Uncornered Market » trekking http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Sun, 20 Apr 2014 18:28:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 How to Pack For A Trek: The Ultimate Trekking Packing Listhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/how-to-pack-for-a-trek/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/how-to-pack-for-a-trek/#comments Thu, 27 Feb 2014 16:25:11 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14432 By Audrey Scott

How should I pack for a trek? What should I pack for a multi-day hike? What is too much? And what is too little? How am I going to carry it all? Which gear and trekking supplies should I buy in advance and which can I buy on the ground? After receiving numerous emails, queries […]

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By Audrey Scott


Packing List Trek

How should I pack for a trek? What should I pack for a multi-day hike? What is too much? And what is too little? How am I going to carry it all? Which gear and trekking supplies should I buy in advance and which can I buy on the ground?

After receiving numerous emails, queries and comments asking about trekking gear and how to pack for treks, especially when the trek is incorporated into a longer trip, we decided to assemble our packing advice for treks, short and long.

By way of background, during the first six years of our journey we carried all that we needed in our backpacks so as to be prepared for just about any kind of climate or activity, from beach to glacier. In retrospect, we made some silly decisions in those early days. As a result, we schlepped a few bits we never used. But through experience and experimentation and after about a dozen multi-day treks across all continents, we got smart not only as to what gear to carry with us, but also what to buy locally or rent.

And we figured out how to do all this while on a budget.

We’ve created two pieces of content for you. The first is below and includes thorough explanations of what to bring and why. We realize it’s extensive. That’s why we’ve also created a simple one-page downloadable trekking packing checklist to help make your next packing experience smooth and easy.

Packing Checklist Trek

Note: The following advice applies mainly to multi-day treks where your sleeping and eating arrangements are taking care of already (think guest houses, lodges, huts, tea houses, or home stays). If you are camping, then you’ll need to add food, camping, and cooking gear to everything below.

Skip ahead:

Trekking Packing Myths

1. You must purchase the latest and greatest trekking gear.

It’s true that some trekking clothing technology is especially useful for lightness, wind-resistance, waterproofing and wicking (GoreTex, fleece, Polartec, etc., come to mind). However, we suggest focusing on the trekking basics: clothing that is comfortable, breathable, light, easily layered. You’re not climbing to the peak of Mount Everest here. (If you are, that’s for a future article.) For a little perspective, watching locals breeze by you in flip-flops might make all your pre-purchased fancy gear seem a little unnecessary.

So there’s no need to overspend. Go for good quality, but resist the shiny bleeding-edge trekking toys. I know it’s hard. Outdoor stores are dangerous shopping vortexes for us, too.

2. You need to bring EVERYTHING with you.

For every trek we’ve undertaken, there’s been ample opportunity to rent or buy gear to supplement our trekking kit. For example, it’s just not practical for us to carry around bulky waterproof pants in our backpacks when we only need them a tiny fraction of the time. Same goes for walking sticks and sleeping bags. Do your research and find out what is available on the ground and at what cost. Ask the tour company you’re going with or reach out to other independent travelers who’ve experienced the same trek. When you land on the ground, shop around for the best price.

Audrey with Kilimanjaro Glaciers - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Decked out in rented trekking gear on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, we’d traveled through Bali, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Jordan and Thailand — all from the same gear in our backpacks throughout. So it was more than worth the $65 I spent in Moshi, Tanzania to rent a sleeping bag, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket, walking stick, gaiters and more to get me to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Dan even rented hiking shoes for $15 which offered a little more ankle support and stability than the ones he’d been wearing. When we departed for our safari just after the Kilimanjaro trek I could just drop all that stuff off at the trekking shop and continue with my regular light backpack.

3. Real treks require camping.

This is all subjective. It’s true that camping and carrying all your own gear may give you a greater sense of independence and accomplishment and allow you to dive deeper into nature. However, we take issue with the assertion that camping equals a better trekking experience. In fact, some of our most memorable treks (e.g., Annapurna Circuit, Markha Valley Trek, Svaneti, Kalaw to Inle Lake in Burma, etc.) have been memorable precisely because of the local culture and human interaction dimensions surrounding our accommodation and food arrangements.

It’s the combined experience of nature and people (and the human nature that responds to the surrounding environment) that we find truly soul nourishing.

Packing for Your Trek: First Principles

1. It’s all about the layers.

This is true in all types of travel, long-term and short, but especially for trekking into high altitudes. Temperatures can very drastically during the course of a day. I always prefer to have an extra layer in my bag than to go cold.

Dan at Ganda La  Pass - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Layers. The key to preparing for a freak Himalayan blizzard in June.

Even if the days are warm at low altitude, nights may still be chilly. On summit days you’ll often need to pile on everything you have to get to the top, only to peel it off layer by layer as you descend.

2. Rest and sleeping clothes.

I learned this from the folks at Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales near Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. They called the yucky, stinky clothes you’ll find yourself wearing every day until the very end your uniform. In light of this — and even if you are going minimalist — try to include an extra set of night clothes to change into at the end of the day. These clothes will be dry (quite important if you’ve hit snow or rain that day), comfortable and relatively clean. I usually pack an extra t-shirt, pajama pants and socks. I’ll further layer other clothes on top to stay warm at night. Regardless, the layer closest to my skin is dry and relatively fresh.

Oh, the little joys while on the trekking trail.

This technique also gives your wet and stinky clothes a chance to dry and air out overnight. The next morning you can slip back into your trekking clothes — yes, your uniform — and you’ll be ready to go.

3. Never skimp on sun protection.

As you advance higher in elevation, the sun becomes scary strong. So even if you tan beautifully on the beach without any sunscreen, be sure to pack ample and strong sunscreen. Carry a hat that will protect your face from the sun (think rollable foldable sun or jungle hat — we don’t need to look pretty while trekking). Trekking with sunburn — head, face or hands — is miserable. And if your sunburn is bad enough, you’ll almost feel flu-like. Not good for peak performance.

Also be sure to have sunglasses with quality lenses that protect your eyes. Otherwise, they too will become burned and sore.

Trekking gear: Bags and Clothes to bring on a multi-day trek

Backpacks and Bags

Small backpack: You’ll be carrying all your stuff on your back up and down mountain passes so the size, fit and comfort of your pack is important. Aim to carry a pack that is big enough to hold the essentials, yet not too big that it will weigh you down. The size will depend on how many days your trek is and whether or not you will camp. Don’t forget to bring a rain cover to protect your backpack in storms.

We’ve often repurposed our Crumpler laptop bag and rented backpacks from trekking agencies. They usually did the trick, but they were not always entirely appropriate and thus kind to our back and shoulders. This may be something you want to invest in before your trek.

Trekking in Ladakh with Crumpler - Markha Valley Trek
Repurposing our Crumpler laptop backpack for the Himalayas.

Camera bag: If you’re carrying a DSLR camera and multiple lenses consider packing a separate camera bag to protect your gear and to allow you easy access to it. We use a camera bag with a waist belt that allows the bag’s weight to rest on the hips rather than on the shoulders. We can still wear a backpack or daypack on top.

Dry Sack: You never know when it’s going to rain or snow, so prepare for the worst — particularly if you have gear that must remain dry. We carry a dry sack with us in order to protect our gear against freak storms or inadvertent submersions while fording rivers.

Dan Takes in the Mountain View - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Dry sack to protect camera and electronics against rain.

Trekking Clothes, Jackets and Shoes

Clothes: For a seven day trek we each carry one pair of trekking pants, thermal underwear (top/bottom), 3 t-shirts, 1 long-sleeved travel/trekking shirt, pajama/sleeping pants, underwear (what you’re comfortable with), 3 pairs of socks. I love my silk long johns as they are warm, comfy and take up almost no room at all.

