super generic girl

the awesomely average life of a girl like all others


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What’s in your trail running backpack?

trailrunningpack

Winter is fast approaching in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the most exciting things about it is the number of trail runs I intend to enter during this season. The XTERRA Winter series was one of the best things about last Winter and I’ve been missing tripping on roots and sliding down muddy trails.

I’m one of those “just in case” people who thinks it’s better to carry all your gear in and out of the bush unused than to run the risk of needing something in there and not having it. My theory has proven truthful in some cases and trail runs often have mandatory gear, to ensure runners are prepared for any situation they may encounter. I’m not sure I’ve got the perfect trail running backpack but nothing like a few good runs to show what is needed and what can be left at home. For now, here’s a rundown of what’s weighing me down in the bush:

1 – Hydration pack with bladder. This pack is just a Kathmandu one. It’s not my dream trail runner pack but it’s been doing the trick for me, until I decide to let go of the money for the pack I really want. It’s been serving me well, though. It’s a 9L pack with just enough spare room for all the trinkets I stock it with, along with a bladder full of water (and lately electrolytes like the Nuun you see in the picture).

2. (not pictured, because I forgot to take them out and can’t be bothered taking another photo) – running gloves. They’re regular running gloves by Nike, sort of like these, which I only bought because a trail run I entered listed them as mandatory equipment. During Winter, I’m always glad to have them.

3. Energy gels

4. Nuts

5. First aid kit. I’ve got a number of first aid kits at home so I gathered the most useful stuff out of them and combined them in a resealable plastic bag (to keep the weight down) for whenever I need it. Plasters (bandaids for you non-kiwis) have come in handy a number of times so I’m always happy to carry that little bag.

6. Chocolates. A trail run without a chocolate or ten along the way? Madness.

7. Ice spray. I’ve used this so many times I can’t even imagine setting out on a long run without it.

8. Whistle. Another item I bought because it was mandatory for a trail running event. Haven’t had to use it yet, thankfully, but wouldn’t want to die in the bush for lack of it. Plus, I think they cost about $2 for a pack of 3 so it’s hardly the item that makes trail running expensive.

9. Emergency blanket. I was already used to carrying this on hikes and have made it part of my trail running gear, again, after seeing it listed as mandatory for a trail run.

10. Sunscreen. Ok, that’s not always in the pack – mea culpa. But it’s a pretty important one.

11. Sunglasses. Not always, especially if you’re in dense bush, but they can come in handy sometimes. I don’t bother with expensive sunglasses anymore (once you break 4 or 5 pairs, while running, you turn to the $10 ones).

12. Road ID

13. Cell phone. Even though there are a lot of parts of the bush that have no cell coverage, it always pays to have a way of communicating with others on hand.

14. Merino layer. It’s warm and lightweight so I carry one on most runs, just in case. I usually carry a lightweight waterproof layer too, another thing I forgot to include in the photo.

Am I missing anything? What do you always carry with you out on the trails?


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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing (again) and a side of peak bagging

 

Does it make me really lame to be talking about new year’s resolutions in April? If it does, rest assured I’m only talking about them because I’m doing well(ish). If I hadn’t been ticking things off the list, I’d probably try to forget I’d written the list in the first place.

Last weekend, I ticked off my third item on the list of ways I’m trying not to screw up this year and went back to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for a third go at it.

In the interest of accuracy, I should point out that I didn’t hike the full Tongariro Alpine Crossing last weekend. The track is closed from Blue Lake onwards due to a volcanic eruption (“a volcano erupted all over my hike” sounds a bit like a “dog ate my homework” kind of excuse, but it’s true) so, technically, I hiked the crossing I could hike (almost), from Mangatepopo to Emerald Lakes and back. It was still a challenging hike – possibly even more challenging because my (almost fully recovered) knee hated climbing down the aptly named Devil’s Staircase section (which you don’t have to climb down when the entire track is open). The track from Blue Lake onwards, which is currently closed, is mostly downhill so, once you’re over the really tough bits (have I mentioned I loathe the Devil’s Staircase?), the rest of the hike is pretty pleasant. If you want to wait to do the full length of it, though, you will have to wait a little while longer.

