Sunday, June 24, 2007

Glamping - the next big thing?

Queen Charlotte Sound - a popular "glamping" location in NZ

So I was on the internet "resarching" (that is, procrastinating) and came across this article about "Glamping" - a term I've never heard before. Apparently it's all about putting some glamour into camping - deluxe camping I suppose.

From the looks of the article, this new term is a tactic to get more women interested in camping holidays. If it sounds fabulous and decadent, supposedly women will like it more. As a non-glam camper, I actually find that a bit offensive. I'm perfectly happy to cook my own meals, carry my own gear and get to the beautiful vistas on my own power, thanks. I don't need to pay someone else hundreds of dollars per day to make it easier on me.

On the other hand, I understand that not everyone feels like I do. Luxury wilderness adventures are not new. One visit to the century-old hunting lodges in Africa will tell you that. The well-to-do have always been interested in seeing "wild" places, without having to suffer for it. Today, Africa remains a popular place to rough it in style, along with the Galapagos Islands, the Incan ruins of Chile, and increasingly Antarctica. Even here in New Zealand, luxury hunting and fishing lodges offer fly-in service, while some of the country's most popular trails can be covered with ease as your gear is transported for you from lodge to lodge by boat. It's all of the gorgeous scenery, with a fraction of the discomfort.

I have nothing against the five-star option. I think it's great that even people who are not interested in toughing it out, are interested in areas of natural beauty. After all, those people are the ones with the money and the power to help protect those areas for the rest of us!

As long as the building of luxury lodges doesn't ruin unspoiled areas, I'm willing to live in harmony with the glampers. But one of the dangers is that people assume that because they've paid a lot of money to do something, it is safe. Anyone, regardless of expenditure, can get seriously injured or killed doing wilderness activities they aren't prepared for.

You can pay tens of thousands of dollars to be guided up Mt. Everest, but that doesn't mean you won't get a cerebral or pulmonary edema and die - or get severe frostbite and lose a limb. It happens every year. Or doing a multi-day hike with your pack being transported for you - you could easily get lost (particularly if you know nothing about navigation) and find yourself stuck in the woods overnight with no gear at all. The wilderness is a risky place, and spending money won't change that.

So is glamping the next big thing in travel? Certainly adventure vacations have been gaining in popularity over the past decade or so. And now it's oh-so-chic to be concerned about the planet. So perhaps glamping is an idea whose time has come. Or maybe it's just a desperate attempt to convince the ladies that a camping vacation is worth the same price as a beach resort!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Urban Outdoors

G is currently on a business trip in Paris and, sadly, I'm not. But I did live in the City of Lights for about five months, shortly after I finished university. While this was before I became an 'outdoorsy' person, I vividly remember the overwhelming grayness of Paris. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful city, but there just isn't much green there. The few inner-city green spaces feature signs asking you not to walk on the grass! Even the Seine, the river that runs through the heart of the city, has become urbanised with concrete banks to prevent flooding.

Cities are generally designed to overcome or eliminate natural features, rather than preserve them. Trees are cleared, hills are levelled, and waterfronts become ports. But the best cities hold onto a bit of their original environment, and make a place where residents can forget, if only for a moment or two, that they are surrounded by a metropolis.

Toronto Islands - an urban escape

In my home city of Toronto, a network of ravines and river valleys has been preserved as parkland. The paths running through this network are used by cyclists, joggers, urban hikers, and over the winter I've even done a bit of cross-country skiing down there. And a group of islands in the harbour, Toronto Islands (creative name!) is mostly set aside as parkland too. It's a great spot for cycling, picnicking, roller blading, fishing and just generally escaping the city.

Here in Wellington, a green belt hugs the city centre in an arc of bush-covered hills. Walking and mountain biking trails criss-cross the hills and offer a wonderful retreat from the city without actually leaving it at all.

Wellington's green belt surrounds the city.

This kind of urban wilderness is getting more and more important, I believe, as urban sprawl pushes the real wilderness further and further away. In many cities, it can take hours of driving to leave the suburbs behind completely. So having somewhere within the city where you can 'escape' into nature is essential - at least for people like me - to maintaining your sanity.

