04.06.2009 - 04.09.2009
Smelling like I had been in the mountains for five days, I polished off my last three cereal bars and washed them down with a lukewarm beer from the backseat of Gerald’s dusty Nissan Bluebird. The beer had been sitting in there for the past two weeks and I had been sitting at the Robert Ridge car park now for a good thirty minutes or so getting my bags sorted (I had stored everything that I didn’t want to carry in the trunk of the Bluebird) and ready for the 1pm shuttle.
I was on my own again.
Gerald and I met on the inland-track portion of the Abel Tasman tramp. Berlin bred and 25 years-young, Gerald has been bitten by the bug. For the past 10 weeks he has been tramping non-stop - from one trail to the next, with just enough time in the middle to run by the local grocery to restock. His enthusiasm was refreshing and blinding. And no matter how ridiculously heavy his pack was he never once complained or lost the spring-like bounce from his up-beat pace that kept me constantly playing catch-up. We had been chumming-around for six days straight – a good chunk of time in the nomadic world of travelers.
Gerald had continued on by himself for a total of nine days, while I looped back early to eagerly move on to ‘somewhere.’ I had no reservations or even a destination ‘next’ in mind, but like all great explorers I was heading west.
The shuttle was on time and by 1:13pm I was propped up against the road sign on old route 63 just outside of the one-horse town of St. Arnaud – a Mayberry-esque access site for Nelson Lakes National Park. How else would one want to start their hitch-hiking career? A desolate two-lane road bending from ‘nowhere’ and heading straight-off to ‘somewhere’… out there where the hills met the horizon, the place where the storm clouds were hovering and the sun would eventually set. As the first set of cars cruised by, I stuck out my left thumb a bit apprehensively while I swatted New Zealand’s relentless pest – the dreaded sand fly – with my right. And now I had to pee. The beer had run its course.
Two hours later, bitten and mentally beaten I was in the exact same spot. During this time, only 26 cars/vehicles had passed me and NOT one even gave me the “Sorry, we’re full…” shrug as they sped by. Plan B was now in effect, but it was a work in progress…
Three kilometers back in ‘town’ there was the Department of Conservation (DOC) office and campground (could always camp if need be) and just up the road from there was the one-stop-shop and gas-pump-station that not-surprisingly also had the area’s only pay phone. I was just about to start making calls to an over-priced transport service when a truck driver passed me heading for the ‘shop’ door I was exiting. Uncharacteristically and desperately, I excused myself and asked the man if he was heading towards the Kawatiri Junction (26km away and also the host to a campsite and early morning bus pick-up). Originally caught off-guard, the man was now onto my motive. “Yeah, yeah I am.” With a wink and smile (kind-of like Archie ‘Moonlight’ Graham in Field of Dreams) I followed up with a “… would you mind if I rode along?” And just like that, I was on the road again – riding in my first big-rig and making small talk with Bob amongst his collection of empty coffee cups, biscuit (cookie) wrappers and unraveled paperwork.
Bob has driven truck in both the States and Canada. We talked about the differences in road quality, the amount of wheels used on rigs in NZ compared to the US and the sting of the $400NZD ticket Bob just picked-up before picking me up. He had six tons too much ,of the corn-feed shipment has was moving, and the unmarked-Man made him pay for it in numerous fines, the ink still fresh enough to smudge. But Bob, not as bitter as I would have been, was looking out for his fellow truckers, giving them the heads-up over CB radio as they rumbled past.
When it came time to hop out at my junction, Bob realized that it was not possible for him to pull over or cross traffic with the size of his trailer and quickly convinced me that I would be better off just getting out a few more kilometers up the way where he had to turn off – all but guaranteeing someone would pick me up in no time. I had my doubts, but Bob knew his roads.
Again, doing my best sand fly-swat serenade, I had my thumb back out.
Hitch-hiking is full of uncertainties. And as a guy from the good old US of A, I have heard the tales, seen the movies and watched the ten-o’clock news to know of the potential risks of ‘thumbing’ one’s way from place to place. But those weren’t the uncertainties on my mind when finally a white Nissan Corolla pulled off the main drag and came to a dusty stop fifty feet away. What kind of person will I meet? What kind of story will they tell – their background, their foreground? Where are they heading? How far can they take me? The rush of uncertainty pulsed.
The passenger-side window was down as I quickly scooted up towards the car. The driver leaned over and asked where I was heading through a pair of aviator glasses and a similar straggly beard. Without really knowing, I blurted out the next town down the road, “Murchison?!” “Hmmm… where exactly…?” sputtered from his mouth in a thick accent as he turned to find his rental-car map in the driver’s side-door. Barry, a Scotsman on holiday, had just rented a car a few hours ago after arriving by ferry from the North Island. His mission: to complete the South Island loop in five days – an ambitious and ridiculous goal, but one I was more than happy to tag along on.
Onward to Westport.
Along the way I learned that he had picked up a German couple from outside of the same gas stop that I had been at and had just dropped them off at the junction I was supposed to be at. Figuring he still had a few more hours to drive in the day, combined with a broken radio antenna and no CD’s to feed the stereo, getting to know a hitch-hiker was the next best thing in car-ride entertainment. I would ride shot-gun for the next three days.
Barry and I had a lot in common and shared a lot in common throughout our time down the west coast. We stopped in Punakaiki for the Pancake Rocks, blow holes and coffee. We hit up the hamlet of Franz Joseph, dodging rain storms in-route to glacier gawking. We pulled off at road-side viewpoints, reading interesting facts that we’ll never retain. And finally, we unwound in Wanaka, letting the color change of nature work its magic.
None of this was planned and because of that, it could have gone in many different directions. ‘What if this?’ and ‘What if that?’ definitely rings in my head, but somehow it always seems to work out. The security of the bus was an option, but to put yourself out there, to let uncertainty play a role gave me a whole new outlook on travel from a whole new aspect of traveling.
For the rest of the story, via pictures, click below: