Here we are again. Bags packed to look as small as possible. Cardboard sign held out announcing our destination. Smiles slapped on our faces. Thumbs out. Ready to do some serious hitchhiking.
Starting just outside of Nelson around 9am (a little later than we anticipated) we had our sights set on Queenstown by nightfall. In a just over an hour we had our first ride. Headed towards Westport, our ride was chatty and very Kiwi. We had a good time and before we new it we were back on the side of the road fishing for our next lift down the west coast. It wasn’t until we glanced at our watch that we realized it was already lunchtime and we were not even a fraction of the way there.
How did that happen?! We thought we were making great time!
Well, it turns out that we were making great time, but unless we caught a hitch with an airplane, there was no way to make it to Queenstown in one day. We started to crunch the numbers and as it happened, we were a little shocked to discover that we were going to be hitchhiking over 1,200 miles to to an 18 mile day hike. Oops! Somehow we forgot that we took several days to drive up from Queenstown last time around. We never really did take the time to look at a map and calcuated the distances this time. We figured that we were seasoned pros and a one day hitch should be no problem. Trumped by poor planning yet again!
Thankfully, we had built in a few buffer days before our flight out from Wellington left. Phew! All we could really do was get as far as possible and hope to make it to Queenstown by the next day which seemed a bit of a stretch, but still do-able. After our ride with chatty Kiwi, we caught lifts with Wealthy Indian Couple, Construction Worker With No Voicebox, Gruff Tattoo Guy, Quirky Man Who Needed Eggs, and Charming Motherly Nurse from South Africa. (All of whom we have affectionately nicknamed as you can see.)
While there are many unknowns when hitchhiking, one thing is for certain. You will always be surprised by something. You will never be bored. (Disclaimer: With the exception of countless hours doing nothing but standing on the road staring wishfully at passing cars.) Wealthy Indian Couple surprised us (beyond the fact that they picked us up at all) by going out of their way to stop at the Pancake Rocks. This is a roadside attraction that they had already seen, but decided to stop again anyways since we missed it our first time around. We had been really wanting to see this geological spectacle so it was incredibly generous of them to make this detour purely on the behalf of some strangers they had already gone out of their way to pick up.
Not wanting to waste too much of their time, we bolted from the car and ran to see the Pancake Rocks across the road, leaving all of our belongings (passports included) in the car with our new friends. (Rookie mistake, we know. But Ron did snap a photo of their liscence plate just in case. Plus we figured that Indian headhunters residing in Singapore probably did not find anything about our grungy backpacks all too appealing.) Turns out that the Pancake Rocks really do look like pancakes stacked one on top of the other. They were really neat! Also turns out that we were right in assuming Wealthy Indian Couple were just genuinely nice people with no ulterior motives to snatch our dirty laundry. They were still patiently waiting in the parking lot.
After a full day of hitching and meeting an interesting assortment of people (some more stimulating than others) we found ourselves in itty bitty Whatoroa, just 30 kilometers short of the tourist hub of Franz Josef Glacier. We quick snarfed a dinner of PB&J sandwhiches and thought we would give it a final go before the sun set to see if we could make it to Franz Josef for the night, knowing full well that the hitching in the morning would be much easier there than in “no traffic” Whatoroa.
As we walked to what looked like a good spot, the owner of the local hotel and pub stopped us. He told us that if we couldn’t catch a ride, we could camp behind the hotel for $10. We thanked him and said we would think about it. Then he walked into a tiny, run down house/cabin place next to the hotel. Two minutes later, he exited the little shack and said that if we didn’t want to camp, we could just stay in that place for free. Apparently he had some Germans helping him out that were staying there and he had not had a chance to clean it so it was free if we wanted it.
What’s the catch? Are we going to get murdered tonight? Those were just some of the thoughts going through my head. None of the above came to fruition. There was no catch, nor was their a murder plan. Yet again, we were just hit head first with a good old fashioned dose of New Zealand niceness. We mulled over it for a few minutes and decided that from the looks of it, there was no way we were going to get a ride this late in the day from such a small town. So, we fell back on our mantra of this trip: “When in doubt, say yes!” Plus, free is always a good price to pay in our book. Not more than five minutes after setting our bags down in our free shack for the night, we were enjoying a cold beer in his pub and watching the locals participate in the weekly pool competition. It was awesome! An absolute perfect way to wrap up the day.
