The Hike to La Gruta: Week 240

The foggy route to La Gruta and Parque los Nevados: Manizales, Colombia

I play volleyball with my SENA colleagues twice a week after work. The volleyball court is across the road from the campus and is reached via an underground tunnel. From here, the view of the school and the hills and the mountains that rise up behind is absolutely stunning.

Sometimes the view is so pretty, especially during a sunset, that I have a hard time concentrating on the game. For this reason, when some friends of ours wanted to hike the mountains nearby SENA, I was excited. I knew how scenic the area was.

We caught a buseta that went through Gallinazo and exited at a fork in the road. To the right was a hot springs complex and to the left was a narrow road that eventually led to the volcanoes and the páramo of Parque Los Nevados.

The foggy route to La Gruta and Parque los Nevados: Manizales, Colombia

Aside from a few bicyclists and motorcyclists, the bumpy uphill road was quiet. As we walked the morning fog moved in. Birds called out from the surrounding trees and rivulets of water trickled down the side of the road. The landscape was so peaceful that it was easy to forget how much volcanic activity was underneath our feet. Nature can be deceiving like that.

When we stopped for water Barret heard a strange noise. It sounded like a lid bouncing on top of a pot of boiling water. He searched the side of the road until he found a small vent – a hint of the volcanic activity below. The gurgling was punctuated by a puff of steam that dissipated as silence fell. A few seconds later the gurgling began again.

After four hours of walking uphill, we reached our destination- La Gruta. Outside the grotto was a memorial to a group of Boy Scouts that were killed there in 2006. They had hiked up the very route we had just taken and were swimming when a surge of water suddenly appeared and swept them away.

The waterfall at La Gruta, just off the route to Parque los Nevados: Manizales, Colombia

The clouds hung low the afternoon of our visit. The waterfall was at the far end of the grotto and closer to the entrance was a pool of hot, steamy water that poured out of the rock face. The water that flowed out of the grotto passed under a bridge before heading down the mountain.

The thermal water at La Gruta, just off the route to Parque los Nevados: Manizales, Colombia

Down the road from the bridge was the only building we had come across on our four-hour hike. A man walked out from an open door and asked us if we wanted a cup of aguapanela or an arepa. We had brought our own food, so we declined and continued walking until we reached a small outdoor hot springs.

The hot spring just of the road to Parque los Nevados: Manizales, Colombia

We passed through a metal gate and asked the caretaker if we could eat lunch atop the sloping hill. Below us was a small concrete pool filled with thermal water and the remnants of a second pool. A long green hose poured cool water into one end of the pool while piping hot water flowed into the other end.

The small hot spring on the way to Parque los Nevados: Manizales, Colombia

When a group of four left the hot spring, we walked down the grassy slope and changed into our bathing suits. The afternoon was foggier than ever when we got into the water. My cold feet began to tingle and my tired shoulder muscles slowly relaxed.

Swimming in the small hot spring on the way to Parque los Nevados: Manizales, Colombia

Every now and then I saw the caretaker strolling the hill above; he was a poncho-clad silhouette in the fog. If it weren’t for the steep terrain, I would have thought we were in the British moors.

On the way back down a jeep pulled over and offered the four of us a ride back into town. We jumped in and tucked our legs up on a hard plastic kennel. Metal beams crisscrossed the ceiling of the jeep and I crouched down so that my head wouldn’t hit the roof every time we bounced over a rock. Including us, there were nine adults, one baby, and one dog in the car.

It felt like we were hitching a ride in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from the nearest city. However, within the hour we were dropped off at a gas station across from the Manizales bus terminal. Moments like that are when I feel very lucky to live in Manizales.

The path to access La Gruta, on the way to Parque los Nevados: Manizales, Colombia

The Outback: Week 171 Part 2

View of Mt Connor from Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

107.2FM was the only radio station on the Lasseter Highway. There were no DJs or advertisements, just a collection of obscure American albums that someone cared enough about to share with whoever might be passing through the dusty red landscape.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Curtin Springs. It was a motel with a gas station and a shop that had as many functions as a Swiss army knife. Jars of pickled snakes and small wooden plaques lined the shelves behind the counter. A TV in the corner of the room was blaring part two of an annual rugby game called State of Origin. The first time I heard the tournament’s name I thought it was an important political address by the Prime Minister.

Although we were in the middle of nowhere, the young staff were all foreigners extending their Working Holiday visas. Citizens of certain countries can stay another year in Australia if they spend three months working in regional Australia. If it wasn’t for this program, places like Curtin Springs would have a very difficult time finding employees to wear their trademark blue and yellow shirt: Ugly staff but top service.

