Sunday, 1 May 2022

Round The Mountain Track: Ups and Downs and a Twist Ending

I just finished a five-day walk around Mt Ruapehu, the Round The Mountain Track, in a group of 11 family and friends. It was more intense than I expected — rather more difficult, but also more interesting.

We drove from Auckland to Turangi and stayed in motel on Monday night to give us time for the full Tama Lakes side track on the first day. Tuesday's walk from Whakapapa village across the Tama Saddle is pretty easy — it's Great-Walk-standard track for the Tongariro Northern Circuit — and only five hours. The weather was excellent — mostly sunny, as it was for almost the whole trip — and the side track to Upper Tama Lake was well worth it. Waihohonu Hut was full (school holidays); we'd booked 10 of the 28 bunks, and one of our people had to sleep at the campsite in a bivvy bag. Altogether a great first day, but I've done this stretch of track several times on the Tongariro Northern Circuit so it's the rest of the track I was really looking forward to.

On Wednesday we did another short leg, five hours south through the Rangipo Desert on the east side of Ruapehu, to Rangipo Hut. This is a really bleak and barren area, the most barren part of NZ below the treeline as far as I know. We got to Rangipo Hut in good time, even after we visited the historic Old Waihohonu Hut along the way. This section crosses some huge gorges, in particular the Whangaehu River gorge which carries the outflow from Crater Lake — currently a dirty gray colour due to the chemicals the volcano is brewing there. During eruptions, and collapsing of post-eruptive tephra dams around the lake, this valley and sometimes others is scoured by huge lahars. Since Ruapehu is currently at volcanic alert level 2, I think we all felt an urge to not linger!

Rangipo Hut has incredible views west to the Kaimanawa Ranges, south to the town of Waiouru and beyond, including Lake Moawhango. It's beautiful and mostly peaceful, but it's close to the NZ Army's training grounds — the rattle of distant gunfire and the whump of explosions into the evening made it a slightly surreal experience.

On Thursday we got up early to see a magnificent sunrise, and left the hut around 8am with a longish day ahead of us to get to Blyth Hut. Along this stretch of track you leave the desert and bare rocks and enter patchy forest. Mt Taranaki also came into view again. We reached Mangaehuehu Hut about on schedule at 1:30pm, had a quick lunch break, and took off around 2pm, just managing to get to Blyth Hut before sunset. It's a bit disappointing that there's not much of a view from Blyth Hut itself, but just down the track we got magnificent views of the sunset over Mt Taranaki and, later, of the stars. The younger folks stayed outside in the cold for nearly an hour watching for shooting stars.

On Friday I anticipated an even harder day so we left the hut even earlier at 7:30am. The track winds past a nice waterfall and then reaches the Ohakune Mountain Rd which we had to walk up to reach the next section of track. The road was steeper than I had anticipated and we went slower than anticipated so we started to fall behind schedule and I started to worry... From the road the track descends beside some spectacular silica-encrusted waterfalls and eventually winds around to Mangaturuturu Hut, which we reached around noon. We had a short lunch break again because the next section of track to Whakapapaiti Hut was rated "5-7 hours" which meant even optimistically we would not arrive before sunset! And so it proved... Most of the Round The Mountain track repeatedly crosses up-and-down over old lava flows, but it seemed that this section on the east side of Ruapehu has steeper ridges and more rugged rocks than the rest. The sun set around 5:30pm and we still clearly had at least an hour to go, but there was nothing to do but turn on our head-lamps and carry on! I was very glad that we'd just crossed the last big ridge before dark, and we were able to catch sight of the hut, even though it was still far away — a real morale boost just when it was needed. I was worried that the rocky track would even more difficult to navigate with headlamps, but at least for me it wasn't really. Neverthless we did have to slow down a bit to make sure that no-one got lost in the dark. Finally we arrived at Whakapapaiti Hut around 7:15pm — nearly 12 hours hut-to-hut, almost all of it on our feet. I've never been so glad to reach a hut!

