We last left our intrepid heroes at the trailhead of the Otago Rail Trail in Middlemarch. Apologies for the delay getting to part two because one of the hard things in reconstructing this tale is that the websites I used in 2003 have dramatically improved and it’s hard to recreate my old errors. Pretty sure I figured out all the places we stopped correctly.
Anyway, I need to take a moment to describe the backpacks we were going to take on this trip. I had a 70L North Face pack that was a hand me down from Mark, who had taken this pack on hikes/climbs to pretty much every 14k peak in Colorado. It was in remarkably good shape despite the mileage. I’d never done much backpacking so this was a rather nice starting place for me. Mark was well experienced with it, could help with adjustments, and it was large enough to hold all the gear I was bringing with me for my three post-Antarctica weeks in New Zealand.
Mark and Tony had both purchased new packs. Mark’s was a 80L that he’s ordered months earlier and it was waiting for us at the Antarctic Deployment Center. He expertly packed that thing and it was half empty as he’d purchased an upgrade for future long climbs, not simple hikes like this. Tony had gotten the largest pack that Kathmandu sells which I swear was like 110L. It was a goddamn wearable steamer trunk, though it looked proportionally correct on him as the 70L did on me.
When we were unloading the packs from the car, I reached for Tony’s and that fucker didn’t move. Despite a winter of weightlifting and being in the best shape I’ve ever been in, I couldn’t budge his pack. Tony hefted it with a grunt and put it on. I made a joke of being happy he was carrying that one rather than me. Mark, a former Army Ranger, pointed out the old adage that the pack gets lighter with every mile as you slowly eat the food you’re carrying. Tony, a former Navy meteorologist, said that this sounded like some Army bullshit but that he hoped so.
And so we began walking from the former Middlemarch train station toward our first navigation point, Ngapuna. As I previously, mentioned a little girl with a camcorder captured our departure. As we later discovered, this was the mayor’s daughter. The mayor wanted to make sure there was documented evidence just in case we died. That’s New Zealander courtesy and hospitality right there.
An hour or two later, we took our first snack break off the side of the trail at Ngapuna, leaning against a fence, we cracked open our packs. I brought out my Swiss army knife, some cheese and a salami I’d picked up in Dunedin that morning. Mark had an energy bar of some sort. Tony took out a full bottle of red wine, three camping wine glasses (this being very decadent at the time), silverware, crackers, cheeses, terrine, and his first mini baguette. Mark and I boggled at him and I asked if that bottle was going to last him the whole hike. He looked at me like I was a dumbass, “Pfft, no. I figured a case worth on the trail would last us until we got to wine country and can restock.” Now I knew why I couldn’t shift his bag. We finished up and got moving down the trail again.
This is where things get tricky as the maps my memory recalls from 2003 had a different name for a town at the next stop than what is on the current map, Rock and Pillar, but I do not remember what that name was. The planning we had done said here was a small town we could stop on the trail after a leisurely 14km before some of the longer days ahead of us. A beer or three, some dinner, maybe camping outside, maybe there’d be rooms at the pub.
There were no rooms at the inn. There was, in fact, no inn. There was nothing but a small shed and the plains of Strath Taieri, overshadowed by the tall granite hills that we were just starting to notice had a persistent, maddening wind down blowing from. It was here that we realized that the maps we had might reflect historical towns that weren’t there anymore. We took out the maps to figure out what the next place with definitively stated lodging was and, this was key, that all the maps agreed existed. This appeared to be the town of Hyde, another 14km away, a surprise doubling of the distance of our first day. The point of the short first day was to ease us into it, especially me who wasn’t really accustomed to long distance backpacking. With heavy hearts and packs, we resumed the hike but without quite the same spring in our step.
We trudged away from the Town That Wasn’t, following the trails through another 14km of farms. Not long into this next leg, we encountered some sheep and we were clearly the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to them. I know this because they ran ahead of us, shitting in abject terror, most of the way. I had no idea sheep contained that much poop but that smell has never left me after following, collecting more and more sheep, and frightening an entire flock for quite some time, as the unending wind blew the smell into our faces. I managed to forget it for a few years until I had my first glass of bad scrumpy in Exeter, which was like drinking the smell of that hike. Somewhere around kilometer 18, I started noticing a twinge in my right hip which got progressively more and more painful as my iliotibial band slowly seized up. I started dropping further and further behind Mark and Tony, but we were already well past the point of no return. This is when it officially became the Otago Rail Trail Death March in my head, as I had to make it to Hyde or die trying.
