Rob Roy Glacier and the world’s most remote ice cream

The last place you expect to find ice cream is by the side of a river 30 kilometers down a gravel road. Okay, probably there is at least one ice cream stand further off the beaten path, but still, it was delicious.
At the suggestion of a hit at the Department of Conservation Visitor Center in Wanaka, we made our way to Raspberry Creek in the Mount Aspiring National Park. Buckbeak, our campervan, started making a noise, so we pulled over to check the tires. They were fine. Luckily, it wasn’t a wasted stop, because there was a tiny ice cream stand with 3 flavors: strawberry, boysenberry, and mixed. We weren’t about to pass up ice cream on our way to our first overnighter of the trip. #delicious
The person running the stand told us that most of the land leading up to where we wanted to camp was owned by the farm she worked for. The government has some sort of agreement with them where they continue to farm the land, but they leave it open for visitors as well. This was good to know, as we might otherwise have been confused by the number of sheep and cattle grazing all about the trail.
We left most of our gear in the van at first and set off for the Rob Roy Glacier. The walk was nice–a gentler grade than the walk to Sealy Tarns, with fewer stairs. And the payoff was completely worth it. When we got to the upper lookout, we could see the full glacier perched on the mountain top. At least 6 streams came cascading of it, merging into waterfalls. These converged into the river we had followed to the glacier.

On our way back to the car, we got stared down by a cow and had to walk around her. We met some people from Florida, echo laughed when we told them we’re from Oregon. “We were just saying how at home, you never met people from Oregon or Washington, but when you’re traveling, like 20% of the people you meet are from there.” While I don’t have any hard numbers to confirm this, I can say that it’s almost as common to hear an American accent here as a New Zealand one.

New favorite river: Rakaia Gorge

After picking up the van from Lucky Rentals, we didn’t have a ton of time, so we picked a cheap campsite a few hours down the road. Trevor was an excellent driver, despite being in the wrong side of the road…on the wrong side of the car. The first hour and a half was honestly concerning–it was pretty, but in a, “wow, look at those hedges” sort of way. Not what we flew to the opposite side of the world for.

Then we turned a corner, and without warning the land fell away into a gorgeous river. It was the sort of blue that looks like it belongs in a Skittles bag. There were striped cliffs on the other side, and mountains dusted with mist above it all.

We pulled into our campground and paid $10 each. That’s one of the things we’ve noticed about New Zealand: campsites are usually charged by user, not vehicle or site. The camp host was incredibly nice and told us how to get down to the river, as well as about a walk you could do. We set up camp, Trevor fished, and I went for a walk on the river.

After, we went for a slightly drizzly climb to a lookout. This was the view we got:

Beautiful, right?

Now look at the view I got the next morning:

The wind shifted overnight and drove away the clouds, revealing Mt. Hutt. It was gorgeous.

We got packed up, then left for Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park.

24 hours in Aoraki Mt. Cook

When we began our drive to Aoraki (ow-rack-key) Mt. Cook, it was glorious and sunny.

About an hour before we got there, the rain began. It poured so hard that, even though the mountains are extremely close to the road, we could only see faint outlines.

We decided to huddle in the van for the evening, trusting the weather reports that it would improve the next day. We went for a couple short walks, but the next morning was the first real hike of the trip.

We started with a walk to Hooker Lake. It was mostly flat, with a boardwalk towards the end.

The lake itself was pretty awesome. But, as you can see from the pictures, pretty cold. The far end lapped against a glacier’s edge, and there were ice floes the size of our van sprinkled throughout. We didn’t go swimming.

After we had a quick lunch at the van, we started the climb up to Sealy Tarns. You know that part of Lord of the Rings where they climb the step hillside to the tunnel and almost get eaten by a spider? That was inspired by this trail. Hundreds of steps made of 2x10s wind up a mountain which the day before Olivia and I had mocked Trevor for wanting to climb. Every time we had to stop, which was pretty much every thirty seconds given the grade, we were so much higher and could see further. Finally we could see the lake shore where we had stood a few hours before, and still we climbed.