If you are going on a shorter trek then you can cut back, but if your trek is longer you can still carry the same amount of clothes or even less. You’ll just need to “recycle” them more or find a way to wash them along the way. By recycle, I mean turn things inside-out, air them out, wash them. Whatever the best mechanism you have available to give it longer life and whatever your tolerance level might be. The most important thing is not whether you stink (there’s a good chance you just might), but that you are dry and comfortable.

As mentioned above, my approach is to carry and maintain separate trekking and sleeping (or relaxing at night) clothes.

Outerwear (jackets and waterproof pants): I always prefer to have the option to remove layers than to not have enough to put on when I’m beginning to chill as I head over a mountain pass or through a storm.

For jackets, we each usually bring a fleece jacket, thin windbreaker and waterproof outer jacket. We usually borrow or rent waterproof pants (and sometimes jackets) from a local trekking agency.

Hiking Shoes: Shoes may be the most important thing you bring with you so if you invest in one thing in advance, invest in a solid comfortable pair of hiking shoes. And break them in. Your shoes can literally make or break a trip. Ask in advance whether you need mid- or high-cut hiking shoes for ankle support as this may influence your purchasing decision. We don’t find ourselves often needing high-cut boots. However, if your ankles are weak or susceptible to turns and sprains, more support is better than less.

We wore Vasque Scree Low Ultradry Hiking Shoes for over a year and really like them not only because they are supremely comfortable shoes, but also because they are waterproof and quick drying (which we tested hopping across and into streams on our Markha Valley Trek in Ladakh). Vasque stopped making these shoes for women last year so I’m now using the Mantra GTX Hiking Shoes.

Flip flops or river shoes: At the end of a long day of walking you may want to take off your hiking shoes and give your feet a rest. But you’ll still need something on your feet to go to and from the outhouse or nearest bush. That’s where flip flops or river shoes worn with socks (yes, ignore the fashion police) are perfect. Outside of these situations, you may find river sandals either useful or required for crossing or fording rivers. Depending on the bottom surface of the river and the depth, we’ve also just managed in bare feet or with our waterproof hiking boots, given some time to dry.

Other Trekking Gear

Headlamp: Lights the way and keeps your hands free. If you’re staying with families in guest houses or home stays, you may find they are without electricity at night or in the bathroom/outhouse, a most unfortunate place to trip in the dark. If you’re camping, headlamps are of course absolutely essential.

Quick-Drying Travel Towel: Always good to start and end your day by washing your hands and face. Don’t expect hot showers on treks, nor running water of any kind. But on a few occasions we’ve been able to get a couple of bucket baths that were really, really nice.

Silk sleep sack: Arguably non-essential, but nice to have. Whether staying in home stays with provided bedding or sleeping in a rented sleeping bag, you sometimes wonder when the last time anything was properly laundered. And you may also wonder about bed bugs and other critters. That’s where a sleep sack with a pillow wrap comes in to provide a clean layer between you and everything else. Prophylactic!

Note: We do not carry a sleeping bag with us. If we need one for a trek or camping, we rent one locally.

Reusable water bottle: We carry a reusable liter water bottle on us and refill along the way. A CamelBak type water bladder in the backpack also works really well. Even if the trek has bottled water to sell, resist the urge to buy bottled water, as plastic bottle waste is an enormous problem at elevation and in villages around the world.

Water Purification: Some treks will provide you with clean, boiled water as part of the service (e.g., Kilimanjaro, Markha Valley). Sometimes there will be a program of UV (ultraviolet) purified or pass-filter cleaned water services in villages where you can refill your bottle with clean water for a small fee. Hop on it, maybe even pay a little extra. It’s worth it to you, the village, and the environment.

On other treks it’s up to you to somehow purify or clean the water you source from mountain streams or village taps. We suggest carrying a combination of a SteriPen and sterilization tablets or drops. The water may taste a little funny, but it won’t make you sick. We find water sterilization drops to be a little easier to abide and stomach than sterilization pills.

Sunscreen, hat and sunglasses: Bring the highest SPF sunscreen you can find and wear a hat at all times. The sun’s rays are exceptionally powerful at altitude and you’ll find yourself especially exposed when there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

Moisturizing skin cream and lip balm (with SPF): Creams and moisturizers may sound extraneous, but they can make a difference. Many mountain treks involve high desert where you will not only be exposed to lots of sun, but also arid conditions. Your skin and lips will dry and crack to discomfort if you don’t keep them moist. Treat them nicely: moisturize! And be sure to carry only a tiny lightweight container, not the original 32 oz. tube!

Walking stick: Highly recommended on most treks, especially for downhill sections. If you don’t bring a walking stick with you, then keep your eye out for a tree branch or limb that can be carved for the purpose. Two walking sticks or one, you ask? We’ll rent or purchase a set and share the set between the two of us so each of us uses one stick.

Snacks: Even if your meals are provided to you on a trek, it’s sometimes nice to have a little something to nibble on between stops. We usually bring a small stash combination of Snickers bars, granola/power bars, a jar of peanut butter and crackers. You’ll want a little bit of both salty and sweet foods.

Peanut Butter, Snack of Champions - Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Peanut butter. Helped us up Mount Kilimanjaro.

Hand sanitation gel and soap: One of the best ways to avoid becoming ill: wash your hands thoroughly and often. If you feel a little obsessive compulsive with the hand cleaning, that’s a good thing.

Toilet paper: One roll, used sparingly. Better to be self-sufficient here. No explanation needed.

Medicines: You may be miles or days away from any doctor so be sure to have some basic medicines with you in case you (or others) fall ill. On our treks, we’ve picked up sinus infections and helped others who have picked up the wrong kind of gut bacteria. Having the basics with us allowed us to deal with medical issues immediately and to keep going.

We recommend packing: band-aids, aspirin/Tylenol, Cipro (or other stomach antibiotic), Amoxicillin (or other basic antibiotic to treat sinus infections), rehydration packets, anti-flu powder (a packet that dissolves in water that breaks fevers may work better than a pill if someone has been throwing up), and duct tape (magic in preventing and managing blisters). For a full list of travel medicines and how to use them, check out these travel health tips.

Note: You can easily stock up on medicines at pharmacies in many developing countries. Basic medicines such as the ones listed here and in the article above will likely be astonishingly cheap and will often not require a prescription.

Earplugs: A good night’s sleep on the trekking trail is supremely important for your condition. And although you may be sleeping in the middle of nowhere, there are still noises from roosters, howler monkeys, birds, lions, and not least other trekkers that will all conspire to keep you up. That’s where earplugs come to the rescue and help shut it all down to silence.

Batteries, memory cards: It’s usually better to assume that you won’t find electricity along your trekking route. If you do, consider it gravy. Be sure to ask your trekking guide or agency, or other route-experienced travelers (either in forums or once you are on the ground). Ask them all once, then again for good measure. Bring extra memory cards for your camera so you have ample space to snap away or record video.

This means you should try to bring extra batteries for your camera, headlamp, and anything else that’s battery-powered. If you’re carrying your smartphone with you consider bringing an extra battery pack and putting your phone on Airplane Mode to preserve battery life. If there’s electricity along your trek and you’d like to recharge, by all means bring rechargers. We do. But it’s just something else to pack — and something you must prioritize when the final bag stuff begins just prior to setting off.

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What did we miss? What are your go-to items for trekking?

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If you want all of the above in a nifty 1-page PDF checklist, then click below.

Packing Checklist Trek

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Sunrise Towers: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/torres-del-paine-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/torres-del-paine-panorama/#comments Wed, 05 Feb 2014 13:35:04 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14436 By Audrey Scott

Our alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 4:30AM. We were huddled together trying to stay warm against the freezing temperatures of the night in a rented tent that wasn’t quite meant for people of Dan’s height. The temptation to turn off the alarm and roll over instead of heading out into the frigid […]

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By Audrey Scott

Our alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 4:30AM. We were huddled together trying to stay warm against the freezing temperatures of the night in a rented tent that wasn’t quite meant for people of Dan’s height. The temptation to turn off the alarm and roll over instead of heading out into the frigid pitch of pre-dawn was difficult to resist. Under these circumstances, there’s always a danger that each waits for the other to make the first move.

