3,000 km on foot across New Zealand

Nothing but Wayfaring Strangers

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A distant rumbling, tent shaking, sleep shattering screech in the night. I opened my eyes as train thunder ricocheted around the valley. Our position as wayfaring itinerants was cemented when we pitched our tents behind a line of trees by the railway tracks and State Highway 73. Dinner was served to the rush of cars (the kind that don’t pick up hungry hitchhikers), and when the traffic slowed, we crawled into our tents for an uneasy night’s sleep.

Three days earlier, we had caught a ride back to the trail from beautiful Hanmer Springs. I soon stepped knee deep into a bog, water rushing into my boots, sandflies swarming. You could smear them from your arms like black oil slick. Let there be no note of sarcasm in my voice when I declare that was the highlight of the Tui Track.

We sloshed into the Hope Shelter, a ramshackle emergency hut littered with trash and partially eaten food (by mice), just as it was beginning to drizzle. To hell with this. I pitched my tent as far away as I could, and shouted at the moonlit silhouettes of mice on my rain-fly all night. Dad didn’t fair much better in the hut.

My mood had not improved by morning. We set off into the wet beyond. The clouds never had the decency to properly rain. They just couldn’t be bothered to do more than mist. F for effort. It was a damp day and the day after. But we arrived at the final hut on the track with clear, warm skies and just 23km to the start of the next section.

We left in the early morning after an overnight siege from the local rat horde. Not mice. Big, sharp-snouted, ship rats. Big enough to eat and be eaten by. I’ve been told the rodent population is at an all-time high this summer. It’s a “mast year.” The beech forests, which go to seed every four to five years, are in hyper-drive, producing an overwhelming quantity of seeds. Lots of food means lots of rats, mice, stoats, and weasels. Bad for critically endangered birds and whiny Americans alike.

Rumor had it we’d be out of the beech forests as we travelled south into Canterbury. The promise of a quiet, restful, plague-free night spurred us onward. But speed was not in the cards today. Twenty-three kilometers became an eternity along the Taramakau River. The unformed (read non-existent) trail wove in and out of the water and over rolling, tumbling rock bed for hours. Every step was a potential twisted ankle. Our feet as worn out as our patience, Dad and I squawked and spat at each other like birds in a cage.

Thanks to Sharon Anne Leopardi for the shot!

Thanks to Sharon Anne Leopardi for the shot!

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We were now three hours behind schedule and the sun was creeping to bed early behind the mountains. We left the Taramakau and approached the wide valley of the Otira River, where just on the other side of its rushing waters, was the highway. The highway that lead to Arthurs Pass where we could eat real food and sleep in mouse-less beds. Forget the next two days of trail. We wanted out.

But first, one more river to cross. It looked deep. Perhaps up to our thighs. And fast. Faster than we’d experienced before. Exhausted and in no condition to go for a swim, we piddled away a half-hour scouting a good crossing point. It was after 6:00 and our chances at hitchhiking into town were sinking quicker than the sun. Finally, I picked a spot and started rolling up my pants.

“I’m taking my pants off.”

Words you never want to hear your father say.

“You should too.”

“Do what?”

“You gonna try to hitchhike with soaking wet pants?”

Well, I hadn’t really thought about it. But now that you mention it, perhaps a dripping wet and offensively smelly tramper does not the best hitchhiker make.

We took our pants off. (It just sounds so wrong.) And crossed the river at sunset in our four day old underwear. I’ve never looked better.

At the highway in dry pants, I counted one car every five minutes. That’s twelve cars an hour. And twenty-four cars that passed us by in the two hours we stood swatting sandflies by the road.

“Well, shit.”

And there we were, left to camp behind the line of trees by the railroad tracks and the highway. The next morning, our thumbs wasting away from fruitless hitching, two elderly men in a flatbed pickup pulled over. A couple of tires were latched to the wooden bed with rope. The man threw a pillow onto a tire for me.

“I’ll drive slow. So you don’t have a bronc ride up there.”

“Um, okay.”

We threw our packs on board and I sat on the tire, wrapping my hand around the rope like I was grabbing the reins. Off we went, bouncing, swerving, passing, ripping up the mountain pass. To the right was a steep drop down a cliff. To the left was a sheer rock wall. If I was bucked, I wouldn’t just hit the road. I’d bounce off into the depths below! But I held on to that tire for all eight seconds. He let us off in front of the YHA in Arthurs Pass just in time for coffee.

Two espressos down and I was feeling better. We were in Arthurs Pass. The sun was out. And the keas were on patrol. On the cafe tables, on the cars, on the streets, on sidewalks, on the park benches. They had the place covered.

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Arthurs Pass is one of two major kea population centers. These curious, intelligent, and, at times, pesky alpine parrots haven’t always been the life of the party. In fact, they’re a bit too smart for their own good as they inspect and inadvertently destroy hiking gear, windshield wipers, you name it. In the 1860’s, the government initiated a bounty on the birds after they were linked to killing high country sheep. Over the next ninety years, an estimated 150,000 kea were shot. With just some 5,000 left in the wild, kea are still killed (now illegally) for disrupting the peace.

The worst thing they did to me was not pose for a good photo – not exactly a shootin’ offense. We spent one and a half rest days in Arthurs Pass at the YHA. It’s a small albeit beautiful alpine village with just two restaurants, a smattering of hostels and lodges, and a train station. If we were so inclined, we could have taken numerous hikes and climbs in the mountainous area. But these were our precious rest days and nothing, ain’t nothing, getting me off my butt.

When at last we were ready to leave, we packed up our bounce box and took it down to the post shop. I stopped when I saw it. It was a shed with a covered patio. A dozen or so small red mailboxes were neatly stacked next to an outgoing mail slot. No desk. No clerk. And no way to mail a parcel. But the NZPost website listed opening and closing hours. This didn’t even have a door. Do the parrots stop you from checking your mail after 5:00 pm? I stomped into the general store/cafe/gas station and asked about this curiosity. I was answered with a shrug and a distracted apology.

We couldn’t leave the bounce box. And we certainly couldn’t hike with it. An hour later, we hitched a ride out of Arthurs Pass for destinations unknown, with the only requirement that they have a post office.

4 Responses to “Nothing but Wayfaring Strangers”

  1. Larry

    How is it that you are so darned good at turning your misery into hilarious reading?
    You have me (almost) rolling in the floor! Carry on troopers. Thanks for sharing!
    Larry

    Reply
  2. Pamela

    Wow, those sound like some SERIOUSLY tough days and nights!!! Did the rats damage your gear? That just sounds terrible!! Hoping your enjoying much better days!

    Reply
    • Margaret

      That was definitely a tough section – not one of my favorites! No gear damage from the rats… Just thinking about Willard all night!

      Reply

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