I’d written about this hike here before, and this third attempt served to show me that it does remain my favourite day hike in the country. There’s just so much beautiful scenery to feast your eyes on, you almost forget how hard the walk actually is. But it is. Just a couple of days ago, six people had to be rescued from the crossing in four separate incidents, a good reminder that you should never under-estimate the crossing, even if the weather seems to be in your favour (and I did see some people up on the mountain that really should not have been there the way they were – think handbag and plastic bag with food, regular shoes or not even carrying anything at all).

The bonus this time, on my third Tongariro crossing, was the side trip to the top of Mount Tongariro, 1978m high, which I was pretty stoked to summit. The trip to the summit is about 1.5/2 hours return from Red Crater and not as steep as one might expect a hike to the top of a volcano to be, as the bulk of the elevation is gained on the walk up to Red Crater (all the way up the damn Devil’s Staircase). The views from the top are spectacular and completely worth all my fears of causing permanent damage to my knee (I’m pretty sure my doctor wouldn’t be happy to know this is what I was doing when he told me to rest). Really not a bad place to have your lunch, oh no sir.

I was pretty excited to bag a peak and I can see why so many people are into it, the whole “feeling on top of the world” kind of thing, with the physical and the metaphorical sense of the expression coming together at the end of a rough climb.

March has now come and gone and it’s safe to say that it was one of the most awesome months I’ve had in a while. Now that the pain is all gone and I’ve got full mobility back (even managed a few small runs in the last few days), it’s time to work on making April a pretty decent one too.


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Whatipu weekend

My Fitbit is pretty happy with me right now. It doesn’t know that I’m going to be on deadline at work tomorrow and probably won’t move much from my desk. All it knows, in its current blissful ignorance about the future, is that I had a pretty kick ass weekend.

And I did. It started with a bush hike in Whatipu on Saturday (which consisted mainly of going up and down what felt like never-ending hills) that made Fitbit believe I had climbed the equivalent of the Empire State Building (152 floors climbed). A slow 21k trail run on Sunday ensured the Fitbit was pleased all weekend long. 341 floors later, it told me I had climbed the equivalent of Angel Falls today. I’ll take that.

But forget the numbers and stats (whoa, who is this?). The word that best describes this weekend is “hills”. I was either going up or down one of those beasts and, even now, I still can’t make my mind up about which one is harder. My lungs complain about the uphills but my knees make a big deal out of the downhills. It’s ok. There was cider and wine, good food and good conversation. Plus, Auckland put out another stunning summer weekend and we stayed at the cutest lodge, complete with its own little library and everything. I didn’t even mind the fact that there was no cell phone coverage in the area which meant I spent nearly 48h without checking my email or Facebook. Miraculously, I survived.

I didn’t read any of the books available at the lodge but, instead, finished Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run. It ended up being a pretty good book, as far as running books written by athletes go. It had a fair deal of bragging (but I suppose he can brag…) but it was mixed with some pretty insightful and useful advice and the race recaps were exciting to read.

You know those weekends when you feel like you really made the most out of the time you had to yourself? Yeah, one of those.


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Hiking the cross-island track with Pa

The other day, while sorting out folders in the external hard drive, I came across the pictures of the morning spent hiking the cross-island track in Rarotonga (Cook Islands) last year. It is still one of the best hikes I’ve ever done and I remember that morning like it happened last week (sadly, it didn’t), when we made our way up to Te Rua Manga (commonly known as The Needle), through luscious South Pacific jungle.

We got picked up from our hotel early in the morning by Pa with his friend Susan, in Susan’s car. It was about 8AM and we could already tell it was going to be another scorching hot day. “So I read online the hike is supposed to take about four hours,” I said to Pa while Susan’s sports car drove on the only road on the island. “That’s if you do the suicide trail. With Pa, it’ll take you two and a half hours,” he replied from the front passenger seat, while I tried to get over my issue with people referring to themselves in the third person. As we drove through the village, it became fairly obvious that Pa is a local celebrity, given the number of “hey Pa!” and waves we saw. “Pa coming through! Pa coming through!” he kept shouting out the window, as Susan’s sports car zoomed through all the scooters on the road.

