, even early in the day, so I was glad for the shade for the first few kilometres.

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While the views from the Swiss portion are not as good as the other sides, the mountains are still beautiful.

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After a brief climb, the trail hugged the lower slopes of the mountain on a thin path, and one section even had a chain to hold onto, just in case. The trail then headed through the forest, and it felt as if I was walking along a long thin tree-lined avenue – a 1.5km long section of very straight trail with only two bends.

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When I came out, the trail headed onto grassy fields past a Swiss hamlet. It then worked its way towards the village of Praz-de-Fort where I went looking for a cafe and a cold drink. I found the Dutch guy at one also having a drink, so I stopped for a chat.

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I headed off a few minutes after him and came around onto another road with a quaint village ahead where I stopped to retrieve my lunch from my pack. I was preparing to leave when the Dutch girl came along after me. We walked together for a bit, but she stopped in the next village for a break, while I pushed on to Issert.

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A hundred metres after the village the trail cut up a hill made more difficult by the summer heat. Issert sits at 1040m above sea level and my target Champex is at 1500m, not a huge climb compared to other days. The trail went into the forest for shade, but forests have their own humidity, so it is warm either way. As I had been warned, the climb was a slog, with little along the way to see. Someone, however, had carved various animals into tree stumps to give us something to see. There’s a viewpoint along the route, and well worth the wait.

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And another 20m further on there is a water fountain, something common along the trail, with potable water and another view.

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Four kilometres after Issert, I came out of the forest and climbed around the streets of Champex until I found myself above Lac de Champex. I walked to and along it for a kilometre until I reached my campground.

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After pitching my tent, I headed back to the lake, where I ran into the Dutch guy. We found the English couple and the young Dutch couple from the night before, along with (yet) another Dutch couple, the girls from each Dutch couple being sisters. Yes, the Dutch invaded my TMB, but no complaints from me. A large portion of walkers are French who speak various levels of English. The few Italians along the way were similar. The Dutch I met, to a person, were fluent in English, which made it easy to connect with them. Later, after eating with the Dutch guy, everyone got together to play cards, along with an American couple — all good company.

Day 8 – Champex to La Peuty – Switzerland – 14.5km

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The official route today via Alp Bovine is supposed to be a forest walk with some spectacular views. However, there’s a variant, more challenging and with a climb above 2600m, the highest point of my TMB, with unmatched views. Leaving the campground, I followed a path away from the road then turned sharply and followed an irrigation channel. The trail climbed into the forest-covered valley for 1.5km until it came out at the chalets of Relain d’Arpette where I ran into the British couple from the past two evenings. I walked with them for a short time as we slowly climbed through wildflower meadows. They were faster walkers that I, so I wished them well and set my own pace into the grand view ahead.

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After 2km, the trail grew flatter, and I followed the line of mountains up the valley. I eventually saw the point I would be climbing to, the lowest point of the mountainscape to the right of the photo’s centre.

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The trail turned steeper and rockier, and I clicked back into the pace I had perfected over the past 8 days. With my legs used to the effort, the steep climb seemed fairly easy, although the sweat continued to drip from me. Looking back the way I’d come…

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The climb is quite varied, and after a time the trail cut through a massive boulder field. Bouldering is fun, trying to balance while skipping from one to the next. Some find it hard, but it didn’t take me long to work my way past it. There were some snow patches on the mountain and one right on the trail. On the far side a very steep zigzagging path to the crossing point – Fenêtre d’Arpette.

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This last part of the climb was the most difficult, and I stopped after each short zigzag to catch my breath. But still, it didn’t take me long to make it to the top and cast my eye back.

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And of course, the sight you wait for while climbing… the other side. At 2665m, I sat to eat lunch and enjoy the view.

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The greatest problem with climbing something tall is climbing back down again. The trail was quite thin, and after my break, I headed down, slowly. While my legs seemed used to climbing up, they still hadn’t gotten used to the down part. I descended beside the Glacier du Trient, the slick rock below it having once been covered by the glacier. As I continued down, my knees starting letting me know how much fun they were having. And, again annoying to see trail runners bounding down these slopes like they’re running down a short hill.