It was the final morning of our trek in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. The previous five days, we’d survived wind storms that forced us to cling to mountainside shrubs. I’d suffered a mysterious spider bite that made my eye look like I just emerged from a heavyweight boxing match.

We were worn. No pain, no gain, they say. Fortunately, we’d been rewarded with mind-opening landscapes and trekking camaraderie that more than made up for it all.

And this morning’s trek would cap off six days’ effort with a sunrise view of the namesake towers, the Torres del Paine.

I don’t recall which one of us made the first move, but we motivated one another to pile on layers of clothes, switch on the headlamps and hit the trail. The weather didn’t appear promising. There were ominous clouds that suggested coming rain, but we hoped it could all change in the couple of hours it would take to reach the towers.

Open the panorama to full screen to see what we found when we reached the towers. Early morning wake up calls can be painful, but usually they’re totally worth it.

Panorama: The Torres (Towers) at Sunrise – Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

panorama directions

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Ladakh Trekking: A Beginner’s Guidehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/ladakh-trekking-beginners-guide/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ladakh-trekking-beginners-guide/#comments Thu, 30 Jan 2014 15:06:06 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14411 By Audrey Scott

Every year we try to go on a big trek, one that takes us far far away and high into the mountains. For us, it’s not only a way to exercise our bodies, but to clear and challenge our minds. It’s a way to disconnect from all that is part of our daily life — […]

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By Audrey Scott

Prayer Flags and Mountain Views Greet us at the Top of Gongmaru La Pass - Ladakh, India
Prayer flags at the top of Kongmaru La pass (5130 meters/16,800 feet). Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh

Every year we try to go on a big trek, one that takes us far far away and high into the mountains. For us, it’s not only a way to exercise our bodies, but to clear and challenge our minds. It’s a way to disconnect from all that is part of our daily life — technology, social media, blogging — and reconnect with nature and ourselves.

Last year’s trek of the Markha Valley in Ladakh in India’s high Himalayas was one of our favorite treks of all time. We had dangerously high expectations, having dreamed of this region for over a decade. Fortunately, what we found in Ladakh and on our trek far exceeded what we had imagined, not only in terms of the stunning landscape but also the Ladakhi people.

Having fielded numerous questions about trekking in Ladakh — which trek to choose, how to find a trekking agency, when to go, how to get there, and more — we’ve created this Ladakh Trekking Beginner’s Guide. We hope it encourages you to make the long journey to Ladakh overland from jumping off points like Srinigar, Kashmir. You won’t be sorry.

Dan and Audrey Begin Markha Valley Trek - Zingchan, Ladakh
Ready to hit the trails. Day 1, Minute 1 of our Markha Valley Trek.

Short attention span warning: This is a long post. The reason: it contains all we wished we’d found when we researched our own trip to Ladakh. Although we bought the Lonely Planet chapter on Ladakh, we found it lacking in many of the details and practicalities we needed. Here is my attempt to put together all you need to know to choose, organize and then enjoy a trek in Ladakh. If questions remain, let us know!

If you’d like to skip ahead:

Choosing a trek in Ladakh

There are loads of trekking choices in Ladakh. Your choice will depend on the amount of time you have, how remote you’d like to go, and the difficultly level you seek. Some of the more remote treks require special permits as they may go into sensitive border areas, but trekking agencies can easily take care of this for you within a day or two.

Hankar Village and Mountain Views - Ladakh, India
Room with a view from Hankar village along the Markha Valley Trek.

There are endless variations of treks you can take in Ladakh, with many taking you to remote areas and can go up to three weeks. You can find a full list of Ladakh trekking options here.

Some of the more popular treks in Ladakh include:

  • Markha Valley Trek (6-7 days): This is the one that we chose because it combined hiking and landscapes with people and culture by incorporating homestays with families in villages along the way. For us, this combination is ideal and resulted in a trekking experience that exceeded our expectations. The Markha Valley Trek is also the most popular Ladakh trek and we’re told it can get crowded in the high season (July and August). If you travel to Ladakh during high season, take this into consideration and perhaps choose a less popular trek to avoid crowded trails and home accommodations.
  • Hidden Valleys of Ladakh, Zanskar Range (5-6 days, but can be extended): This trek takes you into the Zanskar range and through small villages throughout the valley area. Camping gear is required as it’s not possible to do homestays for the entire trek.
  • Nubra Valley (2-3 days): This trip doesn’t include as much trekking, but features more of a ride, trek and camel ride experience. We’ve heard it’s quite beautiful so it might be a good add-on if you have extra days in the area.
  • Kharnak trek (15 days): Begins like the Markha Valley trek but continues further south for another week. A Ladakhi trekking guide told us this is one of his favorite treks.
  • Rumtse to Tsomoriri (7-8 days): This was another favorite trek from a guide we spoke to because of the beauty of the lakes and the joy of interaction with shepherds along the way. This trek is on the short list for when we return.

To trek independently or with a guide?

Some treks require a guide due to the difficulty of the trail or local regulations. Other routes like the Markha Valley Trek can be done independently (e.g., without a guide) because the trail is pretty well marked and there are villages to stay in throughout the way. You then have the decision of whether to go on your own or hire a guide. Factors include: budget, your trekking experience, skill at reading trekking maps, and weather. Let’s examine these.

Although our Markha Valley trek could have been done without a guide, we were thankful to have one. Having a local guide provided us with the peace of mind that we were always on the right path (as some of you may remember, we have a history of getting lost in mountains). As luck would have it, we crossed our first Markha Valley trek mountain pass in the middle of a snow storm. Without our guide, we never would have found the correct approach. Two guys trekking independently with us said they would have turned back that day if it weren’t for our guide to help them find the path. Word to the wise: It pays to hitch a ride with Dan and Audrey…if they have a guide!

Our local guide also provided local context and culture (e.g., Ladakhi Buddhist) to the experience. We asked him many questions about his life growing up in a remote village in Ladakh and the changes he’d seen in his short lifetime. He served as an interpreter, providing us the flexibility to have conversations with families we stayed with or ask questions of people we’d met along the way.

Ladakhi Women, Mother and Daughter - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Friendly mother and daughter running a tea house where we ate lunch.

So while trekking Ladakh independently may save you some money and perhaps allow you a little more flexibility, our experience proved to us beyond a doubt that the benefits of having a guide in this region far outweighs the costs.

Ladakh Accommodation and Sleeping Options: Camping or Homestay?

Some treks will give you the option of either camping or homestays (staying with Ladakhi families in villages). Here are the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Camping: The primary advantage of camping (if you are going with an agency) is that it includes a horse to carry your bags so you don’t have to haul your stuff on your back up to 5,000+ meters and back down again. Another bonus: you can sometimes camp closer to passes, making for easier ascents. A perhaps obvious disadvantage of camping: sleeping in a tent when it’s rainy and cold or blowing snow can be unpleasant. In addition, this option is usually more expensive as you’ll need your own cook and horse guide in addition to your trekking guide.

Homestays: If the trek you choose offers the option of homestays, we suggest taking it. Staying with Ladakhi families in villages throughout our Markha Valley trek was absolutely one of the highlights and delights of the experience. The people, culture and tradition ground you. Food (see below) is also a fun facet. Not to mention, homestays are typically less expensive than camping.

Grandfather Takes Care of Baby - Skyu, Ladakh
Proud grandfather in our homestay in Skyu.