The Tarns were 2 small ponds on probably the only flat spot for a kilometer. It jutted out over the valley and gave us an awesome view of a glacier with waterfalls running off it.

Also, there was a kea at the top!! This is an endangered parrot that likes to steal food but is pretty cute when it’s not doing that. #backoffkea

It took a while to get down the mountain (thanks, bad knees!) but we all agreed it was a perfect use of the day.

A Tour of Hobbiton

I’ve written this post about 4 times, but then my phone dies and all is lost. So here’s a quick summary, because I’m tired of rewriting it:

Hobbiton is incredible. It’s 12 acres in the middle of an already gorgeous 12,000 acre sheep farm. When I was first researching the trip, many blogs said there wasn’t much there but sad empty holes, so my expectations were low. What I didn’t know was yay those reviews were written before the Hobbit trilogy was filmed. For those films, the property owner requested that the set be made of permanent materials. The result: 40+ gorgeous dwellings, complete with chimneys, clotheslines, gardens, windows, and beautiful round doors–everything except space to live inside. Those scenes were shot in a studio 🙂

It was honestly the most peaceful spot I could imagine, even with hundreds of tourists wandering the area. We got a brew (well, a ginger beer) from the Green Dragon. On the way home, or hilarious tour guide, Mike, took us on the scenic route, told us a lot about cows and golf courses (he’s a farmer and New Zealand has the second highest number of golf courses per capita in the world). Then we got cheap ice cream, returned to the hostel, and got ready for the south island the following day.

Surprise! Extra Day in Auckland

Original plan:

  • Arrive in Auckland on Thursday night (local time)
  • See Hobbiton on Friday
  • Fly to Christchurch on Saturday. Spend as little time in the city as possible.

Actual events:

  • Arrive in Auckland on Wednesday
  • Not realize the date disparity until we get to the hostel at 1 am
  • Find out said hostel has no beds available
  • Walk down the block to another hostel who does have beds
  • Feel really bad about walking in at 1 am
  • Feel like we’re dying because the room is so hot
  • Leave to find water which kind of annoyed our roommates
  • Finally get to bed
  • Wake up the next morning with no plan for the day.

After wandering in search of brekkie (the kiwi term for the morning meal), we got back to our hostel and consulted a bulletin board showing things to do in Auckland. It was a bit awkward because someone was sitting right under the bulletin board, charging their phone. As we threw out ideas, he looked up at us.

“Are you guys trying to find something to do today?”

We explained our plight.

“Well, I’m going to walk to Mt. Eden and then go to the museum. Wanna join?”

Sure thing! So we spent the day with our new tour guide, Alex. He’s living in Chicago and working with the government to fix the crime rates there, and so it was a super interesting conversation. Did you know that you can look at someone’s vocabulary in third grade and get a pretty good idea of whether they will end up in jail? Or that poor kids in Chicago almost never get silence, so when they start spending half an hour in a silent room, their learning improves? Not that that has anything to do with this blog, but it was still interesting stuff.

Mt Eden is one of 30 or 40 volcanic cones in the middle of Auckland. We got a beautiful view of the city, then walked across a cricket field to the Auckland War Museum. Which was awesome.

After, we had some subpar but very cheap pizza and parted ways with our guide. After a rest, I went to the bookstore and was surprised to find so many titles about American politics, most of them negative.

All in all, I enjoyed our extra day in Auckland.

Hustlers in Honolulu

I used to think that I wouldn’t like Hawaii because I prefer mountains to beaches and also crowds annoy me. I was wrong.

During our overnight layover, Olivia, Trevor and I had fish tacos, swam at Waikiki Beach, then quickly left the beach because, yeah it’s warm, but not a swimming-at-sunset-with-a-light-breeze sort of warm. #worthit.

When we got dry, we walked along the main strip at Waikiki. It was still decorated for Christmas, which warmed my heart immensely.

About a mile into our walk, we found a grove of trees lit by a path of tiki torches. Obviously that was our cue to explore. After following the lights through a building and down a cobbled driveway, we ended up in front of a giant pink hotel called the Royal Hawaiian. My research told me that this was the hotel in which one of the movies we used to watch as kids, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, was filmed. Having fulfilled a childhood dream that I hadn’t even known I had, we followed the lights back to the crowds and began to wander back to our own hotel.