The facility itself was surrounded by a million acre cattle station, all of it owned since 1956 by the Severin family. It was easy to forget the arid land could support a working farm. In fact, the only time I heard a cow was before dawn. A pack of dingoes had surrounded the frightened creature with barred teeth and howls like electric chimes.The parking lot emu at Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

Barret, our friends, and I pitched a tent in the Curtin Springs campground and built a small fire to cook our dinner. A tame emu strolled by, pecking around the fringes of our site.

“Hey you guys, guess what band was playing on the only radio station in the outback!”

“You’ll never believe it,” Barret added, “it’s so random.”

It was impossible to guess, so Barret finally shouted out, “Coheed and Cambria- the entire album!”

Turns out there is no ‘underground’ cattle station, only our American friends driving behind us with their iPod radio adapter. I was a little disappointed to hear that.

Uluru at sunrise: Northern Territry, Australia

Just south of Curtin Springs and the Mobil gas station, a large plateau the color of dusty rose punched out of the flat terrain. To the unsuspecting traveler it looked like Uluru, but it was actually a beautiful red herring named Mt Connor.

The real Uluru was smooth, worn, and patterned like a tiger with dot-dot-dash stripes. When the sun began to rise, the bush landscape became two-toned. The tips of the vegetation were rosy-lime-green while the lower portions were blue-jungle-green. A ray of sun struck the monolithic rock and warmed it up like a glowing stove top.Receipt from Ayers Rock Resort: Northern Territory, Australia

This beautiful landscape first became a national park in 1950. Eight years later the land was taken from the traditional owners, the Anangu, and ownership was only returned in 1985. Since then, ‘Ayer’s Rock’ and ‘The Olgas’ are officially recognized as Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Longstanding cultural traditions, which had been suspended during that period, have also since resumed and contentious issues such as the ‘right to climb Uluru’ are being addressed. While it is legally possible to climb Uluru, it is culturally insensitive and heavily discouraged. The route up the rock is a sacred path taken by a few select Aboriginal men.

Uluru at sunset: Northern Territory, Australia

Photography is another thorny issue since ‘avoidance tactics’ are traditionally practiced after the death of a person. In the past this meant the deceased’s name was not said, but today it also encompasses photography and film. Obviously this is practiced to varying degrees within the community, but there are a few sacred points around Uluru where photography is prohibited.Polaroid of Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

Instead of climbing Uluru, our friends and I spent the rest of the day on a circular hike around Kata Tjuta, which means ‘many heads’ in Pitjantjatjara. Unlike the sandstone-composed Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a mosaic of pebbles and rocks cemented together by sand and mud. One of the boulders next to the footpath looked like a geodesic meatball.Polaroid of Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

The name of the walk was The Valley of the Winds and it cannot be overstated how beautiful the view was when we reached the top of the valley. The hidden oasis was a refreshing pause from the unrelenting sun, and that was the middle of winter!

Polaroid of the King's Canyon rim: Northern Territory, Australia

The following day we drove to Kings Canyon. From ground level, the canyon appears to abruptly end at a sheer cliff face. However, the view from the rim reveals a massive expanse of stupa-like domes. Along the route we saw lizards, honey pot ants, and collected swarms of hitchhiking flies on our backs. The latter is one of those things you just come to accept because it’s just not worth fighting.Rock formations at Kings Canyon: Northern Territory, Australia

The trick to dealing with the flies was to keep moving. Then, when the sun set with a pink halo completely encircling the horizon, the flies just disappeared out of thin air. The red landscape turned to bruised plum and the temperature dropped. The desert might be sparse, but there is life quietly tucked away in every fold and crevice.Red earth landscape of the outback: Northern Territory, Australia

About: Curtin Springs

About: Uluru and Kata Tjuta

About: Kings Canyon

Polaroid of Uluru in the afternoon: Northern Territory, Australia


Vanuatu: Week 119

Polaroid of a Twin Otter: Tanna, Vanuatu

Sapos yu no respecktim law ia, bae mifala i putum long hand blong ol polis.

Offenders will be prosecuted by the police.

Barret and I were on a Twin Otter aircraft flying between the islands of Efate and Tanna. The small plane seated 18 people, each passenger weighed at the check-in gate like grocery store produce. I should have felt reassured that the plane wasn’t overburdened, but I couldn’t stop reading the flight safety card in front of me and thinking about all the celebrities that have died in small airplanes.

No smok.

The fact that there was no door separating my foot from the faded and worn cockpit was also a cause of anxiety. You see, some things are best left unknown. I like to imagine my pilots are vigilantly scanning the horizon and pushing knobs, but the reality is they aren’t. They actually take their eyes off the clouds for long periods of time to write stuff in old blue binders.

Treetop Lodge on Tanna Island, Vanuatu

The descent towards the small airfield ran along the rugged coast. From up above we could see aquamarine blue holes and rolling jungle-clad hills. While it was a beautiful view, Barret and I quickly realized that Tanna was best experienced by foot.