What to expect in a Ladakhi homestay:

  • Home-cooked meals: All food is vegetarian, which is better and safer for the digestive system, particularly at altitude. Alert the trekking agency, your guide and host families in advance if you have any food allergies. Dinner is often quite hearty and is either a traditional Tibetan/Ladakhi meal like momos (Tibetan dumplings) or temo (twisted bread dumplings) with daal (lentils) or greens from the garden. All our dinners were made freshly for us and were very tasty. Breakfast, a little less remarkable, usually consists of Indian flat bread (chapatis) with butter and jelly, while lunch is some sort of bread with packaged sliced cheese, hard boiled egg and some snacks.
  • Sleeping area: Sleeping in homestays usually consists of mattresses on the ground with lots of blankets piled on top. If you’re trekking in the high season you might need to share your room with other trekkers. For us, we had our own room most nights. Take a sleep sack with you. Sheets looked pretty clean, but it was unclear when the last time blankets were cleaned.
  • Toilets: Expect bleak. Outhouses or compost toilets are usually attached to the house or just outside. They do the trick, but don’t expect any luxury here. Bring a headlamp so you don’t, um, accidentally slip and fall.
  • Common room: Some of the best memories at the homestays come from hanging around drinking tea around the traditional stove in the big common room. The bedroom is for sleeping, but this common room is where you should spend most of your time during a homestay.
Fisheye View Inside Ladakhi House - Yurutse, Ladakh
Traditional Ladakhi house with a big common room and stove.

What to look for in a Ladakhi trekking agency and guide.

Book a tour in advance or on the ground?

We did not make any bookings or inquiries for treks before arriving in Leh. We figured that we would use the two to three days acclimatizing in Leh (absolutely required if you plan to enjoy your trek) to research all our options and book our trek. Since we traveled in shoulder season, this provided plenty of time to make our arrangements.

If you decide to travel during high season (July-August), you may not have the same flexibility. Consider sending a few email inquiries in advance to be certain that agencies are not already at capacity with their guides and tours.

Choosing a trekking agency in Leh

You will see trekking agents everywhere in Leh. Many of them will have signs outside advertising their treks, as well as notices if they are looking for more people to fill treks with specific departure dates. The idea here is that the more people who trek together and share a guide, the lower the per-person cost should be. We originally hoped to join one of these treks, but the timing didn’t work out with our schedule.

Lake Reflections of Kang Yaze Peak - Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Lunch break with a view of Kang Yaze Peak. Markha Valley Trek, Day 5.

We walked around Leh for an afternoon visiting various agencies asking questions about trek options, costs, departure dates and flexibility to add on stops. Most of the trekking agencies gave us a similar price range so our decision was made based on the feeling we got from the agency (e.g., did the agency feel like a middleman or were they actually responsible for their own guides and tours), their patience, and their flexibility to accommodate special requests.

We chose Ecological Footprint in the end because we liked how the owner, Stanzin, explained all our options and was flexible to work with us to create a trek that met our needs, not just one that fit into a prepackaged box. In addition, Stanzin is Ladakhi and knoww the community well. All the tours he operates use local people and aim to invest back into the communities. So while the tour was slightly more expensive than what some of the other tour agencies were offering, we felt that the price was worth it for the quality of the experience. We believed that our money was well spent.

We can also highly recommend our guide from Ecological Footprint, Dorjee Tondup. He is young but wise beyond his years (21 at the time of our trek) and dispenses bits of perspective and peace everywhere he goes. His respectful approach to local people opened doors for us everywhere. His approach to everyone he met served as a lesson for life. He guides on all the major Ladakh trekking routes.

Our Ladakhi Trekking Guide, Markha Valley Trek - Ladakh, India
Our guide, Dorjee, enjoying a moment along the Markha Valley Trek.

Choosing a guide

Although you may or may not have the option to choose a specific Ladakh trekking guide, we offer a few questions and suggestions to help you find a good match.

1) Ask to meet the guide before you leave on your trek.

This is something we usually do before any trek to give us peace of mind that we’ll get along well with our guide. We’ve never had to change guides, but if you do think that the guide assigned to you will be problematic then ask for a change. Remember, it’s a long journey. It will be particularly long if you must spend it with someone who rubs you the wrong way. Not to mention, you’ll want someone you feel comfortable with and trust in the case that weather or health turn south. We know this firsthand because a guide from another agency who trekked alongside us in Ladakh annoyed absolutely everyone, including his own client. We spent energy trying to avoid him.

2) Ask for a Ladakhi guide.

During high season in Ladakh, demand for guides is high and so people come from all over India to guide for the summer. We don’t want to discriminate, but we feel that you’ll have a better experience with someone who is a Ladakhi guide because of the knowledge of local culture and language. Our trekking companions had an Indian guide, and while he knew the mountain trails, he didn’t know the families running the homestays or the Ladakhi language and culture.

3) Explain any special needs to the guide.

This goes for medical needs, as well as any other idiosyncrasies you might have. For example, we take a lot of photos so we stop a lot on the trail and slow things down. Alerting the guide in advance of this behavior lets the guide know not to worry when it takes us a while to go from point A to B. He can adjust his pace accordingly. One of the women trekking at the same time as us had back issues, so her guide would often carry one of her bags for her when her back ached. The idea: help your guide help you.

Estimated Costs for Markha Valley Trek (2013 Trekking Season)

Our total costs for our Markha Valley Trek (6 nights/7 days) including a guide, accommodation (homestay), food and transport to/from the trek was 13,000 rupees ($220) per person. This also included a stop at Hemis Monastery on the way back to Leh. (Not all trekking agencies offer this, so ask about it. We really enjoyed the additional stop on the return and recommend it.)

Novice Buddhist Monks at Hemis Monastery, Ladakh
Why it’s worth stopping at Hemis Monastery on the return to Leh.

This was slightly cheaper than some of the other trekking agencies who had a standard fee of 2,000 rupees ($34) per person per day. A few places offered bare bone prices at 1,600 rupees per person per day. Understand that you typically get what you pay for.

Homestay costs on Markha Valley Trek:

If you do decide to do the Markha Valley Trek independently, find out in Leh what the official rate is for homestays that year. The official rate is a standard amount set every year by the homestay association so that the families all charge the same amount and don’t try to underbid each other (thereby causing tensions in the community). During the 2013 trekking season, the standard homestay rate was 500 rupees ($9) per night per person. This included dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch.

When to Trek in Ladakh?

The trekking season in Ladakh really begins to take off early-to-mid June and runs until September. The high season is July and August with August being the busiest month. Rains usually start late August to September. If you can time it, we recommend going early in the shoulder season in June. Note that weather is always the wild card, however.

Chortens in Skyu - Day 2 of Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh
Chortens in the village of Skyu, Day 2 of the Markha Valley Trek.

Our trek was mid-June and there was hardly anyone (6 people) along our entire Markha Valley route. This meant that the homestays were not crowded and there were no traffic jams on the paths. We experienced a surprise snowstorm on our second morning at the first pass, but that just added to the excitement and meant that all the mountains around us sported a beautiful covering of snow.

Acclimatization in Leh before Trekking

No matter which trek you choose, be sure to spend at least two days acclimatizing in Leh (or wherever the setting off point of your Ladakh trek happens to be). Take a walk through the old town up to Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa. This helps get the blood pumping and the legs moving. It also gives you some experience climbing hills at altitude.

Leh Palace and Namgyal Tsemo Gompa - Ladakh, India
Good acclimatization walk in Leh = climbing up to Namgyan Tsemo Gompa on the right.

If you are susceptible to altitude sickness, consider taking even more time to acclimatize in Leh. Your hike will be more enjoyable and successful for it.

Food recommendations in Leh:

Summer Harvest: Best momos in town. We feel confident in this statement as we sampled momos in four different restaurants and kitchens in town. Be sure to ask for the homemade hot sauce. We never ventured beyond momos (they were that good), but other dishes emerging from the kitchen looked tasty as well.

