Saturday, January 31, 2009

Training for Tramping

Anybody else remember the 20 Minute Workout? I actually used to DO the damn thing - not realising it was mainly used as a free alternative to 80s porn! If I had only known then what damage it was doing to my poor, adolescent knees...

But I digress. At the beginning of this year I did something long overdue - I joined my local gym to get myself into better shape. I figure if I can shape up a little, my tramping trips will be less painful, more enjoyable and I can consider a wider range of tracks because I'll be able to go farther faster.

Good theory, but just what can you do at the gym to achieve that result? Obviously I don't have enough time on my hands to build up to an eight hour slog on the treadmill (or I'd just do it outdoors anyway) so I have to make do with shorter, more intense workouts.

My main machine so far is the elliptical crosstrainer. I figure of all the cardio machines, this one most closely emulates tramping. It's a bit like climbing a hill, and the pivoting arm poles are kind of like hiking poles.

I've also been using a Swiss ball to try to improve the strength in my core muscles, which are the muscles of the abdomen and back. A strong core should improve by balance, and make it easier to carry the weight of my pack.

So far I've been avoiding the group classes. The instructors just seem way too obnoxious, and most of the classes look very hard on the knees.

Anyway, that's me so far. But I'm curious to know what other people do at the gym to make their tramping better or easier. So leave all your tips as comments, and maybe we call all learn a thing or two about getting fit, avoiding injury, and wearing leotards with matching leg warmers. (OK, maybe not that last one...)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Seal of Approval

Getting back to our trip to Cape Palliser last weekend, as I promised. There are two things the area is known for - the seal colony along the shore, and the lighthouse. So naturally we went to see both.

New Zealand fur seals are always a treat to see. They're a pretty laid back bunch, assuming you don't try to get right in their faces. On this particular day they were splitting their time between sunning themselves on the rocks (and scratching the occasional itch)...
And frolicking in the water, but not catching any fish as far as I could see.
The lighthouse is at the very end of the road. Well, the car park for the lighthouse is at the end of the road. The lighthouse itself is at the top of a ridiculously long wooden staircase.
It has been there for over 100 years, but it is now fully automated so the days of the lighthouse keeper are over. It's probably just as well, since it was ridiculously windy up there.
While none of this activity technically counts as hiking or tramping, those stairs are as good as any hike as far as I'm concerned. Plus the pictures turned out so nice that I just had to post them! And since we did stay at a campground that night - it's officially part of a camping trip. So there!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Can Goretex Save the Hybrid Car?

Just when you thought Goretex was yesterday's breathable waterproof news, now they've jumped industries from outdoor clothing to fuel cells!

Sound ridiculous? Apparently not. Researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia have been working with the fabric to help reduce the price and improve the efficiency of hybrid cars.

From the article in the University World News:

"The breakthrough came about through the design of a fuel cell in which a specially coated form of Goretex is the key component. A fine layer of highly conductive plastic - a mere 0.4 of a micron thick or about 100 times thinner than a human hair - was deposited on the breathable fabric as part of a fuel cell with electrodes and a catalyst. Just as waste water vapour is drawn out of the Goretex to make hikers more comfortable and less prone to hypothermia, it is also able to 'breathe' oxygen into the fuel cell and into contact with the conductive plastic.

One of the researchers, Professor Doug MacFarlane, said the discovery was probably the most important development in fuel cell technology in the last 20 years. He said the benefits for the motoring industry and for motorists were that the new design removed the need for platinum, which is the catalyst and is currently central to manufacturing fuel cells. "

OK, so Goretex has always been expensive, but I guess it's a whole lot cheaper than platinum! The only concern I have is that if Goretex becomes a common component in cars, that will drive the price up even more and we'll all have to pay thousands of dollars for a decent rain jacket! But hey, it's for the good of the planet.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Walking the Paths of the Dead

Sure, it sounds a bit melodramatic - but if you're a Lord of the Rings junkie (like me) you know what I'm talking about. The rather desolate scenery used to create the Paths of the Dead are actually located in a reserve called the Putangirua Pinnacles.
We decided to use Wellington Anniversary weekend to head southeast and explore the Cape Palliser area, which includes the Pinnacles reserve. The entrance to the reserve is also a campground, so we stayed there for the night. Unfortunately, it's a fairly exposed campground, so the wind was gusting like mad! Our tent pegging skills were put to the test. OK, to be honest they were G's tent pegging skills. I helped though. And the tent did managed to stay on the ground at all times!