It's a difficult decision for city planners to maintain natural areas when developers are competing for the last plots of land. But I doff my cap to those who say - no, it's more important to have a park here than to build a hundred townhouses.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cross-blogging - Home & Abroad part 2

I've posted another bit on the Home & Abroad website, for their blog: Here & There. It's a peice on being physically ready for an adventure holiday. You can read it here. There's even a lovely picture of G and myself as we finished the Tongariro Norther Circuit last April.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Winter Woes and Battling Boredom

For those of us down in the southern hemisphere, winter has just arrived. For campers, it's a sad time, with months of inhospitable weather ahead and nary a trip in sight. (Those of you in the northern hemisphere - you can bookmark this for later!)

Sure, we could go winter camping. But here in the Wellington area that means strong (often gale) winds threatening to blow you off your feet - and in my case often succeeding! It means cold nights, and those mornings where getting out of your sleeping bag seems like pure folly. And perhaps most importantly it can mean dangerous, icy peaks which require crampons and ice axes.
I may sound like a wimp, but it just doesn't hold a lot of appeal for me. Frankly, I would rather try winter camping with snowshoes or cross-country skis. As long as there's a hut or cabin or something at the end of the day's trails. But that isn't an option here. So instead, we need to be creative about how to pass a non-camping winter without getting too antsy. Here are my suggestions:

1-Seize the day
Even the nastiest winter has the occasional nice day. If one of those days happens to fall on a weekend, take advantage of it to go on a day hike. Without the worry of staying warm overnight, walking in the woods on a winter's day can really be quite lovely. Just make sure you bring lots of layers in case the nice weather comes to a sudden end!

2-Plan ahead
If you've got some big (or not-so-big) plans for next summer, use the winter to read up on your potential trips and make some plans. Think about how many long weekends you'll have, and what kinds of trips you want to do. Do you need to book off some additional vacation days to complete your dream trip? Be the first in your office to get those requests in so they can't say no!

3-Go armchair camping
Winter nights go faster with a good book. Why not find a tale of adventure that will keep you feeling close to the wilderness, even when you're not out there. The library is full of real-life stories about expeditions to the arctic, dessert crossings, getting lost in a jungle, and struggling up the world's highest mountains. If you can't go on an adventure of your own, go on someone else's!

4-Gear up
Just because you aren't going away every weekend doesn't mean you should lose interest in your local outdoors shops. Often, stores will discount some great gear in the off-season to make room for next year's new models. If there's a piece of gear you've been coveting, have a look now and then to see if the price has been reduced. Auction websites are also great places to browse during the off-season as people get rid of gear they're convinced they won't be using again. There's bound to be someone out there who bought a brand new tent, decided it was too small (or too heavy, or whatever) after the first couple of trips, and doesn't want it anymore.

5-Stay active
There's nothing more painful than the day after the first backpacking trip of spring! It's hard to keep your body in shape over the winter. Make sure you don't turn completely to mush! Get regular exercise however and wherever you can. Join a gym, go to drop-in yoga or pilates classes, or go up and down the stairwells at work over your lunch hour. When it comes time to get back outside, you'll be much less likely to injure yourself, or spend the next week in agony with stiff muscles.

As I sit in front of the heater, spring feels a long way off. But if I can manage to follow my own advice I'm sure it will be here before I know it. In the mean time, I think I'll go put on the kettle. A cup of tea will warm me up for a bit.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Rugged, Rainy, Ruahines

The upside of rain is - rainbows!

Every time a long weekend comes along, G suggests we do a tramp in the Ruahines, a mountain range about half way up the North Island. But every time, we end up making other plans or going somewhere closer to home. Last weekend was the last long weekend we'll see until October, so we decided to bite the bullet and hit the Ruahines.

The problem with tramping there on a three-day weekend is that it takes four hours to drive there and four hours to drive back, which leaves you with not that much time for actually tramping. So we had to be quite conservative about how far we would travel on foot.

