Hiking Diaries Adventures With Jessica Dustow
Jess is a woman of adventure. From Hiking the length of New Zealand to living the Van Life - she’s experienced a unique outdoor lifestyle with many tales to tell. Jess shares her knowledge on hiking tips and what it’s like to live out of her incredible adventure van.
Can you tell everyone a little bit about yourself? When did you get into adventure?
I have been camping and bush walking since a young age. Both my parents are teachers so we would spend all our holidays on adventures. I was very lucky to grow up with an appreciation for being in nature.
I got serious about hiking in 2012 when I really wanted to camp at an amazing campground but had to walk in to access it. I was like a dog with a bone, determined to camp at this spot. I didn't have any hiking gear but I figured the least I needed was a backpack, the rest I could work out... Right? It was a very steep learning curve. I didn't have a sleeping mat, rain gear or walking poles. I didn't take enough food or water. I underestimated how much extra energy you expel carrying a pack. I was so dehydrated and dizzy by the end of the first day, I couldn't help my friend set up the tent. I was having head spins. I had to lay down. My first hike kicked me into gear and I've been obsessed ever since!
Why did you choose to hike the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand?
I have a really great friend who I hike with regularly. She sent me a text one day asking if I'd like to hike the Te Araroa (TA). I replied “Yes!” within the hour. I never turn down an invitation to hike, whether it's an overnighter, or across a country!
How many kilometres is the hike and how long did it take you?
The TA runs the length of New Zealand. I hiked the South Island, top to bottom, 1300km over 2 1/2 months. It was the best time of my life!
How long did you prepare yourself for the hike?
About nine months, not that you need that long, that's just how far out we decided to do it. I did learn that you can over plan for a long distance hike. You think you have it all planned out, down to what you'll be eating the entire trip and the moment you start it all changes with so many variables you would never expect.
What three essential items are on your packing list?
1. Baby wipes for an epic wipe down at the end of the day.
2. If you still want your knees when your 80, walking poles.
3. Spot! It's a personal locator beacon, if your ever in trouble your one button away from help. You can also send preprogrammed messages to family, letting them know your safe. I send one to my family everyday when I'm hiking, just to let them know I'm ok. (And always a bag of chips, I can never eat enough chips while hiking!)
What turned out to be not at all like you expected once you were on the trail?
I’m the queen of showers in normal life, I've had to learn to be OK with being dirty, all the time.
Did you have one specific place on the trial that stuck in your memory most clearly?
When my friend and I summited Waiau Pass, we cried! We had been reading about this epic pass for nine months, how gruelling it was. It's basically 500m of vertical scree (there's no switch backs in New Zealand). You would have to run, sometimes on all fours just to be able to gain any elevation, almost like running up a sand dune. When we got to the top we were so relieved, it was an amazing accomplishment.
Would this be your biggest recommendation for anyone travelling to New Zealand?
Hmmm Yes and No. I think there are some amazing places that you don't get to go to because the TA doesn't run through there. For example the TA doesn't go to Mount Cook but we did it as side trip and spent 3 amazing days there. But most TA hikers would miss it. So if you want to see all the best parts of NZ maybe get a van and do it that way. If you want the amazing life changing experience of thru hiking, do the TA!
For anyone new to hiking, what advice can you offer to help them on their way?
There's a saying on trail, HYOH (hike your own hike). I think it's the best advice. You can do as much research, talk to as many people, read blogs and watch all the YouTube clips but your not any of these people, so what makes them happy might make you miserable. Get out there and hike. Start with an easy overnighter. You'll quickly discover what works for you and what doesn't.
Where do you most love to adventure in Australia? Why?
I feel more at home in nature than I do in the suburbs, I especially love being in the mountains, I literally crave them! It's like - if I haven't been out hiking in the mountains for a while I get restless. So anywhere alpine really, Kosciuszko National Park is a favourite.
Did you find the Van life or did it find you?
We started with a small van to fit all our hiking, surfing and music gear in, putting a bed in came later. We started doing weekend getaways, which turned into week long trips and month long adventures. We were hooked on the freedom of VanLife. We upgraded to a bigger van and over the last few years spend more time in our van than a house, so it has become our home.
What kind of Van is it? From the photos, it looks super impressive inside. How was the outfitting process?
Yep she's a big girl. A Mercedes Sprinter. My husband runs VanLife Diaries Insta and website. He works with van fitters who did all the work on our van. I wish we were more handy at DIY, but we thought we'd leave this one to the professionals.
Are you working from the road? How are you funding your adventures?
My husband and I are casual teachers, we work around our plans for the year. Sometimes it's five days a week, sometimes we take off five weeks. Just depends how much money we need to fund our next adventure.
Best Van parking spot on the East Coast?
Garie Beach in Mimosa National Park.
Tasmania is up next for you. What trails and adventurers are you most looking forward to?
I'm currently answering these questions in Mount Field National Park in Tassie! We are half way through our six week adventure and it has been amazing. Our main idea for this trip was to have no schedule, we just had our arrival and departure dates. In between we just want to do as much hiking, surfing and relaxing as possible. My favourites so far have been Ben Lomond, Freycinet, Cape Pillar and I'm looking forward to Craddle Mountain and Walls of Jerusalem. I'm definitely getting my mountain fix.
Where can we get in contact with you?