This was one of those pushing-the-envelope experiences that could have been a disaster but I think actually turned out for good. Following the Google postmortem model:

What went wrong: I underestimated the effort it would take to get from Blyth to Whakapapaiti — but unfortunately the uneven hut spacing along the Round The Mountain track means there's no obvious way to avoid at least one monster day. I overestimated the speed of our group on that difficult section of track up to Whakapapaiti; I should have ensured every single person in our group had one (ideally two) hiking poles and used them. Also, less experienced trampers should always be following just behind someone more experienced at pathfinding — picking out optimal routes around rocks and other obstacles is a skill that makes a difference. We should have left Blyth Hut at the crack of dawn, half an hour earlier.

What went right: Some of those problems I identified and fixed during the day. I let everyone know early in the day that we'd have to walk in the dark, and when it got dark we smoothly switched to using headlamps with no fuss or panic. We stopped for snacks regularly even when we all felt pressure to "just keep walking".

Where we got lucky: It turned out that in a large group like ours headlamps work really well even if not everyone has one — there's plenty of lights on the track. The weather was cloudy but dry the whole day. No-one got injured. Most importantly, despite the variety of ages and experience levels, everyone was able to keep on walking at a steady pace over difficult terrain for much longer than I (or they, I think!) would have guessed likely before Friday. Thanks be to God!

Remarkably, after such a day most people in the group were very happy! We pushed our limits and surprised ourselves. Partly because of that experience I'd say this is one of the best walks I've ever done. We had excellent weather. The scenery around Mt Ruahepu is magnificent, especially the parts south of the mountain that I hadn't seen before — every day the terrain is a bit different. You see different sides of the mountain itself; right now the north side is completely bare of snow but the south side has its glaciers.

After that, Saturday was an anticlimax. We just walked out to Whakapapa in a little under 3 hours and then drove home.

Now for the twist: one of our group developed virus symptoms on Friday. I got some symptoms on Friday night/Saturday morning. When I got home last night I took a RAT test and yep, COVID+. So far the other sick guy and another guy have also tested positive. I won't be surprised if it turns out we all got it. I'm not sure how we got it; no-one else was symptomatic during the trip, but of course someone could have brought it asymptomatically. The good news is that so far I've had colds that were worse. Nevertheless my family and I will be self-isolating for the next week.

Sunday, 3 April 2022

New Zealand's COVID Strategy Worked (But It Could Have Been Better)

We did it! Auckland is well past the peak of the Omicron wave and NZ as a whole is entering the "endemic COVID" phase with minimal illness and loss of life compared to other countries. Overall, our COVID strategy has worked well. However, there are a number of things we could have done better that are worth discussing.

As I write this, Auckland is clearly well past the Omicron peak. Hospitalizations "with COVID" in the Auckland region are down to 350, from a peak of around 600 (out of 2700 total hospital beds in the region). ICU patients "with COVID" peaked at 31 and are stable or possibly declining. Our health system was creaking a bit at the peak but did not suffer the carnage seen overseas. Auckland will likely move to "orange light" settings in the coming week. NZ borders will almost fully open at the end of this month. I'm calling it: soon we will have transitioned to "endemic COVID" with better health results than just about any country in the world. Other metrics are also pretty good: e.g., during the pandemic we had 16 months of almost no restrictions apart from border controls.

The essence of our strategy was pretty clear by April/May 2020: eliminate COVID, keep it out at the border and keep stamping it out until we're able to vaccinate everyone. We achieved that: our only big wave has happened after everyone 18 and over had plenty of time to be double-vaccinated (and 12-and-overs had time for at least one dose)**. As a bonus this big wave is Omicron, which is less severe than the earlier variants. In Auckland we have had about eight months total of various levels of lockdown restrictions, but only a few months of the most severe restrictions (if you're vaccinated, at least). This was clearly a sensible strategy and we should do it again under similar circumstances. Switching gears in November/December 2021 to simply slow the spread and accept endemic COVID was also sensible (looking at you, China).

I think the major policy settings were mostly very good, but I see a couple of potential flaws. I wonder whether vaccine mandates for workers in education, health, police etc were worth the trouble; I don't want to go into the pros and cons here, but in hindsight they might not have provided enough benefit. We should have tried to prioritize MIQ usage to stop people using scarce MIQ capacity for holiday travel, but that was never even tried.

