Tag Archives: hike

Walking the Whakarewarewa Forest

I wanted to know what there was to do in Rotorua, New Zealand that was accessible by foot and public transport, and something that was cheap, or even better, free. A helicopter ride over to the White Island was out of my budget, I couldn’t get out to the Rainbow Mountain and its spectacular crater lakes and I didn’t fancy going to the Polynesian Spa alone (although I did hear that after you’ve paid the $22 entry you can stay in all day and leave a wrinkled prune).

And then my CouchSurf host told me about the Whakarewarewa Forest. I love forests: the smell, the calm and the twitter of birds. I was sold.

Taking the bus out of Rotorua to Long Mile Road, the driver pointed me in the direction of the Redwoods Visitor Centre, a further kilometre down a tree lined avenue where I felt so small next to these tall, grand trees.

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Entry to Redwoods and the Whakarewarewa Forest

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Avenue down to the Redwoods Visitor Centre

The forest is set up with a number of clear routes laid out for mountain bikers and walkers. I had decided on the Pohaturoa track after doing a bit of reading up on the trail: a 2 hour hike through a varied landscape that would give me views down over the city and the possibility of seeing the Pohutu Geyser in action.

The first ten minutes took me into the redwood forest along a dirt pathway and on towards more boggy stretches, across wooden walkways and by crystal clear pools.

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Into the woods

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Jungle walkways

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Crystal clear pools

For a short while I joined a tarmacked road on the outskirts of the forest, sharing the space with mountain bikers and dog walkers. I stopped one woman. ‘What’s the emergency number in New Zealand?’ I asked, realising suddenly that if I got stuck at any point I had no clue of who to contact. ‘111’, she told me, ‘but you’ll be fine, there are a few people out today’.

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Easy signposting (most of the way)

The next section took me back into the forest for half an hour up a mud track where there was sparser planting of trees and ferns. A final little climb and I arrived at the Upper Lookout, a red, gravelly area with wide-reaching views. I stopped for a picnic in a cooling breeze, and took in the scenery spread out below me: gaps in the thick covering of bushy trees out of which thick, white puffs of steam rose up into a dull sky and drifted off into nothing; the main road leading down towards the lake with a steady trickle of traffic both ways; a little mountain and the White Island out on Lake Rotorua, both covered in a heavy blanket of foliage; and the city itself, a spacious place full of parks and fields and greenery.

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Taking a break

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Views down over Rotorua

I had been walking for nearly two hours and was starting to descend along wider mud tracks with pretty scatterings of flowers when the path literally dropped off into a mass of water. Dead end. I looked for another option and found a second pathway, a wooden walkway, but again it was sunken way below water level.

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Scrambling over fallen trees

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Flowers along the way

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Dead end. Great.

I didn’t want to back track the entire route so I decided to do a bit of off-road scrambling up muddy banks and through overgrowth and clusters of trees until I finally hit a mountain bike track. Signs clearly stated: no walkers. Well tough. What else was I meant to do?

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Definitely no walkers... but this is where I came from...

Having already walked so far, the end of the trail would surely be imminent, right? But no, it took a further hour before I arrived back at the Redwoods Visitor Centre, and back to the bus stop on Long Mile Road. Mini adventure completed.

Buses run each way every half an hour. The No. 3 bus leaves from Pukuatua Street and is the bus headed for Owhata. Tickets cost $2.40 each way. The Whakarewarewa Forest has walks that last from one hour to a full day, and dedicated mountain bike trails for all levels of ability.

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Stone drawings, giant plants and ice caves

I’m sitting in Restaurant Turistico 7 Hierbas, a 40 minute drive up and out of Huaraz, my head in my hands. I am in pain. My entire brain feels like it has swollen and is threatening to explode. I feel sick and my eyes can’t focus. And I am so, so frustrated because it’s been such a beautiful, interesting day but my body just isn’t adjusting to the altitude. Dammit.

