By Blake Hose, Ultra-Runner
When I first met Shane and Richelle a little under 12 months ago, I was blissfully unaware of the amazing experiences that their creative, adventure-addicted minds would have me endure. With open arms they have welcomed me into their world, a world full of enthusiasm, generosity, big dreams and on Shane’s side of things, a touch of masochism. For those that don’t know this wonderful couple, they together engineered the beautiful, selfless creation that is “The Ultra Life”. In leading what they believe is an Ultra Life themselves, this personal project set up by Richelle & Shane enables them to share their love of the outdoors & take people off the beaten track. It`s also a vehicle for sharing their fundraising exploits for The Shake It Up Foundation. Their most notable fundraising effort to date is Shane’s epic 230km non-stop run around the bay. A gruelling task which required him to hobble for the final 70km with a torn soleus, doing what he does best and suffering miserably for the things in life he believes in most. In this case, his suffering lead to him raising an astounding $10,000 for Shake It Up.
The ventures of this project though aren’t all just pain and suffering on Shane’s behalf. Coupling Richelle’s impeccable logistical organizational prowess with Shane’s mighty big hunger for adventure can only result in one thing- mind blowing experiences that are perfectly organized and run like a well-oiled machine. I was recently lucky enough to be a beneficiary of the culmination of these great minds in what was the inaugural Ultra Life Running adventure in New Zealand.
My eyes lit up like a Christmas tree when Shane put the idea of this trip forth. I couldn’t help but feel the question of whether I would like to go had a somewhat rhetorical nature… New Zealand? Volcanoes? Running? The Hillary Trail? I was practically on the plane before he had finished the sentence. In the blink of an eye the 3 month wait until our departure date had passed and I was on my way to the airport.
I was truly buzzing with excitement knowing what awaited me just over the ditch in the land of the Kiwi. Soon I would be setting foot in some of the most beautiful wilderness that the oceanic region has to offer us deadset trail fiends. After all, knowing Shane, when he describes something to you as ‘epic’ and ‘ridiculous’ there’s no shade of doubt that it’s going to be exactly that. Plus a little, or a lot more. Upon touching down in Auckland, Richelle’s ridiculously good life skills went to work in getting us on the road, we’d boarded the hire car and we all anxiously awaited our arrival at the pristine (and rather large) Lake Taupo. This would be our base for the first 3 nights of the trip. We stayed in a beautiful little establishment labelled ‘La Vista’, it is a neat and very well fitted out rental home pretty much on the lake itself! The view from the kitchen window was a bit of a tease though, as it allowed us to gaze out at our 2 intended major peaks for the trip. Standing at 2291m was Mt Ngauruhoe and nestled behind is the bigger brother, Mt Ruapehu- possessing a tantalizing peak of 2797m. Much higher than anything we have at our disposal here in Australia, this only further amplified our excitement for what lay ahead.
Friday morning rolled around and with a rather mighty spring in our step and smile on our faces, we boarded Terry (this is what we named our hire car) and set off to the Tongariro Alpine crossing. The main trail of around 19.5km is quite heavily trafficked and actually holds the title of the most popular in New Zealand. This was no deterrent for our Aussie contingent though and the masses of smiling faces around us only added to the jaw dropping atmosphere. The Grand plan for the day was to run from the trail head at Mangatepopo valley, take a detour up Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro then cap it off with the quad busting descent past the breathtaking hot pools to the finish at the Ketetahi car park. With packs clipped in and shoes tied tight, we set off with enthusiasm pouring from every pore of our bodies. We were soon surrounded by vast faces of rugged volcanic rock and scree, like nothing I’d ever witnessed before. It was as though we’d stepped into an entirely different world, a world which I instantly knew I was going to have a serious love affair with!
The trail snaked its way up a short but solid climb past the Soda Springs towards the South Crater that sits at the base of Ngauruhoe. Although very well maintained and easily navigated, the trail held no lack of excitement as it still possessed every aspect that us as trail runners love. We were surrounded by awe inspiring peaks and untamed wilderness, the rock underfoot and zigzagging trail always keeping us alert and guessing what could be next. Funnily enough, the number of people only added to the fun as we got to bounce around like gazelles from side to side, up, down and across as we continued to buzz by the more slowly moving hikers.
Having reached the Southern Crater in a state that could be likened to 4 young children on Christmas eve, a sharp right hand turn off the main trail took us directly towards our first summit bid. It just so happened on this day that the summit was heavily draped in some very ominous looking clouds, allowing us no visibility nor giving us anything to aim for. So we just went upwards! Battling through the deep scree and loose rock underfoot, the terrain wasn’t runnable but it sure as hell was a lot of fun. With our hands on our quads and mouths gasping for air our hiking legs had to come to the fore. The pain was dulled somewhat though by the enthusiasm we were able to share in what we were doing, trudging up what seemed like a vertical wall we were as happy as could be. Exchanging smart-arse remarks and endless comments regarding the sheer beauty of where we were really made the 30mins it took us to do 1km fly by! Yep, there were no speed records being set but maybe a few for crap talked in 1.5hrs….
