trip report: New Zealand, January 2017 – part 4, Tongariro Crossing and Turangi

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This is part 4 of our New Zealand adventures over the holiday break during December 2016 to January 2017. You can also navigate to the other sections among the different posts below.

index

  1. part 1 – research and planning
  2. part 2 – trip report: getting in and Mt. Aspiring National Park
  3. part 3 – trip report: Whakaari and Fiordland National Park
  4. part 4 – trip report: North Island
  5. part 5 – trip report: Maui with the parents and brother
  6. part 6 – final impressions and wrap up

trip report: North Island

transit to North Island and Turangi

Our plans for the Northern Island was pretty simple, to trek the Tongariro Circuit to begin the New Year. There are several launching points to get onto the circuit, which is located near the center of the North Island. The official entrance of the circuit is at Whakapapa Village and is where the DOC Tongariro National Park Visitor Center is located. However, there are many shuttles from the towns of Turangi and Taupo that access the northern part of the circuit, specifically the day trips to Tongariro Crossing.

Our original plan was to follow the route suggested here by Rick McCharles. Turangi would be our jump off point as it was the closest to the start of the recommend itinerary. After getting into Turangi late the previous night on the intercity bus, we planned to get into Mangatepopo Hut on a later morning Turangi Alphine Shuttles and set up a camp early during day 1 of the circuit. We could perhaps do some day hikes or attempt one of the peaks. On day 2, we would make our way across the Tongariro Crossing portion ending at Otuerer Hut for another night camping. We would also have another chance to attempt on of the peaks here. Ideally, the Ketetahi Shelter would be better for spacing out our days, but it was still closed as there is no drinking water. I’m not sure when or if it will reopen in the future for overnight use. On day 3, we would have a short day to walk from Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut, where I splurged to give us a night in the hut itself. It would also save us time on our day 4 as we would have to be at Whakapapa Village around 3:30pm with Turangi Alpine Shuttles. There were also a couple of spurs on day 4 that was of interest for us as well. Getting on the shuttle was important for us to make the night bus with intercity back to Auckland to catch our flight out the evening of the next day.

This was the ideal itinerary that I booked in advance, including the buses, camping and hut reservations with the DOC, and the shuttles. We even bought our meals ahead of time during our free time on the South Island. The rain and northwesterlies took one look at all those plans and laughed.

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We landed in Auckland Domestic shortly before 3PM. As we were waiting for our bus with intercity from the airport to Manukau City connecting to Turangi, I called Turangi Alpine Shuttle to confirm our ride and that’s when we were made aware of the weather situation. Rain and 50-80 kph guts was forecasted for the next few days, so the shuttle wouldn’t be running. Afterwards, I called the DOC and sure enough, they did not recommend the loop and even offered a full refund of our camping and hut fees due to weather, which we took. The ray of hope was that the storm system should move through on the last full day we have, so it still made the possibility of day hiking the Tongariro Crossing section of the circuit viable.

During our half hour waiting for our bus, I scrambled a little bit to try to come up with alternatives. A possibility was renting a car and driving to some of the other places, however a last-minute rental during holiday for 5 days was running up to $600. So we decided continue with our original bookings and get to Turangi. We decided to play it by ear once we wake up the next day.

To get to Turangi, we went on the first intercity local bus to Manukau City. Manukau City is a big shopping area and a major bus stop for overnight and long distance buses. We had a few hours at the mall, which had a grocery store for supplies should we have needed it. Since we loaded up previously and our circuit trek was doubtful, we found an awesome middle eastern buffet in Town Grill. After an enormous dinner, we hung around arcade in the mall before our second bus. The 6 hour bus ride, which also serves as the night bus between Auckland and Wellington, got into the small town of Turangi around 1am. After a 5 minute walk to our small but comfortable hotel in the Sportsmans Lodge, we were out right away. Since we arrived so late, we had to call ahead to check in.

We woke the next morning to a rainy and overcast morning. The only lodging we could find was at Off the Track Backpackers, so we decided to book the next three nights to wait out the bad weather for a shot at Tongariro Crossing. We also got to explore the very small town of Turangi very thoroughly.