We had biscuits and water in our backpacks but Pa told us there was no need for any of that. That same morning, he had gotten up and smoked some fresh tuna himself and had also made us smoked tuna sandwiches with freshly picked lettuce and apple. On an another container, he had packed us up some bananas and starfruit (or carambola).

Pa recommends sturdy walking boots for the hike – and we quickly learnt why, as we started the steep 400m climb through intricate roots. Our guide, however, did it in jandals, even though, as he told us, he prefers to do it barefoot.

The track was much steeper than I had predicted and, in some places, there wasn’t much of a track at all. In some parts of the hike, there were so many little tracks going off in all directions that it made me wonder how anyone managed to do the trek without a local guide. And yet, carrying the lunch of the two sort-of-fit-but-not-really westerners behind him, Pa climbed up to the Needle and then down again, always at the slow but steady pace he had warned us about in the beginning. We made a few stops when he told us about the fauna and flora of the area, as well as many stories of his over 4000 times on the trek. We made our way through intricate roots – “they are your staircase” – and sweetened our way through the jungles with fresh guavas right off the trees.

He is, as he describes himself, “a spiritual man”. And also a herbalist, natural medicine guru, an endurance athlete, and fluent in several languages. He told us about his years away from the island, living in Germany and about his many children, scattered around the world, living their dreams. Always looking ahead, Pa told us of those who didn’t survive the trek and those who were so transformed by it that they returned to their countries but are still in touch with the guide on a regular basis. He told us about the famous TV personality in New Zealand, who hiked the track on the first day and, seeing Pa wearing no shoes, decided to do the same. And then proceeded to book two other cross-island treks in that same week.

That morning with us was Pa’s 4011th hike to the Needle, known in Rarotonga as the point of male energy. The Dalai Lama considered the Needle one of the eight remaining energy points in the world. Years ago, Pa led the Dalai Lama and his monks to the base of the rock, where they buried an urn with the 900-year-old remains on an ancient master. Pa pointed us to the urn, hidden under a fern.

From the top, the panoramic views show you an infinite sea and how the rugged jungle shapes the island. “I’ve pissed on each one of these mountains,” says Pa, pointing at all the high peaks in front of us and somehow managing to take away the poetry of the moment. “What about the Needle? Have you been right at the very top?” C. asked, looking at the sign saying “climb at your own risk” and the chain next to it. “Pa has climbed it 22 times! But I don’t go that way,” says Pa, looking at the chain. He points at the gap in the middle of the rock, hinting that that’s where he starts his climb. “Do you wear any climbing gear?” C. asks, later telling me he could tell what the answer would be. “Climbing gear? I wasn’t born with any gear! Pa climbs with a grass skirt,” he says, and then laughs, knowing damn well his answer is entertaining for his newfound white friends.

But then there was silence. It lasted a long time as we sat up on the top contemplating the views. I was the one who broke it after a while, when I had to ask him if he realised how lucky he was. I didn’t mean just him, I meant every single person living on that island. With his back leaning on the Needle rock, his eyes looking right into the sea, he said: “Having travelled to other countries and lived in other places, yes, I know exactly how lucky I am”.

If you’re visiting Rarotonga, make sure you get in touch with Pa for one of the best eco tourism experiences of your life. He lives up on the mountain but comes down to take people on the track about three times a week (he opened an exception for us and took us alone on a Saturday, even though he normally takes people in groups and only during the week). For more information or to make a booking, click here.

 


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Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

We layered up just as we had been told to and set on our walk pretty early in the morning (from memory, I think it was about 7AM when we started).

We had 19.4km of a World Heritage Site ahead of us and we’d been told to be prepared for a tough walk. I don’t want to say it was easy because, well, it wasn’t and I also don’t want anyone to read this, get the wrong idea and go completely under-prepared. If you’re reasonably fit and you’ve done a few long hikes before and you’re used to uneven and sometimes difficult terrain, then you’re probably ready.