Unfortunately, what was waiting for us in Hyde was the GLORIOUS FUTURE, except that in the present the Hyde Inn was closed for renovations to greet all the bicyclists doing the Orago Rail Trail next season. The despair really hit when we crossed the highway and learning no town was there either. There was a picnic table on the side of the road as this was effectively a trailhead. So, we put down our packs, sat down at the table to look at the map and see what the next step was and saw that the next town was another 20km+ down the trail. This was the critical error for me as ceasing movement caused everything that had been protesting for the last 10km to lock up and fail. The attempt and immediate failure to get back up, gracelessly falling onto my pack rather than kneeling down in the process, meant I had to call hiking for today. There was no hope to get to the next town for me and I was quite happy to camp and/or die on the shoulder of the highway if needed because I wasn’t able go any further.
Mark and Tony decided that the only answer was to try to hitchhike. I pointed out that no one in their right fucking mind was going to pick us up. The highway running from Dunedin to Queenstown is comparable to Highway 50 running from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe, if it also spent half it’s time going through the wine country of Napa & Sonoma. There were a hell of a lot of two-seater BMWs and Porsches moving at high speed to get to the slopes and wineries. They sure as hell weren’t stopping for three sweaty backpackers that still had South Pole Madness in their eyes. While Mark and Tony tried to hitchhike and argued about the best ways to do it, I saw a building nearby and I limped down to what I discovered was a sheep transfer station in hopes of…anything. Really, I have no idea. There was a building with other humans in it and I was broken. I hoped for mercy of some sort, even if it was just a swift death to end the increasingly excruciating pain. Instead, what I got was an ice cream sandwich from their freezer as they asked what we were doing. The humorous exchange of “We’re hiking the Otago Rail Trail”, “Bike?” from the Fisher & Paykel store repeated itself here as I tried to explain our failure. The very kind station manager said “Bruh, you fucked up” (oh, I knew) and told me to go get the other guys because they’d give us a ride back down to Middlemarch in a sheep truck, as long as we didn’t mind the mess from the last load. We most certainly did not.
As we rode in the back of the truck bouncing back down the highway to Middlemarch where the driver lived, he radioed ahead to the town and had them open up one of the empty houses for us to crash in and light the water heater. When he dropped us off, the driver told us to walk over to the Middlemarch Pub if we were up for it after we had a chance to clean up and rest. Let me tell you, I have never had a more luxuriant, pain easing hot bath in my life. With great difficulty, despite the long hot bath, I hobbled over to the pub with Mark and Tony. As we entered, it was a full house and we were welcomed with a shout of “STUPID FUCKING AMERICANS!!!” because yes we were. Even the little girl that filmed us departing was there. At this point, I have to admit that memories of the evening get a bit foggy because I was exhausted and was introduced to the second beer I’d ever liked at that point in my life called Otago Strong. No idea who makes it, never saw it again, but it was flowing freely from that tap once I got put behind the bar by the publican after Tony mentioned I’d been the bartender at Pole.
We left the following day after breakfast on the entirely reasonable basis that if we didn’t leave, there’s a good chance we never would. Mark had already gotten an offer to do some electrical work on a farm and we’d been introduced to the Middlemarch Surfing Club. (NOTE: Middlemarch is nowhere near the waves, and it’s really just an excuse for farmers to go drink beer and smoke weed in a shed.) In an alternate timeline, I’m probably a plumber and still running the pub in Middlemarch. Tony is probably an exotic dancer in Queenstown as you can’t keep him down on the farm.
As I learned later, I had strained the iliotibial band on my right side by overexertion. This gave me a slight limp for the rest of my time in New Zealand and it still acts up to this day if I overdo it or go too long without enough sleep. It’s my little reminder that thorough research and paying attention to cues is important. You’ll end up crippling your dumbass if you don’t.