We spent our afternoon walking in the reserve. There is a loop track along a bush track, up to a lookout over the Pinnacles, and then back to the campground via the stream bed. That was a bit short for us, so we carried on after the turn off to the lookout, and joined up with a 4 wheel drive track in Aorangi Forest Park (or Haurangi Forest Park - it seems to have two spellings.) This track, I believe, is mainly used by hunters. However, the track turns into a foot-only track before you get to the first hut.

We turned around where the track narrowed, and headed back to the lookout. It's a wood platform with a view of the largest section of eroded hoodoos. (There are other little sections visible as you head up the valley.)

For those who have seen these in the LOTR, it's a bit surprising to see that they are so surrounded by green hillsides. The Pinnacles themselves cover quite a small area. It's a landscape you might expect to find in a desert, rather than a forest. I guess the extent of the erosion is a testament to the kinds of winds that whip through the valley! No wonder the campground was so gusty.Despite the wind, we managed to light our stove and make dinner in the shelter of a flax plant. If you're thinking of camping out there, bring lots of water with you. The only water source appears to be the trickle of a stream. Since we were car camping anyway, we just filled up some extra containers at home.

The rest of our trip in Cape Palliser coming soon to this very blog...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ngauruhoe Gets Nasty

For some of the thousands and thousands of people who hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a side trip up to the crater of active volcano Ngauruhoe makes a great addition to the day. The route up is steep but not technical. It does, however, mean getting up and down a lot of loose scree.

A couple of days ago, an Auckland teenager (that's right - an actual Kiwi and a tourist!) fell while about half way up the cone. He slid about 50 metres down the hill, and brought a lot of loose rocks down on top of himself.

Thankfully, he didn't get knocked out by any of the rocks. But by the time a rescue helicopter got to him he was in a lot of pain from head, shoulder and neck injuries and was also coughing up blood. Not the best way to cap off your summer vacation!

In a related story, someone we met while doing the Round-the-mountain track told us about another teenager who did the side trip up Ngauruhoe. Apparently there was still quite a lot of snow on the mountain at the time, so after reaching the top she decided it would be fun to glissade down on her bum. She had no ice axe or other means of stopping or slowing her descent and soon lost control. Her walk also ended with a helicopter ride to the hospital.

Having said that, rest assured that thousands of other people have climbed and descended Ngauruhoe without incident, and many consider it to be one of the highlights of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It does add extra time to an already long day, but if you've got the experience and the fitness, there's no reason not to go for it. Just be careful up there!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Our Brains Prefer Nature

It's something all of us who enjoy the outdoors already know, even if we don't know why. Being surrounded by nature instead of a busy city makes us feel better. Our minds are more at ease, and our stress seems to just drift away.

We each have our preferences. Some prefer the calming patterns of water, others enjoy the simplicity of the desert, and many of us can't get enough of the majesty of the mountains or the oxygen-rich greenery of the forest.

If you're the sort of person who likes to ask "why", a new study out of the University of Michigan has looked into the way in which walking through a city affects our brains differently from walking in a park or wilderness setting. The Boston Globe ran an article on it early in the new year.

Apparently all of the little things we need to think about in the city - not walking into other people, not getting run over crossing the road - and all of the distractions we need to filter out because they aren't important - other people's conversations, contents of shop windows etc. - just wear us down. It's a constant strain on our brains processing all of that input.

Out in nature, there is much less to process, and it becomes much more obvious what we need to focus on. For instance, following a track or climbing a mountain clearly require your attention. Blocking out details like assessing each individual tree is much better hard-wired into our brains than the recently introduced urban landscape.

So the next time you decide to head out of town for the weekend, think of it as an opportunity to recharge your brain's batteries. You should see improvements in your mood, your attention span, and your memory. And if you can't make it out of town, apparently it's even helpful to go look at a tree for a while.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Heading to Tassie? Ebook on the Overland Track

Overland track photo by Rick McCharles

If you're thinking of doing some bushwalking in Tasmania in the near future, you may want to check out Our Hiking Blog, written by Aussie hikers Frank and Sue. They do walks in different parts of the country, but Tasmania is their favourite and they've tackled the popular Overland Track several times, both together and separately.

After offering up advice on the track on their blog for a while, they decided to put down everything they'd been dishing up in bits and pieces into an ebook, which they sell from their blog site for just A$7.00.

They were nice enough to send me a copy, and while I've got Tasmania on my "to do" list, I'm not sure how soon I'll get around to it. But I gave it a read so I could pass along my personal opinion, if you care to know it. (If you don't care to know it, then please browse through some other posts instead.)