The first 3km are flat and maybe even a little bit boring, compared to what’s ahead. Around 5km into it (distances may be slightly off because I suck at judging distances), we got to what people call “the devil’s staircase”, a steep uphill climb during which I wanted to die about 23 times. But I didn’t die and we made it to the top and it wasn’t long (relatively speaking) before we reached the Red Crater and I got all excited about life again.

We walked and walked and walked, much slower than I’d hoped we would (because super idiotic girl had injured her foot the day before – and yes, I’m talking about myself in third person). Then we got to the Emerald Lakes and the way I verbalised it may have even included some swear words but it was something along the lines of “oh dear, those are some very pretty lakes”.

The lakes are about halfway along the hike and we decided to stop there to have our lunch. Not a wise decision, unless you don’t mind eating with the smell of sulphur that comes from the lakes. For lunch that day, I had ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches with a side of sulphur fragrance. Yum. Still, it was pretty much the most amazing place to have lunch.

The second half of the hike is much, much easier. It’s pretty much all downhill and, even though it seems to go on and on forever, it gets really pleasant past the Ketetahi Hut, once you get into the bush.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing (the “alpine” was added to its official name in 2007 to point out to people it’s not just a stroll in the park) is the best day hike I’ve ever done. It’s wild enough but not too wild, hard enough but not too challenging, long enough but not too strenuous. And boy is it gorgeous! It’s no wonder it is rated as the best day-hike in New Zealand and constantly ranked in the world’s top 10.

We’ve done it one more time since this first time (which happened a couple of years ago) and battled some really nasty weather on the second time. So terrible I don’t even like remembering that day because I don’t want it clouding the memory of the first one. The weather wasn’t perfect on our first visit (as you can see from a couple of these photos) but it was certainly not as life-threatening as on the second time. Now I have to go back when it’s sunny so I can get some proper photos.

Remember that, even though it’s only day-hike, it is a hike through quite challenging terrain in a mountainous area. If you’re going:

  • Layer up! No matter what time of the year you visit, you’ll experience a wide range of temperatures while you’re there. Wear waterproof clothing but also don’t forget your hat and sunglasses. It gets freezing up there… and then it gets stinking hot.
  • Take plenty of water and food. You’ll be walking for anything between 6 and 8 hours so stuff those snack bars in your backpack. And yes, that Mars bar can go too.
  • Dust off the sturdy hiking boots and maybe throw in a walking pole for extra comfort (I find that my walking pole really helps on the uphills)
  • Wear gloves. My hands were freezing both times even though I was wearing gloves. I don’t want to think what I would have felt like if I didn’t have them.
  • If you possible, stay the night in the area after the walk. Your legs will thank you for not cramming them inside a car for hours right afterwards.
  • Remember that you’ll be walking through exposed volcanic terrain and that the weather can change quite quickly and unexpectedly. Winds can get really, really strong up there and visibility can be reduced to pretty much zero (flashbacks to my second time on the track). Don’t underestimate it.


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Hiking up to Robert Louis Stevenson’s tomb

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
 

We only had one day in Apia (the capital of Samoa, on Upolu island) before catching the ferry across to Savai’i so the list of things we could see there had to be very limited. On top of that list was seeing the house where Robert Louis Stevenson had lived, as well as the place where he was buried, on top of Mount Vaea.

With no time to waste, we landed in Samoa, picked up our rental car, dropped our bags at the hotel (which we chose partially due to its proximity to this particular attraction) and headed straight there. We didn’t make it into the house (now a museum) but accessed the bush track that leads up to his tomb through the museum grounds anyway.

It was an incredibly hot and humid day and our bodies, still very much used to winter, weren’t coping very well with it. The hike is not long but it is fairly steep so we were glad we had taken plenty of fluids to keep us going. You can choose the short and steep track or the long and supposedly easier one. We chose short and steep because, really, we just wanted to get up there and be done with the hiking part of it.