From our lodge, Barret and I walked two hours to Port Resolution for a beer. The long, dusty road was the only straight shot connecting the east and west side of the island. It was also the local meeting place. Sometimes we crossed paths with an entire village and other times we said hello to kids rolling oranges together; the bruised rinds filled the air with citrus.

Lable on Tusker Beer, Vanuatu

Only one car passed us, going in the opposite direction. It stirred up the volcanic dust that had settled on the ground and squashed lizards. The electric blue tails still shimmered in the sunlight as we walked past. The luckier lizards rustled along the banks of the road and made the dry leaves sound like they had small legs.

On a map Port Resolution looks like a small town, but in reality it is a village of beautifully woven huts. It was the kind of place you’d see in a National Geographic article but you could never imagine living there because heaven shouldn’t require so much dusting.

Polaroid of a hut in Port Resolution: Tanna, Vanuatu

Around late afternoon Barret and I began the walk back. We had about an hour and a half to get to the rim of Mt Yasur in time for a volcanic sunset.

Half an hour into our walk we heard footsteps and a howling puppy behind us. We kept walking but after a few minutes curiosity finally got the better of me and I looked back. Twenty feet away were two young girls and two older women, all with sticks in their hands. The group chuckled when they saw me and the young girl making the barking noises began to whistle. It was the kind of sound you’d make when you wanted your friend’s attention.

“Barret, I think we are supposed to whistle back.”

Barret looked over his shoulder and met the same laughter and giggles as I did.

“You think?”

“Yeah, do it!”

“Why don’t you try?”

“C’mon, you know I can’t whistle! Don’t you have some special method?”

Barret pinched his lower lip, but before he could make a noise the girls beat him to it. Against a chorus of piercing whistles Barret changed tactics and cupped his hands to his mouth. He sounded like a teapot that just couldn’t boil.

Entrance ticket for Mt Yasur: Tanna, Vanuatu

Our audience was still tittering when Barret plucked a blade of grass from the side of the road. He wiped the ash off with his shirt and pinned it between his thumbs. Since we were facing forward we couldn’t see the group’s expression, but when Barret finally made the soggy blade of grass sing, the women erupted in cheers and the two young girls enthusiastically returned our throaty calls.

We were halfway into our rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star when I heard someone call out. I looked over my shoulder and saw the group standing in the road. “Barret, I think I heard them say goodbye.”

“Huh? No, there’s no place to go.” We hadn’t passed any roads or walking paths, just jungle. Barret glanced back again. “Hey- I think you’re right.”

When I realized they were indeed leaving, I was suddenly felt sad. Since arriving in Vanuatu I had become fixated on the idea of needing a talent like juggling, ukelele skills, or really impressive dance moves. In my mind it was an act of reciprocity- a ‘thanks for sharing your time, I would like to share mine too.’ There was so much I wanted to share, but unfortunately the US was represented with a wet turkey whistle.

Polaroid of Mt Yasur: Tanna, Vanuatu

I was at a loss until I suddenly remembered something- “come on Barret!” My boyfriend looked confused but he sensed my determination. “Come on!” I roused him again, “You need to show them your mouth thing!”

As we approached the girls their cheerful expressions turned into bewilderment.

“We want to show you something,” I said before pressing my finger against my lips. “Listen- it’s quiet.”

Under close scrutiny Barret lifted his hand and flicked his middle finger against his cheek. The first few times he did this, the girls still looked confused. After a few more flicks on his cheek they finally heard it- the sound of a falling water drop. Their faces lit up and a big smile spread across their lips.

Mission accomplished. Barret and I waved goodbye and continued on to Mt Yasur.

Mt Yasur erupting: Tanna, Vanuatu

About: Vanuatu

About: Tanna

About: Mt Yasur

How to get around: Air Vanuatu

Tongariro Crossing: Week 64

We had been warned.

It was cold and windy in the shadow of a towering volcano, but we plowed on through the arid terrain. I had misinterpreted the guide’s advice when I got dressed that morning, for now I had so many strata of clothing it would take a geologist to undress me. The vigorous chaffing of three leggings meant we were drawing closer to Mordor.

Although the temperature was low, the rising sun beat down on us when we encountered the Devil’s Staircase. The steep ascent to the South Crater was marked on our map with a frumpy face and I felt like a car overheating. Maybe, I thought, I could peel off one of these tights at the next Port-O-Potty.

When we finally reached the crater, Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mordor) loomed before us. The cone of the volcano had a scarlet rash and a small trail of steam rose into the clear sky. We walked across the frosty ground and up along the Red Crater Ridge- the most difficult part of the Tongariro Crossing.