This is really two books in one. In part, it is a guide to the logistics of planning a trip on the Overland Track. It includes useful information about how to get to Tasmania, and once there how to get to and from the track ends. It gives you insider info on what kinds of supplies you can pick up at the last minute, and what you should arrange ahead of time. This is all valuable stuff, and can save you a lot of hassle if you're trying to make the most of a short visit to Tasmania.

The other side of the book is general advice on planning for a multi-day hike. This could apply to just about any trip, anywhere. It's mostly useful for people who have not done many long walks, and aren't sure what to pack, what to eat, how to handle first aid situations etc. For hikers with many multi-day walks under their belt, this can be browsed through quickly for Tasmania-specific tips (such as - expect lots of mud, and how to treat a snake bite from a tiger snake.)

Don't expect this to be the only book you need before you go do the Overland Track. In fact, it's more of an extra luxury than the main info you need. It does not contain maps of the track, or a day-by-day track description (although they have posted trip reports about the track on their blog). There are other books available that fill that niche, so Frank and Sue have left it to the experts. This book compliments the maps and guides, but does not replace them.

That's my take on it anyway, and having not yet been to Tasmania I can only give an amateur opinion of the contents. However, at such a low price, you will probably get your money's worth in time savings alone, by learning about bus and flight details, track bookings and park passes.

To Frank and Sue - thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience. I'm sure you'll make a big difference to a lot of visitors!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ruapehu Round-the-mountain Part 2

We now rejoin the Round-the-mountain track on day 4 - which also happened to be New Year's Eve.
This was the most varied terrain of all of the days we tramped, but some of that variety I could have done without!
It all started well with a morning walking mostly through beech forest with some boggy clearings. A lot of work has been put into laying down boardwalks over the boggiest areas to keep the track from eroding away completely. They also make it a lot easier to walk this part of the track, keeping us mainly out of the mud. Of course they leave gaps in the boardwalks in some areas, just so you don't end up looking too clean by the end of it!
By late morning we were coming up on Ohakune Mountain Road, which is the road leading up to the Turoa Ski Field. Unfortunately, the track makes a bit of a jump at this point. You have to walk three kilometres up the road to rejoin the track and continue around. And when I say up, I mean UP. It was an annoying slog in the midday sun, trudging along for an hour while cars zoomed by loaded up with mountain bikes and such.
We were actually offered a ride up the hill almost immediately by a passing car, but G decided that accepting the ride would be 'cheating'. As far as I'm aware, tramping is not a competitive sport, and therefore there is no such thing as 'cheating' unless you're trying to set a record of some kind. However, I discovered later that evening at the hut that pretty much all of the men felt the same way. If you don't walk the entire track (even if it's on a road) you can't legitimately say you've 'done' it. It must be a guy thing. As far as I'm concerned, my experience would have been just as legitimate without spending that hour walking up the road. But walk we did. And tiring it was. And speak like Yoda it made me.
The rest of the day's travel took us back onto rocky terrain. We dropped down into a valley, then up a ridge, and then - the Cascades. If it has a name, you know it's going to be memorable! The Cascades is a rockfall descent that starts out steep but reasonable, and ends with a challenging drop down the last area of smooth rock, next to a churning river. There were a couple of times where I had to find cracks wide enough to shove a foot in, and climb down facing into the rock. It's not my favourite thing to do. Gives me too many flashbacks of my "wilderness adventure" a few years ago in Utah and Arizona. To top it off, there are some streams to cross at the end of the descent, so I arrived at Mangaturuturu Hut with my boots full of water for the first time on this trip.
The hut is owned by the Wanganui Tramping Club and is the smallest on the track, sleeping just 10 people. So it's rather unfortunate that 18 people showed up that day! The problem is, it's within a couple hours' walk from two roads, so people can walk in one day and out the next. We managed to cram 13 people onto the bunks, one guy decided to sleep outside in a bivvy bag, and the rest found space on the floor. We counted down to the New Year at around 9pm, because nobody was prepared to hold out until midnight. Not with the sun coming up at 5:30am!
Day five was probably the most physically draining. It started off fine, with a swift river crossing just behind the hut and then a climb up to Lake Surprise. (I guess nobody expected to find a lake there?) After the lake is a long staircase up to the next ridge, which I quite frankly appreciated even though it's there to protect the delicate plant life.
The rest of the day was spent going up and down either rocky or muddy valleys. The mud was quite a pain, because it had made large troughs in a lot places that I had to lower myself into and haul myself out of. Somehow I managed to avoid slipping and falling on my bum in the mud, which was a small miracle. Many of the streams on the valley floors were small, but others were not possible for me to cross dry-footed. I got four or five foot soakings throughout the day, and my socks were beginning to rub uncomfortably against the tops of my toes.
I think it took us almost seven hours to reach Whakapapaiti Hut, by which time I was well and truly sick of the day's terrain. Luckily, the clouds that had threatened to rain on us all day never did, and the evening cleared up beautifully and made for much lounging on the deck outside the hut.
Our final day was a short one, down the valley and over a couple of ridges back to Whakapapa Village. After negotiating a bit of muddy track, we were faced with crossing the Whakapapaiti River. This was our biggest crossing yet, and we did it linked up. Unfortunately we didn't think it through too well, and G was in the downstream position. This wasn't too big a deal, but I ended up wet almost up to my hips thanks to the heavy flow of the river. There was a family of four close behind us, and I'm sure it was a challenge to get their little girl (around seven I think) across there.
Soon after that it started raining, and continued for the rest of our walk out - hence no photos of day six! It's a shame because I quite enjoyed the scenery that morning. We were back into the forest, and there were some great cabbage trees, and some lively rapids in river that didn't have to be crossed. On a nice day it would be a lovely walk.
We were back at the car by 11am, ready for a change of clothes and a non-dehydrated meal. All in all, the walk was a bit long and I felt like the bits of worthwhile scenery were a bit too few and far between. However, with so many roads leading to parts of the track, it's easy to do parts of this route without committing 5-6 days and carrying a heavily-laden pack.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Ruapehu Round-the-mountain Part 1