Best Momos in Leh at Summer Harvest Restaurant - Ladakh, India
Fried momos from Summer Harvest Restaurant in Leh, Ladakh.

German bakeries: Don’t ask me why, but Leh is bursting with German bakeries. They don’t all have their own ovens, so it seems like they get their baked goods from a central German bakery source. If you’re craving a cinnamon roll or some quasi European pastries, stop by one of these and enjoy with a chai. Quality is mixed, but when you consider how remote you are, you’ll be grateful.

Lassi guy: In the alleyway just to the right of the mosque on Leh Bazaar is a tiny place with this friendly guy making and selling yogurt and paneer (Indian cheese). For a few rupees he’ll create a fresh sweet or salty lassi for you and invite you in to enjoy a seat while he explains how he makes it all. Highly recommended.

The lassi man of old town Leh. His secret sits in the blue bowl: freshly made yogurt every AM. #phenomenalassi #Ladakh
Making Lassi in Leh.

Transport: How to get to Ladakh

Unless you have your own set of wheels (or wings) there are three main routes to get to and from Ladakh.

By Bus to Leh:

Srinigar to Leh: You have the option to take a two-day “Super Deluxe” bus (overnight in Kargil) or a 12-hour shared ride in a private jeep (with 6 other passengers). Both leave from the same area in Srinagar. Please note that the roads are only open for a short period each year, usually from May – September.

We flew from Mumbai to Srinagar and then took the bus up to Leh and a shared jeep for the return leg to Srinagar. If you have more time, consider taking the train from wherever you are in India to Jammu and pepper in a few strategic visits and stops along the way to Srinagar.

Our Super Deluxe Bus from Srinagar to Leh - India
Taking the “Super Deluxe” bus from Kashmir to Ladakh.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to the bus and jeep. While the bus ride from Srinagar to Leh is long and not particularly comfortable, you are able to take a lot of photos out the window, as the pace is glacial, snail-like for much of the way. It’s also an experience to travel with locals (e.g., Buddhist monks hopping on and off) and fellow adventurous travelers. Suggestion: try not to focus on the missing guardrails along the way. A dose of fatalism may also help.

Cost: Bus tickets = 1,050 R/person. Jeep price depends on your negotiation skills, but usually costs between 1,500-1,800Rs/person.

Manali to Leh: This route from the south also features the option of a 2-day bus trip vs. 16-20 hours in a shared jeep. We didn’t take this route so can’t speak to it firsthand, but we met several people who did. The roads seem to be in worse shape than the Srinagar route, but you go over four large mountain passes which are supposed to be stunning. If you’re coming from Delhi, this is the more direct route. The roads are usually open for a few months of the year, again from June – September.

By Plane to Ladakh

Flying into Leh is certainly more expedient, but you’ll miss the beauty and adventure of the roads. The views from the skies in the mountains are supposed to pretty spectacular, however. Be sure to leave buffer days in your travel schedule if you fly as flights are frequently canceled due to bad weather.

Most planes fly from either Delhi or Srinagar. Try to book your tickets early as prices go up very quickly.

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Note: Originally we were going to put our trekking packing list here, but as this article was already rather long we decided to publish it in a separate post. Here is the Ultimate Trekking Packing List with all the details on what to bring with you on a Ladakh (or any other) multi-day trek!

Still have questions about Ladakh and trekking there? Ask away in the comments below!

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Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh: Hiking Through Canyons [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/markha-valley-trek-canyon-ladakh-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/markha-valley-trek-canyon-ladakh-panorama/#comments Wed, 28 Aug 2013 09:05:52 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=13598 By Audrey Scott

First day of our Markha Valley trek. We weren’t quite certain what to expect for the remaining six days of trekking through the Himalayas, but we were sure the following day would be steep and uphill, to 4,950 meters/16,200 feet. So on our first day on the trail we were relieved to find relative flatness, […]

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By Audrey Scott

First day of our Markha Valley trek. We weren’t quite certain what to expect for the remaining six days of trekking through the Himalayas, but we were sure the following day would be steep and uphill, to 4,950 meters/16,200 feet. So on our first day on the trail we were relieved to find relative flatness, to lose ourselves in the red rocks of the canyon around us and to look off into the distance of the climb that awaited us.

Open the panorama to full screen to join us on that first day of our Markha Valley trek.

Panorama: Day 1 of Markha Valley Trek in Ladakh, Hiking Through Canyons

panorama directions

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Crossing Gongmaru La Pass, Ladakh [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/gongmaru-la-pass-ladakh-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/gongmaru-la-pass-ladakh-panorama/#comments Fri, 02 Aug 2013 09:31:19 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=13610 By Daniel Noll

Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags greet us as we reach Ladakh’s Gongmaru La pass. All the residual fatigue from climbing up to 16,800 feet/5,130 meters seems to evaporate once we’ve reached this place, our goal. It’s been six days in the Markha Valley and we’ve been up and down — and up again. We have to […]

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By Daniel Noll

Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags greet us as we reach Ladakh’s Gongmaru La pass. All the residual fatigue from climbing up to 16,800 feet/5,130 meters seems to evaporate once we’ve reached this place, our goal. It’s been six days in the Markha Valley and we’ve been up and down — and up again.

We have to remind ourselves not to move around too quickly up here, not to exhaust ourselves from the altitude. But it’s difficult to contain the excitement of being on top of the world — and as photographers, to grab a piece of and bask in every little visual slice that we can capture. The scenery stuns with layers of mountains for as far as the eye can see, while a surprise snowfall earlier in the week means our view is blessed with dramatic snow caps.

But what goes up must go down. Soon, we must begin a long journey into the valley below.

Until then, we have this view to enjoy. Open up the panorama below to full screen to get a glimpse for yourself.

Panorama: Gongmaru La Pass, Markha Valley Trek in Ladakh, India

panorama directions

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Finding the Good Way: How to Meditate While Trekking at 15,000 Feethttp://uncorneredmarket.com/how-to-meditate-trekking-ladakh/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/how-to-meditate-trekking-ladakh/#comments Mon, 29 Jul 2013 20:43:36 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=13568 By Audrey Scott

This is a story of our re-discovery of a few of life’s truths amidst a seven-day trek in the Himalayas. “One foot in-front-of-the oth-er.” Through my head coursed a glacial cadence whose stitched syllables represented four tiny steps, over and over, up and through the mountains of the Tibetan Himalayan cache of Markha Valley in […]

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By Audrey Scott

ladakh trekking
This is a story of our re-discovery of a few of life’s truths amidst a seven-day trek in the Himalayas.

“One foot in-front-of-the oth-er.”

Through my head coursed a glacial cadence whose stitched syllables represented four tiny steps, over and over, up and through the mountains of the Tibetan Himalayan cache of Markha Valley in the northern Indian region of Ladakh.

My pace was akin to that of a snail, or perhaps a determined zombie. The tempo I’d embraced kept my heart rate so low that I felt almost as if I weren’t even moving, despite the fact that I was persistently scaling a steep incline above 15,000 feet in elevation.

Why? I’d reached my trekking meditation zone.

Maybe you’ve felt something like this before. You’ve walked a long distance, even something arduous. And all the while, you haven’t lost a breath. During the process, your mind wandered to freedom, allowing you to drift into the nature around you; you absorb and feel immersed in your surroundings instead of intentionally observing them.

Suddenly (or perhaps not so suddenly), you find yourself looking to a valley below — that’s where you came from. And there you are on top of a mountain, exactly where you were meant to be.

Something really significant occurs to you. When you aren’t concerned with the pace of your movement, the pace of your progress just might astonish you.

Our trek begins. Storms build for more white caps. Markha Valley trek trail head, Zingchen. #Ladakh
On the trail in the Markha Valley, Ladakh.