A lot of the execution was deeply flawed. For example, in 2020, COVID testing for MIQ workers lagged far behind government expectations. In 2020 and 2021 vaccination procurement was late and vaccination rollout was slow. RAT test acquisition was a fiasco and RAT tests were deployed later than they were needed. Testing and contact tracing consistently failed to meet targets. All these issues were forseeable. For these reasons I think Bloomfield (and probably others) should have been sacked long ago. Fortunately, in each of these areas our execution was just good enough to avoid disaster and stay on track with our strategy. Nevertheless we should be studying those flaws (in an apolitical way) and figuring out how to do better (with future COVID variants or the next pandemic). I suspect a lot of the problems lie with bureaucracy in the Ministry of Health and elsewhere in government.

On the other hand, I've faced enough armchair critics to know that people actually making and executing decisions, with limited knowledge, limited time, and real-world constraints, deserve much benefit of the doubt. I have no sympathy for the people who argue that the NZ government deserves no credit for our results "because it was easy" — you only have to look around the world to see that it was not. I'm very thankful to Ardern, Bloomfield, Hipkins and many others for the situation we're in.


** One very strange thing that happened in New Zealand that no-one talks about: in November/December we relaxed lockdown restrictions and opened up the country internally while Delta was spreading. Everyone traveled for Christmas, met for parties, etc etc ... and Delta cases just kept declining! We came close to eliminating it and probably could have except Omicron took over! No-one paid attention to this because at the time we were all just waiting for Omicron to arrive, but I think it's very surprising and needs to be explained.

Monday, 7 March 2022

Motutapu Island Camping Trip

This weekend I went on a tramping/camping trip, staying overnight at Motutapu Island's Home Bay. I was part of a group of twelve friends and family, including four kids aged four to nine. The weather was excellent, everything went well, and we had a great time, praise God! It was actually an amazingly fun trip considering how close and accessible it is to central Auckland.

We took the ferry to Rangitoto at 9:15am on Saturday, arriving at the island about 10am. There we split up, with one family taking the most direct route to Motutapu but the rest of us taking the usual summit route via the lava caves. After that we took the road from the summit to the Islington Bay causeway where Rangitoto connects to Motutapu Island. We had lunch at an idyllic spot just on the Motutapu side of the bridge, where we sat shaded by trees with a steady but warm breeze blowing. As a wonderful bonus, two takahē were browsing close by the whole time — quite a big deal since they are an endangered species, total population 450. Motutapu and Rangitoto have been cleared of predators, and Motutapu has suitable grassland and wetland habitat, so a number of takahē have been introduced there.

After lunch we followed the "Motutapu Walkway" across the island to Home Bay. It's an easy walk, and on fine days like this weekend, there are great views of Auckland and the inner Hauraki Gulf. There's not much shade, though, and bring plenty of water since there are no water sources anywhere except Home Bay. We got to the campsite around 3pm — pretty easy going.

At Home Bay most of our group just relaxed at the campsite and beach. I and one of my friends wanted to visit the northern end of the island so we did a fast two-hour walk to Billy Goat Point and back. It was a fun walk with good views, but the point itself is underwhelming.

This morning we had a slow start — bacon and eggs for breakfast, some swimming, and generally just taking it easy before leaving the campsite around 10am, since we didn't have far to go. We took the road route across the island, and lunched again at the causeway. It was just as delightful as yesterday except the takahē were absent. Then most of us took the "coastal track" around Rangitoto to the ferry wharf. It's been a very long time (if ever!) since I've been on that track — it's pretty uneven and hard going, especially on a hot day, but it's quite interesting, with lots of collapsed lava tunnels visible along the way. We pushed pretty hard and were just able to make the 2:30pm ferry. What a great weekend!

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Motatapu Track

On Wednesday (Jan 19) our big group finished the Hump Ridge Track. Of that group, seven people had planned to do the Motatapu Track as a followup. I enjoy following up a big group walk with a harder walk and a smaller group — it gives me more of a physical challenge and less of a management challenge, plus when I fly to the South Island I want to be there for more than a few days. Unfortunately three of the seven had to drop out due to various issues, so only four of us ended up doing Motatapu. It was tough, probably the toughest multi-day tramp I've ever done, but epic; we had a great time and I'm extremely grateful we had the chance to do it.