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The trail hugged the edge of the mountain for a time on a thin trail before zig-zagging down the centre. I continued down for an hour before reaching an old hut where some people had stopped. The person before me was trying the water fountain, but it was only running warm, so I pushed on. Thankfully I found a glacial stream and drank my fill of the sweet cool water. I continued my descent for some time before the trail cut into the forest where I got a good view back up the mountain to the glacier.

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Another hour and I came out at a cafe where several trails met and ran into the American couple from last night. As I’d just run out of my water, I bought a couple of soft drinks and sat with them for a chat. Then with dark clouds looming I headed off. The trail was now flat and had been purposely cut around the side of the mountain as a tourist walk. After 1.5km, I came to a downslope and to the annoyance of my legs, followed it down a zigzag path. Halfway down, I heard thunder and it began to rain lightly. I made it to the campground at La Peuty, not too wet, and ran into some of the others. In the gentle rain, I put up my tent with their help. After a shower, I booked dinner and ended up with the whole group again – British couple, 2 Dutch couples, the Dutch guy and the Dutch girl sitting around the table in a large teepee, eating burgers and drinking whiskey.

Tomorrow I head back into France where I will finish this epic trek. Tour du Mont Blanc – Switzerland/France – Days 9 & 10.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Tour du Mont Blanc – France/Italy – Days 3 & 4

In the Coronavirus infested summer of 2020, I walked the 10-day Tour du Mont Blanc. Here describes days 3 & 4.
Back to days 1 & 2.

Day 3 – Les Chapieux to Rifugio Elisabetta – France to Italy – 13.5km

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Today I cross the mountain border into Italy, and the bonjours will change to Buongiornos. From Les Chapieux there’s a bus that cuts out the first 1.5 hours flat walk to La Ville des Glaciers, a small hamlet just before the first climb. My companions from yesterday afternoon went with this option, and that was the last I saw of them. I decided to walk, but before I left, I ran into someone who seemed familiar… the Dutch girl from the beginning of the first day. She was walking with a Polish girl and invited me to tag along.

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The initial part of the trail was only flat for some of the way, but it was fresh walking in the shade of the mountains. From time to time as we walked, we watched a bus running along the road above as it carried people to La Ville des Glaciers.

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About a kilometre past the hamlet the climbing began with many steep switchbacks. We were part way up when we heard an orchestra of bells on the slopes opposite. We watched a herd of cows trotting along the road to the farm as a bus tried to get past. Our climb continued, not as steep as before, but hot under the beating sun. The three of us took several breaks, stopping to drink from glacial springs whenever they appeared. It’s best to drink at higher altitudes, where it hasn’t been polluted by cow dung. The water was fresh, cool and rather moreish.

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We crossed the border at Col de la Seigne (2515m), taking but a short break in the cool breeze, before setting off down the other side, where small patches of snow still clung to the ground.

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The trail down was not painful or strenuous, and we took our time. We passed what appeared to be a museum of sorts, but didn’t stop.

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The gentle slope continued for another hour down to 2165m, where the valley flattened out with tall peaks to either side. The beauty and magnificence is everywhere, all to the soundtrack from the Sound of Music. After a kilometre and a half, we walked past a ruin to see Refugio Elisabetta hung on the mountain above and climbed to it. While this was my stop for the night, the girls stopped for refreshments, but were continuing on.

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Once they’d departed, I showering and hung out in the common room where I got talking to a Dutch guy….

Day 4 – Rifugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur – Italy – 18km

TMB Stage 4

With no huge climb today, I was hopeful of an easier day. After breakfast and coffee with the Dutch guy, the entire Refugio packed up and cleared out like an exodus. We picked our way down the path to the dirt road that would lead us out of the valley. While it was early, the beating sun caused a sweat even though it was a slow descent along the 2.5km of the valley.

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At the end of the valley, we found the path to the first and only climb of the day. Refugio Elisabetta is around 2200mm, with a dip down to 1950m at the end of the valley. The climb would take us up to about 2400m. The trail began steeply but became steadily more gentle as we went. After days of climbing, the muscles in the legs had grown used to the effort. This, along with muscle memory from years of hiking, and the climb didn’t seem so difficult.