That’s what rhythm will do for you.

But how?

“One foot in-front-of-the oth-er.”

The Grind

But it wasn’t always this good.

Amidst this lightness, I thought back to a conversation Dan and I shared earlier in the trek. While climbing our first big pass (16,200+ feet/4,950 meters) on the morning of the second day, we found ourselves in the middle of an hours-long unexpected snowstorm, a surprise blizzard. Dan was sick with a lingering sinus infection and fever. Top this off with residual fatigue from a beautiful but grinding two-day bus journey from Kashmir to Ladakh, and you have the makings of emotional dissonance, an anti-rhythm that adheres to lingering bits of self-doubt as to whether you are still physically and emotionally equipped to tackle treks like this.

Maybe we should have gone to the beach instead…a real vacation…relaxation…this is hard work,” I heard Dan grumble that day.

I knew what he meant.

But things improved. (After a round of antibiotics from our medical kit for the sinus infection…but that’s for another story.) A good dose of sunshine never hurts, either.

The Himalayan Tortoise, The Himalayan Hare

Not only is trekking meditation a beautiful phenomenon to experience in and of itself, but the technique effectively moves you greater distances more quickly than you’d imagine. Why? Because this slow, steady movement means you won’t require long breaks to catch your breath. Think: the tortoise and the hare.

In the earlier moments of our trek we’d acted more like the hare, tearing off, trying to keep up, slowing down, taking long tea and lunch breaks just to recover between fast-paced clips. Mind you, it wasn’t bad. Our surroundings were stunningly beautiful, but something was off. And that something was our rhythm. It was missing.

Then, on our fifth day, something snapped into place. Perhaps it was the ominous write-up I’d read weeks before of the day’s 2,300 feet/700-meter ascent that told me, “Go slowly today.” Or maybe it was simply that I needed a few days in the mountains to actually find my rhythm. Amidst all that beauty and adventure, it was tempting for us to try to keep up with the pace of others rather than to seek our own.

Engulfed in canyons. No camera can duplicate the beauty perceived by the human eye. The late afternoon close of a long Day 2, Markha Valley trek.
Engulfed in canyons during the Markha Valley trek, Ladakh

I asked Dan, “Do you want to go in front? I know I’m moving really, really slowly.”

No. This is just about perfect. It’s like my body is moving without effort,” he replied. He was in step just behind me.

Dan had hit the trekking meditation zone, too.

We were in the right place after all, moving tiny through the Himalayas, our minds opening, our bodies feeling paradoxically weightless, out-of-body.

Finding the Good Way

On one of the steep inclines, amidst a series of snaking switchbacks, I looked up to see how much further we had to go. At the top of the hill, Dorjee, our Ladakhi guide looked down at us, almost paternally (ironic, considering he was only 21-years old).

Our Ladakhi Trekking Guide, Markha Valley Trek - Ladakh, India
Dorjee, our Ladakhi trekking guide, waiting for us.

I could see him watching us, smiling.

When we finally reached him, he clapped softly: “I am very happy for you. You’ve found the good way. You’ve found your rhythm.

The Final Pass

The following morning, we were on our way up again – this time, to the trek’s highest pass, Gongmaru La (5,130 meters/16,800 feet).

This pass, too, had been cause for concern. Our previous crossing at 4,950 meters/16,200+ feet had been exceptionally challenging and a voice echoed in my head, “This is high-er.”

By now, however, the climb before me had disassembled itself into baby steps, cadence and flow.

This is doable, this I can manage, this I can enjoy thoroughly.

“One foot in-front-of-the oth-er.”

Indeed, we’d found our rhythm. We’d found the good way.

Dan & Audrey at the Top of Gongmaru La Pass - Ladakh, India
At the top of Gongmaru La Pass (5,130 meters/16,800 feet).

If you’ve never experienced this sensation before, please give the following a try. Next time you find yourself at altitude or faced with having to tackle miles of challenging, snaking, winding and ever-upsloping trails — go very slowly, even more slowly than you’d ever imagined yourself being able to tolerate. Almost plodding. And lose yourself. So long as your goal is clearly understood, it’s only one sure slow foot in front of the other.

And maybe you’ll find that progress matters more than pace.

And maybe you’ll find your way, the good way.

And maybe you’ll think to yourself, “…not bad advice for life off the mountain, too.

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Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/tongariro-crossing-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/tongariro-crossing-panorama/#comments Mon, 29 Apr 2013 10:31:38 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=13284 By Audrey Scott

Our trek to the Tongariro Crossing on New Zealand’s North Island was the trek that almost wasn’t. Winds were fierce, rains continued to pour down and visibility only seemed to get worse right up to the day before we were set to hike. As night fell, winds began to subside and the rain slowed, but […]

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By Audrey Scott

Our trek to the Tongariro Crossing on New Zealand’s North Island was the trek that almost wasn’t. Winds were fierce, rains continued to pour down and visibility only seemed to get worse right up to the day before we were set to hike.

As night fell, winds began to subside and the rain slowed, but it still didn’t look good. We prepared ourselves for the worst.

The next morning, however, a shift. Timed for our late start, winds died further, clouds burned off and blue skies emerged. This was our Tongariro Crossing. Open up the panorama to full screen to see what we found: the Emerald Lakes, the Red Crater and hints of Mordor.

And in case you’re wondering, none of these colors are Photoshopped or enhanced. They are just as Mother Nature (and New Zealand) designed.

Panorama: Emerald Lakes at Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand

panorama directions

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The experiences above were from the G Adventures’ New Zealand Encompassed Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

Disclosure: Our New Zealand Encompassed Tour was provided by G Adventures in connection with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our flights were kindly sponsored by Air New Zealand. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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New Zealand North Island: Don’t Sell It Shorthttp://uncorneredmarket.com/new-zealand-north-island/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/new-zealand-north-island/#comments Thu, 28 Mar 2013 10:30:28 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=12862 By Audrey Scott

This is a story about living in someone else’s shadow. It’s also the beginning of our answer to the question: New Zealand, North Island or South Island? Imagine a geeky younger boy who grows up in the shadow of his brother, the all-star. The big brother gets all the attention, all the fame. But it’s […]

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By Audrey Scott

"Get amongst it!" - Audrey grabs a bit of junglelicious New Zealand rainforest
The New Zealand advice mantra of choice: “Get amongst it!”

This is a story about living in someone else’s shadow. It’s also the beginning of our answer to the question: New Zealand, North Island or South Island?

Imagine a geeky younger boy who grows up in the shadow of his brother, the all-star. The big brother gets all the attention, all the fame. But it’s the younger brother with whom you develop a special relationship, who was allowed to surprise you because you spent some time with him.

This is our relationship with New Zealand’s North Island. It lives in the travel shadow of its South Island brother. Sure, the South Island is spectacular (yes, we’ll get to that), but it’s on the North Island that our New Zealand love affair began.

While most may steer you directly to the South Island when asked about New Zealand travel, we take a different approach. Visit both. Really. You can thank us later.

North Island: Delivery vs. Expectations

For us, the North Island is special. It’s where we became enamored with New Zealand’s natural beauty. It’s where we began to meet locals and appreciate the Kiwi sense of humor and approach to life. It’s where we began pushing ourselves to do so many things we didn’t know we could do. It’s where we began to learn about Maori culture and its bond to both nature and humanity. And, it’s where we developed our addiction to the New Zealand coffee style of choice, the flat white.

In one week on the North Island, because of the diversity of landscape and depth of experience, it felt as though we’d visited 10 planets. We were above ground, below ground, island hopping, surfing waves, kayaking out to a crazy scientist living on an estuary, hiking a volcano, rafting down seven meter waterfalls on class five rapids, exchanging the Maori embrace, walking through stunning native forests, and enjoying fish-and-chip (pronounced fush-and-chup) sunsets along a seemingly endless New Zealand coast. The experience meter: on full blast.

