Hitching a ride in New Zealand’s South Island

     It was smooth sailing for us as we set off from Wellington and made our way to Picton, the gateway to New Zealand’s South Island. The ferry docked and, along with everyone else, we piled off full of a ridiculous amount of excitement. We had been looking forward to our time in the inexplicably gorgeous rolling hills, rugged mountains, and lush valleys of the South Island from the moment we moment we arrived. Well, to be fair, we had both been dreaming of this place long before that, but either way, we were here now!
Drive down the east coast
     The plan was to pick up a rental car and drive south down the west coast of the island. You would think that by now we might have learned that on a trip like this your plans almost always change the moment you walk out the door in the morning, but it never seems to stop us from trying to plan ahead. After all, you can’t plan on no plans, can you? Anyways, this morning was no different. Thanks to a crazy stretch of severe weather all along the west coast, a crucial bridge had been washed out. Frankly though, pretty much all bridges are crucial in New Zealand seeing as there are so few roads that to detour is no small ask. Rather, it usually requires you to turn around and go back to where you started before heading off in a completely different direction so as to approach your original destination from the opposite direction. To make a long story short, the bridge washout rendered the only through road on the wast coast unpassable. Looks like we will see the east coast as well now! So off we went in the direction of Christchurch.
Purple flowers at campsite
     Making great time, we blew through Christchurch and continued our drive past the greenest of green rolling hills covered in countless little puffs of cotton…Hold on a sec! Those are sheep! Flocks and flocks of sheep meandered as far as the eye could see. That is when it really hit home for me. After all the daydreaming I had done about this place, we really were in New Zealand! As the light got longer, everything seemed to be glowing. It was breathtaking. The shadows were starting to really stretch when we pulled off the road and found a free campsite along the bank of a little pond overlooking a grassy field filled with the most terrific blooming purple flowers. In the distance, the New Zealand’s most famous mountain range, the Southern Alps, stood tall and proud as if it was keeping a watchful eye over everything.
Look where we are!
     So taken aback by the stunning landscape, we didn’t even notice the time. It was 10pm and the sun was just starting to set. Crazy! Taking all of this New Zealand magic in, we sat, drinking wine straight from the bottle like all the classiest people do, and watched in awe as the sun painted the sky every firey hue imaginable. Absolutely spectacular. After watching the sun set for well over an hour (a far cry from the Equator sunsets we had been witnessing for the last few months that seemed work more like a light switch turning day to night almost immediately) we started to will the sun to set just a little faster since we had a big day ahead of us and needed to catch a little shut eye, but we just couldn’t bear to pry ourselves from this special sight before it was over. Soon enough, darkness set in and we crawled into our tent full of New Zealand inspired happiness.
Such mighty mountains
     We woke up well rested and set off for Mt. Cook National Park straight away. First of all, those are some serious mountains! Between the massive turquoise blue lakes and the menacing glaciers with their imposing beauty setting the stage, we knew we were in for a treat. Like most national parks around the world the best trails were backcountry trails that required both reservations months in advance as well as well-tuned mountaineering skills and tools of which we had neither. That was okay by us though since we had only limited time and were more than happy to just set eyes upon the famed Mt. Cook where Sir Edmund Hillary, native to New Zealand, trained to be the first man to climb Mt. Everest. We hiked a short out and back trail that led us up the Hooker Valley and ultimately to Hooker Lake where we enjoyed our picnic lunch lakeside and admired the broken pieces of glacier floating along as well as the main event, Mt. Cook, standing not to far in the distance.
Great day for a hike
     Later that evening we reached Queenstown which was to serve as our hub for exploring the surrounding national parks. All of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, or classic long distance hiking trails, require reservations far in advance. We however did not have the luxury of exact dates and therefore were not able to get anything sorted as far as reservations go, but while in this country so famous for its mountains and hiking trails we wanted more than anything to get our boots a little dirty and see firsthand what all the fuss was about. After a bit of searching around we learned that the Routeburn Track, one of the supposedly more spectacular of the Great Walks, is only about 18 miles. Perfect! We figured that we should be able to do that in a day no problem and therefore skirted the necessity for a reservation. This particular trail starts in Milford Sound, about 5 hours from Queenstown by car, and ends in Glenorchy, only one driving hour from Queenstown.
     We thought through the logistics and decided that it would be best to have the car waiting for us at the end of the hike so before we did much exploring of Queenstown proper, we drove to the trailhead past Glenorchy and dropped the car. It did not take us too long to find a hitch back to Queenstown. This was quite lucky considering the fact that we were at the end of a not-so-popular dirt road. Either way, in the end we were picked up by a trout fishing guide and his two clients. (Hope the clients didn’t mind the extra company!) Our ride was full of information on the area which definitely made for an interesting an informative ride back to town. Things can’t go too smoothly though because where is the adventure in that, right? Well, no worries there. We pulled around a corner to find a long line of backed up traffic and soon learned that as a result of the heavy winds that day there was a downed tree. The catch was that it had also taken down a power line with it so it was not a simple fix. After about an hour of waiting there was a crew on hand chopping it up and we were on our way. I think that both parties got more time together than either of us had bargained for, but we were thankful for the ride nonetheless…even though it definitely crossed both our minds that it might be faster if we just walked back to town from there.