For a small town, Turangi has everything you really need. There is an info center right at the entrance of the town that can point you to the local attractions and help you plan your time. There is a New World for all your grocery needs and a smaller store in the town center area. Also in the town center area are a few small stores including an outfitter that you can buy overpriced gear from. There are plenty of cafés, which are more like dinners or small sit down places, and bakeries, which are what I’d consider to be more of a café.

Fishing on the Tongariro river seems to be a major attraction other than Tongariro Crossing. There is even a National Trout Centre just outside of town. Also relating to the river, rafting was another activity pushed hard in the area. So we signed up the white water rafting trip on the Tongariro River over many class 2 and 3 rapids. That’s activity for our second day in town. There is a pool and a climbing wall in town as well, though the info center told us the later might be closed. We didn’t end up checking them out, so can’t give you much information on that. We were told of a hiking trail along the Tongariro River, so that ended up being our activity for the day after getting settled at the hostel and spreading out in our room to try things out.

trail information

  • name: Taupahi Reserve Walk and Tongariro River Trail
  • type: loop
  • distance: 8.9 miles
  • elevation change: mostly flat
  • time: 3 hours
  • location: Turangi
  • This is a multi-use trail and I would very much recommend that you bike it instead…

The only picture I ended up getting was the sign of the trail. The beginning of the trail on the Taupahi Reserve Walk portion was a leisure walk next to the Tongariro River and behind a few neighborhoods.

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After crossing a swing bridge getting on the main Tongariro River Trial,

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the route got pretty boring. The trail never really ended up next to the river much at all, so our view was of fields that had signs warning of sleep with some disease they were testing. To get to the river, there were a few spurs for fisherman to access the river. The way back wasn’t much of interest either since it was pretty much next to the road. Perhaps there were views of the mountains around, but the low clouds took away any of that.

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ratings (1-5)

    • view: 1. Don’t do it, unless you want a nice easy mountain bike trail.
    • difficulty: 1. There were only minor hills.
    • technical: 1. Only 1 way with plenty of bikers.

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At least we found something to do for the day and it did allow us to stretch out our legs. Afterwards we went grocery shopping for a few meals, so we could take advantage of the kitchen in the hostel.

The following day, we woke up early and was picked up by the folks from Tongariro Rafting.

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They are one of 2 companies in the town and we chose them in that they provided us actual sandwiches for lunch rather than a hot dog for the same price.

Tongariro Rafting was well equipped and supplied us with a fleece top, dry-top, farmer john wet-suit, and helmets with go-pro attachment capabilities. After suiting up, we were had a short ride to the put-in on the Tongariro River. It would be raining the entire morning, but being on the river with whitewater is one activity the rain doesn’t effect.

The Tongariro River itself wasn’t anything too extreme with only class 2 and 3 rapids, though there was a lot of them. It reflected in the mood of the boats as there was less instruction and more relaxing on the river. It’s a much different feel then rafting the Upper Gauley with it’s class 5s near where we live. It was still enjoyable to get out on the river without much stress and more screwing around like going into a rapid backwards or with a spin. Aesthetically wise, I’ll always enjoy views from the river of the bluffs.

Our rafting trip had us back to our hostel between noon and 1. Most of the rest time was pretty relaxed hanging out at the hostel through a couple days of rain and a day of heavy gusts. This was another time we wished we had gotten a car. We thought of hitching up to Taupo for more hikes and possibly some geothermal pools, but decided to just take it easy and relax. Relaxing on vacation is enjoyable too.

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trip report: Tonagriro Crossing with Ngauruhoe Summit

After 3 days of waiting out the rain and wind, we were given the all clear for our last day in Turangi to hike the Tongariro Crossing. With the break in the weather, it was expected to be a busy on the trail. We stayed with our booked shuttle service Turangi Alpine Shuttles, but there are many other companies from the different towns near the park. The owner of our hostel even ran a shuttle himself with a NZ$5 discount. The Turangi Alpine Shuttle we took drops off at the Mangatepopo trailhead, where all day hikers are dropped off, around 7am with a 6am wake up and picked up at Ketetahi trail head at 3pm, 4pm, and 5pm. If you have your own car, you can leave your car at Ketetahi be shuttled to Mangatepopo, but you have to get there early or you will be parking far away from the trail head or not be able to at all. The benefit is that you can take your time and not worried about missing your shuttle. Parking is also available at Mangatepopo, but there is limited parking and fills up quickly considering the volume of people that does this hike.