And then there were the experiences in the white spaces, those in-between destinations and activities. Perhaps a quick conversation with Kiwis in cafés and pubs where quick, easy conversations yield local perspectives on farming, travel, and what makes the perfect coffee. Or there’s a chat with a passionate rafting guide who unknowingly teaches you about an approach to living, working with people, and honing skills — all carved with a wicked Kiwi sense of humor.

So this is what a week in New Zealand’s North Island might look and feel like. Perhaps you’ll get a glimpse as to why this place became so special to us.

Northland: Beaches, Waterfalls and the Bay of Islands

New Zealand Beach Stop at Uretiti Beach
Who cares if the wind blows? The beach is just as beautiful.

New Zealand features a staggering wind of coastline, as in equal to that of the United States, Alaska excluded. Take a moment and allow that to sink in. Mind you, not all of this coastline is appropriate for swimming or snorkeling (notice the fleece in the photo below?), but it does lend itself to hours of gazing, mind-opening and listening to crashing waves. Not a bad way to reflect, to begin or end one’s week.

Waterfalls. In full disclosure, we often find them oversold. However, New Zealand gives good waterfall. Witness Whangarei Falls, a place that if you just sit amongst it, it might trick you into thinking that you’ve landed in the Garden of Eden.

A Garden-of-Eden moment in Northland, Whangarei Falls #newzealand #dna2nz #gadv
In the lush, Whangarei Falls

There’s something to be said for perspective; sometimes you need to get atop it to appreciate all that’s around you. And that’s what it took for us to grok the Bay of Islands. Walk to the top of Waewaetorea Island for a 360-degree view of the entire bay: the lush grass, the tropical lucidity of the surrounding water and a patchwork of islands approximate serenity.

Waewaetorea Island - Bay of Islands, New Zealand
The Bay of Islands, our first “I’m going to faint!” moment in New Zealand.

Raglan: Pancake Rocks, Sustainable Farming and Surfing

Raglan has more going on to it than just surfing (though that’s great too). In the course of two days we cruised around the Raglan area and discovered an estuary shoreline of sedimentary pancake rocks, kayaked to a sustainable farm run by a sort of mad scientist-cum-farmer named Charlie, learned to surf (kind of), discovered some of New Zealand’s best coffee served from a simple shack (Raglan Roast) and drank microbrews with locals as we watched the Superbowl in a pub built for betting on horses.

Who knew?

All this local flavor made Raglan one of our New Zealand favorites.

Cruising the pancake rocks / limestone stacks of Ragland Harbor #newzealand
Pancake rocks in Raglan Harbor.

Kayaking on Whaingaroa Estuary near Raglan, New Zealand
Kayaking the estuary, learning about the ecosystem along the way.
Dan Walks a Donkey - Sustainable Farm near Raglan, New Zealand
Dan crosses another item off his bucket list: walking a donkey.
A view over the surf hut at Ngarunui Beach. Fine conditions to catch our first waves. #newzealand
Surf hut at Ngarunui Beach. Time to hit the waves!
Dan & Audrey Surfing in Raglan - North Island, New Zealand
Surfing. Another first for us in New Zealand.

Rotorua: Caving, Rafting and Geo-Thermal Mud Baths

Glow worms. Sounds cute and cuddly. And when you are deep underground with no light, glow worms light up the cave; you almost feel like you’re outside looking up at the stars on a clear night. But nature is funny. These glowing “worms” are actually cannibalistic maggots who don’t have an anus and create light as they digest their previous dinner — all in an effort to attract their next victim. Dark. Light. Pretty. Yum.

While glow worms are cool, the real fun of going into the Waitomo Caves (we were on the Haggas Honking Holes Tour) includes an adrenaline package of abseiling, cave diving and rock climbing. Who knew that you could exert so much energy underground? Now we do.

Abseiling Down Into Cave at Haggas Honking Holes - Waitomo, New Zealand
Cold water shock. Audrey abseils an underground waterfall. Photo courtesy: Waitomo Adventures.

But if a morning of caving is not enough to tip your adrenaline-meter, consider a twilight whitewater rafting trip down the Kaituna River. As we approached the river, it was cold and rainy, we were tired, and we harbored second thoughts on whether rafting in these conditions was such a good idea.

It was. In fact, it was an amazing idea.

Not only did the Kaituna River rafting trip include a 7-meter (23 feet) fall and class 5 rapids that are just pure squealing fun to navigate, but the entire rainforest and river setting is mind-bogglingly beautiful. It’s not a coincidence that this area was once a sacred spot for Maori. These days, a few chiefs are buried behind waterfalls and in caves along the river. As a bonus, the temperature of the river water turned out to be much warmer than the air.

White Water Rafting Down 7 meter Waterfall - Kaituna, New Zealand
White water rafting down a 7-meter fall on the Kaituna River. Photo courtesy: Kaitiaki Adventures.

As you approach the town of Rotorua, the smell gives it away. The entire area is full of geothermal activity and features that “smells so good” sulfur odor that permeates everything, everywhere. While we didn’t have an opportunity to pop into one of the local mud baths or thermal springs, we did get a chance to admire, and smell, one from afar.

Holy buckets! The beautiful, bubbling mud pools of Waiotapu. #eerie #newzealand
Mud pools of Waiotapu, New Zealand

Maori Culture

As one Maori man joked with us, “There’s a reason you find most of the Maori on the North Island. We don’t like the cold.

You can feel and see the influence of Maori culture and approach to life more — almost exclusively — on the North Island. Just outside of Rotorua we visited a Maori community and a wharenui, a Maori meeting house. The opening blessing gave us a fitting glimpse into the Maori reverence for nature and humanity.

Carved head, Maori meeting house -- Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Carved head, Maori meeting house.

For one American in our group, meeting a Maori leader years ago and coming to know the Maori philosophy of human equality and oneness helped pull him out of a bad place and make him who he is today. Years later, he came full circle and we chose him as our chief to represent our group during our formal welcoming at a local Maori meeting house.

Tongariro Crossing Trek

This was the trek that almost wasn’t. Although the Tongariro Crossing trek was the activity we most looked forward to in the North Island, weather conditions almost put it out of reach. The day before was truly lousy: cold, horrible winds, no visibility. Nick, our guide, tried to manage our expectations by preparing us for the worst. We were heartbroken at the thought of cancellation.

Then in the morning the skies began to break. Slivers of blue emerged. And when we started our trek up the mountain, the clouds continued to clear. Winds tapered off. The colors and textures of the mountains, minerals, vegetation and volcanic craters emerged as fog and clouds burned off. We couldn’t have planned better weather even if we had tried. The mountain gods were smiling upon us.

The Tongariro Crossing trek is described as “one of the best one-day hikes in the world.” No high expectations or anything. But even these were exceeded. We loved this trek; each section was a thrill with the changing terrain, colors and views of the whole region. Even the Devil’s Staircase was fun as it was the pathway to the craters and lakes we knew were waiting above.

Devil's Staircase and Tongariro National Park - New Zealand
The Devil’s Staircase. Can stairs ever be fun? With views like this, maybe.

When we did get to the top of Tongariro Crossing, our reward was great. Everyone talks about the Emerald Lakes (yes, they are spectacular), but we were blown away by the contours and richness of the Red Crater. Mother Nature had gone all out.

Red Crater - Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand
The Red Crater at Tongariro. An unexpected reward for making it to the top.

Emerald Lakes of Tongariro Crossing - New Zealand
Tongariro’s Emerald Lakes. As nature designed. No photoshop needed.

Note: Because of the volcanic eruption in November 2012, we were not able to do the full Tongariro Crossing as part of the path is blocked by lava. We had to turn around at the Emerald Lakes and returned on the same path. The ~20km (12.4 miles) trek takes around 6 to 6.5 hours in total. If you get a ride into the park with a bus, they will arrange a pick up time for you.