Nearing closer to the top it became no easier. Each peaking at our watches periodically checking our altitude, the elevation was quickly rising as the temperature was quickly dropping. The dense cloud allowed no warmth of the sun to shine through on the summit, coupling this with strong winds up high, it was how a local may have described as “a but chully”. Reaching the top was like landing on the moon a welcomed sight yet so entirely different to anything we’d all experienced. Validating exactly why we do what we do! With no more than 15m visibility we stood right at the edge of the crater, all keen to catch a glimpse of what our hard work had earned us. Greeted with deep red rock covered in Ice, with cloud howling through- it was nothing short of magical. Our inability to see out across the landscape was irrelevant and the harshness of the conditions only added more enjoyment to the experience. It felt pure and refreshing to see it like this, to have the world feel like it had disappeared from around us was truly unique and enchanting. Something that I hope I get to experience again. Sooner rather than later.
After an abundance of happy snaps, it was much too cold to hang around and so the decent began. What started out slowly, as we cautiously navigated the rocks cloaked in ice, it quickly became an absolutely scintillating express train of trailites bombing downwards on the scree covered slopes. Many odd looks came our way as we trundled downwards making noises reminiscent of a group of overly excited school girls. We were having too much fun to care though. All feeling like little kids again it was full gas to the bottom, shoes and socks heaped with crushed rock, the altitude that had taken so long to gain had vanished in an instant. The fun however, was only just beginning!
From there we ventured to the summit of Mt Tongariro, again we were nothing short of astounded with the incredible views and a much simpler more runnable trail was a welcomed sight. Casting our eyes back to where we’d come from (and with great pride), the summit of Ngauruhoe had completely cleared and was in full sunshine. You know what though, I wasn’t disappointed. Not even in the slightest. The cards we had been dealt on the summit only made it that much more special for us and now we could just enjoy the sunshine on our long, astonishingly beautiful downhill run to the finish!
Focussing intently on the amazing hot springs and breathtaking views across the flatlands, for a few minutes we stumbled rather than gracefully descended, until we again remembered we should focus on the trail underfoot… The last 10km was a long, flowing and smooth descent to the Ketetahi Carpark. I was pleased with the ease of running to finish things off for the day as it really allowed one to just smile and be content with the trail we’d travelled and the many more on our radar…
Ruapehu – the word that had flooded into everybody’s minds by night’s end. Blissfully ignorant of how to actually pronounce it, the one thing we did know is that we wanted to scale this monster and explore every square micro-millimetre that we deemed safe to do so.
The Shane and Terry (van) partnership came to fruition once again, this time taking us a little further than the previous day’s escapade. In contrast to Ngauruhoe - sunshine and clear skies greeted us, filling our spirits with vitality and happiness for the trip to the base of our playground for the day. Planning was done with utter ease, I think Shane’s words were something along the lines of “Let’s just go up… as high as we possibly can”. As expected, this plan prompted no rejections.
Newbies as we were, the decision was made that we’d adopt self- navigation in aiding us to the summit. Something about scrambling through head-high boulders and clambering upward on icey slopes gives us adventure clad folk some seriously sky-high levels of excitement laced with passionate enthusiasm. A start point with an altitude equivalency of the Mt Buffalo Chalet was already stupidly cool – however in fulfilling our desired vertical ascendancy to the summit, we’d be required to double this….. plus a little more.
Metres ticked way as we built tight-knit bonds with our barometers. For they showed us the prizes of our labour in every +M we gained. Feeding our souls increasingly in every step, with the vertical ascent came breath-taking (literally) sights, ear pricking sounds and smells of freshness unparalleled by anything my body had ever been fortunate enough to be a recipient of.
The boulders quickly dissipated into scree as we joyfully traversed higher and higher into the sky. Ice was more prominent at the higher altitude and according to locals is a year-round resident on Ruapehu’s slopes. It was a very distinguishing factor having masses of ice to play on in the peak of summer – just another reason I’d discovered to return in future and indulge once again. 1hr 45mins saw us to the craters edge – standing tall above the clouds it was personally one of the most purely euphoric moments I’ve ever had as a person. It’s tough to put into words, in fact I’d say nearly impossible – to describe how reaching a new summit feels. Exhausting, yes – however rapidly overcoming this is the elation of a new peak, a new achievement, a lasting experience that you can hold onto dearly and carry with you in future explorations. It’s a completely new strength that will carry you to an even higher peak in the future.