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My Dutch companion and I climbed on before taking a rest at a hut. While we were there, I noted a lone figure climbing along the trail behind us and recognised her walk… the Dutch girl. Little did I know, but this was the beginning of the Dutch invasion of my TMB, not that I minded. We had a brief chat before heading off. It didn’t take us long to reach the high point of the trail and standing on the top of the small peak the view along the valley was amazing.

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After a brief rest, we again headed off. For the first hour, the trail followed an easy slope along the side of the mountains. We came to a green area overlooking a small lake and stopped for lunch. From here I thought it would be an easy descent into Courmayeur for the rest of the day. But I was wrong, very wrong.

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After lunch, our little group split, with the Dutch guy taking a different route, and the Dutch girl catching a ski lift. I climbed around past a pair of rifugios, before beginning my descent down the grassy ski fields. With the first sign of rain threatening since I began four days ago, I cut past the top of a ski lift with views of the town below.

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With the mountain behind me blocking the slight wind, the temperature went up, and as I cut into the forest, it grew muggy. I zigzagged down through the trees for the next 2 hours on a steep, dry and dusty path. When the rain finally came, it was glorious, for all of the minute it lasted. With aching knees, I finally reached the bottom a minute or two after the Dutch guy and stopped for a quick drink with him before heading off across Courmayeur to my Airbnb.

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I was thankful to arrive and chatted to my host’s son who could speak English. After the hot day, I drank buckets of water and was able to take a soaking bath. In the evening, I went down into the town for dinner – pizza, of course – and a beer.

Next, after one more day in Italy, I head into Switzerland. Tour du Mont Blanc – Italy/Switzerland – Days 5 & 6.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Tour du Mont Blanc – Italy/Switzerland – Days 5 & 6

In the Coronavirus infested summer of 2020, I walked the 10-day Tour du Mont Blanc. Here describes days 5 & 6.
Back to days 3 & 4.

Day 5 – Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti – Italy – 11km

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After a good night’s sleep and a massive breakfast at my Airbnb, I head down into the town for last-minute supplies. I stopped to take a photo of where I’d climbed down from yesterday.

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From Courmayeur, the trail follows a steadily climbing road for about 3km before cutting into the forest. Thankfully, my Airbnb at 1250m elevation was halfway along this road, cutting a bit of climbing off my day. At the end of the day, I pushed into the forest and up a fairly steep set of zig-zagging paths. With little to see but trees, I found my zone and got on with the climbing. I eventually came out of the trees at 1850m to great views across Courmayeur.

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A further 100m climb and I stopped briefly at Refugio Giorgio Bertone for a cold drink then climbed the hill above where I stopped for lunch. After eating, I had the difficult decision of whether to take the official route or the higher, harder, variant. After being told by my host’s son last night that the walk into Switzerland would be a hard one, I decided to follow everyone else along the easier route. The trail skirted around the side of the valley at about 2000m and stayed that way for about 5km. Always in its stunning beauty, across the valley, the wall of the massif.

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The trail pushed into the forest and rounded into a gully where Torrente d’Arminaz, a wide and fast-flowing stream ran down the mountainside with a bridge crossing it. As it had been another hot day in the mountains, I found a great spot, got my feet out of my boots and into the icy water. No doubt the sound of my pleasure reverberated along the valley. With no hurry to push on the last couple of kilometres to my rifugio, I hung out at the spot for some time. As I did, other walkers came by, and they too took the opportunity to cool off in the water. Of course, it wouldn’t be right without one of my Dutch companions, this time the Dutch guy, who also got his feet into the water. After a while, we dried off, booted up and headed out.

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The last couple of kilometres were an easy walk, and we came past another Dutch trio, a couple and their son, who I chatted to as we came to final 50m climb up to the Rifugio. It was still early afternoon, and the Rifugio didn’t open until 4pm, so as a group we hung out around the tables chatting in the heat. Because of Coronavirus, the rifugio was only accepting prebookings, so the Dutch guy continued on to find a wild camping spot. After a shower, I hung out with the Dutch family. We drank beer and ate Italian sausage while talking about the trek and admiring the view.

