3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

A Land of Rabbits and Gold

Summer seemed a rapidly fading memory. Each step, hour, and day brought us nearer the 45th parallel, the mid-way point between the Equator and the South Pole. Sunrise was a long time coming in the mornings and sunset was never too far away. The nighttime chill lasted well into the morning, and on a cloudy day it stayed cool.

Two days out of Twizel, we tramped into a vast and stark country of golden mountains and empty skies. Even in remote corners of the Rockies, it’s hard to escape the distant rumble of a jet 30,000 feet above, with its telltale contrail a lingering reminder of the modern world we’d sought to escape. But here, the skies are untainted and quiet.

The East Ahuriri Track in Otago, part of the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand

View on the East Ahuriri Track

Ahead of us lay the town of Wanaka and after that Queenstown, where (legend has it) one may seek the best burger in New Zealand. Nothing stands in the way of a thru-hiker and a good meal, not even a measly mountain or twenty.

We forded the Ahuriri River, an unexpectedly fast and deep crossing over slick Didymo slime, and scrambled out of the narrow gorge onto a flat plateau. The flatlands beneath the mountains were pockmarked with rabbit warrens. We picked our way around countless burrows and holes – an underground city no doubt. This land was once an expansive sheep farm, but it was literally eaten up by rabbits in the late 1800d. The owners abandoned all hope of grazing sheep here and pulled their operations.

With no natural predators, rabbits quickly gained the upper-paw and destroyed many tracks of rich farmland. (What an allegory!)

One government official wrote in 1887, “I deem it my duty to call your especial attention to the rabbit question, which if not faced and the evil checked will seriously affect the rentals of the Canterybury Crown Lands … After crossing the Ahuriri River onto the Omarama Station, I found the country swarming with them and literally eaten out.”

A travel writer described the scene two years later, “As you drive along the road skeletons are seen hanging in rows on wire fences, to show the rabbit inspector the station or farm is doing its law-imposed duty and that the creatures are being killed.”

Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits of all shapes and sizes darted in front of our path. Monsters as big as dogs. Small ones. Cute ones. And, I imagine, some akin to General Woundwort.

But we soon left rabbit country and began climbing the Mt. Martha Saddle, an elusive 1680m high point that vanished in heavy rain, such as we were plodding through now. Dad lagged further and further behind until I could barely see him in the mist. I stopped at intervals to wait for the outline of his backpacked figure to emerge in the grey before moving on. When I reached the summit, a cold, wet wind slapped me in the face. I huddled by the sign post marking the summit, checking my phone for service, waiting.

When Dad took the last two steps to the top, he exhaled, “Is this it?”

Truly, he didn’t believe we’d made it. I nodded and stood up, stiff from crouching.

“I’m really cold. Gonna keep moving,” I said.

I started down the other side of the saddle, Dad not too far behind. I glanced over my shoulder every few minutes to check his progress.

“I need to stop,” he shouted.

I looked back. He weaved unsteadily near the edge before dropping his pack and slumping down next to it. I hurried back up.

“What’s up?”

“Dizzy.”

He opened his pack and dug for a bar. We hadn’t lunched too long ago, but by this point in the trip, Dad’s reserves were running low. He was skinny, some twenty pounds lighter than when we’d started the trek. It was becoming increasingly harder for him to carry enough food to keep his energy up.

We snacked in the rain before trudging the remainder of the distance to the hut where we inhaled a gourmet dinner of dehydrated mashed potatoes, peas, freeze-dried beef, and ramen.

The next several days took us through harsh and unforgiving terrain where missteps are last steps. The trail climbed through steep beech forests where the heavy plod of footsteps is quietly muffled in the spongy ground. A cheerful fantail would follow us, flashing his tail and singing thanks for the bugs we rustled up for him. We cautiously sidled along narrow river valleys, quickly descending to the rushing water before jotting up and away into forest. Te Araroa followed open ridge lines with vast mountain views, and out across a high windy farm road with Mt. Cook towering in the distance.

Descending into beech forest on the Breast Hill Track of Te Araroa

Descending into beech forest on the Breast Hill Track of Te Araroa

View from the Breast Hill Track

View from the Breast Hill Track

A deep sea of clouds we would soon descend through from Breast Hill

A deep sea of clouds we would soon descend through from Breast Hill

We arrived in Wanaka in the warm sun. White sailboats flitted across the clear lake. Cyclists and runners crowded outside cafes for their recovery beers. Gulls and ducks fought for scraps. And we happily checked into the YHA for a nap.

