A Happy Home Away From Home

I sighed with relief when I dug my hands into my backpack and realized there was no longer anything occupying it. I was completely unpacked, for the first time since leaving for the South Pacific, and I was relieved to not have to search through my densely packed bag every time I needed to grab a clean shirt. I was slowly settling into my new new home for the month, and I was excited for the unknown adventures to come.

Fast forward a few weeks and now my stay at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Education Center in Tongariro National Park is nearly over. I have really enjoyed my time here so far, and it has been an absolute blast getting to explore the incredible natural beauty of the area.

The Center

Hillary Outdoor Education Centers (previously known as the New Zealand Outdoor Pursuits Center), is a non for profit organization which is headquartered in Auckland and has centers on Great Barrier Island as well as in Tongariro National Park. The organization was founded in 1972 with the mission to educate youth through adventure. The Tongariro center is a collection of nearly 40 different buildings including staff housing, community centers, student chalets, an office, resource center, a pool, and other structures for miscellaneous purposes. At full capacity, the center can operate with over 100 students, supported by between 15 to 17 instructors, 4 office staff members, 2 managers, 3 interns, and a collection of various other workers. Every week, the student groups from various schools across the North Island come to the center for a week of outdoor adventure and education, with student ages varying week to week from 12 to 18. They split into groups of 10, and go out every day to do various activities in the area with an instructor. The types of activities range from rock climbing to sea kayaking to mountaineering to caving to bushwalking to abseiling to white water rafting to canoeing to high ropes and more. It is pretty incredible how many options there are in the area in terms of outdoor activities. One night during the week, the students don’t return to the center for dinner, instead they camp out and have an overnight. While I have had very limited interactions with the students, it seems like they’re having an awesome time. I am definitely jealous and wish my school did a week like this. Instead of going caving or climbing with the students, I stay at the center where I volunteer in exchange for free housing and food.

The Volunteer Work

My work day begins at 8:00 AM with a staff meeting at the office. After hearing about all the exciting things the instructors will be doing all day, I make my way down to the workshop and resource center where I talk with Bill, the maintenance manager, and Shaun, the head of the gear department. They decide who I’ll be working with and what tasks they have in store for me. Most of the time I end up following Bill around, doing the odd jobs that need to get done around the center. I’ve spent a lot of the last three weeks doing rubbish collection, water safety checks, mowing, sweeping, painting, stacking fire wood, and a plethora of other fun things. Occasionally, I get to help out Shaun in gear hire which mostly consists of dealing with the constant chaotic cycle of clean, dirty, wet, and dry gear that circulates between the resource center and the students. While I would be lying if I said I loved the work, I am happy do to get my hands dirty knowing I’m supporting a great organization like Hillary Outdoors and getting free room and board at the same time.

The People

Another great aspect about the center that makes the mundane tasks a lot more enjoyable is the amazing group of people that work here. From the instructors to the management, everybody I’ve met has been welcoming, kind, and helpful. I’ve gotten especially close to a my roommate and the other volunteer Bart, who is from the Netherlands and is two months into his eight and a half months with the center. Adam and Krys, two of the interns (the interns spend half of their time doing field support with the volunteers and the other half observing the instructors with the students) have also become great friends. It has been really special to be amongst such a large group of young, active, outdoorsy, and likeminded people who are happy to show me around the area.

The Area

One of the main reasons I was attracted to Hillary Outdoors when I was planning my gap year was due to the offerings of the region. Situated in the middle of the north island, the center is conveniently located near some of the most beautiful wilderness I have ever seen. Every morning I wake up to breathtaking views of the three towering mountains which dominate the horizon, Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngauruhoe, and Mt Ruapehu. Between the mountains and the dense forest which surrounds them, there are countless spots for a huge and diverse collection of adventure activities.

The Highlight

By far the best part of my time here has been the afternoons and weekends. With so many outdoor professionals around me, there is pretty much always someone doing something outside during our free time. Another perk of being a volunteer means I get free access to all of the gear at the center, meaning there’s no excuse to not get out there. The majority of our “missions,” as the instructors call them, have been to go rock climbing. There are hundreds of amazing outdoor climbing spots nearby, from exposed crags on the side of mountains to boulder fields in deep valleys. I had only been rock climbing a handful of times before coming to New Zealand and had only been outdoor climbing once, but thanks to my awesome teachers Bart, Krys, and Adam, I am keeping up with the crew and have loved getting to discover some awesome climbs. They not only have helped me better my climbing skills, but they have taught me how to belay, how to lead belay, how to lead climb, and many other technical skills. Bart has even helped me improve my strength with some training sessions at our house. Climbing culture is incredibly appealing to me thanks primarily due to the fact that most days climbing look like a bunch of us hanging outside at a sweet location with beautiful views. It has been a ton of fun to learn a basically new skill and see my improvement.

When not climbing, I’ve also had a chance to see some of the natural beauty of the area on foot, through a number of runs, and one day hike. I mostly have been running on the road outside the center, but a couple times Bart and I have driven to nearby trails to get a change of scenery. One of the trails was a 7 kilometer loop around a lake that is a protected Maori site. It was a tough run thanks to a few huge, steep climbs, but it was worth it for some gorgeous views and the serenity of nature.

Perhaps my favorite day so far and definitely one of the best of the year was one Sunday, when I set out to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. One of the most popular hikes in New Zealand and considered the most beautiful day hike in the country, this trail spans over twelve miles and nearly 3000 feet of vertical elevation gain. The trailhead is just a short 15 minute drive from the center, so I got a ride from Bart and began the hike. Neither words nor photos can do justice to the unbelievable beauty I witnessed along this hike. Despite that, I will do my best with both words and photos. The trail weaves through deep valleys, next to the commanding mountains, and beside pristine lakes and colorful craters. I was stunned by the incredible sights in front of me. I was amazed at how radically different every part of the trail was and how much I saw in only 7 hours. I also opted to climb Mt Ngauruhoe, famously known as Mt Doom from the lord of the rings series. With no marked trail and two miles of loose gravel on a 45 degree slope, the climb to the top was certainly a struggle, but the views from the summit were unparalleled. After adding another four miles and 2000 feet of elevation gain, the day left me pretty wiped. However, every moment was well worth it and I cannot imagine having been so close to the crossing and missing it.

It’s crazy how fast it has all flown by and even crazier that just over a week from now I’ll be on a plane heading back home. With that being said I can’t wait to see what the next week has in store for me!

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