On day one we got to the trailhead around 1pm, had a bite of lunch, and got started on the way up to the most popular hut in the whole range - Sunrise Hut. Popular because the trail leading up there is wide, graded and switchbacked all the way up. So in three hours or less, just about anyone in reasonable shape can reach the hut and its spectacular views.

Of course, the weather can always slow you down a bit - and we got rather wet on our way up. It started as a pretty light drizzle, but about half an hour before the hut it turned into heavy, steady rain. It was my first real test of my new rain jacket, which did an admirable job. But my pants were totally soaked.

Luckily, the popular hut is something of a 5-star lodge compared to other huts. It has a gas heater inside, plus gas cookers. So once we changed into dry clothing, our moods were greatly improved. The hut filled up to its 20-person capacity, including 5 kids who were trying to play hide and seek but weren't very good at it. The only reason the game worked at all was that it got dark by 5:30, so it was hard to see anything to begin with!

The upside of tramping on one of the shortest days of the year is that you can get up to see the sunrise without actually getting out of bed too early. This picture was taken from the porch of the hut at about 7:20am. (In summer, the sunrise there happens around 5:45am!)
The gas heater had completely dried out all of our wet tramping clothes, so we were happy to put them back on for day two. But the weather was not on our side. More drizzle followed us away from the deluxe accommodations, over the saddle, and on towards our next destination.

The sun came out briefly, allowing me to go nuts with the camera, while G admired his beautifully-folded map (see last post).

The Ruahines are taller than the Tararuas, where we do most of our trips, and more rugged and steep. The track between Sunrise Hut and Top Maropea Hut (our next stop) couldn't have been more different than the previous day's. Exposed, covered with alpine scrub, steep and eventually muddy and slippery, this was not the beginner's route. One tramper had already sprained his ankle going for a day walk along this track, and was slowly limping his way back to Sunrise Hut. The rain returned along with - yes, a bit of wet snow. It was the first weekend of winter after all! So after a short but challenging walk, we arrived at Top Maropea Hut and decided to hunker down.
Top Maropea Hut is not often used, probably because it's so close to the much bigger and more comfortable Sunrise Hut. It also couldn't be more different from it's neighbour. It sleeps just four, and has an open fireplace which pretty much funnels any heat you create directly up and out of the chimney, rather than warming the hut itself. There is a long-drop for your toileting pleasure, but the roof has long since disappeared, making it rather unpleasant in the rain, and rather wet too! The ground in front of it has also eroded away so that even entering the outhouse requires some gymnastic abilities.

But it was our little hut for the night - with nobody else around. So we made dinner, lit a little fire with the driest wood we could find in the pile, and wore all of our dry clothes. Overnight, the temperature dropped to 1 degree Celsius, which made it the coldest night I've spend out (technically I was inside yes, but without any heat) and I was relieved to find that my sleeping bag is as warm as the makers claim. Being dressed head-to-toe in fleece doesn't hurt either!

By morning the wind had picked up a bit, and there was still some drizzle on and off. This time our tramping clothes were still cold and damp - and it was a self-imposed battle of wills to put them back on. There's nothing quite like a freezing, wet bra to wake you up!

We had to retrace our steps of the last two days back to the car and drive home. We started back up the steep, muddy track to the ridge. My hands got cold and wet, trying to pull myself up the bigger steps, and I had to put on my gloves on before cold hands became frostbitten hands. I then felt something I haven't experienced since my last winter in Canada - that intense pain you get when a cold hand (or foot) begins to rewarm. Man, that hurts!

The ridge showed evidence of the frosty night with ice scattered in small patches here and there, slowly melting. While it was a bit blustery making our way over the saddle, we got back to Sunrise Hut to be greeted by clearing skies. From there, the walk down was uneventful, although we passed about a dozen day hikers going up to the hut for lunch on this public holiday. Without heavy backpacks they weren't even breaking a sweat!

We got back to the car by around 12:30, tired but glad we had made the trip. With a long winter ahead, who knows when we'll be hitting the trails again. So it was good to end the season with something memorable.

Giving my rain jacket a workout on top of the Ruahines.