On the way, we noticed a crowd forming around 5 people with a sound system and sweet dance moves. We paused.

At first the people were kind of funny–“The better energy you give us, the better our show will be. What were saying is, if the show sucks, it’s your fault.” They danced together for about 30 seconds, then a couple of them did some breakdancing solos. Not gonna lie, I was pretty impressed.

“Alright, time for the grand finale! But first we need some volunteers!! First, we need 2 sexy white guys up here!”

No one moved.

“Come on! Thank you for helping us out!” The guy said, dragging two guys who had not volunteered onto their platform. “Now we need a couple pretty ladies!” Again, no volunteers. Again, people were led by the hand up there, though unlike the white dudes, they seemed to be having fun. They had to drag another woman up, who I think spoke limited English and was very confused, but they did get a volunteer for a kid and gave her $10 and told her to never give up on her dreams. Sweet, right?

With all of them lined up, they turned back to the crowd. “Before we do the finale, it’s time to get paid! Pull out your twenties and drop them in the bucket. Don’t worry, we’ll come to you!” They proceeded to walk through the crowd and act like we were robbing them if we didn’t put $20 in the bucket. Unfortunately, this is 2019, and I don’t exactly ever have cash on me, especially when I’m traveling to a country with a non-US currency.

Luckily, the rest of the crowd was pretty generous. Soon they had about $150 for the 5 minutes of performance we had watched, including the $10 they’d given the little girl.

Not satisfied, they turned back to the “sexy white guys” they had voluntold for their show. “You’re rich, throw in a hundred for us!”

One shook his head. The other smiled about pointed to his wife. “She has the money.”

“I already gave!” she said.

“This ain’t no two for one deal!” two of the performers replied in unison. When it became clear no one else was going to give, the main speaker turned back to the guy whose wife had already given.

“You guys are a bunch of cheapskates. None of you get to see the grand finale now. Get out of here and stop staring at us like we’re a science experiment.”

Ah, sir, a science experiment has the potential to be useful.

A bit flabbergasted, and extremely grateful we hadn’t given them anything, we continued down the strip in search of dessert. It was mostly places that sold ice cream for $10 a scoop, but about a block from our hotel we stumbled upon a gem of a restaurant, The M. Three hot fudge sundaes later, we returned to the hotel, repacked our bags, and got to bed early to prep for the next leg of our journey.

To New Zealand We Go!!

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this in almost every conversation I’ve had for the last two years, but in case you haven’t heard:

We’re going to New Zealand!!

Despite having been planning this since December 31, 2016, I still managed to not finish packing until after 1 in the morning. That meant that my toothpaste and toiletries were thoroughly buried when I went through security. Oops. Anyways, we got through, everyone remembered their passport, and I’m 98% sure we have everything we need for backpacking, so all is well.

Trevor, Olivia, and me at the airport

Getting schooled by backpacking kids.

I know, my absence from the Internet the last four months has been heart-wrenching for, like, almost one person. I’d like to pretend it was spent doing something rad, like backpacking somewhere even Verizon can’t get a signal or using slang that didn’t become dated over a decade ago, but actually I’ve been like working and being responsible, which has its own sort of mystique if you squint.

However, I really want to finish blogging my trip from last summer, so, as the weather threatens snow and I put every movement through the “Is this really worth going more than 4 feet away from my fireplace” litmus test, let’s take a few posts to reminisce about August.

At the end of my last post I had reached Ollalie Lake and feasted on a $5 bag of Doritos. Usually if a store is more expensive than Walgreens’ non-sale prices, I refuse to shop there on principle, but dang those Doritos were delicious.

However, what I didn’t write that I spent most of the night worrying about whether my mom was worrying about me. I’d promised to call her at Ollalie, but travelers be warned: that lake sits in some rare ripple of the time-space continuum in which you can buy Doritos but not get a signal. So I fretted over that until I fell asleep. One bonus about thru-hiking: “Until I fell asleep” is really only like 8 minutes.