That Wednesday night we had dinner with most of the Hump Ridge group at Hikari in Queenstown, and then two of them drove the four of us from Queenstown to Wanaka where I had booked accommodation for the night. The next morning I was feeling a bit nervous about the difficulty of the Motatapu Track, so we went to the local DoC visitor's centre and talked to the staff there about the state of the track. Fortunately they were very reassuring. We bought supplies from the local supermarket and outdoor sports stores, and then caught a taxi to arrive at the Fern Burn car park at 1pm to hit the trail. The weather was great — sunny but not too hot — and remained so for the entire tramp.

That first day we had a pretty straightforward walk up the Fern Burn valley to Fern Burn Hut. It's a lovely walk through farmland, then beech forest, and then out in the open along a gorge. We were however still recovering from Hump Ridge and carrying heavier packs, up to 20kg, partly because we were carrying tents so we could camp at Macetown on the last night of the track, so we were pleased to reach the hut.

At Fern Burn Hut, and every other hut we stayed at, we met trampers doing Te Araroa. It seems Motatapu is mostly walked by TA walkers and a few other hard-core trampers, so most people we met were more experienced and/or fitter than us — quite humbling, but also inspiring, especially the older walkers!

On Friday we had a relatively easy day, a climb up to Jack Hall's Saddle followed by a steep descent and a couple of ridges to reach Highland Creek Hut at about 12:30pm. This gave us lots of time to hang out at the hut, relax, chat with other trampers, and play games, all in a stunning setting with great views down the Highland Creek valley. Hanging out at huts is one of my favourite things about tramping!

Saturday was always going to be the toughest day. We started early, leaving the hut around 7:30am to do as much walking as possible in the cool of the day. The track from Highland Creek starts with a steep 400m climb, followed by a steep descent to a delightful little valley, followed by another 400m climb and descent, with a lot of sidling along narrow paths. The second climb in the afternoon sun really pushed me to my limits, and I was barely able to keep up with the others. A great workout! Fortunately there was plenty of water in the stream so we didn't have to carry a ridiculous amount of water, so things could have been worse.

On Sunday we started with another climb, up to Roses Saddle, followed by a nice descent to Glade Burn where it meets the Arrow River. At that point we had the choice of taking the "high water" track over the hills above the Arrow River, or the "low water" route down the Arrow River itself. We had been advised to take the low route, the Arrow River being low, so that's what we did, and I'm so glad we did, because it was a lot of fun! The river rocks were not slippery and the river was easily walkable in most places. Frequently there were obvious "boot tracks" where we could leave the river and cut across meanders or bypass the rougher sections of the river. The only tricky parts were where the tracks led through patches of thorny matagouri which we had to crash through. Other than that, the river route was pretty easy with water only up to our knees at most, and very refreshing on a hot day. Highly recommended!

We arrived at the abandoned gold-mining town of Macetown around 2:30pm. As we were warned, the sandflies were pretty thick in that area. We were prepared to camp there on Sunday night but unanimously agreed to just push on down the 4WD track to Arrowtown to complete our tramp, nominally around three hours more walking, though we took a little longer as we got tired. I thought the 4WD track might be a little boring, but the views of the Arrow River gorge are actually magnificent. We finally reached Arrowtown a bit after 6pm and were able to get accommodation at the Settler's Cottage Motel, which was delightful, and after cleaning up we had a great meal in Arrowtown.

So in the end we completed the walk in four days. Possibly we could have even done it in three days by combining our first two days, but I'm glad we took it a little easier because I do like spending time in huts and I think we all felt Motatapu was tough enough the way we did it!

One of the advantages of a physically demanding tramp like this, for me, is that it helps me relax socially. I'm off my guard and just feel more at ease with the people in my group and the other trampers in the hut. I really appreciated that on this trip.

If I do this tramp or something similar again, I should definitely look into reducing my pack weight with lighter gear and better planning. My sleeping bag and tent are old and it's definitely worth investing in more modern options. Some of the other trampers had amazing gear!

Overall Motatapu is well worth doing if you have a high standard of fitness and you have fine weather so the Arrow River is low. The Web site warns about tricky sidles along steep slopes, but in the good conditions we had, that wasn't a problem at all (and I'm not good with heights!). The scenery isn't as spectacular as the Rees-Dart, for example, but you get constant long-distance views across hills and valleys, including Lake Wanaka frequently, so it's pretty good. The track is well-formed almost everywhere and easy to follow and the huts are in great condition. Ideally, do it after some rain (as we did) so there's plentiful water at the huts and in the streams (bring a water filter for the Arrow River; I didn't want to drink from it directly since there are a lot of sheep upstream).