Sorry for being a bit absent from the blog lately. We were away for a week completing the Ruapehu Around-the-mountain track. As you may deduce from the name, the track loops around Mt Ruapehu, an active volcano in the centre of New Zealand's North Island. Ruapehu hasn't had any serious indigestion since 1996, but knowing what bubbles beneath does add a bit of excitement to the tramp.

I'm not sure what possessed us to do a six-day tramp after nothing more than day hikes all spring. Luckily we made it through without too much pain.

We began the walk at Whakapapa Village (there are a few places where you can access the track from various road-ends, so you can do part of the loop, or start in a different place.) Day one took us between Mt Ruapehu and the conical Mt Ngauruhoe (another active volcano). Clear, sunny skies gave us great views of both mountains all day.
Those same sunny skies were making us pretty hot and tired, so when we stopped for lunch G managed to rig up a bit of shade using a ground sheet and my hiking poles.
We spent the night at Waihohonu Hut, which is also on the "Tongariro Northern Circuit" Great Walk. Needless to say there were lots of people there, but there was enough room for all.
The second day of the walk led us past a clear spring called Ohinepango Springs. From there the landscape became more barren and we began to understand that we were tramping through a desert. Walking on rock, ash and sand was a bit hard on the feet, compared with the previous day's tussocks. At one point we had to cross through a valley where there have been several "lahar" (muddy volcanic floodwater) flows. These occur when the water from the crater lake near the summit hits a tipping point and overflows. The dramatic scenery these events have left behind is quite striking, but since there are warnings not to stop while crossing through I wasn't able to take any pictures.
That night at Rangipo Hut a family of four arrived at 9:30pm. Apparently they had left from Whakapapa Village that morning and the father had decided that rather than staying at an expensive Great Walks hut, they'd take a "short cut" cross-country directly to Rangipo. It started raining around midday, and we were happy to arrive soggy at 2pm or so. These poor kids had spent hour after hour in the rain, away from the track and any sign of other trampers, plodding on past sunset. They arrived on the brink of hypothermia. If you're thinking of sharing your love of the outdoors with your kids - this is NOT the way to do it! They must have thought they were being punished for something horrible. They were still tucked away in their sleeping bags when we left the next morning, but I assume they were fine after some food and rest.

Day three involved a lot of going up and down. The biggest of these was the Waihianoa Gorge. A very steep descent into the gorge leads to a swing bridge over the river. Going up the other side the track sidles more and is much less extreme.

About half an hour after leaving the gorge, we met someone coming the other direction. It was one of the guys who'd been at Rangipo with us the night before, with his wife. She had unfortunately forgotten her rain jacket at the hut - and he was going back for it! This meant that he'd be going up and down that gorge three times that day! Luckily he was very fit and experienced - a former Search and Rescue volunteer and mountaineer. That night there were a lot of women in the hut asking their partners "Would you have gone back for my rain jacket?" Just to make matters worse, the rain returned that afternoon so he had to do the last couple of hours in the rain.

I'll continue this with the final three days soon!