The enormity of the summit crater was unable to be truly captured by any pictures we took whilst there, it’s something that has to be seen in person to be able to gain a true respect for its gargantuan proportions. A little summit fever as they call it, had spread through our quartet like wildfire - around us stood peaks on the craters edge higher than those where we were currently situated, this only meant one thing, more exploring needed to be done! Making the most of the glorious views and uninterrupted sunshine – we scurried across the massive bowl of ice below us, from ridge to ridge, we went in search of the highest point accessible in the minimal gear we were utilizing. Hours ticked by as our energy for adventure only grew – time was of absolutely no relevance at times like those and our day would only come to a close when our appetite for epic-ness (particularly Shane’s) had been satiated.
Countless awe-inspiring views greeted us atop numerous rocky, volcanic plateaus. 360 degree views all so impressive it was as though each vast expanse of postcard-worthy eye candy was trying to out-do the next – it was completely endless landscape induced salivation. After navigating a dark, soot coloured slope leading our noses for adventure skyward – our salvation was found in the highest possible altitude that could be attained on the day. Standing 2735m above sea level – a brief silence ensued, not due to lack of breath but due to moments like those epitomising why we do what we do. It’s the essence of our being as trail running adventurers - true happiness is found in these moments.
What goes up, must come down. Sadly this is true for us alpine addicted, vertical loving, lactic accumulating folk, too. One of the many things that had been learnt on the previous days volcanic indulgence though, was that descending Volcanoes is an extraordinary, adrenaline pumping high paced rush of quad battering bliss. Again our route was decided not by the trail but by our own creativity – so naturally we gravitated towards the monstrous scree slope only a stones throw away. Picture a 30-40% negative gradient – perfectly smooth and draped in an idealic depth of loose but utterly runnable scree heaven, ahead of you also a panoramic masterpiece that is the alpine region of the Tongariro national park.
Frolicking downward in leaps and bounds at a rate unconceivable on any different terrain – re-appearing was the bunch of school girls from the day before… I suppose they love the scree, too. Like one of those crazy-good dreams you don’t want to wake up from we’d soon have to break the lustful relationship that had been formed in the 5hrs we’d played on the mountain. It was a harsh departure, though somewhat softened by a big bowl of chips and some sugary beverages at the picturesque little café where the adventure had begun – and would finish for this particular day.
After much reminiscing, food and wonderful company – the day was closed out with a cosy little adventure film session back at ‘La Vista’, it was glaringly obvious the sheer joy that we all now possessed after an astonishing 2 days of adventure. With enthusiasm amplified ten-fold, keenness for it to continue was heightened, so even on our third day of the trip which was our so-called ‘rest day’, 13km was put on the clock around the pristine shores of Lake Taupo. We took in the eye-widening views across the lake from the W2K trail, which in its entirety snakes its way a hefty 45km around the lake. Cruisy gradients coupled with a conversational pace was a very welcome change to our tired legs and gave us all a great chance to reflect on days past and plan for the day ahead…. The Hillary Trail.
The Hillary Trail
Re-fuelled, relaxed and raring to go – the Hillary Trail was at out fingertips (or more-so toes). Nestled away on the rugged coastline only a miniscule drive from Auckland, just 3yrs on since its inception this trail has built itself an incredibly noteworthy reputation. With the likes of Malcom Law vouching it for it as one of the best trails he has ever set foot on – it has quickly become a star attraction of the NZ trail scene. Needless to say, this is a day I’d looked forward to since the trip had come to fruition! The head of this whirlwind adventure trail begins at the Arataki Visitor’s Centre – remarkably close to Auckland itself, access and transport to this beautiful specimen is blissfully simple and an utter no brainer.
Setting off into the wilderness of the Waitakere Ranges along the wild coastline – it was a stark contrast to the desolate volcanic playgrounds to which we’d become accustomed. An absolute plethora of dense forestry teaming with life, countless shades of green glistening as the sun tried to penetrate through the thick canopy around us – it was made obvious instantaneously that on this day we were all going to experience something spectacular. Weaving through the brush with finesse and fluidity – the Hillary was quite tame in the beginning which gave numerous opportunities to gaze around and soak in the atmosphere without having to worry too much about landing on your face due to a protruding tree root or rock. This was a pleasant introduction and allowed us all to get the blood pumping and warmed up for what was to come…
Opening up onto a brief beach section we were blessed with a tide low enough to enable us a scenic little stint of mellow sand running on a typical magnificent New Zealand coastline. To the right lied an abrupt incline leading to untamed peaks that dotted the coast. It felt like an instinctual urge, drawing us towards the unknown trails we knew sat in wait for us to utilize in feeding our addiction.