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Some totally not-dorky hikers right there! (From left to right: Fire Ant, Braids, Netflix [me], and Hot Tamale)
The next morning I hiked until I got cell reception, then called my mom at a spot just before we entered the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The trail passes through their land for about 23 miles, and it was lovely. Bonus: I saw like four bunnies.

We camped that night at the Warm Springs River, which was not at all warm but did feature a lovely bridge. As we approached the river we met a family camping, three young kids and a mom. Although we all admired their tenacity in taking on backpacking, and I hope to be half as brave as that woman when I have kids, I wasn’t disappointed to find a large open campsite on the other side of the river, where noise invasion wouldn’t be an issue. We spent the evening trying to guess whether they were on an overnight trip or a couple days.

Of course, the next morning they passed us at a spring, and we discovered that not only were the kids totally comfortable on their adventure, but they had gone as many miles at that point as I had, in not that much more time. As they approached I noticed the little boy had a lizard-like toy dangling from his pack’s straps. 

“I like your dinosaur,” I said when they paused to get water.

“Actually it’s a dragon,” he corrected me. I now saw the shiny purple wings on top of it and was ashamed at my previous ignorance. He graciously accepted my apologies, however, then casually mentioned how much he loves Starbursts. But we all knew that trick. Casually mentioning the food you’re craving around new acquaintance is the first step towards them digging in their bag and offering you that food if you have it. I didn’t have Starburst, and I wasn’t about to offer my Skittles for fear that he would actually take them. Not my most generous moment, but it happened. Luckily, his mom mentioned that the only candy they had left was Skittles and some chocolate, thus absolving my guilt. All in all, I left them hoping that my future family will one day be as badass as them. #Goals.

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 ***This post has been updated to clarify that I’m not an absolutely terrible person in not offering a little kid Skittles because he already had them. Which in any other context I wouldn’t feel remotely bad about, so I probably shouldn’t now, either. Hiking is weird.***

Three Days on Mount Jefferson

Around 11 years ago, in the summer before my 8th grade year, my dad looked at his map of the Jefferson Wilderness Area and pointed thoughtfully at one of the trails. “I think,” he said, “I want to try out this Breitenbrush trail this weekend. You wanna come?” he asked.

Of course I wanted to go. So we packed some snacks and sunscreen and, knowing my dad, left well before the crack of dawn. The hike was lovely and became one of our favorites, but perhaps the most life-changing thing that happened on that trip was me seeing a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail.

“That goes from Mexico to  Canada,” Dad explained when I asked what it was. That was the day that I decided I wanted to attempt a thru-hike.

The sign for the trail we took that day

Even though my thru-hike was thwarted by a lame knee, I still approached Jeff on my section hike with a sense of excitement and returning to where it all began. We arrived in the Jefferson Wilderness Area the day that we left Big Lake Youth Camp.

On day 1 in the Jefferson Wilderness Area, the PCT climbed up through bleached burnt forests and the baby firs that are trying to take their place. Purple wildflowers and red Indian Paintbrush were in bloom, even though by the end of the day we would camp among viny maple that are already turning red. Huckleberry bushes provided snacks for us at every break. It was warm, but a stiff breeze cooled my neck and played harmonica with the trees.

Hiking the South side of Three Fingered Jack

We passed on the South side of Three Fingered Jack, just above the treeline. A couple of hunters were glassing the screw field for mountain goats, and I might have felt bad for scaring away their quarry if they’d bothered putting a leash on their two dogs. For about a mile we could look up and see the changing shape of the boulder. Despite nearly circumventing it, we never figured out how it got its name. 

Suddenly the trail in front of us turned a corner. “Cue the Lord of the Rings music,” I said, so Braids and I broke out in winded orchestral impersonations. We broke over the hilltop to find our first close-up of Mount Jefferson. Perhaps just because this is my favorite mountain, I felt like I was home. Jeff was a king surveying his cloudless domain, bleached acres of burnt trees nothing more than his white robes to match his snowy crown.

Me and Mr. Jefferson!