As we climbed in elevation, the path narrowed and the winds picked up. At the highest point the gusts rammed our bodies and knocked off loose pieces of clothing. As a skilled and fearless mountaineer, I immediately dropped to the ground and scuttled across like a displeased wet cat. The view was the most breath-taking desert landscape I had ever seen in my life- rugged mountains populated with pools of milky pearls. I wanted to more fully appreciate the panorama, but the violent wind was more than a little terrifying.

I am going to lean forward,” Barret yelled over the wind. “Get a photo of me.”

Was he crazy? “Get away from there!” I screamed back.

Quick, just one photo!” He pleaded.

My numb fingers fumbled with buttons before aimlessly snapping a few photos.

Did you get it?” Barret asked.

Yeah, sure.” I hazarded a guess. “Now get away from there!”

How to get to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing: Inside the Tongariro National Park at the south end of Lake Taupo. The Tongariro Crossing is part of the Northern Circuit track and is not circular. Private shuttle buses operate drop offs & pickups.

Lake Waikaremoana: Week 63

Nancy was a stranger, but we were sitting in her dining room eating chicken wings and toasties. After a jarring drive over unpaved mountain roads we had arrived too late- both in hour and in season. The lodge was empty, dark, and locked. By chance we saw one lone figure standing on a corner and walked over. That silhouette under the street light was Nancy and she brought us into the warmth of her home. While she was in the kitchen calling someone from the lodge, we washed her food down with hot cups of tea.

They’ll be around shortly and then you can head over,” she told us in a New Zealand lilt. Tuai was a small Maori community, and in some way or another, the person she had called was family.

The next morning we left our car in a secure area and caught a ride to the southern end of Lake Waikaremoana. The steep uphill climb to Panekiri Bluff was the hardest part of the whole walk and we weren’t used to hiking with four days worth of food on our shoulders. Our unhurried climb didn’t feel too slow until we met the girl who passed us.

She was a pragmatic German who had started two hours after us and arrived at the hut two hours before us. My only consolation was that while we were eating ginger candy and enjoying the scenery, she was squatting in front of the hearth unsuccessfully starting a fire.

The second day we descended into the quiet of the forest. Most of the track was a staircase of tree roots, but in some parts an abundance of summer rain had carved deep luge tracks through the earth. We wound down through the tall green ferns and out onto the lake shore an hour before the sunset. Black swans bobbed under the surface as the water rippled around them.

From the Waiopaoa Hut, we watched rich pinks and royal purple hues gently flood the sky. When the stars appeared, the lure of a crackling fire drew us back inside. We cuddled and drank tea, both of us mesmerized by burning red branches when suddenly a noise pierced the evening calm. Loud voices from across the lake faded in and out like a bad radio reception. For a good half hour we felt like sitting ducks with the guillotine looming over our heads.

Bang! Clump CLUMP! Bang! HA ha! Slam, clump, Oh my!! Made it! SLAM.

The teenage blade had dropped. Kids squealed with delight as they threw off their backpacks and groped about the dark cabin. Bright headlight beams blinded us and an army of gas burner flints sparked in unison.

“I better open a window…” Barret glumly said as he surveyed the scene.

As I sulked against the wall of the dining room, a young lanky boy approached us.

You guys must have been SO surprised to see us!” He stated with a chuckle. “It was just you two and then BAM! Explosion!

After falling asleep to the sounds of Greco Roman wrestling, we left in the morning without eating breakfast. It was a misty day and our path began with a flat muddy track around the lake shore. Stray sticks had been thrown across some of the small squishy pits, but we encountered one so large and deep we had to pause. With a moment of brilliant clarity I knew what I had to do. I planted my left foot, grabbed a skinny tree trunk and leaned back to gain momentum.

Before I was even halfway through my swing the tree broke and I flew backwards into the cold bog. If I had paid for this in Rotorua I would have been ecstatic. But I was cold and dirty and miserable and Barret wouldn’t stop laughing.

A little before the beam of my headlight faded into uselessness, we reached the last cabin. It was a large new building, and it seemed menacing under the light of the moon. We quietly tip toed into the sleeping quarters and put our backpacks down before moving to the cavernous kitchen next door. For a second I almost wished we had company to fill all the empty seats inside, but that feeling disappeared as soon as Barret got the fire going.

The last day was our short, easy leg; fueled by more trail mix than I cared to eat in a lifetime. When we reached a bridge that spanned over a wide river, we knew it was the end of our journey. We had walked 28.5 miles. Our feet were sore, our shoulders were sore, our thighs were sore. But even as we waited for the van to pick us up, we couldn’t stop pacing. We’d proven to ourselves that we could complete a four day walk and our minds were full of possibilities!

How to get to Lake Waikaremoana:  Heading south from Rotorua, State Highway 38 becomes narrow, winding, and unsealed. Heading north from Wairoa, the drive is shorter and paved on most sections.

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