Wellington

Our time in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, was too short. But what we saw and felt in that time we liked. The city had an energy and creative feel to it; the calendar was chock full of festivals, concerts and performances. The city was made for people to enjoy.

Snap on Cuba Street: A taste of the soul of Wellington, New Zealand.
Wellington street scene – musicians and bars on Cuba Street.

We’re lucky to have Kiwi friends who took us out when we were there, but if you keep your eyes open you’ll find cool bars tucked back into alleyways or in the courtyards of buildings. Our two favorites were Matterhorn (106 Cuba Street) and Fork & Brewer (14 Bond Street).

Best of New Zealand’s North Island Photo Essay

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or would like to read the captions, you can view our New Zealand North Island photo set.

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The experiences above were from the G Adventures’ New Zealand Encompassed Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

Disclosure: Our New Zealand Encompassed Tour was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our flights were kindly sponsored by Air New Zealand. We thank all the good folks at Waitomo Adventures for the Haggas Honking Holes Tour and Kaitiaki Adventures for the Kaituna River rafting trip. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Next Up: New Zealand, When I Close My Eyeshttp://uncorneredmarket.com/new-zealand-when-i-close-my-eyes/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/new-zealand-when-i-close-my-eyes/#comments Wed, 23 Jan 2013 14:54:16 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=12725 By Audrey Scott

This is a story about faraway places and our relationship to the somewheres we dream of visiting. It’s also about the fact that we fly to New Zealand next Monday. Some places on our planet seem to lend themselves to the imagination, that is to the image of the mind, to putting eyes closed and […]

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By Audrey Scott

New Zealand at it's Best!
This is a story about faraway places and our relationship to the somewheres we dream of visiting. It’s also about the fact that we fly to New Zealand next Monday.

Some places on our planet seem to lend themselves to the imagination, that is to the image of the mind, to putting eyes closed and attempting to place yourself somewhere you’ve never been. Think about it: there are endless beautiful places on Earth that evince all manner of beauty, but among them, there are a few special places whose reputation so precedes them.

One of those places: New Zealand.

Audrey and I explained this to a friend just as we’d firmed our flights into Auckland, “…but all we know about New Zealand: beautiful landscapes, sheep, Lord of the Rings, and the Maori,” I said. And in reality and fairness, we really don’t know all of that. Much of it is preconceived notion, expectations carved of fantasy.

Turns out our friend Ralph had lived in New Zealand for 18 years and added further “…like that, plus wine and yachting.” He laughed, and knowing what else we were after, suggested a few people to contact to get to the root of what and who New Zealand is. He finished with geo-contouring, “it’s like…Hawaii down there, Wyoming around the side, Scotland over there and Switzerland in the back.

And then there are the people, the Kiwis. Even the Scots, a patriotic group intensely proud of Scotland’s natural beauty and culture, urged us to visit New Zealand. As Craig, a rugby player decked out in a kilt at an Edinburgh pub, put it: “New Zealand. You have to visit. It’s beautiful like here, but the people are even nicer.”

A group of people even friendlier than the Scots? Now this I gotta’ experience.

But New Zealand is not just about sitting back to enjoy the beautiful scenery and friendly people; it’s also a place for action and context. It’s been a while since we tackled mountains. And it’s time we get back on track.
New Zealand Landscape

Crikey dick! We’re flying to New Zealand next Monday for a month!! We’re thrilled with the opportunity to discover just a bit of what New Zealand is all about, to move it from the imagined to the real.

Before too long we’ll be wearing our togs and jandals to the beach with a chilly box knowing that she’ll be right. (Did we get that right, Casey?)

So what will we be up to in New Zealand?

G Adventures has begun offering tours to New Zealand and Australia this year. And we’ll be on one of their first. Interested to see both the North and South Islands, we opted for the New Zealand Encompassed Tour and we’ll be flying across the globe (on the longest flight we’ve ever taken!!) with Air New Zealand.

New Zealand: North Island

Our New Zealand journey will begin in Auckland where we’ll kick off the first week exploring the North Island. We’ll snorkel and kayak in the Bay of Islands while sleeping on board a houseboat. From there we’ll head to Raglan where we hope to get up on a surf board after a few lessons. Surfing? Yes, a first for us. In Rotorua we’ll learn a bit about Maori culture (which, I’m embarrassed to say I know very little about except for the haka, the Maori war dance that the All Blacks perform every rugby game) by visiting a Maori village and enjoying a hangi, a Maori barbecue where the meat is cooked in the ground.

Then we launch into trekking with a hike of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (including a peek at the Emerald Lakes), supposedly New Zealand’s best one-day hike.
the emerald lakes
From there we’ll continue on to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, for a taste of the urban.

New Zealand: South Island

After arriving by ferry from Wellington, we’re looking at some beach and hiking time at Abel Tasman National Park and Punakaiki. From there we’ll have a couple of days in Franz Josef for a glacier walk (of Franz Josef Glacier, of course) and a pop into the hot springs. Then comes three days in Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of the world.

Post-adrenaline overload in Queenstown – yes, we are thinking bungee jump — we’ll relax in Doubtful Sound with a bit of kayaking (so you’re laughing at relaxing by kayaking?). Then comes one of our favorite parts of any trip: wine tasting. How about that for balance — pump up the endorphins, then cut them with wine. We’ll spend a couple of days in Central Otago where we can bike the rail trail as we stop in wineries along the way. For us, the final stop of the tour will be in Kaikoura where we can hope to spot a whale or take the safer bet of swimming with seals.

An Extra Week on South Island – What to Do?

At the conclusion of our G Adventures tour, we’ll spend another week on our own on the South Island. At this moment, we are flexible and weighing various plans and options.

We’d love your help. What are your New Zealand favorites and suggestions? If you have recommendations on what we else we should do or whom we should meet or where we should eat, we’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or drop us a line.

Although we may not get to everything, know that we read and factor all suggestions into our travel decision-making process. Chur bro! (How about that for some more Kiwi lingo?)

Follow along with our New Zealand adventure!

As we explore New Zealand’s outdoors, people, culture and wine, we’ll share what we find through photos, stories, updates and maybe a video or two. We will update our blog as often as we can, but we are realistic about time and connectivity constraints.

So, for real-time photos and updates of our New Zealand journey, be sure to check out our Facebook page and follow the #dna2nz and #gdaygway hashtag on Twitter and Instagram.

Postscript

You know New Zealand is magical. But then you go and it’s even more magical than you could have ever expected,” Ralph concluded.

When we set down in New Zealand, we will open our eyes. And we’ll no longer wonder what we’ll see.

—–

Disclosure: Our tour of New Zealand is provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our flights are kindly sponsored by Air New Zealand. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

If you plan to book this New Zealand tour or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!


Photo credits to kayadams, LadyJaws, and magtravels.

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Panorama of the Week: Lake Pehoe — Torres del Paine, Chilehttp://uncorneredmarket.com/torres-del-paine-patagonia-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/torres-del-paine-patagonia-panorama/#comments Wed, 12 Oct 2011 08:03:56 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=9513 By Audrey Scott

Have you ever been hiking and witnessed colors so surreal that you find it difficult to believe they’re natural? The turquoise hue of Lake Pehoe in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile certainly falls into this category. Open up the panorama below to see for yourself. 360-Degree Panorama: Lake Pehoe — Torres del Paine National […]

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By Audrey Scott

Have you ever been hiking and witnessed colors so surreal that you find it difficult to believe they’re natural?

The turquoise hue of Lake Pehoe in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile certainly falls into this category. Open up the panorama below to see for yourself.

360-Degree Panorama: Lake Pehoe — Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

panorama directions

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