The BBotE pre-order slots for the short production window ending December 21st are now up, which means it is now LAST MINUTE SHOPPING TIME.
All things being equal, domestic or international, everything shipped by the 14th should end up at their destination by Christmas Eve/first day of Hannukah. I can’t control weather, volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or global thermonuclear war but a week and change is usually quite sufficient to get everything to its destination, even for international shipments.
Between now and the 21st, I will crank out as much BBotE and as many Steins of Science as I can. Domestic shipping by Saturday December 21st has a decent chance to get there by the 24th, but I make absolutely no guarantees about shipments in that window arriving in time. Express mail gets more and more necessary in the last days. I’ll do my best, but that’s all I can do.
In a pinch, there’s always gift certificates. (I wish I could tweak the available themes, but I haven’t figured that out yet.)
After the 21st, a fresh production window will go up to make sure people have the requisite caffeine on hand to greet the new decade.
To reiterate shopping advice from the previous years, here’s a few things you should probably think about if you decide to place an order for a holiday gift from Funranium Labs:
- Steins of Science Availability is Limited: As mentioned in the previous Twilight of the Steins post a few years ago, I lost my relatively cheap supply line for dewars. I am maintaining some inventory, but not many. If you really, really want one and the one you want is not available, contact me sooner rather than later so I can do my best to get one for you ASAP.
- BBotE Is Perishable: When refrigerated, it has a shelf-life of about three months (possibly longer, but I’m only going to quote three). If you’re going to wrap it up and put it under the tree, this a present to put out on Christmas Eve and the promptly put back in the fridge after unwrapping. Alternatively, embrace the idea of the holiday season and decide that give it to the recipient immediately, for all days are special.
- Let People Know BBotE Is Coming: I know part of the joy in presents is the surprise of what you get. However, joy is not the emotion most people feel when a bottle of mysterious black liquid shows up on their doorstep, especially if it’s been sitting there for a week outside because they were out of town. Give them a heads up, that something’s coming they’ll want to stick in the fridge. I will also tuck handling instructions in the box for a gift and a note stating who sent it.
- The pre-order slot dates date are “Ship No Later Than”, not “Ships After”: I get your orders out as soon as I can, but even in the furthest flung corner of the US with the slowest mail carrier, this means you should have your order in hand by December 18th for that last set of late order slots. If you want to order something NOW to ship later, effectively reserving a spot in a later order queue, you can do so but please leave a note with your order telling me when you want it to ship by.
- International Shipments Go Out Express Mail: Because I don’t want BBotE to get stuck in postal facilities or customs, express is the only way to ship to minimize their time in bureaucratic hell. Expect it to take 3-5 business days to get to you, so time your orders accordingly to make sure things get to you in time.
- APO/FPO: If you wish to send something out to someone with an Armed Forces address, there’s good news and bad news. Good news – it’s no more expensive than priority mail. Bad news – I can’t guarantee any date as to when things will arrive. Outside of active war zones, things move somewhat normally; inside war zones and on ships at sea, things get iffy. Also, depending on routing, some nations (I’m looking at you, Turkey) have bounced BBotE back to me on the basis that it is, and I quote, “Morally Questionable Material”. Amazingly, my shipments to Korea and Okinawa seem to arrive faster than they do to other places on the west coast of the US mainland. Go figure. In short, I’ll do my best but you’ve been warned.
- Local Pick Up: Resupply shipments will go out to all the BBotE Ambassadors as fast as I can crank them out, so be sure to drop them a line if grabbing a bottle that way is more convenient for you. A message to them will help them decide what to fill their cases with. I’m sure they’d like clean and empty refrigerators as their Christmas present.
- Turkey, Italy & Brazil: It breaks my heart to say this, I can’t ship to these countries. Italy, I absolutely do not trust your postal system. The level of theft shipping things anywhere south of Rome is, frankly, appalling. If you ask me to ship to Naples, I make absolutely zero guarantee of it arriving. Brazil, your customs causes shipments to languish for so long that the BBotE goes off before it arrives, even if shipped express; steins seem to be fine though. Turkey, well, I discussed that problems in #5.