Knowing we had a tough hitch right off the bat that morning and a long way to go if we were to get to Queenstown before the day was over, we got up and at it bright and early. We were out hitching before 7am with our fingers crossed for some early morning traffic. Car after car drove by, mostly parents dropping kids off at school or farmers driving to and from the crops. Apparently we could have slept in seeing as it took over three hours to get our first hitch.
A really friendly girl from Portland, but currently living in Taiwan, picked us up in her campervan and drove us the 30 kilometers to Franz Josef where we hoped hitching would be easier with all of the tourists. When we got there, we found out that lots of other hitchhikers had the same idea. Lucky for us, we got a lift rather quickly from a really interesting couple from California who were currently living and working in New Zealand. We had a lot in common and had a fabulous time talking to them for the next few hours as we drove to Haast where they planned to do some hiking for the day. Still a couple of hours from Queenstown, a nice Kiwi gentleman drove us to Wanaka, the last big stop before Queenstown. We were so close! I kept telling myself, “One more hitch. One more hitch. Just one more.” However, as cars constantly zipped past us, my hopes started to dwindle. Luckily, as soon as that starts to happen it usually means we will get picked up momentarily and that day was no different.
There we stood with our thumbs out to the side hoping desperately for a direct ride to Queenstown when all of the sudden a giant campervan whipped over into the small gravel pullout. It was the same girl who gave us our first ride that morning! Crazy! She saw us and pulled right over. It was amazing! As we talked and talked for the next hour or so, we learned yet again just how small the world really is. Here we are half a world away from home with a girl from Portland, but living in Taiwan, who used to live with one of our good friends from Boulder! Weird! It really makes you feel how closely everyone truly is connected worldwide. We reeled on that for pretty much the rest of the way into town and eventually pulled in around 8pm. Another full day, but we made it!
Ron has a friend, Danielle, from the YMCA camp he worked at years ago who is now living in Queenstown. Small world…again! (Thanks for the heads-up Facebook!) Our original plan was to drop our non-backpacking things at her place and try to get to the trail head (another hour and a half away) that same night. Once we arrived though, we figured it was just a little too close to dark and that we would probaby have better luck in the morning when there would likely be others headed in the same direction. Instead, we posted up at Danielle’s and had a great time getting to know some of her friends before hitting the hay in preparation for a big day the following morning.
By 630 in the morning, we were standing on the side of the road with our arms out and thumbs up. No more than 3 minutes later, the second car of the day pulls over to pick us up. Such good luck, as the day before it had taken us 3 hours to get our first ride. The gal had definitely slept in her car the night before after a few too many drinks at the bars, was just heading home in Glenorchy, the last town before the gravel road to the trailhead. Literally 2 minutes after we hopped out of her car in Glenorchy, another Subaru pulled over and gave us a ride to the trailhead. James, our driver was heading out to run the Routeburn track. He told us the speed record for the trail was 2.5 hours. Surely we could do the whole trail in one day.
At the parking lot he told us that the was one piece of payment he needed from us. He said that his friend would be out running the trail, but from the opposite side. James asked us to tell this guy, a friend of his that he was looking rough, and out of shape. We said no problem and waved him farewell as he took off bouncing up the trail.
This was Barbara and I’s first hike since the Blue Mountains in Australia, almost 6 weeks ago, so it took a bit to get in the groove. It felt so good to be outside, huffing and puffing up hill as the sun rose of the valley walls. We climbed through wooded areas until the trail came to a hanging valley with a stunning golden meadow of grasses. Already this trail was living up to its reputation!
We climbed higher and higher, now well above the valley below and we came to the second hut on the trail. These huts are more like small hotels! Kind of astonishing the size of these building in the middle of the mountains. The huts have cooking facilities, and big bunk rooms and nice toliets. While they are quite nice, to stay in them is expensive – $54 per person per night which is about double what it costs for a private room at a backpackers hostel in town! We blew past the hut, and carried on towards the Harris Ridge. Weather seemed to be holding for us this time around. While there were clouds, and maybe even a few threatening sprinkles in the afternoon, we never needed rain gear to stay dry.