After a brief moment of panic, when we had to stop for me to regain my dignity and stop crying because I’d seen a big black lizard staring right at me (remembering it now still makes me a little shaky, if I’m honest), we started the steep climb.

Having what felt like a hundred mosquitoes choosing me as their dinner for the day on top of the hill meant that we were only there long enough to take a few photos and admire how lucky RLS is to be forever resting facing those views from the top of the hill (and he didn’t even have to climb it himself!). He loved Samoa and Samoa loved him back – and still does. The name Stevenson is everywhere, proving he’s still a very important part of Samoa’s life.

The day was cloudy and we even got some much welcome rain on our hike back down so I can only imagine how much more spectacular those views must be on a clear day. Not a bad resting spot, Robert Louis. Not bad at all.


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Leitch’s Track, Whareorino Forest, New Zealand

It was about time we hit the bush again for some good hikes, after a way too long break caused by a mixture of New Zealand winter, busy times and a certain dislike of freezing temperatures.

On Friday, a group of nine people left Auckland and drove for three hours down to the Whareorino Forest for what was my first overnight hiking experience. In fact, there was more than just one “first” that night: first time hiking in the bush at night, first time sleeping in a hut, first time using a longdrop toilet… too much info? Okay then.

We set out into the bush when it was already dark and could only see as far as our head torches would let us (which really wasn’t more than a couple of meters in front of us). The hike into the hut took us about 3.5 hours and turned out to be 10.5km and not the 8.5km that the DOC sign at the start told us it was. The terrain was fairly easy but it was made slightly harder by the fact that we were hiking in the dark and carrying heavy backpacks.

Needless to say, we didn’t stop to take any photos. Those 3.5 hours were spent adjusting our eyes to darkness, fighting big patches of slippery mud (and losing most of those fights) and trying not to slide down the skinny parts of the track with huge drops on the side. We did see lots of glowworms, though, so if you need a reason to hike at night, there’s one right there.

We arrived at Leitch’s Hut just after midnight and, after a quick snack and a few laughs (that must have woken up the other two occupants of the hut – oops!), got into our sleeping bags. It wasn’t exactly the five-star accommodation I had been in just a couple of nights before in Singapore but I was so exhausted I slept like a rock.

I woke up the next morning feeling much better than I’d expected, with no sore muscles and loads of energy. I was pretty excited about not needing my head torch anymore and being able to finally look at all the waterfalls we could only hear the night before.

After quickly eating breakfast (a nut bar and an up&go liquid breakfast), I put on a clean top and a clean pair of socks (that turned into wet socks about 0.2 seconds after I put my hiking boots on) and we set on our way. My pants were still damp and dirty from the night before so I was glad I’d made the last-minute decision to wear my full-length running skins underneath.

Before leaving the hut, we signed the Intentions Book where we’re meant to inform DOC of our names and details of our tramp, in case we get lost or injured.

The path was still very wet and slippery but at least we could now see everything ahead of us.

The weather wasn’t as clear as I hoped it would be but the few rain drops we got on our way out were a very welcome way to cool down. For a lot of the way, what was ahead of us was actually giant patches of slippery ankle-deep mud. I discovered hiking is a lot more fun once you stop caring about how much water and mud gets into your shoes.

And yes, our ears hadn’t been lying to us. All those times hearing water right next to us as we hiked further into the darkness meant that we were walking past pretty waterfalls.

About 20km later (lesson learnt: don’t believe all DOC signs), we were heading out of the track and back in the car to drive another three hours back to Auckland and back to our happy places where not all shoes and socks are damp and cold and cell phones have reception. I’m still unsure whether my pants need to be washed or incinerated but at least I now know I can hike at night without dying of a heart attack anytime something moves or there is any noise coming from the bush and I can sleep in the most basic of huts because, after all that effort, my body is no longer equipped to tell the difference between my sleeping bag and a five-star hotel bed.

If you want more specific information about this track, New Zealand Tramper has the accurate details.