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Hump Ridge Track

We have established a tradition of a group tramping trip in the South Island every year. Usually it's in December, but this time we couldn't leave Auckland as planned, so we postponed it by a month — to last week. This year we decided to do Hump Ridge; I've heard from people who loved it, it is scheduled to become an official Great Walk, and I haven't been to the very bottom end of the South Island before.

The group keeps growing and this year we had seventeen people altogether. The core has been friends I've known through ACPC but as the group has grown it has become quite diverse — a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages, and this year for the first time more women than men — lots of fun. At this size it's a challenge to organise but I love the people and relish the tramping (especially introducing new people to tramping) and this year I enjoyed it all as much as ever.

We convened in Queenstown on Sunday the 16th, most of us flying down in the morning although some arrived earlier. As traditional we met at The World Bar in Queenstown and had lunch together. We rented a few big cars and drove down to Tuatapere to stay at Tui Base Camp overnight to get an early start on the track on Monday morning. The table tennis table there was an opportunity for certain people to show off their (considerable) skills.

The first day on the Hump Ridge Track is pretty tough. There's a long flat stretch around the coast followed by a hard climb to the Okaka Lodge high up on the hill — 20km distance altogether. We started before 9am and straggled into the lodge between 5pm and 5:30pm. Some of the group definitely found it tough going — we didn't take the soft option of having our packs helicoptered up! However, it's a very nice walk, covering a variety of terrain — beach, coastal forest, rocks and hill forest, all unspoilt and beautiful. Those who trained beforehand definitely enjoyed it more, but I think everyone felt it was worthwhile.

The Hump Ridge lodges offer well-equipped kitchens, which made it much easier for us to cook for the whole group than at DoC huts. Also, we were blessed to have many skilled and well-organised cooks in our group so mealtimes were relatively low-stress. We had pasta with a creamy tomato and tuna sauce on Monday night, bacon and eggs for breakfast, and lodge-supplied sausages and mash (cooked by us) on Tuesday night.

After dinner, most of the group walked further up the hill along the "summit track" to view the sunset. It turned out to be shockingly beautiful up there in the evening! Apart from views over the mountains and lakes of Fiordland to the west, Te Waewae Bay to the east, and Stewart Island/Rakiura to the south, the track winds around a stunning array of tors and tarns. As a bonus, just as the sun set over the ocean, the moon rose over the hills of Southland in the other direction. In my opinion this was the highlight of the whole tramp, making me burst with joy and thanksgiving to God. The lodge staff had been pretty low-key about the summit track and I think they undersold it; if I'd known, I would have put more pressure on the group members who opted not to go.

The second day was relatively anticlimatic, walking along Hump Ridge itself down to the coast and then along the coast to Port Craig lodge. There are good views over the ocean, but it's still a long day (another 20km) and taxing if you're not used to downhills. At the end of the day some of us went for a swim at the sandy beach near the lodge — the sandflies were daunting, but we spotted dolphins nearby. (Or so I'm told; I didn't have my glasses on and couldn't see a thing!)

Normally we play some games in the evenings but on this trip we didn't, perhaps because people were just tired. Nevertheless we had a lovely evening relaxing in each others' company — for those who didn't go straight to bed.

The last day was another 20km but still relatively easy since it's dead flat along the coast. My feet got quite sore, perhaps because there's so much hard boardwalk, but at the track section along the beach I took off my boots and walked in the sand and surf, which cured them wonderfully. We finished the track more or less on schedule around 3pm.

Overall I think the trip went well. I need to take a bit more care with new people who haven't tramped before (but I'm glad to have them!). The weather was very good; rain was forecast for Wednesday but didn't fall until we left the track. There were no major logistical issues as far as I know, Hump Ridge is certainly worth the trip, everyone got on well and most people seemed to enjoy the company, for all of which I thank God. I hope people are keen to come back together for more!

Having said all that, the story didn't end there! As is our tradition, a subset of us followed this walk with a harder tramp, this year the Motatapu Track. But that's another story, that I will write up soon!