After a lazy rest day, we saddled up for our last march to Queenstown. When we reached the trailhead, a notice for the Motatapu Adventure Run had been posted. If we didn’t hurry, we’d be caught up in a 50k race over steep saddles and narrow ridge lines! Of course, hurrying isn’t really our thing, at least not with full packs. The next day, we reached the Highland Hut some two hours before the race marshals arrived. The husband-wife couple unloaded their race supplies – 50 band-aids, a radio, and four collapsible water jugs – and hung their clothes up to dry on the porch.

I looked at the limited first-aid kit with some bemusement until they reassured me a medic would arrive via helicopter in the morning. Dad and I decided to wait out the race at the hut, and start after the last runners passed at 10 am.

The radio awoke at 5 am with race chatter. Outside it was still dark, but the sound of heavy rain on a tin roof did not bode well. It was a cold rain when the first runners arrived shortly after the helicopter had delivered our medic. They emerged, one at a time, over a crest before dropping down to the hut. The leaders stopped only briefly to refill their water before sprinting away, but as the race wore on, the runners became more relaxed, chatty, and cheerful. From afar, we watched them, like a line of ants, climbing what looked like a vertical mound into the sky. That was to be our first big climb of the day.

Dad reassured himself that if someone could run up it, he could walk it. He did and by dinnertime we had reached the last hut on the trail. I sat down at the table to read the trail notes for tomorrow.

Climbing on the Motatapu Alpine Track

Climbing on the Motatapu Alpine Track

I spy snow!

I spy snow!

In the sky on the Motatapu Alpine Track

In the sky on the Motatapu Alpine Track

The art of reading the TA trail notes is a tricky business. At times, they read mistakingly easier than the trail reveals itself to be. And on other occasions, the trail is not nearly so tough as we had been lead to believe. On this occasion, our walk tomorrow sounded deceptively short and sweet. After an easy climb up the Roses Saddle and down to the Arrow River, I had high hopes of reaching Arrowtown in time for dinner and a beer.

We slowly walked in the Arrow River, following it downstream, for several Ks. It’s crisp, clean waters would have been waist deep during yesterday’s heavy rain, but today it barely reached our knees. The trail exited the river in Macetown, a relic of a gold mining settlement that once housed nearly 2,000 people. It was abandoned long ago and all that’s left is a few hollow ruins.

One of the few remaining buildings from Macetown

One of the few remaining buildings from Macetown

Ahead, two men waved metal detectors above the water. No old fashioned gold panning for these guys. I saw a glint in the sun. Someone had dropped a switchblade by the trail. Dad picked it up.

“Pretty nice. Too bad I don’t need another knife.”

“You don’t want it?”

“Nah, I’ll see if these guys want it.”

He carried it over to the two prospectors. They happily accepted the knife and we carried on down the road. We passed more ruins and came to the trail junction. We could stay on the road, which was undeniably easier walking, or take the trail into Arrowtown. The day was getting on. I anxiously looked at my watch and shifted my pack. I really wanted something other than ramen for dinner. We took the road.

And oh what a mistake it was! The road paralleled the river, zig-zagging across it so many times we lost count. I quickly gave up on changing in and out of my water shoes, and sloshed along in soggy boots. At this rate we would never make Arrowtown by dark.

We fantasized about catching a ride with the two nice gold miners. Maybe, because they loved the switchblade so much, they’d take us to Queenstown, buy us beer and food, and shower us with gold! Hey, one can always dream.

We had just veered off the road into a shallower river crossing when I heard the engine behind us. They were driving fast. Too fast for me to back track.

“Oh no!”

“Shit!”

I started running. Suddenly I was waist deep in the water. I saw the 4Runner round the bend. I reached the bank and scrambled through the spiny Matagori bushes, scratching my arms and face. I leapt onto the road, bloody and sweaty, in front of the car and stuck out my thumb.

The younger of the two men rolled down his window.

“Um, would you like a ride?”

I don’t know what gave it way, but yes, as a matter of fact, I would like a ride. Thank you very much.

They dropped us near the Queenstown airport an hour later. We quickly hitched the rest of the way into town where we did just happen to find the best burger in New Zealand.

4 Responses to “A Land of Rabbits and Gold”

  1. Pamela mccullough

    What a great writer you are! These stories, they both intrigue and frighten me….am I tough enough to do what you’ve been doing? I really don’t know. But I sure hope get the chance to find out!!!

    Thanks again for sharing!!

    Reply
    • margaret

      Thanks, Pam! I hope you do get to do it. It’s certainly tough, but an incredible experience. And I hope you do a blog – would love to read about your journey =)

      Reply
  2. Larry

    Your reporting on your adventure/mis-adventure keeps me on the edge of my chair.
    This is truly an astounding journey filled with moment-to-moment challenges. You two
    continue to be elevated on my short list of heroes–gaining on Sir Ernest Shackleton who
    is right up there toward the top.

    Reply
    • margaret

      Thanks, Larry! Everyday is an adventure – that’s for sure!

      Reply

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