Earlier that morning I had travelled in a little yellow van alongside a wide, dry river and an old Inca road with a German girl, an Israeli guy, two Brazilians, a few Peruvians and a street kid from Huaraz who had been invited along on the tour.

Daniel was our guide, an animated man in his forties with a rhythmic, musical voice and a face and body full of expression. He spoke only Spanish, rolling his rs and accentuating each syllable, barely stopping to take a breath. He outlined the plans for the day and commented on the landscape features as we passed by.

Daniel told us about Huayna Capac, the last great Inca ruler, a powerful, ferocious and social man by all accounts who also managed to find the time for 700 wives. ‘I’ve a problem with one wife’, joked Javier, our Brazilian-tourist-cum-translator (it was his wife that had volunteered him for the role of translator, although he seemed truly happy to put his English skills to practise).

We took a quick pit stop to grab a bite to eat and stock up on warm clothes and coca leaves and altitude sweets. Most people opted for the sweets. I chewed on a coca leaf. It was not as disgusting as I had expected, just a little bitter. ‘It takes 1.5kg of coca leaves to make 1g of cocaine, so you won’t get high’, assured Javier, ‘It will just alleviate the altitude sickness’. Maybe I should have bought considerably more?!

Before we continued, a village funeral procession passed by, a car at the front followed by a coffin carried by some of the local men. Children in school uniform played percussion and brass instruments to give sombre structure to the march by which to remember and send-off the deceased.

The road passed between two mountain ranges: Cordillera Negra and Cordillera Blanca. The Cordillera Negra stops some of the warm coastal air from hitting the second range, which as a result sees much more snow and ice (therefore blanca – white). Initially the landscape was rolling, with craters in the hillside where underground lakes had erupted through the earth’s crust. The ground was dry and stony with tight tufts of porcupine brown and green grass. There was an occasional collection of cattle. ‘There used to be more’, explained Daniel, ‘but many people have now chosen a different life in the city’.

It got increasingly colder as the bus climbed ever higher along winding roads with open, empty views. We made various stops: a natural, fizzy spring where a woman with a dressed up child and lamb asked for money for photos; a small, clear and deep, deep lagoon; a ‘forest’ of Puya raimondii  whose one hundred year lifespan sees the plants grow up to ten metres in height (how they find the nutrients to grow on the inhospitable ground is a bit of a mystery); and 14,000 year old rock paintings alongside some graffiti from 2007.

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By the time we arrived at the pathway to the glacier – our final destination – the weather was starting to get moody. We disembarked and some of the group opted to ride horseback for the first kilometre whilst the rest of us walked slowly up the gentle incline to the 5,000m mark.

A further kilometre later, a wander over muddy, stony ground with snow lightly falling on our faces, and we reached a mammoth wall of ice surrounding a lake. Known as the Pastoruri Glacier, this huge chunk of ice is said to be shrinking due to the effects of global warming.

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The light shone blue on some of the ice caves, gigantic icicles hanging and threatening to plummet into the water below. You could hear the occasional sound of cracking and whooshing as pieces of the glacier gave in to the spring melt. It was stunningly beautiful, a true wonder of nature. Having never seen anything like it, I was in awe. And then I ruined it all by trying to do some ice climbing where I got told off by a little old lady in traditional dress, the acting guardian of the glacier. Lesson learned. (There are, however, options to do ice climbing in the area, just not here, obviously).

Back in the café, and after some medicine I start to feel a teeny bit better. We make the last downhill stretch back down towards Huaraz and one of the Peruvian tourists starts to puke. The altitude has got her too. Daniel helps her out, strokes her hair and continues to keep the mood light by joking.

I guess he’s seen it all too often.

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The long way round: Laguna Churup, Huaraz

It was 5:50am and my alarm was buzzing and I didn’t want to get up. I had arrived in to Huaraz a couple of days earlier and had planned to do a one day test hike – the Churup trek – to see some of the area and to assess how I dealt with the altitude. But now my alarm wasn’t shutting up and I’d had a bad night and I was finding reasons to talk myself out of going. I could do it another day. What was the rush? But I did get up, and I’m glad that I did.