- BBotE Production Is First Come, First Served: My maximum daily production output is 12L per day. Thus, people who request 12pk cases will lock up production for an entire day.
- BBotE Has No Kosher Or Halal Certification: While Robert Anton Wilson did confer the papacy upon me, and all the other people in the Porter College Dining Hall at UCSC in 1996, this does not permit me to sanctify food. I do have a helpful Dominican priest in Portland who’d probably be willing to bless BBotE for you, but that’s still not helpful for most people. Sorry.
Because I promised I would write this up when I found time, and was rather annoyed to find out that I hadn’t already done so, here you go. It’s a tale as old as time: three men set out on an adventure they are not prepared for and suffer in a hilarious manner. Really, since this was during our time in New Zealand after a year at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, I kinda feel like we were paying homage to the early Antarctic explorers and their misadventures.
TL;DR Version: You should absolutely bike the Otago Rail Trail. It’s gorgeous and is the best way to enjoy the Hills of Rohan and the Walls of Moria. DO NOT DO WHAT WE DID.
This story begins in the bar at New Zealand’s Scott Base, which is on the other side of the hill from McMurdo. I had gotten marooned in McMurdo for a bit waiting for my ship to come in with a large dewar of liquid helium, and I wasn’t particularly welcomed to help the science tech assigned to McMurdo, I kind of drifted to helping the New Zealand Antarctic Program a bit. The atmospheric scientist who was there, Becs, had two important suggestions for me when I got back to New Zealand:
- That I should make the acquaintance of KAOS (Killing As Organized Sport) when I got back to Christchurch. That they were my people and I should go unto them. The current state of their page confirms that still.
- The Otago Rail Trail had just opened up, it was awesome, and a great way to see New Zealand from the sea to Queenstown, AKA the Lake Tahoe of New Zealand. For the record the website for the Otago Rail Trail is much more detailed now than it was 16 years ago, when it was pretty much “This is a map with few details and some towns. Here ya go.”
Over the subsequent months during the Long Night, sitting at the bar of Club 90 South, one of the frequent topics of conversation was what vacation plans you were making for when you finally got off the Ice. Many people were planning round the world trips that would land them right back in Christchurch in time to start their next winter at Pole. Tony, Mark and I didn’t have globe trotting plans, but there were going to be some good times in New Zealand. We looked at the map (remember: less detailed than the current one), saw that there were towns at fairly regular intervals, making this a very nice backpacking/pub crawl from Middlemarch on the coast to Queenstown.
…at least, that’s what it looked like on the map with Yahoo Maps cross-referencing (Google Maps was still two years in the future). Because it was a NZ Department of Conservation brochure, much like a US National Park Service map, it had highlights. It certainly didn’t have all the towns that Yahoo Maps popped up on the way along the trail.
And so after our return to Christchurch and a week of thawing out, we picked up a rental car, drove down the Pacific coast to Dunedin and then took the turn up to Middlemarch, the coastal terminus of the Otago Rail Trail. Middlemarch wasn’t and still isn’t a big town. It had ~200 people in 2003. At the time, the town consisted of the old train station, which was the start of the rail trail, the Middlemarch Pub, and the Fisher & Paykel store that specialized in farm equipment (it also doubled as the post office, video store…everything, really). We parked in the side lot and walked in to ask the nice lady running the joint if she minded if we left our car in her lot for a week or so while we hiked the Otago Rail Trail. The exchange went like this:
F&P Lady: Where’s your bikes, lads?
Tony: We don’t have any. Like I said, we’re hiking the rail trail.
F&P Lady: Bike?
F&P Lady: [still confused] Bike?
Me: [over-enunciating] HIKE.
F&P Lady: Ohhhhh, you’re hiking. Alright, then. Park as long as you like.
It was an odd exchange. It got odder when we got our packs out of the car and walked over to the trailhead/defunct train platform. A small girl was there with a camcorder. She wanted to film us as we took headed out and waved goodbye. It felt oddly final and creeped us out a bit.
The Middlemarch Death March had just begun. STAY TUNED FOR PART 2!