     Since the Routeburn Track started from Milford Sound, we knew we had quite the hitch ahead of us the next morning. There was a roundabout we had driven past on our way into Queenstown that was the perfect spot so we set off to walk there. Ron spotted a bus and thought it might be a good idea to save ourselves some time and just take public transport to the roundabout. I, feeling particularly cheap, responded that it really wasn’t too far and that it might be nice to stretch our legs a little before a long day of car riding, so we walked. What I didn’t know was that we would be stretching our legs for close to six miles. Oops. Funny how distances seem much shorter when you are in a car than on foot. However, I stand by my decision since our timing could not have been more perfect! Once we posted up with our hitchhiking sign, we caught a ride in no time and better yet, the two Aussies that so kindly gave us a lift were chatty, hilarious, and insisted on buying us ice cream cones! Turns our that it was a good thing we walked those extra couples miles in the morning! Had we gotten there any earlier I doubt we would be been so thoroughly entertained or well fed.
     Wiping remnants of delicious ice cream from our mouths, we bid our first hitch goodbye in Te Anau, a tiny town about two hours from Milford Sound that exists solely because of the volume of Milford Sound tourism combined with the lack of lodging in Milford Sound itself. Our first offer for a ride can about two minutes after we scouted our ideal corner. A boy who we figured was about nine or ten years old came to a screeching stop on his bike, gave us the once over, and decided that he was up to the task.
Nine-year-old up-and-coming entrepreneur: “Alright! I have pegs on the front and back. Who wants a ride to Milford Sound?”
Us: “Well, we would if you are going that direction.”
Nine-year-old up-and-coming entrepreneur: “Okay, that will be $1,000.”
Us: “Whoa, that is a little expensive. I don’t think we have enough.”
Nine-year-old up-and-coming entrepreneur: “Hmm…okay! $15.”
Us: “How about if we are still standing here in a few hours we will take you up on that offer.”
Nine-year-old up-and-coming entrepreneur: “Sounds good. I’ll be somewhere around…New Zealand”
     He also offered to sell us his bike for $50. We weren’t sure that we had enough room in our packs for it so we had to decline. In the end, we did not wind up getting a ride or a new bike, but we certainly did get a good little laugh. That is worth a lot when you are standing in the beating sun banking on the kindness of strangers.
      While we continued to wait for a ride in the not-so-heavy-traffic on the edge of Te Anau, countless concerned locals approached us to let us know that the road to Milford Sound would be closed the following day in anticipation of the approaching storm. There have been several landslides in the last few months and a couple of sketchy areas still remain and are threatening to fall any day so the local authorities have been taking extra precautions such as closing the road on a nightly basis as well as in any bad weather to prevent accidents. This was really not a big concern to us since we were already planning on spending a few days down in that area hiking the nearby trails and taking a cruise of the famously beautiful Sound itself. Plus, we were hiking back over the mountains and therefore not relying on the road in the first place. And lastly, we have never melted from a little rain before so we assumed all would be fine. (You can see me employing the use of foreshadowing here, right?)
     Soon enough we caught another ride and were back on track to reaching Milford Sound before dinner. It turned out that the girl who picked us up worked for the cruise boat company there. She asked us if we had a place to stay and we told her that we were probably going to camp at the Milford Sound Lodge since we had a friend that worked there. (Remember that awesome hitch we got in Glacier National Park? [ http://adventuresoftwo.com/2012/07/17/glacier-part-duex-backcountry/ ] Well, Parker, the guy who picked us up and gave us what is arguably our best hitch to date, works in Milford Sound the other half of the year so we sent him a note and made plans to connect while we were down in his neck of the New Zealand woods.) We got to talking and over the course of our fantastic conversation Milford Sound’s population came up. We had read in a guidebook that the towns population was only 170 people. I was sure that it was a misprint. I mean, this is the jumping off point for one of the country’s most beloved tourist traps. Nope. Not a misprint in the slightest. In fact, in the winter the population drops to between 50 and 80 people! That is about the size of my high school class! Crazy! The entire place is made up of the boat wharf, the pub, and the Milford Sound Lodge. That is it. So really, it was not surprising that she knew Parker when she asked who our friend we were meeting was.
Water so blue it makes the sky look dull
     Time was absolutely flying between the mind boggling population revelation and the phenomenal scenery. This was truly one of the more spectacularly stunning drives I have ever taken. It felt like every bend in the road revealed a new set of glowingly blue lakes, gushing rivers and waterfalls, fields of flowers, impressive cliff faces, and just all encompassing beauty. (And there were a lot of bends in the road. Like a lot, a lot.) We reached the Homer Tunnel, where the road officially closes for the night. Just before we entered the tunnel, Ron and I spotted a sign noting that there was no accommodation left in Milford Sound if you had not booked. Gulp! Hmmm…this could be an interesting twist. We had not made reservations of any sort since we were planning on camping and made the assumption that there is always room for one more tent if push comes to shove. All of the sudden though, we were not so sure.
     No turning back now though. The road would be closing for the next day soon and we were already nearly there. Slightly embarrassed, we asked our gracious driver if that meant campsites were all full too. She said that most likely it did. Uh oh! Seeing our look of panic, she reassured us that some way or another we would have somewhere to stay especially since there was no getting out of Milford with the road closures in place. We just crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. When we arrived at the lodge, Parker was working the desk. Luckily, they had tons of cancellations and we were able to get a bunk room and forego camping in the anticipated storm. Phew! Talk about scraping by with just pure dumb luck! It all worked out in the end and we were safe and warm when the storm rolled in sometime around midnight.
To be continued…
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