After a few requisite pictures, we continued on to where we could see a few other hikers resting across the canyon. The trail led us to a spur just a few hundred yards from the boulder atop Three Fingered Jack. There, we had a snack and listened to a couple of weekend hikers tell us what badasses we are. I didn’t feel like one at the time, but it was a nice encouragement. We also meet Hot Tamale and Moon Train, who camped with us and the weekend hikers that night at a pond a few miles later.

Snack breaks are the best breaks.
Three Fingered Jack in the evening.

Day 2 in the Jefferson Wilderness Area was also a long uphill climb, though there weren’t as many burnt areas. At one point we stopped for a rest after only a mile–well, my hiking partners did. I stopped twice in that mile. My Poptarts called to me.

Just before that I was zoning out, listening to music, on a grueling shale hillside, trying to remember why I’d thought this would be fun. I heard a noise behind me. Apparently, when startled, I have the capacity to react in much the same way as a pirate being challenged to a duel. I spun around, trekking pole raised against the threat, shouting an unintelligible warning–only to find a rather attractive hiker standing frozen and alarmed on the path behind me. I gasped an apology as I let him pass. Safe to say we can probably scratch him off my list of potential soulmates. As it turns out, Braids fell down when he tried to pass her, so he was probably thinking PCT girls are really weird during that mile, anyways.

We camped that night by Milk Creek. We got there when it was almost dark, and all the campsites were full for a few miles around. Too tired to walk the three miles to the next marked campsite, we threw our sleeping bags down 2Ă—2 on a side trail and hoped not to regret our tentless state.

Milk Creek. Also in the evening.

The final day we climbed 6 miles, passed the spot where I first learned of the PCT, ate lunch in Jefferson Park, and then climbed another 2 miles up Jefferson Ridge. There, I could look back at Mount Jefferson, then turn 180° and see Mount Hood, Adams, and St. Helens ahead. We ate more huckleberries here.

Captain Hook! Oh, wait…it’s Hood. Nevermind.

Our goal for the evening was Ollalie Lake Campground. I was craving a burger and needed to call my mom. Unfortunately they had neither burgers nor cell phone reception. However, I invested in a bag of Doritos for dinner. Basically the same thing.

Just before reaching Ollalie, I had one of the most peaceful moments on trail. I paused by Upper Lake to lay down and rest a few minutes. The sunshine glimmered off the water. As I looked up, I saw a strand of spider web caught in the breeze. It reflected the sunlight as it floated above the lake and into the open air.

Mount Jefferson and Jefferson Park from the north.

A Vacation State

As Fire Ant, Braids, Miguel, and I make our way through Oregon, we tend to have the same conversation with fellow hikers at every spring and shady lunch spot we find.

Us: We’re really loving Oregon.

Them: Oh yeah. It’s great. I can’t believe it’s gonna be over so soon.

Us: Yeah, crazy how time flies.

Them: I know! I’ve got four days of food in my pack and then I’ll be in Cascade Locks.

Us: Yes…four…

Them: I mean, you can do 30, 35 miles a day here, easy.

Us: Oh, yeah. Definitely.

Them: Well, see you up trail.

Us: Yeah, see ya.

Them: *walks away*

Us: We’re definitely never seeing them again.

Going roughly half the speed of many hikers, though, we’ve come to accept the mantra, “Last one to Canada wins.” The trail angel Legend gave us this saying a few days ago: “When I hiked in 2013, I set two records: I took the longest to get to Canada, and I had the most fun.”

We met Legend and another trail angel, Coppertone, just after crossing highway 242, North of the Three Sisters. We had had a late start to the day, so we hiked 2 miles across lava fields in the gathering darkness, my headlamp and high-top boots sparing my ankles some nasty turns.

As we reached the first available campsite, we noticed a group of other hikers sitting in lawn chairs. “Welcome!” Coppertone said. “Would you like a root beer float?”

The correct answer to that is always yes, so we stayed up a few more minutes to drink our floats before finding a spot to throw down our stuff. I cowboy camped for the first time, not so much because I wanted to, but because I was too lazy at that point to set up my tent. I slept well, though.

The next day we woke up to Legend cooking pancakes, and we had a delicious breakfast before setting off again. Backpacking is no picnic. But, in this case it actually was.