trail information

  • name: Tonagriro Crossing with Mount Ngauruhoe Summit
  • type: through
  • distance: est. 14.9 miles
  • elevation change: est. 5525 ft ascent and 6739 ft descend
  • time: est. 9 hours
  • location: Tongariro National Park
  • There are 2 major side routes up the peaks of the 2 mountains on the route, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Mt. Ngauruhoe, a 3hr roundtrip, is an unmarked route while Mt. Tongairo is marked with poles, a 1.5 hour round trip. Lastly, there is a short 15 minute side spur to the Soda Springs before any uphill. With the entire trail, be aware this is one of the busiest hikes I’ve ever been on and that includes many novice hikers who’s not aware of anyone behind them. There was even a “backup” on the last portion of the trail heading out of the park. So adjust your expectations and don’t let that ruin the hike for you. The only place I’ve seen more people on a trail are the national parks in China where the crowds are managed and the tracks are wooden paths and fenced in.

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As we hopped of the shuttle at the trail head, we can already tell the hike was a busy hike. There was a bathroom at the beginning and the line of it was quiet long. So make sure you use the bathroom before the shuttle or wait a little bit and use the bathroom at the Mangatepopo hut.

It was also decently cold through the first mile

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or so as the sun was hidden behind Mt. Ngauruhoe.

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So it made it even more appealing to just hit the wide gravel and dirt trail right away. Once we reached Mangatepopo hut, we were in full sunlight. Definitely don’t forget your sunscreen on this hike.

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The trail continues along a sulfurous stream without much elevation gain as Mt. Ngauruhoe gets closer and closer.

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Mt. Ngauruhoe for you Lord of Rings fans might seem familiar in that it is Mt. Doom.

There are another set of toilets as you reaching a junction between the spur to the Soda Springs and the first real climb can be seen zigzagging up into the South Crater. The junction is a busy one as these are the last set of toilets until Ketetahi Hut, which is not an overnight option but a big rest stop option for many.

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Near the end up the uphills, cool ice crystals from the storms of the last few days can be seen in the shadowy areas.

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These are also the areas where the trails becomes narrower so the traffic might become a little bottle-necked.

When we reached the flat area of the south crater, the spur toward Mt. Ngauruhoe heads to the right. We had a loose plan to summit one of the mountains and decided to go for Mt. Ngauruhoe since we made pretty good time so far. There are markers on the route toward the base of the climb, but not much after you hit the loose scree. As we headed toward the base of the mountain, we asked a couple who had just returned about how it was to get a better sense about the climb and they told us the best route (see figure below).

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From where we were, we saw many people trying to head up on the scree section to the right of a ridge of rocks. The couple were very surprised by this as the scree section is very loose and used for the way down. As for the way up, the easiest way was to reach the right side of the ridge and scramble up on much more solid footing. Their advice was point on was indeed right on.

As the incline started to pick up, we felt the difficulty of hiking on loose scree until we were on the ridge. The saying is 2 step forward and 1 step back on the scree field.

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As you can see, there were many people to our right trying to make their way up scree portion of the mountain.

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It wasn’t long after we sped past them that they cut toward the ridge.

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The scramble itself wasn’t all too bad in terms of incline and exposure, especially in comparison to the Cascade route or even the Liverpool Hut route at Mt. Aspiring National Park. The density of hikers does slow the ascent up at times, but it allows you to look back for some great views of the crossing below.

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After the scramble, you reach a shelf with a pretty wide trail

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heading up to the 2 different cones on the summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe.

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We first headed up the inner cone peak, which is the most difficult part of the entire climb. The only way up was through a very very loose scree field and no clear trail. Trekking poles would have been useful to hold yourself up here. Without them, my strategy was to get onto of any many big rocks as I can in hopes they will hold my weight.

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It probably wasn’t the best and I struggled very much up to the rim of the inner cone.

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From the rim, we get a cool view inside the cone with the snow covered Mt Ruapehu poking out in the back,

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and again out toward the rest of the crossing.