No longer was it an easily trodden jungle highway of sorts – large, moss draped, roots peered up to us from every direction and lack of sunlight on the forest floor meant that precipitation was going nowhere fast once it had hit home on the trail. It was the stuff of a trail runners dreams – new sights, sounds and technical trail dictated by mother nature, it could only be described as absolute trail purity in its finest form.
The fun was enhanced over and over again as the conditions underfoot toughened –Shane’s recent wish of “We better be going up that!” came true – at an alarming rate. We were most certainly “going up that” as the next 1km would have us gain 300m in elevation – for those of you who know a little about distance:vertical ratios – this one was epic. A far cry from the flat beach we’d traversed earlier - the trail continued to wind along a pronounced ridge containing endless entertainment as we bounced over roots, scaled short steep rock faces and let go and fly down winding leaf littered descents.
The next destination on our Radar was the 21km point where we’d meet Richelle and Cate – this would also be the finish line for Shane’s apprentice Landscaper, Andrew Penaluna, or ‘Penascapes’ as we like to call him. Andrew had proven in our time on the mountains that he was a seriously tough fella – coming from a more inactive background it was Shane’s influence that sparked the fire within him to get out on the trails. It’d be fair to say that it’s one more victim to the addiction of the trail running drug. I’m sure that as his explorations expand he will certainly make quite a swift trailite – an ability to suffer coupled with sheer enthusiasm and an easy going sense of adventure – he’ll be surprising himself and others in no time.
Approaching our “checkpoint” – the spectacularly mind-blowing nature of the trail only amplified with the overhead canopy clearing into a lower coastal shrubbery perching us on a cliff top reminiscent of those you see in only the most breathtaking movies. It was a very surreal moment and strongly represents the essence of what trail ‘running’ really is – it’s an adventure within ourselves, searching for new places to see, hills to climb and to find the incredible beauty that lies all around the world in places only accessible by using our own human power. I felt utter fulfilment as we stood together staring out with wind blowing in our faces and rich blue waters reflecting the purity of the blue sky above.
The following 11km of trail from …. To Karekare almost felt like home in some ways – the trail characteristics bared a remarkable resemblance to that of Victoria’s Great Ocean Walk – a trail here in Australia which too, is completely breathtaking and a must-do!
Having been outrageously spoilt in our time on this trail – we’d most definitely captured the sense of adventure Edmund Hillary represented. In no way were there any shortcomings to our expectations – it had more so glaringly exceeded them on every level of our imaginations. Sad to see the day end, though pretty darn knackered and full of contentment - a smashing 1800m of vertical, 1000’s of tree roots, countless magnificent views, flowing descents and leg battering ascents were all behind us having reached our exit at 34km in Karekare.
How to conclude the adventure that had just been endured? It’s much too difficult to paint a picture vivid enough to compare with what I’d experienced. Physically being there and doing what we had done is the only way you can grasp the sheer beauty of New Zealand’s majestic wilderness. From a runners perspective I think part of what makes the experience of running in a place like this so much more appealing, is that It really takes away the whole ‘running’ aspect, truly allowing you to immerse yourself in a mindset of adventure rather than training. Seeking out new sights, sounds, smells, completely revitalising all your bodies senses. As much as I love to run, to train hard and be competitive, I think that times like these are invaluable as an athlete. Disregarding how long it would take, or how far we were going to go, I was able to let go of anything telling me to ‘push’ or to continue running rather than stopping to take pictures and just enjoy the moment. In being able to do this, it gives a whole new perspective on learning to just ‘be’ in the mountains and on the trail, rather than only ever using them as a training platform…..
So thank you once again Shane and Richelle, for it’s the buzzing hives of adventure activity that is their brains which allowed this rad running adventure. I can’t recommend this trip highly enough!
Something to conclude with-
I think part of what makes the experience of running in a place like this so much more appealing, is that It really takes away the whole ‘running’ aspect, truly allowing you to immerse yourself in a mindset of adventure rather than training. Seeking out new sights, sounds, smells, completely revitalising all your bodies senses. As much as I love to run, to train hard and be competitive, I think that times like these are invaluable as an athlete. Disregarding how long it would take, or how far we were going to go, I was able to let go of anything telling me to ‘push’ or to continue running rather than stopping to take pictures and just enjoy the moment. In being able to do this, it gives a whole new perspective on learning to just ‘be’ in the mountains and on the trail, rather than only ever using them as a training platform. I definitely feel that in having learnt this, it has greatly improved my mindset going forward with my ‘training’ in the mountains.
Shane's an ultra runner and La Sportiva Ambassador, with a taste for adventure, always up for a new and different challenge.