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The father, about my age, had walked this route a couple of times. He had also climbed many of the peaks along the massif. I hung with them during dinner, which was full vegetarian, and then a couple more beers before retiring to bed early in preparation for the coming day.

Day 6 – Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly – Italy to Switzerland – 17km

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As yesterday was not as hard a day as I’d read, today is supposed to make up for it, with an intense descent, a hard ascent and another long descent. After breakfast, I bid farewell to the Dutch family, another group I wouldn’t see again and headed out around the back of the Refugio. Over the next 3km, there would be some minor climbs and descents, but the massive wall of the massif across the valley stopped me from caring, the beauty and immensity of it.

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I arrived at a farmhouse and saw that the trail cut down the mountain on switchbacks, although nothing too steep or difficult.

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I followed the trail, descending 250m to Chalet Val Ferret, where I stopped for a cold drink. The weather again was warm, but storms were on the forecast later in the day. I followed the river for a short time until I came to the beginning of the first climb, which was crowded with cows. Looking for an alternative route, I followed the road around for a bit before climbing the steep grassy slope, a 350m climb before it flattened out. A short sharp climb took me to Rifugio Elena, which is closed this season. I stopped for a break and a bite to eat before the big climb to come. The view opposite…

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The first signs of dark clouds could be seen as I climbed the at times steep path zigzagging its way up the mountain for another 475m of elevation.

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Since I’ve been climbing for five days, while the sweat is still pouring off me, my legs have grown used to the effort, and again I don’t seem to notice the hardship as much. As I topped Col Val Ferret and the border of Switzerland, I stopped for lunch and to enjoy the view, putting on a jacket in the cooler breeze.

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After eating, and at the first signs of rain, I headed down the other side into Switzerland. The trail flowed gently down into the valley, and I stopped as a Marmot ran across the trail.

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Not long after, the rain came briefly before the heat again rose. I followed the trail down before it zig-zagged a couple of times and came out at a farm, Alpage de la Puele, where I stopped for a cold beer. I continued on down on a green hill that felt reminiscent of everything I’ve ever seen of Switzerland, heading steadily down to a river. I crossed and following a road around into a forest.

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After passing a quaint Swiss village, I cut down to the river again, where I found many piles of stones. I followed the river for some time, then after a short steep climb, I was deposited in La Fouly, a classic looking Swiss village. After pitching my tent at the campground, I headed into town for a beer and dinner.

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I sat alone enjoying a drink on a table next a young British couple and a younger Dutch couple. I was reading my guide book when who should appear but the Dutch girl, who’d already met the two couples. We joined them and began talking about food when an American couple appeared, shortly followed by my friend, the Dutch guy. A good evening was had with the larger group, ending with 4 of us in another bar playing cards. Unfortunately, just as we were leaving, the sky opened in full storm, leaving two of us ran back to the campground.

Next, two more days in Switzerland. Tour du Mont Blanc – Switzerland – Days 7 & 8.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Tour du Mont Blanc – France – Days 1 & 2

Mont Blanc, nestled on the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland, is the tallest mountain in Western Europe. The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a 10-day hike circumnavigating the Mont Blanc Massif on a trail 168km long.

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On a slightly rainy day, I flew into Geneva and caught a bus for over an hour to Chamonix, the site of the first Winter Olympics. It would be from this township on the eastern border of France that I would start and finish the hike.

For the next 10 days, I plan to camp in established locations wherever I can, but with a lack of legal camping spots in Italy, I’ve opted for two Refugios and an Airbnb. My pack weight, including 2 litres of water, is around 20kg, while heavy, I’ve been known to carry more. And, as always, I’m hiking solo, however, from what I’d read, I’d likely meet other walkers along the way. It’s high season, but in the time of Coronavirus with many people unable to enter Europe, there should be a lot fewer people. My intended route…

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Day 1 – Les Houches to Les Contamines – France – 14km

TMB Stage 1

After last night’s rain, today began sunny. After a good breakfast, I made my way across Chamonix to the south bus station where I’d been dropped off the day before. The ski town of Chamonix is lively this morning with tourists and locals out and about.