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The way down from the inner cone was just has challenging, but eventually I learned to just dig the heel of my foot down into the scree. If I fell, it was just backwards on my butt. I wish we had our gaiters on this as they would have been great to stop rocks from getting in our shoes.

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The way up to the outer cone was much easier as the route was a well traveled and compacted. At the top of the first peak, we steam was rising out of the warm rocks.

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It made for a nice seat to enjoy the view and eat lunch, though there was a little sulfur smell.

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Continuing around the rim,

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is the highest point of Mt. Ngauruhoe with my favorite view featuring looking south at Mt. Ruapehu and the Upper and Lower Tama Lakes.

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The view north back toward from where we came from isn’t too shabby either.

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The way down is a slide among a well worn scree route that takes about 30 minutes. The difficulty part is finding your way onto the worn scree field. We cut down a little bit too early on a section of red rocks, which was steeper. Eventually we worked our way left, facing down the mountain, and found the scree tracks. I think the better way is to go further along the ledge at the top before attempting to go down. Once on the I dug my heels and slide down the mountain quickly. I wonder how sustainable sliding down the volcano will be since each person will push a good amount of scree down the hill.

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Be careful of novice hikers around you as they tend to not pay attention as much and kick rocks down at you. The lady behind Meg did that a few times bruising Meg’s calves and refused to go ahead of her. The learning experience here was be vigilant of your own safety. After firmly insisting she go ahead of us, she finally did and kicked rocks at the next girl ahead of us.

Unbeknown to me, the dust from the mountain made my gps malfunction, so my routing is the best I can estimate it until the point where I changed batteries toward the end of the hike. This is also the reason my mileage and elevation numbers are estimates.

Once we were back at the intersection, many more people had gathered on the trail. We dumped out of shoes and continued through the south crater

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with a quick stop to look at a brown pond

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before hitting another uphill up to the rim of the Red Crater.

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The whipping wind during this part of the ascend made it more difficult then it seemed.

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At the top of the climb was a spur for the Tongariro Summit while the main track continued around the crater. Since we didn’t have the time, Tongariro Summit will have to wait til next time.

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As the route starts to head down into the Central Crater,

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we arrived at the most famous views on the crossing, the Emerald Lakes. The colors were indeed pretty despite the troves of people. There might have been less if we arrived earlier and didn’t head up Mt. Ngauruhoe, but that was worth it.

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The down hill toward the pond might have been the most difficult of the entire section. There wasn’t enough scree for you to sink your heal into because of the traffic, but there was enough for you to slip on. It was difficult not to fall on your butt and may be the best reason not to do the trek in reverse.

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Around the ponds, there was a strong sulfur smell, which explains the colors of the lakes.

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We didn’t linger around the ponds too long with all the people there and our time limit. There is a split in the trail here with the right branch heading toward the next hut on the trail, at Oturere Hut. However, we continued on toward Blue Lake through the central crater and one last uphill for the day. As we look back, we can see the multiple peaks and craters line up.

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Continuing around the Lake, the trail curved through the pass between Te Marri and Mt. Tongariro

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opening up to views of Lake Rotoaira, Mt. Pihanga, and Lake Taupo. Steam can also be seen rising out the steam vents of Te Maari, the eruption of the vent is the cause of the damage at Hut Ketetahi.

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The trail continues down from the pass through a series of switchbacks until it reaches Ketetahi Hut.

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When we got there, there was a large crowd of people relaxing and enjoying the views below. Also the longest line I’ve ever seen in the while for a toilet. If you need to go, I’d recommend going down a little further to the next set of toilets with far less people, though still a line. We did not linger long here and started our rapid decent through the forest toward the parking lot. Along the way, we passed a close trail that connects to the Ketetahi Springs on private land.

During our descend, we were held up several times in traffic slowdowns as the narrow route through the bushes and tree prevent hikers for passing each other. These are the areas patience is needed for those hiking faster and awareness is needed for those hiking at a slower pace.

At the last part of the forest, a stream originating from the Ketetahi springs crosses the trail a couple of times. The sulfurous milk color made for interesting views along the trail. We didn’t stop to take pictures though as we were on a trail run at this point trying to make the 4pm shuttle.

