Volcano treks and extraordinary kindness: New Zealand Week Five



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Volcano treks and extraordinary kindness: New Zealand Week Five
Piripiri Flats to Whanganui, 250km (total cycled to date: 1,230k)

It’s easy to underestimate what a kid can do. Their little legs require double the effort to get the same results as the fully-grown, and their willpower is prone to simple distractions like a stick shaped like a sword, or a rock… any rock.

But we’ve found that when we routinely set ambitious goals (like day-long hikes around Vancouver or 10km cross-country ski outings) and achieve them (with lots of secret-word and math games), our sons rise to the challenge.

imageEven so, when we decided to give our cycle saddles a rest day in Tongariro National Park, we hesitated just slightly when the boys opted for a 19.4km trek across two active volcanoes.

Turns out it wasn’t Heron and Sitka we needed to be worried about.

The park’s signature “Tongariro Alpine Crossing” comes with ample warnings about fitness, proper gear and plenty of food. So we stuffed two large backpacks borrowed from our awesome Warmshowers hosts Paul and Lisa, with extra clothes, four times our average lunch and a half-kilogram of chocolate. The deal: one square each at every kilometre marker – the ultimate incentive for both child and parent.

imageWe reluctantly set an alarm as the night rain pummelled our tent, and made our 7am shuttle just in time. “The weather always looks bad in the morning before the sun comes through,” we were half-heartedly assured by the driver who didn’t stick around to see his theory tested. And it did look bad, a thick fog and light drizzle greeting us at the packed parking lot where dozens of suddenly self-questioning foreigners stepped on to what could well have been the surface of Mars.

imageimageWe experienced every conceivable scene of hiking a volcano that day – steaming sulphur lazily wafting out of the lava pebbles, a beautiful waterfall carved in the rock, gale-force pelting rain at the summit that forced us to cower behind an outcropping and change into all of our extra clothes, eerie lakes settled into dormant craters, an old sleeping hut with a soccer-ball-sized hole in the roof where a 2012 eruption had launched something fairly heavy, and gulp-inducing views on our long descent, as the sun finally broke through to reveal how epic our trek had been.

imageimageThrough it all, we managed to keep pace with our ultra-fit sons – who inexplicably sang songs during the summit downpour and swung merrily from the cables intended to help the rest of us scale the mountainside without breaking a limb. On the leeside they started running down the path for the last 8km, excusing themselves as they skipped past our wet and weary fellow trekkers. When we emerged at the far trailhead (15 minutes before the “early” eight-hour pick-up), they stunned an exhausted group of high-schoolers who couldn’t believe these four little legs were still bounding about, disappointed the hike was “already over.”

imageAs for Ed and Joce, our butts were happy for the change in activity, but the rest of our muscles were in full revolt for several days. Thankfully the next day was a luxurious sunny 61-km downhill bike ride to join the popular “Mountains to Sea” trail.

imageOur volcano trek was just one highlight of a week that had it all. We celebrated our 1,000th kilometre (or 1 megametre as the boys called it) on the exhilarating second day of the Timber Trail, where we braved more massive suspension bridges and even met the local Member of Parliament who was touring the trail on her own mountain bike and offered us a tour of the legislature in Wellington when we arrive next week.

imageWe came to the end of the trail at Ongarue and asked a man on an ATV for directions to the campground. “Our farm is just up the road,” he said. “Come camp there.” Within a half-hour, we were installed in Alan and Kerri’s spare bedrooms, a beer in hand and dinner cooking up. We woke up to find the boys dining on toast and ice cream for breakfast, chatting away to their newfound honorary grandparents – who had arranged a ride for us to skip past 20km of gravel road to the next town and start our route midday, so they could take the boys on a morning tour of the farm to help herd the deer and cattle on the ATV.

We decided to start asking for directions more often.

imageLater in the week, as we were biking along the majestic Whanganui River gorge, a downpour began (there haven’t been many but they’ve all been memorable) just as we arrived at our campsite – a spartan field with an unsheltered bench, a pit toilet and a group of local Maori folk standing by their pickup truck. Of course the boys were excited for the potential soccer space, but the grump was starting to set in for the other two of us, when one of the locals approached us with a humongous package of take-out. “We saw you biking with the kids and knew it was going to rain, so we went into town and got you some tea [supper in Kiwi].” imageAnother handed us a bottle of fancy Maori wine and the whole bunch drove off before we got their names. We dined well in the drizzle that kept up all night, playing cards in our comfy tent, incapable of grump after learning yet another lesson in extraordinary generosity from these Kiwis.

The next morning we were still wet, though. So Ed concocted a song to the tune of “Everything is awesome” from the Lego movie. “Everything is soggy! Everything is wet when you sleep in the rain,” to which Sitka replied, “No! It’s ‘Everything is awesome, when you are biking!”

Can’t shake the happy from that kid.

Our unforgettable moment of the week happened after a wonderful night in Owhango with our new friends Paul, Lisa and Charlie, who invited another young family to join us on a morning walk. The kids bounded ahead through the forest, and when we finally caught up, we saw Sitka suddenly swing past, 12 feet off the ground on a vine like Tarzan, giggling uncontrollably. No one knew exactly where the vine was attached, way up in the trees. But it was a favourite spot for the local kids that we would have never known about without these great Warmshowers visits. And a sight that won’t soon erase from our memories.

Week five summary by Sitka: “The alpine crossing was the best hike ever! The eruption was really cool!”

Week five summary by Heron: “This was an awesome farm week – I loved herding the deer!”


  1. Cheryl says:

    Wishing I was with you guys!! … Until I read “pit toilets”.. Love the updates!

  2. Jazz says:

    I can’t wait to meet your amazing strong and determined boys in the Blue Mountains. We are booked in the same days as you and will be eager to hear more travelling stories. Love your posts.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Your adventures sound so wonderful! Great to read your recent update.

  4. karen Blackburn says:

    It’s so great to follow your trek! Traveling with kids as a family opens so many doors- such an amazing way to meet people and get to know about the world!

  5. Mark Thomson says:

    Very classy – the appropriate response (after the locals have gone) is “Score!”. That is great. And pit toilets are the best!! Now, quick lesson… much of New Zealand greenery is a rain forest… let that be a hint… 🙂 Glad you are still smiling, keep that up, follow th=e boys lead, they seem to have it sorted.

    Thanks, Mark

  6. Lucy Klein Horsman says:

    I really enjoy reading about your adventures each week. I always can’t wait to read about what places you’ve seen and what things you’ve experienced! This week was no exception and I enjoyed reading about the volcano hike and Sitka swinging on the vine like Tarzan.

  7. lisa girardi says:

    I look forward to ur blogs. The “kiwi’s” are as lucky to have u all there!! I can not wait to have you over when you get back…but we will have to make it longer than 2 hrs as I want to hear it ALL!! <3 ya all Lisa, Damiano and Sophia

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8 Proven Shortcuts To A Healthy Pregnancy

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