Phil vs. The Otago Rail Trail, Part 1

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.

My Fellow Victim of the Otago Rail Trail, Tony, the Sexiest Man at Pole 2002-2003.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
Tony: Hike.
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!