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ratings (1-5)

    • view: 4.5. It’s no doubt the views from Tongariro Crossing and Mt. Ngauruhoe are world class. The colors of red, black, and yellow contrasts so well with the teal, green, and blues of the lakes. As part of these worldly hikes, it’s expected that you won’t have the place to yourself. However, this route is one of the first places the crowd really took away from the aesthetics. There were no specific limitations of staying on the trail, so you have many novice hikers going everywhere off trail and trampling over everything. This is especially true from the Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes where there is almost a lack of respect for the terrain and the beauty. I do question the sustainability of the current regulations. If we only stuck to the main Tongariro Crossing trail, I probably would have been slightly disappointed and gave this a 4 or maybe 3.5.
    • difficulty: 3 with Mt. Ngauruhoe for increased elevation gain and working through the scree. 2 for the main route, where the most difficult part is work right up to the Red Crater with stronger winds and down toward the Emerald Lakes with the loose scree on the worn trail. It was more difficult here to stay upright as there isn’t enough scree for you to skin into and they act like little balls on a hard worn surface.
    • technical: 3 for Mt. Ngauruhoe for being able to navigate the climb. There are some scrambling but it isn’t too bad. The combination of the 2 makes it a little challenging.

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The trail head at the end was a major traffic jam. We had missed the 4pm mark, but the 4pm shuttle didn’t get in until 4:30, so we made it anyways. 30 minutes later, we were back in Turangi.

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impressions of the North Island and exiting New Zealand

Tongariro Crossing was the end point to our roughly 5 days on the North Island. We were only able to explore a small portion of the Island as a whole, but I’m pretty confident to say we did Turangi fully. I do get the feel that there is a difference in attitude on the North Island in that it is more city or suburban like rather than a tourist industry. There seem to be many more people that just make their lives in towns like Turangi. It is understandable since the area around Queenstown is mainly focused on tourism.

Regardless of the difference, renting a car is definitely the way to go on the North Island. This is especially true during the holiday seasons when lodging is at capacity and very expensive. In addition, it is much easier to be flexible when it comes to weather like what we experience during our time on the North Island. With the South Island, we were able to get away without a car more easily as I planned treks that would take us from town to town. The best hikes on the North Island seems to be less connected making the car more useful. Anyways, the rental/camper van route is what we plan to do the next time we return as we’ve only seen a small glimpse of New Zealand.

the exit

We returned to the hostel after our hike to eat our left overs from the previous day and wait around til midnight to catch the night bus back to Auckland. Be aware that Off the Track hostel will charge you for lingering around the hostel. We paid the extra charge even though one of the hostel workers had mistakenly told us that we would be fine to wait at the Hostel. Around midnight, we headed over to the bus stop and caught the Intercity bus to the airport with a transfer in the morning at Manukau City. We were lucky that we got seats together thanks to the kindness of the people on the bus as it was a free for all seating. We were able to get some sleep on the night bus, but were still tired in the morning when we arrived at the airport around 9am. Our flight wasn’t until 8:55pm, so we had the opportunity to take the bus into Auckland for the day. Being still tired and being done with public transportation on the trip, we opted to get some extra sleep at the airport and relax.

With my priority pass, I had access to the Emperor Lounge. On the priority pass website, we saw there was a 3 hour limit. So we decided to just find a bench in the airport elsewhere first to get more shuteye. Fortunately, air-side in Auckland is one of the better airports to sleep in with gates that aren’t so busy and benches without armrests. There was also an area with couches we saw later as we were walking around buying souvenirs and spending our left our cash. After a few hours of sleep, we look around the stores and headed to the lounge. As it turns out, we could have spent our entire time in the lounge as well since all we had to do was just re-swipe my priority pass at the 3 hour limit. Since my Priority Pass is through the Citi Prestige, I had unlimited uses so it didn’t matter.

Our flight out of New Zealand to Honolulu was on Air New Zealand. I booked the tickets through the Citi Thankyou portal using my points for 1.33 cent value. The flight was uneventful as we traded one set of Pacific Islands for another.

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If you’ve enjoyed this trip report and found it helpful, we would always welcome any support. Thanks!

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