Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman

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The hitchhiking gods deposited us in Geraldine, a town we had no intention of visiting, especially during Chinese New Year. It was full. Completely booked with Chinese families on holiday. Had we really just hitchhiked all day long, only to end up in a small, rainy town with no place to sleep?

Geraldine did, however, meet one requirement: it had a post office. And we were able to relieve ourselves of the burdensome bounce box that lead us on such a lengthy journey away from the trail. Our first ride out of Arthurs Pass took us nearly to Christchurch. The old man, a retired deer hunter, needed someone to talk to for an hour and we willingly obliged.

Actually, we more or less listened to him reminisce about the glory days of deer hunting in New Zealand. He particularly enjoyed the memory of hunters falling from airplanes, sweeping low over the mountains, attempting to shoot unsuspecting deer. And deer-related helicopter crashes. Apparently there were a lot of those, too.

Shortly after depositing us at the intersection of SH 73 and the road to Methven, a new Corvette passed our outstretched thumbs. It didn’t stop. But the beat up rental car behind him did.

The young German was on holiday. The entire country of New Zealand is full of young Germans on holiday. Anyway, he just happened to be going over both the Rakaia and Rangitata rivers, two major hazard zones on Te Araroa. The Rakaia, the more dangerous of the two, is an absolute “do not cross,” and trampers face the task of hitchhiking around it on the nearest bridge. The Rangitata is usually more manageable, but if you already have a ride across, better safe than sorry, right?

The Rangitata River is labelled a hazard zone, but can be crossed if water levels are safe.

The Rangitata River is labelled a hazard zone, but can be crossed if water levels are safe.

We were very, very sorry in Geraldine. In the cold rain. With no place to stay. After calling up every hotel Google could find, I entered the iSite with little hope for my immediate future. The frazzled woman behind the desk looked somewhat bemused when I told her my woeful tale. But she called around all the same. Every bunk in the backpackers was full. Every cabin, dorm, upscale hotel, dump, and trailer was taken.

She tried one last place.

The Heritage Hotel just happened to have two beds left. I didn’t stop to ask why. I just took it. No matter what lay in wait, we could deal with it.

Two gristly, overcooked steaks and no dressing for our salads. Honestly, how does a restaurant, even a hotel restaurant, forget to buy salad dressing? But that was the worst the Heritage Hotel could do. With the exception of a drunken street fight outside our window, we got a decent night’s sleep and were ready to thumb it back to the trail the next morning.

It was the longest hitch yet. Two hours and not a car stopped. I called the shuttle service listed in the trail notes, and nearly choked when he told me the fee. Finally, I crafted a sign out of a trail map, “Rangitata Gorge Road,” in hopes that a fellow outdoor enthusiast would take pity on us. She did. The young-ish woman with short, wavy hair was out for a day hike, though she wasn’t headed as far up the road as we were. Our trail was at the bitter end.

She dropped us at the Peel Forest General Store where we might “meet someone.” There was no one there, except a young Irish girl working the counter. We took turns standing up every fifteen minutes when a car drove by. Finally, the Irish girl told us we might ride with the postman if he was able to fix his truck.

The postman arrived in a sour mood. We later learned he had just spent $1000 of his own money on a new starter. He begrudgingly agreed to take us up the road for a fraction of what the shuttle company had asked.

He loaded us into his faded red, vintage Toyota Hilux along with the mail, the milk, and the beer. Doug is also the owner of the General Store and moonlights as the postman, milkman, and beerman. To help fill the time, he still has his old job as the manager of a farm raising healthy, high grade animal blood for the pharmaceutical industry.

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The Two Thumbs Track begins where the Rangitata Gorge Road dead-ends, at the border of the wild. Before Doug could drop us off, he had to do the mail run. We chugged up the road in a cloud of white dust with the British ex-pat. First stop: the main residence of one of New Zealand’s oldest sheep stations (that’s “a ranch” in American). We delivered milk. Second stop: the worker’s quarters. We delivered beer.

Up the road, past an abandoned school house, and onto a few more houses further removed from the next than the previous. Finally we arrived in an open, arid valley. To the North was the wide, rocky Rangitata River basin and to the South was the entrance into the mountains. It possessed the same astonishing nothingness as the Bisti or the Badlands or the Great Basin Divide.

To arrive and to be left in a place of nothingness is humbling. It’s a place where humans, for once, are a minority. We play by different rules here.

We watched the dust of Doug’s truck drift slowly back to the road – there was no breeze – before we hefted our packs on and started walking. The Two Thumb Track would take us roughly three days to cross the mountains on an unformed trail through deep tussock, along stumbling rock river beds, and up to the highest point on the trail.

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The huts on the trail should be appreciated for their historic quality and character, not their, how shall I put it, comfort. But they do provide shelter when needed. On our second night, the hail came down. The tin roof shuttered. It would have been a tent shredding storm had we setup outside the hut. When we awoke in the morning, the mountain tops were white from hail.

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Two days later, the trail deposited us onto a long, desolate stretch of road. The driver of the first car to pass scowled at my cheerful, heartwarming smile and outstretched thumb. Many kilometers later, a second driver, a young mountain biker from Seattle, pulled over. His rented Subaru was already full of Te Araroa trampers – a Dutch couple, Peter and Reino – and mountain bikes. But we squeezed in and I rode the rest of the way into Tekapo with a bicycle tire rubbing my aching back.

Peter and Reino at a lookout.

Peter and Reino at a lookout.

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