We made it to the pass at Harris Ridge, and had lunch at about 11:15. From here the trail traverses across the side of the mountain range above a deep glaciated valley. Most of the peaks we shrouded with clouds, but the place was still stunning. Rounding a big bend and looking way down we finally saw Lake Mackenzie. This beautiful alpine lake sits in a cirque of beautiful peaks. The trail drops steeply down a whole bunch of switchbacks. Just as we were nearing the tree line, we saw a guy running up the mountain at a good clip.
Remembering my instructions from James, I shouted out to him:
You feeling alright? You dont look so good.
The guy stopped in his tracks and let out a bit of laugh. He said he was feeling great actually. I couldnt keep a poker face and let him in on our meeting with James that morning. Turns out this guy, Mike, and James have a bit of good competition going. There is a race out here on the trail. James beat Mike one year by 1 minute. The next year Mike beat James by 30 minutes. We are not positive, but we think that Mike might hold that 2.5 hour record for the 18 mile trail.
Mike has a pretty sweet side business delivering hikers cars from one end of the trail to the other. So he picks the hikers car up from one trailhead, and drives it the 5-6 hours around to the other end of the trail and then runs back to is car on the trail. He told us that today was his 99th run of the trail! Thats 1782 miles of running on just this trail! We felt a bit soft that it would take us another 4 hours to finish the trail.
But we pushed on, downhill towards the lake. As we got into the trees,we were treated to a special surprise. Instead of the pine forest that we are used to seeing in the mountains at home, we found ourselves in a super green, lush rainforest. So Cool! As we wandered through ancient looking moss covered rocks, we couldnt stopped smiling.
We took a short break at Lake Mackenzie, which was a bit of a bust for us, as the peaks of the cirque were covered by the clouds. It was just closing in on 2, and we had 7 or 8 miles left. We decided that if we pushed it, we might be able to make it back to Queenstown. From Lake Mackenzie the trail rolled up and down, undulating its way to the Milford Road. On the way we passed by the almost 500 foot tall Earland Falls. This trail certainly did not disappoint!
We made it to the end of the trail at 4:45, just under 9 hours total for the day of walking. We contemplated hitching back into Milford Sound to catch a boat tour in the morning, but there was a low pressure front moving in. We really didnt want to get stuck again.
From this trailhead, it is about a 4 hour drive back to Queenstown. We had about 4 hours of daylight left. Hitching after dark is a big no-no. Could we actually make it back? The idea of a big, juicy cheeseburger was making our mouths water, so we decided to give it a go.
I asked a nice German couple in the trailhead parking lot if they were going to Queenstown. Unfortunately not, but they could give a ride down the hill to Te Anau, 86km in the right direction. We hopped out of their camper van, and made it about 10 steps up the road before the next car stopped for us. He was a farmer from Ivancargill (way south NZ), who would take us another chunk of the way. He dropped us in a no-stoplight-town called Mossburn. We were a bit worried that from here we might be a bit hosed if we didnt get a hitch, as there was no accomodation, and we would have to poach a campsite on private property- not ideal. No more than 5 minutes of waiting later (yeah our longest wait of the day!), a super nice couple from Isreal picked us up and took us to Frankton, only 6 miles from Qtown. The sun had set, but the sky was still glowing orange, so we quickly threw up our thumbs in the best hitching spot we could find. A couple from the UK, who had been doing a year of travelling as well, saw us while they were filling up their van with fuel. They shifted a bunch of stuff around and made space for us before hollering to us. We rolled into town at 8:59.
Mike and Lucy dropped us at the door of Fergburgers. Fergburgers has a reputation for having the best burger in Qtown and we have to agree. They literally had a line out the door, and the wait time was almost 20 minutes, but those (well deserved) burgers were exactly what we needed set this day off as the highligt of all of New Zealand!
Check out the whole gallery (Trust us, this one is worth it!)