Getting to the starting point

It was bright morning. The distant razor ridges covered in a smooth, snowy blanket stood out vividly against a brilliant blue sky. A taxi to Pitec cost S/.40 for a fifty minute ride up rocky, unrefined roads and narrow passes through villages. The jolty ride rattled the taxi interior, and my teeth rattled in my head.

The early morning sun was streaking through the trees as the taxi driver skilfully dodged other vehicles and avoided steep drops. Donkeys blocked the road and dogs ran along with the car, barking madly. A man sitting in a field waved as we passed by another village of low mud brick buildings with red tiled roofs where another man led three sheep on a lead and carried a cockerel under his other arm.

Thirsty shrubs and trees and parched grasses decorated the landscape, the overall colour scheme yellow, orange and brown. The landscape started to open up to reveal far reaching views and rolling hills and mountains, a coarse landscape with fewer trees, tufts of spiky grasses and the odd hardy shrub and chunky rocks. We had arrived!

‘Take only photographs
Leave only footprints
Kill nothing but time and mosquitos’

The hike itself

It was a confident start: a definite pathway and a point in the right direction from the ranger who had taken our details and a S/. 5 entry to the reserve. Within a few moments the path sprawled into a multitude of possibilities.

It’s really obvious and easy to see’, another traveller, Raz, had said when we had discussed it yesterday. Really? We made a choice. It was the wrong one. Pathways disappeared and then possible pathways reappeared. We pushed on, not wanting to backtrack. And then finally, after two hours of scrambling over rocks and pushing bushes to the side, Pacha Mama guided us and we saw her, and she was beautiful. A proper, well-trodden path. Amazing.

Spirits lifted, we pushed on, but steep climbs and increasing altitude meant that every ten to twenty metres we had stop to catch our breath. I felt dizzy. I had a serious case of the sniffles and my head hurt. I popped some paracetomol.

A gentle downhill stretch passed a more rocky landscape brought some respite, winding slowly down to a waterfall that split and then trickled over boulders into a little pond. It was to be our picnic spot. And it was where we were overtaken by a group of fit, acclimatised Peruvians, who stopped for a quick chat and then marched onwards.

The path took us to the left of the waterfall and put my limited climbing experience to the test with an unavoidable ascent passed patches of snow. Although there were plenty of footholds and ledges to grab, the drop was steep. I didn’t look down. Grabbing thick wires bolted into the rock face and launching up to the next flatter section reminded me a bit of via ferrata that I had done a few years back. I wished I had brought a carabiner. The drop down would have been horrific: no helmet, no first aid kit, no way of calling for help.

A further ten minutes on from the climb and I arrived at Laguna Churup (4,450m). Finally, a destination success! And wow! Cliffs on the far side rising straight from the lake that sparkled in the sunshine, the bottom visible with black and turquoise and yellow patches, the water icy cold from the snow run-off of Mount Churup in the near distance. A stiff breeze rippled the surface, the lapping water on the mighty boulder peninsulas and the distant rush of the waterfall the only audible sounds.

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Re-energised, the way back felt like something out of an action-adventure film: swinging from branches, sliding down rock faces and running and bouncing along like a mountain goat

Um, okay, I can’t think of any action-adventure films with goats and I really wasn’t that agile, managing to lightly sprain both ankles on the way down.

We took the right path all the way back. Phew.

If you do this day trek then – if you want to do the regular, less adrenaline filled and random route – take the path to the left and up once you’ve paid the ranger, and not the tempting one to the right. Or take the one to the right and enjoy an unmapped scramble and ramble. Why not?!

Afterword

Bouncing along in a shared taxi-minibus (S/.8) the 3:00pm rain accompanies us on our journey back to Huaraz. The collectivo bursts a tyre and we sit on the roadside whilst the driver changes the wheel. We continue onwards and a young girl waves from the field as we drive by and I wave back. And we smile and wave at each other. I think about the altitude, about getting lost, about the walk in general: it was tough for the body, but good for the soul. I feel great.

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