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While there are other walkers on the bus, when it stopped at the arch, the official start point, only two of us got off, a Dutch girl and me. We walked the few minutes through the small village of Les Houches towards the cablecar where everyone else had gotten off. While I headed off with a group of French-speaking guys into the forest for the first climb, the Dutch girl took the cablecar. Over the next handful of kilometres, the steep climb zigzagged up the mountain before opening out with a great view back down the valley. It was a tough climb for the first day, made more difficult by the heat, the rain now a thing of the past.

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The trail continued climbing steeply towards the peak, Col De Voza, 600m above my starting point, passing the cablecar stops for another view.

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From Col de Voza, the trail descended on a wide trail through the forest, then out across rolling green meadows, weaving through several small hamlets on its way towards Le Champel. After midday, and with the heat rising steadily, I found a grassy meadow with a shade tree partway along the valley and took off my boots.

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A little sore from my first day’s rigorous climb, I continued down to Le Champel only to find a steep climb up the hill. I spied a sign to Les Contamines and followed the trail for several kilometres until it came out at the main road, which I followed around to the adventure village of Les Contamines. With my campsite a further 30 minutes along the road, I stopped at a cafe/bar for a couple of cold beers served by a lovely French girl. After my break and in the heat, I followed the path beside a river, through a large activity park for campers, to a massive campground full of holidaying families. I paid and located the TMB camping area which soon filled up. That evening, I walked back to Les Contamines for dinner and another beer.

Day 2 – Les Contamines to La Chapieux – France – 17km

The next morning I headed back to the village for breakfast and some last supplies before heading out from the campground. Little did I know, today would be one of the hardest days of the entire circuit.

TMB Stage 2

From the campground, I walked along the road to a full car park and plenty of day walkers. I passed a church – Notre dame de la Gorge – before following an old Roman road as it climbed into the forest. After yesterday’s hard climb, my legs weren’t happy with me, so I pulled out my walking poles and used them for the rest of the tour. After a moderate climb, I crossed a Roman bridge, peered down into a thin gorge before continuing. After another climb, the forest opened up, giving a brief respite with great views.

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But the respite was indeed short and after Chalet La Balme, began a long, arduous climb. As the days are long, and the weather warm, I took regular opportunities to rest my aching legs. There are plenty of walkers on the trail, and the usual greeting is a warm bonjour, with French being the most common language. But today, through all the French voices, I occasionally heard English spoken. Halfway up the steep valley, the day walkers split off, following a trail to Lacs Jovet, a mountain lake. I climbed on steadily to Col du Bonhomme at the height of 2300m and was hit by a blustery cold wind. I took a break tucked behind a hut with a view of the peak above, one of the Col des Fours.

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Les Contamines is at 1170m, meaning I’d climbed 1100m in elevation so far today, but it wasn’t over. While direct sunlight can drain you, I found the icy wind energising and easily continued the climb around a rocky ridge. I took a moment to peer back at the hut I’d huddled behind.

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I continued around the rocky path, only to see a Marmot scuttle across a rock. It was one of three I saw here.

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Then, after a climb up the side of a small waterfall, I reached Col de la Croix du Bonhomme, the highpoint of the day at 2479m, a total of 1300m climb today. As expected, the views were immense, this one down to the Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. I climbed down to the refuge for a well-deserved rest and ended up chatting with a group – a British guy, a Canadian couple and a German girl.

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But the worst was yet to come. Climbing can be hard work, but our legs are more designed for climbing than descending. The five of us began the long steady climb down the mountain towards Les Chapieux, a descent of around 1550m over 5km. Even with hiking poles, it was knee jarring, but the conversation helped take away some of the pain.

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The endless down was causing us all issues, especially when trail runners came galloping past like it was flat terrain. Trail runners often do the full trail over 3 days, and there are plenty of them. We stopped for a break to enjoy the afternoon and rest our knees.

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We finally reached Les Chapieux, and while I was camping, I stopped off at the group’s refuge for a beer but stayed for a four-course meal with them.

In France, it’s common for cows, sheep and goats to have bells that ring at the mere thought of movement. Throughout the night in my tent, my sleep was accompanied by an orchestra of farm animals in the hills.

Next, I head into Italy, Tour du Mont Blanc – France/Italy – Days 3 & 4.

The Lone Trail Wanderer